A homily given at Laity Lodge in June 2013.
On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ”If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.
The older I get, the more I become aware of the need for self-care, to respect the needs of my body, mind, and emotions, and to keep a schedule that fits me in its pacing. But there are times, and we all have them, when commitments converge and perseverance is the order of the day.
The summer before last was one of those times for me. I was in a weary place. I wanted and needed to change the way we did things. We’d been living in an extremely open home for decades and knew we couldn’t keep on in the same way anymore. But change is slow. We’d taken two steps forward and three steps back. It was July and we were in the middle of a six-week run of houseguests. We also had some large events to plan for and host, and more houseguests yet to come. There was no real break coming until after Christmas, and Christmas seemed a long way off.
That same month I also started work on a talk for my church’s women’s retreat which would take place that fall. I was to share the speaking with two dear friends, each of us teaching on some aspect of the Biblical theme of “water.” At first, the assignment seemed fuzzy and difficult to relate to. But as I continued to pray and read and make notes, I began to connect through my own deep thirst. I realized a simple fact: I’m desperately thirsty. I’m in a dry and weary land, in need of the kind of internal replenishing I can’t provide for myself. I need to persevere, but I feel overwhelmed, uninspired, and without strength. I’m longing for refreshment but it’s nowhere in sight.
As I read through the many Scriptures that make some reference to water, I kept landing on Psalm 23:1–3: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Here, “Quiet waters” literally means “waters of resting places” — waters that provide refreshment and well-being.
I began to pray this simple prayer, “Lord, water me and renew a right spirit within me.”
The watering came in unexpected ways. Sometimes the Lord’s refreshing comes through a change of scenery — the resting place of a vacation, a Sabbath day of ceasing our worry and work, a retreat at Laity Lodge. Sometimes it comes through a change of countenance — we are literally righted from the inside out, brought to clarity, given new perspective and strength. Sometimes we’re made compassionate again, given a new imagination and concern for people’s needs, or a renewed sense of meaning and purpose. Sometimes it comes through the loves God has given us — the things we love to do or to be around. And oftentimes it comes with an increasing assurance that He is with us, providing for us right where we are, giving us green pastures to lie in, leading us beside still waters, and restoring our soul in the midst of our daily, ordinary living.
During that time I wrote an e-mail to my dear poet friend who lives in California: “I'm in a very needy place, praying often for the grace and watering of the Spirit of God. As I open my eyes to what's being given, I recognize the thirst-quenching encouragement that’s coming in many different ways, from small sips of water to large pools to swim in!”
A few years ago, Chuck and I went to Malibu Lodge in British Columbia where we met a wonderful, inspiring couple, a little older than we are. They own a famous restaurant in Seattle and are full of wisdom and life. We hit it off. When they e-mailed that particular summer to say they were coming through town, we were thrilled. And since our house was going to be full of other people, we made plans to take them out to dinner. I really, really wanted to have a quiet dinner and be able to talk about our lives with one another, just the four of us. I didn’t want to share them with our houseguests!
But when the day came, the logistics to go out weren’t working, so I put together a last-minute dinner and cooked at home. I ran to the farm stand and got fresh corn on the cob, okra, summer squash, and tomatoes. I roasted three chickens, made peach-blueberry crisp, and invited everyone who was either staying with us or working on the property that day to come for dinner. And as it turned out, that was exactly what was needed.
Because unbeknownst to me until they arrived, our friends had packed fresh seafood in Seattle and flown it all the way across the country to share as appetizers. They also brought wine and champagne specially made for their restaurant. The moment they walked in the kitchen door, laden with gifts, they began hosting me in my own home, as well as everyone else who was with us. They poured wine and champagne, made dipping sauces, put the crab legs and jumbo shrimp on platters, offered toasts and asked questions, all with a genuine interest in everything and everyone. The lively conversation continued through dinner, and after dessert, the musicians present gave an impromptu house concert. And later in the evening, when the younger folks had scattered, we were still able to have some quiet moments with them, sharing more privately from our lives.
Alice and Chris brought my refreshing that night. They are hospitable to the core and it travels with them wherever they go. Through their wonderful sense of life and fun and curiosity, everyone’s spirits were lifted. I felt nourished and watered through the lives of our new friends. But that wasn’t the end of it. A few days later we got a card in the mail. In part, it said, “Taking a small leap of faith, we would like to begin a dialogue with God and you about how we might enter in and maybe even serve in your lives. We’ll start by asking God to show us what only he can show.”
* * *
A week or so after Chris and Alice left, we received a phone call from a dear family friend of many years, an artist whose band spent weeks at a time with us in their formative years as they wrote and recorded their first three records. Jon called to tell us some exciting news, and when I got on the phone to congratulate him, he told me how much the years of our hospitality meant to him, and how it continued to give birth to good things in his life even now.
In that moment, when I was mired down in the dirty dishes of our current batch of twenty-something artists, wondering if hospitality and its work had any meaning for them, Jon’s words came as cool water on parched land.
* * *
Further along in that 6-week period, I woke up one morning with a pounding headache from a terrible night of sleep. As I got up and began to go about the day’s work, it became worse, the kind of headache that only has a chance of going away by lying back down in a quiet place. But on that particular day, there was not one place in my whole house to find silence and privacy. There were songwriters working in the screened-in porch just outside our bedroom, all the guest rooms were occupied, and people were walking back and forth between the house and the studio — footsteps, doors opening and closing, strings of conversation and singing as they moved about. I tried to lie down but it was useless. So I gave up, took some more medicine, and drove downtown to the farmer’s market. We’d been to our friends Jena and James’ house for dinner earlier in the week, and they’d served an amazing pasta salad. I wanted to re-create it for our household that night. So I roamed the market, got what I needed, drove back home, and entered into the joy of the heirloom tomato.
Are you familiar with heirloom tomatoes? They come from tomato seeds that have been passed down through generations and they have unusual colors and shapes — some are purple and green, some are orange, some are yellow, and one variety, the Green Zebra is striped. They look very different from the classic red Beefsteak, but they’re some of the most delicious tomatoes you can eat. And they’re only good in the hottest months of the summer, so you have to enjoy and celebrate them when they’re in season.
As I got my apron on and the music turned up, it was the process of cooking that brought my refreshment that day. I lost myself in the creativity. My whole countenance changed, and I was brought to a better version of myself.
I chopped the beautiful tomatoes into chunks and sliced thin ribbons of fresh basil. I cut kernels of corn off the cob, toasted pine nuts, cut fresh mozzarella into bite-size pieces, cooked the bow tie pasta to the right firmness, and mixed it all together in a bowl with some olive oil and lots of fresh squeezed lime juice. It’s a gorgeous salad, full of the tastes of summer. When I put it on the table with some fresh bread, and gathered everyone on the property to eat, the beauty and deliciousness of the food, along with the table fellowship, refreshed everyone.
New grace came for me as God used the excellence of His heirloom tomatoes and fresh sweet corn. It came through the joy of being made in the image of the Creator of the whole universe, with the ability to imagine and create in the whole scope of my life, including the kitchen. And it came through the goodness of relationships, as the Holy Spirit gave me new strength and a renewed imagination to serve and care for the people around me on that day.
Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me — put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” The Apostle Paul is saying, follow me as I follow Christ. Learn from my teaching. Learn from my practices. Learn from my life. But he’s also saying, pay attention to what is noble, and lovely, and admirable, and true as you encounter it in your own life.
So I ask you, is the heirloom tomato lovely and admirable, something God has made which gives us both food and pleasure at the same time?
In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about a conversation she had with a Benedictine monk: “When Brother David said that even biting into a tomato can be a kind of prayer, he had me. Anyone who recognizes the sacramental value of a homegrown tomato sandwich can be my spiritual director.” Continuing along this line of thought, are kind, encouraging words from an old friend a gift from God? Or what about new friends who tote fresh crab legs all the way across the country, and later send a card in the mail saying they’re asking God how they might serve you?
These are all good gifts, lovely and admirable, to receive with gratitude and pay attention to. And they brought my refreshing. Not once for all, but as daily grace, the greatness of small things.
Andi Ashworth lives in a century-old renovated country church with her musical husband, Charlie Peacock, where she cooks, writes, reads, and tends to people and place. Andi is the author of Real Love for Real Life: The Art and Work of Caring and editor-in-chief of the Art House America Blog.