This Year

 Sunday, November 30th,marks the beginning of  Advent in Christian churches all over the world. It is the beginning of the liturgical church year and helps us take the baby steps needed as we head toward Christmas. It is a remarkable season as it tries to help the people of faith mark the birth of Emmanuel, ,God-with-Us, while at the same time looking to the day when the Way of God will be the way of the world. For those of us in the northern hemisphere,these two messages get wrapped up in the darkness of winter days and all the metaphorical images of light and dark that become the walk of our daily path. If this weren't enough to ponder, we have the commercial giants clamoring for our attention and our dollars. It can be an overwhelming time for even the most grounded person.

Today's blog message marks the third year I've reflected on Advent as a part of Pause. It all started out as a simple Advent meditation and three years later I find myself still writing nearly every day. It has become an important spiritual practice for me. But as I began to reflect on Advent this year, I began to think of something Bruce Robbins, our senior minister, said a few weeks ago. He said that reading scripture was a little like peeling an onion. There are so many layers, so many ways to read it, so many levels, so much to take into account in the reading. There are historical and literary perspectives to consider in addition to language translations. There are also the changes that continue to take place in our own lives to consider. As I read these familiar scriptures this year, I am not the same person I was last year or the year before and that impacts my reading, my understanding.In addition to the hoped-for wisdom of living,  each of us have known joys and sorrows, loss and success over the last year. That has changed us in some way

 Jan L. Richardson in her book Night Visions searching the shadows of Advent and Christmas, explains it like this: "As I have grown, I have gained an appreciation for how many ways there are to tell a story. Take the story of Christmas.We can tell it as the story of an unwed mother who dared to enter into partnership with God to bring forth new life; as a political story about the birth of a revolutionary; as a tale about a love that longed so much for us that it took flesh, formed in the dark womb of a woman who share her body and her blood to bring it forth. We can tell it as a story about darkness giving birth to light, about seemingly endless waiting, and about that which lies at the end of all our waiting."

As we begin the walk into Advent, maybe it is a good time to think back over the last year. How are you different than you were? How have you grown, changed ? How will you hear the story of Christmas this year? How will it be
different from before? What has happened in your life that might
help you experience this story in a new way?

The darkness surrounds us. And we are a people waiting for the Light. Waiting…..watching…..hoping……praying….for that glimpse of God-with-us.

i thank you

"i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)"
~ e. e. cummings

In my opinion this is truly one of the most beautiful poems every written. For me it captures the overwhelming gift of life and the gifts of the Creator to us each and every day. It invites us to grab the brass ring of our living and embrace all the tiny, seemingly unimportant moments and grasp them with both hands. It challenges us to be awake to all that life offers us, all that our breathing, pulsing bodies can experience. If a prayer is to be said at the beginning of every day, I believe this to be as good a prayer as any.

Tomorrow as people gather to celebrate Thanksgiving, it is a holiday with mixed sentiment. Most people simply love the foods of this day and the simplicity of what it requires. For the most part, there is not much baggage tied to Thanksgiving. We can celebrate it on a purely historical level. We can mark its place in a religious context. We can even see it as the beginning of the headlong fall into Christmas. We can see it as the day to serve others and count our blessings and put that practice on the shelf until next year at this same time.

Or we can plant our feet on the floor in the morning and thank God for the sun's birthday, for bringing us into aliveness after our sleep. We can look out our window and take in the gifts of earth that shine and blow and fly and swim, and sit there in awe and wonder. We can be fully aware of each touch, taste, smell,sight and breath and offer gratitude to the Source. We can look at the faces of those who surround us and name them for the miracles they are. We can Yes! to the life with which we have been graced and make a promise to ourselves to do the same thing the next day and the next.We can strive to keep that promise.

Thanksgiving. It can be a feast of turkey or a Feast of Life. The choice is ours.


"Listening looks easy, but it's not simple. Every head is a world."  Cuban Proverb

Yesterday afternoon I joined nearly 1000 people who gathered to hear Dr. John Francis speak. Dr. Francis is more commonly known as the Planetwalker. He spent 22 years walking…never riding in a car, train or plane…anything that used oil or gas. He began his walking in 1971 as a personal protest after witnessing the devastation of the oil spill in San Francisco Bay.

 When he began walking in protest, he began having conversations with people about why he was doing this. This seemed to often lead to an argument. So he tried another experiment. He decided to stop talking for one day and instead to listen, really listen to people. One day led to 17 years of not speaking and to 17 years of really listening. During this time he received bachelor, masters and doctoral degrees….all while not speaking a word. He even taught college classes without speaking!  Image….

He was an entertaining, fascinating person with a gentle spirit and a visible love of life. As I listened to his story I wondered what might move me to such a change of life. What might cause me to go to such extremes to change the way I do my daily living? And what event, what experience would urge me to stop talking and instead focus on listening with even a hint of the intensity of Dr. Francis? It is a fascinating question to ponder.

Dr. Francis' story is compelling and unique. It is certainly a story of rich extremes. Most of us would not want to inflict that dramatic a change on our lifestyle. And yet each of us wants, I believe, to make some statement with our life and how we live it. We want people to know us, really know us, and what we stand for. We want people to say our name and know what it means. Each of us wants to know that we are doing what we were 'meant' to do, that we are using the gifts planted within us for their true purpose. What is your life statement?

John Francis learned what his life statement was, not by talking about it, but by listening to others and most importantly to himself. In the listening he came to know who he was, what he stood for and how we was called to walk the earth. "Great changes can be made through the power of personal statements, listening, and a willingness to change ourselves.", he says.

He gave me much to think about…..while I walk and…… while I listen.


Last night we attended a musical concert in which our youngest son participated. It was a gala event which included three choirs, a wind ensemble and the orchestra. Each group had one piece they performed on their own but the work everyone was excited about and had come to hear was a mass piece in which all the groups participated. Carmina Burana by Carl Orff is one of those dramatic, big bold pieces of music that grabs even the casual listener.Written in 1935-36, it sets to music 24 poems found in a medieval monastery written by priests and others who had lost their faith in the church and the world.

"O Fortune,like the moon you are constantly changing,ever waxing and waning;hateful life now oppresses and then soothes as fancy takes it; poverty and power it melts them like ice.Fate – monstrous and  empty,you whirling wheel,you are malevolent,well-being is vain and always fades to nothing,shadowed
and veiled you plague me too;now through the game I bring my bare back to your villainy.
Fate, in health and virtue,is against me driven on and weighted down,always enslaved.So at this hour without delay pluck the vibrating strings;since Fate strikes down the strong man,everyone weep with me!"

So goes the most famous piece of the work. Luckily it is sung in Latin so you focus more on the power and beauty of the music and not how depressing the words are! These young people clearly loved performing this piece. Their audience loved listening. What struck me most is that this group of young people, wired by technology since their birth, connected with a piece of music decades old and to words centuries older. As they each did their part to create this monumental piece of music they were a united front. Their family background did not matter, nor the color of their skin.There were students from every economic background on the stage, a few who still struggle with the English language. Some students were certainly more skilled than others, many had had private lessons while others simply signed up for a class they may need to graduate. Yet no one person on the stage could have performed  this piece alone. They needed the talent and the commitment of the person standing beside them. Plainly put, they needed to rely on one another to create something bigger than themselves.

Fate, perhaps, had brought these student musicians together. But what they created in the moment was beautiful and lasting and, I believe, will stay with them for a very long time. The lessons they learned by tackling this challenging piece are the lessons of life: Show up, do your part, stick together, listen well, rest when you need to, create beauty when you can, offer your gifts to the world.

It promises to be a blustery weekend…….stay warm.

Extending a Life

"Once a little jumping spider, on a porch railing, came to my hand, and stood up on its back legs and stared, with exquisite green eyes, into my face. You can say that is wasn't so; it was so. This was on a warm summer day. A few sailboats were gliding around the harbor that stretches out and becomes ocean, and who knows where the world ends. Good luck, little spider of the keyhole. Live as long as you can." Mary Oliver

Now that the weather has turned officially cold and winter is settling in, so are the box elders and the lady bugs.They have been settling into our home for weeks now. The spiders also have been visible trying to find places to rest, spots to spin their lace, out of the danger of winter wind.

It is a curious relationship to forge, living with insects. On the one hand I do not want to find myself or any of my family visibly bitten by a spider. I usually react to their bites and on at least one occasion had to take medication to soothe the itching and the spreading welts. On the other hand, I respect their right to walk this Earth with me, their legs more numerous and thinner than my own. I know they are only trying to do the work to which they were called, the same as I. And so it can be said for the other bugs I have mentioned. Truth be told, there is something hopeful in seeing the sweet orange body of a ladybug when ice is frozen outside your window.

Over the last weeks when I have seen these fellow travelers, I have simply placed a piece of paper in their path. They seem obliged to continue crawling and make their way onto the out stretched paper. I then open the door and send them outside. In doing so I do not know their fate. They most likely die as they would have if I had squashed them like others might. Or maybe…and this is my hope…they find a warmer place among leaves or in a bed of stones, where their life is extended.

I would pray that, if our size differential were reversed, they would do the same for me.

There Are Days

There are days that are more vibrant than others. They are filled with moments that make you want to shout your praise for simply being alive. Colors are brighter, smells sweeter, the eyes of a friend shine out at you from a face you love but have taken for granted. The arms a partner are warmer, gentler than you can remember and you want to spend the day resting in their embrace.There are days like this.

Many times these days are brought on by a wonderful miraculous experience, like the birth of a new baby or the news that something you've worked for for so long has come to fruition. But more often these days are brought on because you feel you've brushed close to having the gifts of this life snatched away from you. You pass by the scene of an accident where there are clearly grave injuries. Or you yourself stop or swerve just in time to miss being part of a similar scene. There are test results that come back clear and phone messages that signal the joyous voice of a family member or friend over this good news. There are days like this.

We spend the majority of our time treading the waters of our lives. It is a fact and one that, in some ways, makes the world go round. We find ourselves in the rhythm of routines that can dull our senses and our hearts to the sheer joy of walking this glorious Earth. We go to meetings, do the laundry, eat without paying attention to the food or our companions. And then something happens and our awareness changes. Our senses become heightened and our eyes see the world as if for the first time. There are days like this.

Perhaps it is the nature of being human, of trying to make sense of who we are, that allows us to become  aware of these experiences where we recognize the gift of this life, this living. Do other animals feel the exhilaration of having outrun the hand of death in the form of the speeding car? Do they then enjoy their running or flying or swimming more for at least the next few days? I don't know.

Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, today might be a day to really look around you and see the gifts of your life. Today might be the day to smile broader, to kiss longer, to order dessert, to give a gift anonymously. Today might be a day to fall in love with your life…..without benefit of any dramatic event…..but simply because you can.


“Hands are the heart’s landscape.”

  ~Pope John Paul II

Last Friday I went to the Vatican Splendors exhibit that is currently showing at the Minnesota History Museum. It is a remarkable traveling exhibit of paintings, sculpture, uniforms, vestments and many other items that are housed in the several museums that make up the Vatican collection. The collection spans centuries and contains art from every century. This exhibit does a wonderful job of keeping the interest of adults and the numerous school groups that were present while I was there. I observed several young men who looked quite bored while looking at religious paintings perk up when they turned a corner and saw the uniforms and weapons of the Swiss Guard! 

Of particular interest was a section where they had re-created what it must have felt like to be Michelangelo as he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The scaffolding suspended just four feet from the ceiling gave you an idea of how uncomfortable and claustrophobic that work must have been. How he had any visual perspective from his vantage point of how the art would look from the floor is beyond my understanding.

The entire exhibit was wonderful. But my favorite piece was one near the very end. It was a sculpture made of brass, about the size of a small car table. Rising out of the center of the square was a caste of the praying hands of Pope John Paul II. The hands were actually situated on their side so the back of his hand was on top, not in the usual visual of praying hands. A small placard invited people to put their hand on top of his. I looked at the brass, how it had been rubbed shiny by all those who had reached out to lay their hand on this brass image of this seeming sweet, kind, compassionate, yet larger-than-life man. 

As I too reached out to lay my hand on his, I thought how good it felt. His hands were much larger than I had imagined. He always seemed a slight person to me. I lay my hand where others had and wondered what each person thought when they did so. Certainly the most devote Roman Catholics had a different experience than I. (I am sure the children were glad to finally be able to touch something.) Those places, rubbed to glistening gold by the hand prints of so many, shone into the darkness of the exhibit hall. So many hands who had reached out to touch the hand of this man who had been through so much, who so many believed to be the most powerful man in the world. It was a quiet act some would see as nothing of significance. But I have thought about it over and over. It felt like a holy moment.


"O Beauty, ever ancient, ever new. Too late have I loved you. I was outside and you were within me, and I never found you until I found you within myself." St. Augustine

The last few days I have been reading the offerings people have made for our upcoming Advent devotional. This is always a very holy time for me. The process begins with a theme being chosen, a few words that invite people to reflection, prayer and then the writing. Many people write original work. Still others know that they have just the perfect poem or prayer tucked away in those places we tuck things we want to keep forever.

This year's theme is "Journey in the Heartbeat of God." In some ways it is more abstract than others we have chosen. The theme has prompted several phone calls asking:"Now let me see if I understand where you want us to go. Is this what you meant"? The conversation plays out and the caller heads off to write. I personally find the process overwhelmingly exciting. To put only a few words out there to which people can respond and then to receive such lovely and inspiring words is a gift. Though most people don't think of it this way, I see it as an an of spiritual formation. When people really respond to the words from their own faith perspective, their own experience of God, they come to know and articulate for others a glimpse into their spiritual selves. Writer and reader are transformed in the process.

This year our devotional will be graced by the lovely artwork of one of our members, Amanda Hunter. Amanda's art will mirror the very large banners that will hang in our sanctuary beginning the first Sunday of Advent. Her visual interpretation of incarnation, God with and within, is strikingly beautiful. It will challenge some to perhaps open their understanding of God's presence among us.

As for me, I have seen that God-within present in the stories people have told. I have seen the grace and transformation experienced in the poetry people have written. I have been blessed by the journey of this creative process which is, itself, infused with the Heartbeat of God.

The devotional will be available on-line so watch for it. In the meantime, you are invited to also reflect upon what "Journey In the Heartbeat of God" means to you. I suspect your spirit may be renewed in the reflection.

Have a blessed weekend…………………….


"……But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me……."
~Billy Collins

I hit the alarm and drifted back asleep only to wake up with the clear sense that something was different about this morning. As my eyes adjusted to wakefulness I realized that the usual morning light was tinged with blue. I sat up and looked out the window to see the rooftop covered with snow, the breaking morning reflecting off its whiteness causing that unnameable blue when sky and snowy ground meet. It was really only a couple of inches of snow, and it will be gone probably by the end of the day, but nevertheless it is the first snow of the season. A day to mark on the calendar which some will celebrate while others curse.

This excerpt of the poem Shoveling Snow with Buddha calls to mind, I think, one of the great gifts of snow and the winter months. Snow calls us to a contemplative place, allows us to see water and its gifts in a new way, as something solid, fluffy, malleable. What usually drips, floats, or evaporates, becomes visible and lasting…at least for awhile. Snow causes us to slow down, to stare into the middle distance. As I look out my window right now the flakes, clumped together in community, sit precariously on the now bare branches of the trees. Their whiteness provides dressing where leaves have let go. I somehow think it must be comforting to the trees.

We've just come through a very intense time. Elections are over for the most part. The economy still rests on a roller coaster. Thanksgiving will be here in a few days and the Christmas season is visible in malls everywhere. And so it seems the contemplative snow has arrived just in time. Just in time to slow us down, to encourage us to walk more gently because are footsteps can become so very visible. The snow has come just in time to remind us that water can wash us clean and can also blanket us with beauty. Like most things, it has many properties, some we can see and others that are only visible to us at very special times.It is good to be reminded.

Sometimes it take the poets and the Buddhists among us help us to remember to stay in the present moment long enough to learn the lesson.


will break you.  Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone
won't either, for solitude will also break you with it's yearning.  You
have to love.  You have to feel.  It is the reason you are here on
earth.  You are here to risk your heart.  You are here to be swallowed
up.  And when it happens that you are broken or betrayed, or left, or
hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and
listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their
sweetness.  Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could."

~Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum

A friend sent this quote to me after we mined the metaphor of story and its importance in our lives during our worship yesterday. They are beautiful words, ones to be read over and over, rolling them around in both mouth and mind. They speak to what it means to live, truly live and to come to those important moments of truth and to walk from them with little or no regret. How many of us cane say we do this? I know I have many times, at least in the small moments of my days, when I can dance the steps of regret. Oh, if only I had said this, done that, felt this way, thought this thought. It is a path of little joy.

These past days I have been in the ever moving process of saying goodbye to a friend and colleague who is moving away from Minnesota. At the least little word or memory, we can dissolve into tears…some of laughter and some of sadness. There is no way of out running the ways in which life will break us. But if our loving has been real and our feeling has been full, the breaking seems somehow worth it all. It brings meaning, real meaning, to our lives. It is not a sentimental meaning, like a well crafted Hallmark card poem framed in lace and meant to be preserved between the well kept pages of a heavy book.. It is the loving and feeling of risk….heart-risk….which is most often messy and leaves us ripped and our edges torn but feeling more alive than is believable. This kind of loving,this kind of risk means we've really given our selves to another, to the world, which is probably the true definition of living.

The trees in Minnesota have lost all their leaves now. They stand like naked sentinels connecting Earth with Heaven. Their leaves have fallen, been blown away and are beginning this very moment to nurture the soil beneath their trunks. I pray that I have been as present to the beauty of the spring, summer and fall of 2008 as I could. When spring arrives next year, my friend will not be here to see the buds open on the Minnesota birch and maples. As she goes on to new adventures in a place where spring comes much earlier and lasts much longer, it is the sweetness of friendship I will remember…..and feel blessed.