{Mug-inspired reflections for Lent 2017…forty essays based on vessels found in the Kellam kitchen cupboard. I’m the first to admit the inspiration may come from mDSC05645.jpgore than the mugs.}

Look at this mug. It’s just a plain, ordinary mug. No imprint. No design. No marketing strategy at all. But it does the job for which it was intended with no ulterior purpose. It holds a healthy dose of morning coffee. As I think about it, I wonder where it came from and why we even have it. Maybe the printing has washed off through the years. Or, maybe it’s just one of those mugs we humans used to drink from before someone got the idea to embellish tumblers, beakers, and drinking glasses with art and slogans. The title of this reflection is apt, I think. This is just a plain old vanilla mug.

And you know what it reminds me of? The importance of getting back to basics. In fact, that’s something this Lenten period of forty days is good for, too. Getting back to basics. Removing clutter. Seeking quiet. Focusing on…well, almost anything. In this world of noisy distraction and destruction and obstruction, comes this instruction: focus. It’s simple. Just stop. Take a Sabbath breath or several in each hour, pause a few minutes each day, take a day a week, and stop. Stop the busyness. (Don’t worry; the world will continue to spin.) Just sit there. Or, lie there. Ever stood up in a corner before, leaning against those two walls. That can be very supportive. Really. Then, stopped, and breathing each breath as if it were the last, or the first, we can clear the mind and focus on one thing.

It probably doesn’t matter what that one thing is. An imaginary beach, a gentle breeze, looking out on an azure sea? The summit of a mountain overlooking a green vista of surrounding hills and river-carved valleys? How pleasant. But maybe the focus would be better directed toward a feeling of guilt, an unfortunate word, an expression of disappointment, a regret you had tried to escape, to cover over with daily clutter. That quiet moment can be used for escape or encounter. To evade an unpleasant truth, or to embrace a comforting thought. What is essential is to have stopped. To breathe. To focus. And to move toward healing. Simple, right?

Back to the flavor of the day: vanilla. Howard Johnson’s restaurants used to boast of 28 flavors of ice cream. Ben and Jerry’s may not have 28, but their flavors are exotic, clever, and very rich. The Kellam freezer usually contains five or six half-gallons of various flavors. Often, among those cartons, is plain vanilla. While we may enhance it with syrup of some sort (pure Vermont maple syrup is even better than chocolate), a scoop or three of vanilla by itself, unembellished, is more than just OK; it’s refreshing. And delicious.

But look at the variety of words we use to modify the vanillas of our lives: plain, old, dumb, stupid, flat, ordinary, dull, basic… But another word for basic is…pure.

In a previous blog, I quoted Irenaeus, a second-century bishop, who advised that “The glory of God is human beings fully alive.” I fear that for many of us, that “fully-aliveness” means busy, busy, busy doing lots of good and valuable and productive and fulfilling things. But, at least in the context of this plain, old mug (the one pictured here, not my face), I suggest tthTH7T65IPhat fully alive could also be the simple purity of life focused on this moment. A basic beauty, simple and true, like the climbing orchid of the Vanilla genus. It’s not exactly a rose. Not intricate, nor flashy.  A simple vine with not a particularly impressive bloom.

But it yields a flavor and aroma that can be rich, inviting, and ambrosial. When we first lived in Richmond, Virginia, we were just a mile or so from the Southern Biscuit Company where millions of cookies were baked, and the aroma of vanilla filled the whole neighborhood. Chocolate, peanut butter, almonds…they couldn’t make one’s mouth water like the wafting aroma of vanilla wafers baking there on the city’s north side. Plain vanilla gets back to basics.

I’ll admit there is a place for extravagance, embellishment, decoration, and the downright clever. A few blocks down the road from that cookie factory is the Byrd Theatre, a 1920s movie palace, gaudy and grand, and still open. It’s never been “restored,” just kept clean and polished, and updated only in technology. Last I knew, the Wurlitzer pipe organ still rose from the pit on weekends to play before the feature. I love that place. But more vanilla is a family showing home movies on a bed sheet in the living room. More vanilla is a grandfather telling his grandchildren about his paper route and his adventures in 6th grade. More vanilla is a 2nd grader reading her scrawled-in-crayon story to her Mom.

Joan and I spend a lot of our vacation time in grand cathedrals. New York. Berlin. Amsterdam. Awesome, sacred spaces filled with light from stained glass, magnificent pipe organs, tapestries and statuary, rich warm wood and soaring ceilings. We love those places. More vanilla is the white clapboard rural church with rustic benches and clear glass windows looking out on a pasture. More vanilla is the quiet worship of Friends, “Quakers” who have never debated music choices: traditional or contemporary? More vanilla is the backyard where a teenaged girl lies in the summer grass humming a private psalm to God.

The plain, the ordinary has a richness all its own. Here’s another quick reference to my Richmond singer-songwriter friend Steve Bassett. One of the first records he released was called “A Poor Man’s Life (Is a Rich Man’s Dream).” It was based on a familiar theme: simple is better. Getting back to basics means loosening bonds, becoming unburdened, letting go. Many who have too much (success, stuff, clutter) may find simpler living appealing. Not to glamorize the poor in spirit, or the hungry, or those living just on or over the edge, but their blessedness is evident to Jesus. His beatitudes may well be troubling, or at least puzzling, to both the rich and poor ones, those burdened by poverty and those burdened by riches. If we stop and take one of those Sabbath moments of peace and quiet, and focus on it, the meaning of being blessed may become more clear.

It’s Lent. A good time to consider a vanilla blessedness that transcends the trappings of what we thought was an abundantly rich life. I think that’s the truth, plain and simple.