This is a test.
“We saw a stranger yesterday.
We put food in the eating place,
Drink the drinking place,
Music in the listening place
And, with the Sacred name of the Triune God,
He blessed us and our house,
Our cattle and our dear ones.
As the lark says in her song:
Often, often, often goes Christ in the stranger’s guise.”
These words found in the Iona Abbey Worship Book are an ancient reminder of welcome. I have been thinking of them in these last days as I prepare to go to the small island of Iona off the coast of Scotland where Christianity found its foothold among raging winds and green and rocky fields. That foothold continues more than 1500 years later housed in an ecumenical community whose primary work is to welcome strangers. In a few short days, I will join a group of pilgrims who will travel to this remote island to be welcomed by those who will look for Christ in us. We will arrive after a journey on planes, buses and three different ferries. We may be tired and weary and worse for wear. And yet still, these people whose job it is to welcome, will open their doors, prepare meals, offer us drink and will invite us to make music and share in their worship with them. Outside our bedroom windows where we have stashed our bags and washed our faces after the long journey, the sound of sheep and cows will add to the music.
This is a journey two years in the making. Because there are only two hotels on this three mile wide island we had to put a deposit on space for our 35 pilgrims two years ago. Then the planning began. And the excitement and commitment began to simmer under the surface. Plans were made and remade. Books were read. Prayers were said. Commitments were sealed. Muscles were strengthened through hiking trails all around our cities. And now the time is nearly here.
There are many reasons people make such a pilgrimage, as many reasons as people. For some it is the desire to walk where others have sought answers and connection to the Holy for years. For some it is the beginning of a life transition or the searching for new ways of encountering their faith. For others it is curiosity and the chance to be with like-minded faithful, those who hold one another’s questions with gentleness and compassion. For some, I would venture to say they are still discerning their own brand of ‘why?’ Theologian Richard Niebuhr put it this way: “ Pilgrims are persons in motion – passing through territories not their own – seeking something we might call completion, or perhaps the word clarity will do as well, a goal to which only the spirit’s compass points the way.”
The journey will begin soon. My bags are nearly packed with things that will protect me from sun and wind and rain. I also know that what I leave unpacked is as important as what I have tucked into my backpack. Most of those items are less visible…worry, tasks left undone, my usual lists of “musts” and “shoulds”, any ideas I hold of ‘perfect’ travel. In the shedding, these must be left behind beside the bed where I have been organizing clothes and snacks and sturdy shoes. These invisible companions will not serve me well on this journey of soul.
No matter what I have packed or shed, no matter what I am gripping in terror or loosening in surrender, I am comforted to know that, miles away people are preparing for our arrival. What they will look for in us is not bedraggled or starry-eyed travelers but the Face of Christ. And that brings hope and comfort beyond all words.
“ He who wakes up early finds gold.”
Summer is a time for slowing down and noticing things. There is a certain rhythm that enters our lives that causes us, if we are lucky, to stop going at full speed which is our tendency during the majority of the year. I have been blessed to observe this rhythm through a display in a case in my neighborhood coffee shop. It was created by a lovely woman who is a teacher at heart…and lover of Creation to her core. What she created may have been for children, I don’t know, but it has captivated all ages and I am grateful for her inspiration and time.
Taking milkweed in clear, glass bud vases, she has placed caterpillars on the leaves. Each day we have been able to watch them grow…and who wouldn’t eating so much of a leaf?! It is astounding to watch their jaws chew away at the green food and to see that leaf disappear in neat, circular shapes. It is equally astounding to watch then go from a size not much longer than a fingernail to the size of a small finger in a short period of time. And then talk about astounding…the spinning of the cocoon! Now there’s an affirmation of Something bigger than us if I ever saw it! All this held in a glass case for our viewing pleasure and amazement.
But what has been the most astounding to me is that once the cocoon is spun and the caterpillar is doing its internal work of becoming, there is this amazing gold ring that appears on the green cone shape that dangles precariously from a stick. All the earthy colors of wood and earth…browns and greens of varying hues…gets a circling of brilliant, shiny gold. How have I never known this? Is it always true? Standing around the case, peering in, I have marveled at this with several people. Our oohs and aahs are really affirmations of faith.
This experience has had me thinking of all the way others in our lives carry a hidden, often surprising beauty. Beauty we don’t always notice. Beauty we didn’t even know was possible. Beauty we could not imagine. I think of the children in classrooms everywhere who blend in, don’t cause trouble, are quiet and unassuming. What ‘gold’ are they carrying that deserves to be seen? Or on the other side of that same coin, the children whose behavior and presence is so tarnished that the ability to see the treasure they carry is obscured by frustration and annoyance. Of course, this is not only true for children but for all the other humans who grace our lives. It is so easy to dismiss the beauty that might be possible, the same beauty we pray people can glimpse in us. Instead of being blind to it, how might we see the hidden treasure they carry? How can we stand in such amazement that they are able to transform that gift into something as amazing as colored wings that can take flight?
I am thankful to this woman who brought this life lesson and plopped it in my path. It would be wonderful if the rhythm of summer that allows us to slow down enough to see could be our daily bread all year round. Perhaps it can. But if not, the invitation today is to keep awake to the hidden treasures in those we meet…opening our eyes and our hearts to what we never knew was possible. Gold in a cocoon? Gold in the eyes of each person we meet? Gold in the heart of the person standing at the street corner? Gold in the person with whom we are in conflict? Gold in the mirror staring back at us?
In truth we are all treasure to the One who breathed us into being. When we notice and honor this truth, the world is rimmed in gold. And that, as has been written, is good…very, very good.
This past week I was listening to a group of people talk about how a particular political situation might unfold. One person made the statement that has had my mind reeling all week.” It really will be about the art of the question.”, he said. Sensing they were in the presence of wisdom and poetic wisdom at that, the panel of people actually stopped talking and took a breath together, something rarely witnessed in the often dry, didactic ways in which these conversations go.
The art of the question. The shaping of a good question, one that will illicit deep truth, exceptional creativity, a longed-for hope, is indeed an art. Crafting a question takes time to listen to the inward, intuitive voice. After the listening comes the sorting of the words that want to elbow their way into the spotlight, gently pushing them aside in favor of those that linger at the back of the stage. Carefully, this word and then that one is chosen until the question begins to come to life. Sometimes words are shifted around, like a puzzle, until they fit just perfectly. Then, and only then, does the punctuation mark get its proper place at the end of the outflowing letters. Spoken with that lilt upward at the end of the sentence, this artfully created question can lead to a new path, an answered longing, a definitive affirmative or a confident negative.
Hearing the phrase ‘the art of the question’, reminded me of those early days as a parent when children came home from school and I would begin the interrogation of the day in which I had had no part. Asking what were probably quite artless questions, I received the artless answers the questions deserved. “How did it go today?” “Fine.” “What did you like best today?” ”Recess.” (Or the second favorite answer, ‘lunch’.) “Did you learn anything new?” “ No.” Sound familiar to anyone? Over the years I think I learned to ask more well crafted questions and began to get a clearer sense of how our sons’ days were unfolding at school. It was all about how I asked the question.
Asking questions implies a relationship that can run deep. Asking questions says to another person that we care about their opinion, their feelings, their experience. And when we ask our questions well we also forge a connection between our own life experience and a new understanding grows. I tend to believe this to be Spirit-work…work that holds relationships in a tension with the unseen More… and work our world sorely needs.
Reflecting on questions this week, I was reminded of some that have stuck with me. “To be or not to be? That is the question.”, Hamlet ponders. “Who do you say I am?”, asks Jesus. “Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”, writes poet Mary Oliver. Letting those three very different questions wrap themselves around me gives me pause and takes me in a million directions searching for the answers. This is only one of the gifts of a really good question. The asking allows the one who answers to reveal something deep and lasting and wonderful.
What questions are you walking with these days? Are the questions well formed or do they need the touch of your artist hand? Somehow I feel that these days in which we find ourselves will be best served by being present to the creative acts of listening, of crafting and asking good questions and listening, really listening, to the other. It is holy work. And just imagining it brings such hope for a way forward.
Last week I was revisiting one of Krista Tippett’s On Being podcasts. While I listen to this in real time each week, I often like to listen again to ones that are particularly rich. Her guest was Marilyn Nelson, a professor emerita of English at the University of Connecticut and a poet. I remembered being taken with this interview when I heard it a few months ago and it was a joy to hear it again. In the hour long conversation, the two women spoke of ‘communal pondering’. It was a phrase that just jumped out and grabbed me. Communal pondering…an act of being in silence, or at least prolonged quiet, with others. The actual title of the podcast was ‘Communal Pondering in a Noisy World.’
Noisy world! There is so much ‘noise’ that makes up our days, isn’t there? I think of all the ways in which sound, noisy or otherwise is our daily bread. The sounds assaulting us are not always words, of course. Traffic sounds are background music. Machines of all kinds hum or clank or roar outside our windows. All our devices with beeps, dings and inane tunes that signal someone is trying to reach us, tell us something often not that important, rarely urgent.
Communal pondering in the midst of all this seems so sane to me. Something born of a deep wisdom that often seems just outside our reach. Rolling the phrase around in my mind, I thought of the old hymn, ‘Praise to the Lord, the Almighty’ with its lyric’ Ponder anew, what the almighty can do.’ I laughed thinking about what the Almighty would have to do to get our attention in the flurry of the noise that often surrounds every waking moment.
As I listened to the women talk about this experience of communal pondering I began to realize that it was so much more than being alone in meditation or even prayer. It was more active than that. What they were inviting people to consider was the experience of sitting with, fully present to others around with the intention of being still enough, quiet enough, to hear not only our own breath but the breath of the other. In doing so, we also might be able to hear the Breath of the Other. We might actually hear ‘what the Almighty can do.’ It seems an invitation ripe for our time, doesn’t it? I wondered how much calmer my days would be if I turned from the seductive noise that calls to me like a siren song and instead engaged in the deliberate act of pondering. Something tells me it might make for more grounded days.
The irises are in full bloom in our garden right now. They ask nothing more of me and anyone else that happens by than to ponder them. Ponder their beauty. Ponder their presence. Ponder the miracle of them. Ponder their fragility and their fleeting nature, not unlike our own. Perhaps, as I ponder their life, they are also pondering mine. If so, we are engaging in some very fine communal pondering.
The Almighty would be pleased, I believe.
“Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company.”
I hadn’t thought of her in years. I can’t even remember her name. A distant memory of her was jogged when I read an article yesterday in the newspaper about two schools, a Catholic school for girls, and a Muslim school for girls. The wise adults, teachers, had had the brilliant, good sense to connect some of the girls as ‘pen pals’. Pen pals! By email these young girls had been linked through the power of words and keyboards and the back and forth of language that moves slowly enough to allow thoughtful, gentle questions and answers, and the art of waiting for response. And stories, I am sure, for what would pen pals be without sharing the stories of their lives?
When I was in sixth grade, I acquired a pen pal. I don’t remember which wise adult caused this to happen. Because I can’t remember her name, I will call her Elizabeth(which may be right). Though I can’t fully remember her name, I can however conjure up a grainy, image from black and white photos we sent back and forth several times. Elizabeth was special because she agreed to write to me. And she was special because she lived in the land of John, Paul, George and Ringo…England. She became a real-live connection with the land of the objects of my devotion and the recipients of all my allowance, the Beatles. Elizabeth and I wrote about what was happening in school, our families, our friends, what magazines we read, which Beatles songs we were crazy about at the time. It was the give and take of young girls’ letter writing. Writing to her introduced me to those tissue paper, blue, ‘air-mail’ foldable letter and envelope combinations. Walking to the post office in my small town and purchasing these seemingly exotic items meant for places I had never been but longed to go, fueled my desire to see the world, to know people whose lives were different than my own. It planted something in me that continues to this day.
In the newspaper, there is a picture of some of the girls from these two schools meeting for the first time. Their youthful, beautiful faces are full of excitement and expectation to meet the one whose words had passed between them. While their school uniforms could have marked their differences, the photos shone forth their faces full of welcome and recognition…and joy. What may have seemed difference was overshadowed by delight. I was excited for them and what they might be learning from one another. I thought of the seeds of understanding and hope that may have been passing between them. And I thought of how they were probably sharing the normal things girls that age share, just like my pen pal and I did those years ago.
Letter writing may have become a lost art. Some might say so. But the teachers in these two schools knew something and they acted on it. They knew that when people put words on paper, or a screen, and send them to one another, they become linked in significant ways. Their words become the invisible lines of connection where understanding and compassion can be built. Their words can become the world-expanding stage that catapults people to travel to places they never dreamed, to learn of ways of being in the world they never imagined. Their words can be the seeds of peace the world longs for and desperately needs.
Did you ever have a pen pal? When was the last time you wrote a letter? When was the last time you received one? I am thankful to have thought of ‘Elizabeth’ who was once my pen pal…across an ocean I dreamed of crossing…whose life helped opened me to the beauty of the world I longed to see and experience.
Maybe it is time for another pen pal.
Sometimes we need a wake up call…a moment when it becomes clear what matters, what is true, what binds us together as humans. In all the ways our last days and months have floated along the surface of roiling waters, words and pronouncements flying toward us so furiously that we are in a constant state of upheaval and confusion, it is so good to have at least a moment of reminding. Here. Look at this. Stay focused on that. Breathe. Deeply.
I had just such a moment on Saturday morning. It was a moment that extended into several minutes and held me in the rest of the way the day unfolded. I made my first trip of the year to the St. Paul Farmers Market. The colder, wetter weather and some weekend commitments had prevented it until Saturday. Parking a distance away, I began to see people, bags empty, walking in metered anticipation toward the rows of trucks and tables lining the street. There was a lightness in their step fueled by the Sun’s warm and glorious rays and the sweet smell of trees blooming along the boulevard.
Arriving at the market itself, I stopped and allowed the sights of both merchants and buyers moving to and fro to wash over me. I looked for the familiar…there were the ‘chicken sisters’, as I think of them, selling their organic eggs and various forms of popular poultry. There was the dear one named ‘Joy’ who sells gently used quilts, rag rugs and clothing, throwing her head back in the laughter that mirrors her name. There was the Hmong farmer whose lined and lovely face and dancing eyes always looks you square on as he hands you the veggies in season for that week. And standing near by, the maple syrup maker in his signature bib-overalls looking like an ad luring Scandinavians who might think of moving to Minnesota, beamed his seemingly ever-present smile. Ahh…yes. All this. Steady. Constant. True.
Walking among the rows of tables filled with early produce…rhubarb, asparagus, radishes…and other veggies that have been grown in greenhouses, I felt my shoulders relax and my breathing deepen. It was a walking meditation of sorts. I caught the eye of certain farmers filled with the hope and promise of what is yet to be in this early season. I watched as vendor and customer greeted one another with hugs of recognition happy to see that both had survived yet another winter. They had easily fallen into another season and it was unfolding for my very eyes. Periodically, I stopped and drank in the color of flowers destined for decks and yards and porches. An awesome array of brilliance and bounty! Children gawked from strollers as their adults traded money for the sugary donut treat of a Saturday morning.
“What a wonderful world!”, I thought. And how easily I forget and believe only in the steady stream of the negative always in abundant supply. Yet, here it was. So much of what is right, of what matters, was shining everywhere around me like fireworks after a 4th of July picnic. The promise of seed teamed with soil and sun, water and hard work sparkled…food full of sacrifice and lusciousness. Gifts of Creation and Creator. People connecting, hands clasping, arms reaching out, sharing what people need to fuel body and soul. The simplicity of humanity coming together in the beauty of a spring morning, being present to one another and the gift of the day. All the arguments, harsh words, threats and fears, real or imagined, paled in the magnitude of this scene, this experience. Confronted with much of what really matters, the preoccupation with the tight-fisted nature of the past week seemed a waste of precious energy, precious life.
Headed back to my car, my bag full of beautiful food and my heart full of hope, I thought of Mary Oliver’s “Instructions for Living a Life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” It seemed to make so much more sense than anything I had heard all week.
I am glad I allowed myself the gift of paying attention. I am humbled by the astonishment. And I am privileged to tell about it.
On Easter Sunday, at our Sunrise service, we read the powerful story from Ezekiel as well as the traditional story from the Christian scriptures. The truth is the Bible is filled with resurrection stories. When we come to this important celebration of Easter, we can sometimes pretend as if the account of the resurrection story of Jesus we read from one of the gospels is the only one. But the Hebrew people held this visual, dramatic and wonderful story of the valley filled with dry, dead bones as a central image of hope for a scattered and desolate people…a central image of resurrection. It is a fabulous tale conjuring up all the wildness of myth and science fiction and wonder that stays with a person, and has, for literally thousands of years. It stays with us in part because it is so visual. Bones laying in dust.The Voice calling across the dry land. Femur and backbone and elbow all coming together to form an army of beings or a dance troupe of upright skeletons. Then the sinew forming and the muscles clothing the bones. Can’t you just imagine it? It is the stuff of great movies.and a story to inspire and transform.
And there is the constant question: Can these bones live? CAN THESE BONES LIVE? This is God’s voice challenging Ezekiel. To imagination.To action. To hope. Hope that the Spirit will do what the Spirit, the breath, the RUACH does, and has always done since the beginning of Creation. “BREATHE!”, says the Voice. “BREATHE!” “Breathe life into what was dead in this direction. Breathe life into what seemed impossible in that direction/ Breathe life into what looked beyond any sign of ever knowing life again right here in this time, in this place.”
This story of resurrection has withstood time because it is our story and the story of all who have come before us and all who are likely to come after. This story of resurrection continues to be told because it is the fuel of every hope we have. What was, what is dead, lifeless, hopeless, desolate comes to life once again.
Perhaps, it feels to some that it is a message that is needed now more than ever. I wonder if others, throughout time have felt the same. For this is a story that calls us from every direction to come together as the broken, dried up, hopeless people we can become and to stand upright.These are the words that urge us to call upon God’s Spirit to Breathe life into us. To put flesh and muscle on our skeletons and to send us into the world as God’s creative, imaginative, makers of mercy and justice and peace. This story of dry bones and hope dried up tells of the resurrection that comes again and again to those who call upon God’s life giving Breath to BREATHE….BREATHE…BREATHE….when the world seems harsh and difficult and even impossible. It is the resurrection that opens our hardened hearts and allows green to spring from bulbs long buried. It is nothing less than the rebirth of HOPE…that gift that always propels us toward new life…
Artist and poet Jan Richardson offers this blessing for this kind of hope..
So may we know
that is not just
but for this day –
in this moment
that opens to us:
hope not made
but of substance,
hope made of sinew
hope that has breath
and a beating heart,
hope that will not
and be polite,
hope that knows
how to holler
when it is called for,
hope that knows
how to sing
when there seems
hope that raises us
from the dead-
but this day,
***I was asked to share these words that I spoke at the Sunrise service and so here they are!
We are a thirsty people. I was reminded of it this week when we gathered around a beautiful labyrinth painted to resemble a beach and the water that lapped against it and on it. We gathered, a thirsty people, to pray for those around the world who live with a scarcity of water. Or water that stands stagnant and poison. Or water that is laced with chemicals too dangerous for children or other living things. Or water that must be carried for long distances in fragile and fractured vessels by women whose work is already heavy and thankless.
I was reminded of the thirst we humans share when I prayed this prayer written by Edward Hoyt, CRS:
And was we gaze upon this land that so thirsts for your water
Let it remind us of all the thirsts of the world:
The thirst for justice
The thirst for peace
The thirst for opportunity
The thirst for reconciliation
The thirst for hope.
So many thirsty longings. We know that our bodies can live quite a long time without food. Though hungry, our bodies will continue to feed off itself as muscle and fat wastes away. But we perish without water…that element that makes up the largest part of who we are. Our thirst is what can be our undoing.
I am thinking now of the children of Flint, Michigan and all the other places where literal water has been harmful to the growth and future of those who call it home. I am thinking about all the children who are thirsty for nurturing words, kind touch, affirming actions. I am thinking of the wise ones, old with years, who ache for companionship, who suffer the dehydration of loneliness. I am thinking about all those who are thirsty for another chance to prove their worth, to show what they can do, to offer their gifts. I am thinking of all those who thirst to be seen, to be heard, to be known.
We are a thirsty people. Our thirsts run deep and our connections are often frayed. But I believe we harbor within a cup of compassion that is held out to us by the One who breathed us all into being, the One who longs to quench thirst and bring life.
And when your blessings rain from the sky
As assuredly they will
And we kneel again at the pools and fountains
Teach us to cup our hands
Turn first, and share with one another.
May it be so. May it be so.
On Wednesday I joined with countless other people who make their faith home in the Christian household in receiving ashes on my forehead for Ash Wednesday. With this we the began the season of Lent. It is not a practice I was raised with in my Protestant, Baptist-influenced United Methodist Church in Ohio. I probably had not seen evidence of the black smudges until I went to college. It was there that I observed certain members of my community, in classes and in the dorm, walking around for a full day with what seemed a dirty face. Curious, I learned what it was and maybe even why it was. But it still had little meaning to me. It did not seem to include me in its visual sign of being a part of the faithful.
Over the years, many outside the Roman Catholic tradition have embraced this practice and now in most protestant churches the beginning of the forty days of Lent begin with some kind of service of ashes. It has become one of my favorite services of the church year. It is tactile. It is earthy. It is rife with truth and deep in emotion. It gets to the grit of what it means to be a spiritual being having a bodily experience.
“From the earth you have come…and to the earth you will return. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The only other time we hear these words, the only other time I say them is at the graveside of a dear one who has made the fullness of their journey. Birth. Life. Death. Rebirth. Looking into the eyes of someone fully alive, standing right in front of you, breathing, and saying these words is powerful beyond measure. Fingers laced with the black of ashes created by the palms of last year’s palm fronds, I touch the sometimes furrowed, often shiny, soft, weathered, sensitive skin of another. The mark from my finger stays on the face of one who is also God’s Face in the world. It stays with me for the days that follow.
Before receiving the ashes, we all are reminded through scripture, song, prayer and confessing words, that over the last year, since last Lent, we have fallen short of God’s original blessing in us, the blessing God speaks over Jesus at his baptism and at the birth of each of us: “You are my beloved…I take great pleasure in you.” Since last year we, each of us, has known brokenness, been hurtful, excluded, shamed, oppressed, maimed the spirit of another blessed creature of the One who breathed us all into being. Ash Wednesday gives us the time to fess up, make amends, and remember that our lives are finite. In that, we pray, we hope, we intend to live more fully, more gently, more kindly, more lovingly, after the example of our brother Jesus.
Doing the work that I do, privileged and blessed work, I am aware of that finite nature. The cycle of birth, life, and death does not always come at an age that is full in years. We know this. We try to forget. We want to believe that we have all the time in the world. And then we think of all those we know who did not, who do not. The practice of receiving ashes can be a reminder, if we let it, that we are all on an uncertain journey of time but one that can return us again and again to the Holy, the One who meets us face to face, touches us gently and asks that we live fully now. Now.
Jan L. Richardson, artist and poet ends a poem blessing for Ash Wednesday in this way:
……..This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.
So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are
but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
and the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
And to this I simply say, amen.