Dwell Retreat Reflections IV – Moving …Forward!

     “Surgery for children whose feet are on backwards”; I was arrested by the headline. As the CBN newscaster described Operation Blessing’s featured outreach that day, I rejoiced at their good work pledging to continue giving. However, the picture of an otherwise well-formed human being, but with feet turned backwards, became an imprinted metaphor. Often, at crucial points in my life, I have felt myself caught in a mindset of wanting to go forward but equally yearning to go in the opposite direction. 
     Sitting in the midst of several interactions at the Dwell Retreat was like that for me, as it began to dawn that ‘publishing’ in this season would need to be at first by Internet. Every skeleton in my ‘techno-phobe’closet began to rattle, and I was ready to jump ship. I had just started to become comfortable with following a few blog sites by email, taking some initial steps editing by Word & employing Dropbox, and even resurrecting my own blog, (for the retreat) abandoned a year before —  but Facebook, that would be a stretch. And, as once again that boney finger of Jody’s was used to launch me into a new paradigm, I understood why there had been a tiny dinosaur in my welcome packet. 
     Seasoned blogger, Amy, smiled benevolently as we shared our parting words, “It’s okay! I did not start here where you see me today? Just go through the paces as we all have to and next thing you know…”. That explained another cute inclusion in that infamous packet — a photo dated 1900, of a group of African-American, elementary school students on the grounds of Howard University, Washington, DC, going through a calisthenics workout ( looked like the hokie-pokie!). Fully dressed in pinafores, button boots, britches and sailor, bow tie & even ruffle collars (on boys!), they were the picture of cuteness, though all obviously under duress. As I faced the prospect of starting a blog and getting on Facebook I definitely felt like the little boy in the middle of the group, his head cocked to the side with hands on hips, left foot out, a large floppy bow at his chin, and face declaring, “This is not what I expected PE to be”.
     But as sure as that left foot was out I knew the right one would follow. One of my primary prayers as I had ventured forth to Dwell was that I would cease working with a ‘slack hand’ with regard to my call to write. A dozen volumes or so of devotional journals, littered with song lyrics, poems, essays and letters to God, and a half-hearted blog start-up, hardly qualified as answering a call. I realized that though I relished the spontaneous aspects of creative, inspirational writing I needed to take His yoke — easy yes, but yoke nonetheless. Though a lover of order in most other aspects, I resisted any constraints on my writing once I left the halls of academia.
     I had ended my college career with a letter from the literary journal, The Caribbean Writer, agreeing to publish my poem, ‘The  Bearer’ in that year’s issue. Thrilled that it would appear in order next to a piece by the great Langston Hughes, I knew I was on my way. Now here I was again poised on the cusp of potential, the threshold of opportunity. A tide to take at the flood, a ‘chiros’ in God’s timeline for me. But also hearing, as I had at other times, with performance driven ears, the admonition of James, to “Show (now) my faith by my works” (Jas. 2:18), I felt an all too familiar shrinking feeling before that great mountain.

     But mercifully, that morning, I also heard the words of the Revelation to John in chapter 3:7-8.
The words that greeted me on the morning of the September 11, the second day of the retreat, 

   “These things says He who is holy, He who is true, He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, who shuts and no one opens, …I know your works. See I have set before you AN OPEN DOOR, and no one can shut it; for you have little strength, you have kept my word, you have not denied my name”.

     The phrase ‘open door’ jumped out at me, from the Mark Batterson devotional I was using at the time, and from my reading in Colossians, as the apostle Paul appealed for prayer that God would “Open up to (them) a door for the word…”, and it echoed in my mind from the last line of the third in my Kansas Sunrise series that I had read on the plane coming in. Deep in my knower, the last morning as we fellowshipped, I told the ladies  I had a bridge to cross, literally & figuratively.

     I knew God spoke to me of the Internet, that great portal, that great front door to almost the entire earth — Facebook & a blogsite — a leash I needed to take to it, if I would ride the morning wind with Him in this season. And my soul said “yes”, as I put my right foot out, though it shook more than a little, and crossed the threshold; all of me heading in the same direction.

To Go Home
I tried to go back home today 
But found I did not know the way- 
The hills too green or else too brown 
Smiles too wide, too severe the frown. 
Prepare the way for going back? 
With pen and sword there was a lack
A lack within a severed soul 
Island adrift without a pole 
A sea of grass , the biggest sky 
Must learn to fish or else I’ll die 
Must find home in another’s sea 
‘Lone on the range’s no place to be
To be’s to find my family’s face 
Within the wider human race 
For e’en this temperamental clime 
Can’t keep sunflower from her time 
Or place in the sun, if only she 
Knows facing up’s the way to be
To be’s to catch an island dawn 
Upon a continental morn 
Then cast it back, its scales and all 
Those rosy frames now way too small 
To be’s to look with naked eyes 
And thus to catch a new sunrise
Sunrise which shows new sunny ways 
To wield new lines , new temperate rays 
Which just as well dispel the dark 
In foreign or familiar park 
Capt’ring what’s been hidden there 
From hasty hands or eyes of fear
Fear’s not the fare to feed the soul 
That needs an anchor or a pole 
But lines that send roots deeper still 
Beyond one’s private sea or hill 
That open up the great front door 
That say here’s home and so much more.
by Denise Stair-Armstrong
© Jan. 28, 1995

Compass for Lost Islands

     Made freshly aware this week of how much more painful life is for my children’s generation, I pause my Dwell retreat reflections to raise a cry on their behalf for us to reach out even more intentionally to the Millennials and any other category of youth, set adrift by our God-hating culture. We hold in our hearts the Antidote.

     “Man is lonely by birth…” are words from a song I first encountered in the context of morning devotions at a Catholic High School in Kingston, Jamaica. It was my first full-time job as English teacher and Sister S ran a tight ship conducting ‘Assemblies’, for example, by two-way  telecom set up throughout the classrooms and other buildings of the school adjoining the Church of the Divine Childhood (names changed to protect identity).
     As the thought came flooding in this morning my mind cast about in search of the Truth to counter the allurement to despair that the idea engendered.
     The subsequent thought was no more encouraging, “It’s the uniqueness of our individual pain that isolates us”. Here the Proverbs readily supplied Scripture’s relevance, from 14.10, “Each heart knows its own sorrow, and a stranger does not share its joy”.  My own previous musings supplied the next thought, that “Our own various efforts to deal or cope with our pain, in isolation, traps up even more firmly in loneliness”. ‘Shared joys are made even sweeter by the sharing’ and ‘tears shed alone are bitter’, are proven maxims of past generations.
     Another chorus sung devotionally throughout the school system in the Jamaica of my youthful years flooded in…
“No man is an island,
No man stands alone,
Each man’s joy is joy to me,
Each man’s grief is my own.

We need one another,
So I will defend,
Each man as my brother,
Each man as my friend

I saw the people gather,
I heard the music start,
The song that they were singing,
Is ringing in my heart!”
     I realize, now, that the benign, ecumenical nature of the song’s non-specific bridge, worked just fine in our context because we were a Christian school in a Christian nation, in a world that still held to the one grounding, centering worldview, of Christianity —
     The people we “saw gather” would be the Church, our ‘gathering’ would be unto the Lord of all the earth; the ‘song they were singing’ would be the music of our worship to Him, and its lyrics exalting His gloriously excellent attributes, His love for mankind and the Truths associated therewith. These were the thoughts that filled my mind and those of my peers back then. 
  But today, for youth (Christian or not) inundated as they are in the secular worldview of popular culture, it’s like being launched out to sea, having had all your navigational equipment smashed (deconstructed?) and being told to enjoy the free ride…to nowhere.
     The bearing of each other’s “joy” and “grief” is a distinctly Christian value, exemplified supremely by our Lord Himself.  The Apostle Paul, elaborating, writes to the Galatians (6:1-5) to… 
     “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”  
     The primary ‘bearing’ being the conveying of the burden to the Triage Room of prayer, where the Great Physician Himself makes clear that He alone, ultimately, bears all our sorrows and griefs; as the great Prophet Isaiah foresaw and fore-wrote…
     “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem Him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted.” (Isa. 53:4)
     His suffering, His substitutionary death: the ultimate antidote for both our pain and its source – our individual and universal sinfulness.
     But like petulant children we foolishly turn our faces away from the cup bearing the healing elixir – demanding the spoonful of sugar, not ‘to make the medicine go down”, but ‘instead of’ the medicine itself, because it makes our taste buds happy.  Like a good parent to ailing children reluctant to take the pill, the Apostle Peter admonishes (in the wonderful spirit captured by the Message Bible) in I Pet. 5:6-11…
     “So be content with who you are, and don’t put on airs. God’s strong hand is on you; He’ll promote you at the right time.  Live carefree before God [casting all your cares upon Him!]; He is most careful with you.” Keep a cool head. Stay alert. The devil is poised to pounce, and would like nothing better than to catch you  napping [in front of a screen, perhaps?].  Keep your guard up.  You’re not the only ones plunged into these hard times.  It’s the same with Christians all over the world.  So keep a firm grip on the faith.  The suffering won’t last forever.  It won’t be long before this generous God who has great plans for us in Christ – eternal and glorious plans they are! – will have you put together and on your feet for good.  He gets the last word; yes He does!”
     My own devotional musings complete, I sat back, relieved at three certitudes: 1) Despite seasons of loneliness, God provides good friends, grace-gifts we can call on at any time; 2) Biblically-based houses of fellowship still exist (I’m a part of one; not perfect, but being polished); and, should even those fade, 3) The faithfulness God who assures that,
     “…neither death , nor life, nor Angels, nor principalities, nor powers,  nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from ( His Love)  which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39)
     Reminded thusly, that pain was still securely on my Father’s leash, I rose to face my day with its challenges, including the worthy challenge of communicating, to the most informed generation ever, these unchanging  truths supplied by the One who Himself became the compass, the Way, for every pain blinded soul or island adrift. May we all sign up for this urgent task.

Dwell Retreat Reflections III: Stepping Out… of Burning Ships

     Resolved, Cortez ordering the burning of the ships that had just brought them to the New World;  Resolved, Peter stepping from the boat at Jesus’ invitation to join Him…walking on water; Resolved, the writer, picking up pen or keyboard and pushing past ‘writer’s block’ on toward the ‘battle of the middle’ — that point at which you realize you’ve invested too much to turn back now, but are fully aware that  in this moment you have no idea how you will finish what you have started.
     Coming to America, has often meant being perched, on the edge of a new frontier that necessitates resolve to keep moving forward—the Dwell Writers’ Retreat presented several such steps for me. The plunking down of hard cash for registration and lodging reservation at the top of the year was the first. Another presented itself as our small rental car pulled into the parking spot at the Centrum, Grunewald’s main hub where ‘arrive and check-in’ were to occur.
     As Claude & I alighted, I nervously averted my eyes from the small group of women sitting (how poetic!) under an  apple tree, shouldered my purse, and with resolve, did the only thing I could do at that point…, took the next step.
     The moment after was God’s gift of grace, for no sooner had my eyes picked out the one person who resembled the online picture of my ‘blogger’ friend, Kimberlee, than she flew out of her chair and with the glee that only old girl-friends know, greeted me with a sweet welcome embrace. I realized then that it is possible to get to know someone via the Internet, really!
      I first encountered Kimberlee’s earnestness and devout pursuit of the Divine 4 years ago through her seminal work The Circle of Seasons, about the Church’s liturgical year. Her warm greeting was as genuine in person as she was online. Later in the retreat, as she led us through the lectio divina  (a reading of and meditating in the Scriptures that provides opportunity to open up to the Holy Spirit’s transforming work in our hearts) on Psa. 37, through Communion and  a writing session on the Psalms, my sight was lifted above the earth-bound to things heavenly. But that first morning, as we returned arm in arm to the circle of chairs under the apple tree, amidst introductions and exchange of pleasantries, I realized I was among an entire group of gracious outpouring.
     And outpouring it was, for perhaps the next best thing I found out about the group was that we were the type of writers who loved to ‘tell it’ with our mouths as well as our pens.  In less than a half hour, we had plunged in and exchanged much about our quite varied stories.
     Amy, of The Messy Middle blog fame, was probably my biggest surprise — in all the email & registration exchanges it never occurred to me that she was that Amy: a young veteran of the mission field in China. Her personality was as vibrant as her soul was resourceful— a maestra of the ‘interwebs’ and social network connectivity, who ably tells her own story in her first book, Looming Transitions.
     Then there was Jody, who like a broody hen had worked with Kimberlee to gather us to ‘Dwell’. A conductor, in more than one sense of the word, she somewhat casually steered us through the weekend’s schedule, from quirky welcome packets, to co-leading worship with spunky Laura, and facilitating a loaded session titled ‘Unpacking Psalm 37’.
     Laura’s acoustic guitar chords and the few well-chosen songs were perfect and served me well, both during and after the retreat, as I pressed in to discern God’s purpose in it all. The scope was intimate but the expectation level of this gathering was audacious. Audacious because we were taking our call seriously, some further along than others, but all, investing time and resources — taking the next step, resolved to dwell.
     Twenty-seven years or so before, resolve for me, was saying ‘yes’ to marriage and to migration away from all my familiar. To many back home, no doubt, it looked all rosy and fairy-tale-like, which it was, until the effect of sudden change set in. The new daily-ness tussled for dominance in my change-resistant soul and the stasis of mild depression set in.
     Wish I could say that I had then reached out and embraced the steadying truths of James 1: 5-6,
     “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally without reproach, and it will be given to him.  But let him ask in faith with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed about by the wind.”
     My first few months as young wife & immigrant found me “driven and tossed about” emotionally.  We were in a misty Midwest Fall & Winter, a fact which, no doubt, both caused as well as mirrored my dark mood.  Christian radio providentially offered the sage but austere advice of the timeless Elizabeth Elliott, “Just do the next thing”, resolve.
     Though I hated to admit it then, it was a a good perspective setter, but I also needed the equally providential input offered by my Jamaican pastor’s wife, Dr. Patricia Morgan who, by telephone, outlined for me the profound transitions (at least seven!) that I was having to make in my new life — unavoidable fallout of the resolve of marriage and migration. She wisely  advised, be gentle with  yourself, ( spend the day in bed if you need to, read, take walks)  but when Claude is almost home, get yourself together and fix him a nice meal; welcome him home…do the next thing.
     The second in my Kansas Sunrise Triad sought to capture that time —
The Next Step
Kansas sunrise, misty grey 
Night that loathes to give way to day 
Earthbound water and heavenly fire 
Tussling to rule, cloud the new day’s desire 
To break forth upon the night of man 
So crawling we go to catch-as-catch-can
Striving we go to discern the intangible 
Loathing to take the one step that is possible 
Doubting that in ‘the next step’ we find 
The way that is open to sighted or blind 
Focusing on the grey swirl that is seen 
We reach forth our arms and embrace the screen
But earth takes its axis so soon night and day 
Make clear to the faithful plodder the way 
With light from above he’ll steward the earth 
For the Creator’s nature is shouting forth 
The Truth that draws the final line 
That determines our rise or vain decline
So Kansas sunrise, your cover is blown 
Your bushel of doubt is overthrown 
‘The next step’ brings the piercing ray
That scatters your shades and brings forth the day 
And now through the dark like an arrow true 
Comes word by the song-bird the day’s broken 
            – Denise Stair Armstrong
(c) 1993
     As with my marriage, I had embarked on a ‘no turning back’ kind of venture, with the Dwell Retreat.

My feet were dangling over the edge as I peered furtively, through my iPad screen at stormy issues of publication, Facebook & blogging.  My inexperience with and fears of the Internet were as giant waves threatening my demise before I even launched.  But I need not have feared, for the One who moves in a mysterious way, already had His footstep planted on this storm in my teacup. And His smiling face bid me come walk with Him…on oceans.

      I did have one poem published and had written a play back home that I understood they still aired at times during Jamaica’s Independence season… But the journey to Leavenworth, Washington was for treasures that  I believed  still awaited, patiently, deep in me; words “…tried like silver in the furnace of the earth, purified seven times” (Ps. 12:6). So, with resolve, my eyes fixed on Him who gives wisdom liberally, without reproach, I stepped out and let that ship burn.

Dwell Retreat Reflections II: Managing Expectations—(at both ends)

Dwell Retreat Reflections II: Managing Expectations—(at both ends)
managing personal expectations, new beginnings, new friends, writers, writing,

     The first of my Kansas Sunrise triad of poems, titled ‘First Impressions’, was one of those that I read as we flew into Wenatchee. In it, over 23 years ago, I had sought to capture the way in which this whole new world of Leavenworth, KS impacted my tropical senses—soil, normally rich and dark brown, glistened instead  with sparkly bits, the sun did not come up from behind the mountains, and in fact, without my Blue Mountain ranges, I struggled to keep oriented ordinally—all of this being affected, of course, by my expectations.


First Impressions
Kansas sunrise happening to me 
What a slow rising you seem to be 
Half a Sunkist submerged in grey 
Winter that loathes to let go of the day
Now you’re hot, now you’re cold 
Dubious rays of folly’s gold 
A bit more light, a bit more heat 
Would make the fruit of your rising sweet
How tempted am I to spew you out 
Corn syrup in my Carib mouth 
But for a draught that sparkles, stings 
Like juice of tropic fields and springs
And yet I’m told you have your day 
To truly reign in a tropic way 
I’m told that you can make men thirst 
Make temperate humours flare and burst
But a-cooling is what you’ve been to me 
Since I travelled across my Carib sea 
Now like a mango half-ripe, half-sweet 
I hang in limbo unfit to eat.
                             Denise Stair Armstrong
      Ah, expectations, I took some of those with me to Leavenworth, WA, as well.
     We were standing in the middle of a three-way crossroads when we met Christie. A woman easily in her early 60’s, given her matronly frame and gently wrinkled visage, she presented a surprising picture as she entered the intersection on a mountain bike in capris and helmet.
      We had just come across the ‘footbridge’, one that was supposed to join the main road through Plain community ( a tiny township outside Leavenworth) to Grunewald Guild, where the retreat was to be held starting the following day. However, we just could not see which of the roads would take us there.
     It was our first morning and we had headed out, after breakfast, to scope out the prospect of my walking from the lodging to the retreat each morning. To drive or not to drive: that was the question. All other participants were to be accommodated on site, but due to the dual nature of my trip (25th wedding anniversary plus retreat), we had taken lodging at the amazing Beaver Valley Lodge ( a place with a story all its own!).
     Our puzzlement must have been evident to Christie for after sipping on her water bottle she coasted towards us. After initial pleasantries about the beauty of the region and our respective purposes in being in that spot, we were swept up with her into an amazing conversation.
     I immediately apprehended the similarities between Christie and myself—veteran homeschooler, English Literature & Language teacher, Christian Drama/Theatre amateur and former eldercare-giver to her now, late, mother. But I soon realized this lady was in a whole other league: she had already ridden ten miles by the time she paused to talk with us and she was not panting! Her husband of  40 plus years was esconced ten miles away in their RV at camp Lake Wenatchee, this being a trip they took regularly driving from their home which was in an area further north. She still tutored and had a thriving business selling her homeschool curricula and lesson plans online!
     Our conversation came around to the purpose of our visit and I wound up commenting on the sunflowers (even there evident) and their personal significance. She replied that Eagles were her thing, the mounting and soaring to ever higher levels, etc. I was in awe of her spirit and could not help but mutter internally, an almost envious, “You go, girl!”
     That’s when I heard Him, “You go, Denise. You also have as much as you are willing to receive from My hand. I set before you, at this crossroads, Eagle Mom, Christie; metaphorically or literally come soar with Me also; let your faith in Me, not life’s circumstances, determine your altitude”.
      By the time Christie rode away, our GPS had figured out that we were virtually on Grunewald property, the whole time of our conversation. The building to our right almost hidden by wild brush and natural foliage was the library—the historic schoolhouse where we would actually have our joint sessions. When we first approached it didn’t look like much. But I was fast learning that on this trip expectations were to be set aside: ‘Plain’ would not mean the Amish have been here, Guild would not mean ‘medieval monastic stone masonry buildings set in a mountainside’,  and a matronly 60-ish-year-old is an eagle in disguise and a love note at the crossroads.

Dwell Retreat Reflections I: Journey Past Beginnings

Two weeks ago I attended the ‘Dwell’ writers’ retreat, held at Grunewald Guild near Leavenworth, WA – a journey which is profoundly affecting this season of my life. What follows is the first of my reflections about this time, which I will release weekly. Enjoy!

A Pilgrimage Launched
Awenatchela, “People at the source”, Wenatchee—(Native American) Sahaptin word for ‘River from the Canyon’ or ‘Robe of the Rainbow’. The moment I heard the name of the city into which my husband and I would be flying, on our way to the writer’s retreat in Washington state, I harbored a deep anticipation that the meaning of the word would hold a special point of significance: What are writers if not ‘people at the source’ ? First peoples poured so much meaning into names, and this land was already proving to be eloquent with creation’s cries.
My spiritual senses were already heightened since I found out, months after registering, that the name of the town where the retreat would be hosted was Leavenworth—the same name as that of our first hometown in Kansas! Leavenworth: the place of many first and new things for me—marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, foreign landscape, climate, food, church, friends…foreign world, working through me, changing me, like leaven.
But we had flown hundreds of miles over, above and beyond that Leavenworth, on this flight, going further west than either one of us had been before. My Dear-heart had his Master’s course studies to ensure that the trip would be worthwhile for him one way or the other. But as for me, I was a bit nervous. 
Of the intimate number that would be in attendance at the retreat, I knew only one lady—the visionary behind the event. ‘Know’ being relative, as we had become friends solely through her writings, both printed and emailed. Meeting Kimberlee Conway Ireton, writer of The Circle of Seasons, in person, would be the anticipated highlight. This aspect also, presented a pre-sentiment — for just as my relationship with my husband had progressed, Kimberlee & I would be meeting each other face to face for the first time, after almost two years of written communication and exchange of one, maybe two photos online. Would this be a onetime event or would lasting friendships be established among the hearts gathering at Grunewald Guild?
Image by WenatcheeOutdoors www.WenatcheeOutdoors.org

Driving up from the Wenatchee airport, visually trying to come to terms with the stark semi-desert landscape of the foothills of the Cascades, I was surprised by the sight of sunflowers, of all plants! I had adopted Kansas’ state flower as my personal ‘avatar’ the day we flew into Leavenworth, on our way from our wedding and honeymoon in Jamaica, to start life together. The flight path had taken us over fields of sunflowers, providing an assurance to my heart, from that time forward, that I would survive & thrive in this new temperate clime just as they did—facing the ‘Son’. Now here we were, in the Pacific Northwest, 25 years later, taking advantage of the opportunity to also celebrate our silver anniversary, encountering sunflower garden after sunflower garden on our way to another Leavenworth, just in Washington!

The last thing I grabbed before heading out the door from home in Richmond, VA, was a file folder containing pieces of my writing, about my earliest impressions & grapplings with adjusting to life in the Midwest. These are what I felt oddly compelled to read, as the plane approached to land at Pangborn Memorial Airport, Wenatchee, Washington. I did feel called to this quest but found myself questioning, like the captain of the Jamaican bobsled team, from Disney’s Cool Runnin’s,
“Coach, how will I know that I am enough?” 
Was there enough to this dream to write, to have justified this long journey? I wondered. It wasn’t quite a ‘plummeting’ but the Air Alaska plane was not the only thing losing altitude in that moment, however well-managed or controlled  I may have appeared to the casual observer.
It was difficult to not also find metaphor in the geo-political and historical facts of the western movement, which helped develop this part of the country, especially the gold-rush. As we left the flattened desert foothills, driving by sparkling river and ascending alpine slopes, I continued to worry about the retreat. Would this prospect pan out? Have I been deceived about my writing capabilities or is there really gold ‘in them thar hills’?  I was never one to waste good money, and I had had enough time to prepare my heart so I fixed my eyes on the hills and leaned forward, determined to not miss out on one iota of this ride.