Close Encounters

"A sacred being cannot be anticipated; it must be encountered."
~W.H. Auden

We have had a strange winter visitor in our backyard. Last week my husband called me to the sliding glass doors that lead to our deck. Standing there looking back at me was an opossum. The creature stood just feet away acting dazed and confused. For some reason instead of being repelled by this less than beautiful being, my heart broke. 

Why was a nocturnal, hibernating animal walking around in broad daylight on a winter's day? All afternoon we followed its progress from deck to snowy yard. Once on the frozen ground under our black walnut tree, it ate the left over bird seed that had been knocked to the ground. Two of the neighborhood children and I watched as it climbed a tree resting in the branches for some time, tired from either lack of sleep or too much. The only reason we could come up with for its presence was the warmer temperatures. It may have somehow been awakened prematurely. Its stunned and slow movements could have pointed to its being ill but I wanted to go with the warmer weather theory. The idea of having a sick, perhaps rabid, wild animal so close was a thought I did not want to entertain.

My heartbreak over this creature is that it brought to my consciousness all the other beings who find themselves misplaced, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Immigrants, wanderers made homeless by war, disaster, or a spiral of bad luck events like those we witness on the nightly news, those we read about in the morning newspaper.  The opossum's eyes had that same dazed and confused look seen in those of people I pass on the street holding signs that read:"Mother needs money to buy milk" or " Veteran, please help." People displaced, confused, lost most often through no fault of their own.  

This opossum no doubt lives under our deck and may have been there for longer than we know. And yet I had never encountered it before. It had been a silent part of our lives and yet I could not have anticipated how this wild creature helped me see once again the sacred nature of all Creation. Its eyes met mine and my heart was filled with compassion. Through this unexpected encounter I was reminded that the One who moves in the deepest winters and the abundance of spring cares for the least, the lost and the lonely. I am grateful for the reminder.


Have a blessed and warm weekend……………………..

Before It’s Too Late

"To read a poem in January is as lovely as to go for a walk in June."
-  Jean-Paul Sartre

Before it's too late and January is gone from us, I thought I would pass on this lovely quote I received from a friend and fellow lover of words. When I received this quote I believe we were in the deep freeze of early January with the bloom of Christmas and New Year's still hanging over our heads. But January can tarnish easily. All it takes is that January 'thaw' to turn our fickle hearts to things of spring. Yesterday the deep freeze returned with a vengeance and it can seem as if all hope is lost. Scarves are once again wrapped around fragile faces. Hats are pulled down over freshly coiffed hair. Any semblance of fashion has flown out the window. It is now about survival.

And so it is time to do what needs to be done. It is time to read poetry. It is time to pull down the books of limericks and haiku's that might give us a good belly laugh. It is time to search through the love poetry for the perfect addition to a Valentine. It is time to search the Book of Psalms for words that inspire and move us to praise. 

Poetry, like January, requires us to be expedient. The well chosen words, the short phrases crafted with brevity and care are like the energy needed to hop over the frozen snow bank and into the warm and humid car. Poetry warms the heart and sends the mind into the place of imagination. The cold cannot penetrate the spaces in between the lines so beautifully penned by the poet's hand.

Today might be a good day to bundle up……hats, mittens, down jacket, snow boots…..and take a book of poetry to your favorite outdoor spot. Allowing the gift of January sun(please!) to shine on your face, read the words of your favorite poet into the chilling wind. Who knows? Perhaps you'll draw a crowd that will warm you up while you all stand in the circle of well chosen words. Or if that sounds like too much trouble, snuggling up on the couch with a cup of hot chocolate and a collection of poems will do. But we must…..before it's too late. February is just around the corner and June is not far behind.

Slippery Slope

"That's what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It's geometrically progressive-all with no end in sight, and for no reason other than sheer enjoyment." Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society

I just finished this sweet and heartwarming/heartbreaking little novel. Its format uses letters written between characters to tell the story of an island off the southern coast of England that was occupied by the Germans during the second World War. The stories of survival and loss are told with humor and a deep sense of what it means to be in real community. I recommend it. 

The paragraph above, which comes very early in the book, caught my attention and I had to jot it down. It so describes my experience as a life-long lover of books. It started early for me. As an elementary aged child, I loved the library. I loved how it smelled, a combination of paper, mustiness and the perfume of older women. I loved the silence of it, how whispering was the norm, as if to speak out loud in the presence of all these sacred texts held captive was the gravest of sins. I loved the tidiness of the rows of books, their alphabetized nature, the glowing, dusted shelves. It represented for me order of the highest form.

But it was, of course, the books themselves which won my heart. Like the character Juliet in the novel, I, too, would be taken by an author and then systematically read everything they had written. It somehow seemed to me to be the proper thing to do, like paying homage to a saint, trying to soak up all the power of their words in hopes of finding one more kernel of truth. Of course, I did not start with 'great literature'. I began my systematic reading with the Trixie Belden series by Julie Campbell, stories of a young sleuth who solved mysteries in seemingly miraculous ways. Trixie was younger, less sophisticated than Nancy Drew. More like me. I began with one and devoured the rest throughout one, hot and humid summer. Another summer I moved through all the biographies of famous people in history. Clara Barton. Betsy Ross. Sojourner Truth. Those books, all lined on the shelf, were numbered, by a certain publisher, and I moved from number one through the twenty or more that held lives that inspired me. I stood taller at the end of that summer, literally and patriotically.

As an adult I have done the same things with other authors: Sue Monk Kidd, Barbara Brown Taylor, Anne Lamott, J. Philip Newell, Marcus Borg, Anita Shreve, John Shelby Spong, Karen Armstrong, the list is endless. These authors become friends of sorts much like friends I haven't seen for a long time. Their next book helps me get a glimpse into their lives, what they've been thinking and learning, how their beliefs have changed and taken new shape. what new insights they may have had since 'last we met.' It might seem crazy to some people, this systematic,'geometrically progressive' act but it brings me such joy and connects me to a world that seems so much wider than the one of my daily life.

What are you reading these cold, winter days? Are the words of a favorite author taking you to places you've never been before, experiencing things you may never have the courage to do outside the pages of a book? What books bring you pleasure, may you laugh, inspire you to be a better person? How is the gospel, the good news, of another's life calling to the greater good in you? 

As January draws to a close, there is still much of winter left. These are good days to visit your local library and meander down the aisles of possibility. There are books that will take you to places you never imagined. Others will challenge you to live a fuller, richer life, challenge the status quo. Still others will simply let you laugh out loud, cracking the ice on your winter days. 

It's a slippery slope. But the falling is so wonderful!

On the Verge

"When we are brought to the verge of crisis, our well-honed philosophies and careful, controlled strategies fall away. All the spars that make up our life raft, the things on which we daily rely, have a tendency to break up in the force of events. It is usually when we feel our utter solitude and helplessness that we call upon the spirit world for assistance. Even though we may have no well-founded belief, we instinctively know that even if all other things have fallen away, divine providence will not let us down."  ~Caitlin Matthews, The Celtic Spirit

These words were a part of my daily devotional reading today. I have to admit they were jarring words with which to begin a day. Crisis? I am not in crisis! I don't want a crisis! Please, don't let there be a crisis! At least not today!

While no one every wants a crisis in life, there is great wisdom in Caitlin Mathew's words. The idea that we can be going along, minding our own business, until a rock gets thrown in our path can wake us up to how we walk, or don't walk, with an awareness of Spirit. While the Spirit's presence is always with us, most of the time we are oblivious. Then there is an illness, an accident, a loss… name the crisis……and we are brought up short to the many connections that hold us. Laid bare, we reach out to make contact with friends, family, a faith that we'd let go by the wayside of daily distractions. Helpless, we stop and re-member ourselves, our whole selves. Mind, body and spirit selves. 

I think of the times in my life when crisis came to call. In the midst of that stew pot, the only thing left to do was to stop, take a breath and be present to the beating of my own heart, knowing that it was connected in ways words could not express, to the Heart of the Universe. I think this is praying, deep praying. And I know that in those times when no logic or reason could help me, this wordless, breath-filled act did. The stillness, the silence, the solitude, the breathing, became an embodied experience of a relationship with the Holy. 

I pray that today is not a day of crisis for you. I pray it is not for me. At the same time I pray that whatever is the gift of this day, I will be able to greet it as a guest, remembering that the One who breathed me into being is still breathing in all of it.


This Day

"This day God gives me strength of high heaven,
Sun and moon shining, flame in my hearth,
Flashing of lightning, wind in its swiftness,
 Depths of the ocean, firmness of earth."
~James Quinn, S.J. ascribed to St. Patrick

I had it in my head that today was a good day to take the light rail train to work. It has turned cold again but I didn't think it would be too bad, in fact I thought it would be refreshing. The rain of the weekend has now settled into solid form, a shiny ice covers most surfaces. The sky was bringing the gift of a new, flaky snow as I left to drive to the Fort Snelling station. The wind was whipping the coats of my soon-to-be fellow travelers as I parked my car and scuttled toward the station. Not too bad, I thought. Jumping on the train, I settled back into my seat to read a few pages of my novel. Warm, toasty.

Getting off at Nicollet Mall, the wind really picked up and I began to feel the prickling sensation of genuine cold on my cheeks and began to question myself. Maybe this hadn't been such a good idea. I kept my head down, watching only my booted feet as I moved with other automatons down the mall. That's when I heard her. My eyes looked up to see a young woman, bundled in perfect Minnesota winter wear, scarf covering her neck and cheeks,backpack on her back but a small drum in her hand. She wasn't playing for money or panhandling. She was simply walking along to her own drumbeat. I smiled.

A few blocks further than the drumming woman, I was greeted with a hearty "Good Morning!" Looking up from my careful ice-dodging I saw one of the uniformed Minneapolis ambassadors whose job it seems is to keep things tidy and to be cheerful.I returned his smile and made my now nearly frozen face muscles form a "good morning". 

Then just past the friendly greeter I saw a beautiful sight: a row of little faces, a rainbow of children, all lined up looking out the window onto the mall. They were smiling and gently pounding on the window. At first I thought they were an extension of the ambassador program stationed to greet me, but then I saw what had their attention. A large riding snowblower was cleaning the newly fallen snow off the sidewalk. They were so excited by the sight that I found myself sharing in their joy. I, on the outside, wanted to run up and hug the driver on their behalf but thought better of it.

If I had driven my car to work, I would have missed these little morning gifts. Sitting in stalled traffic, creeping on icy roads bumper to bumper, I would have been denied the drumming woman, the friendly greeter and the welcoming faces of toddlers. What a shame that would have been! Making my way on through Loring Park, I realized I was humming this song to myself:

"This day God sends me, strength as my guardian,
Might to uphold me, Wisdom as guide.
Your eyes are watchful, your ears are listening,
Your lips are speaking, friend at my side."

The wisdom of St. Patrick found its way into my glorious morning!


Spirit Lifter

The gray days of January have descended on Minnesota. The snow that was lovely and romantic in December is now icy, dirty and depressing. The sun has taken itself to other parts of the world. People are finding comfort in steaming bowls of soup. Many people I talk to speak of the desire to spend the majority of the day in their pajamas. It is a human nod at hibernating, I think.

A couple of days ago I was sitting at my desk allowing the grayness of the day to wash over me. I opened an email from a friend who sent me a link to a Youtube video with the words"to make you smile." And it certainly did. The video takes place in the Antwerp train station….a place which probably has its own gray days. The ordinary daily travel of commuters, shoppers, students and others is represented from an aerial view. Suddenly the soundtrack from the Sound of Music blares from the speakers. Julie Andrews as Maria von Trapp begins to sing 'Do Re Mi'. Eyes shift skyward to gauge what is happening when a young man begins to dance in the center of station rotunda. Before you know it dancers are coming from everywhere, dressed in ordinary clothes as if simply moving toward their train. Backpacks are dropped to the ground as dance and so much more erupts. Observers begin to sway, sing along, even join in the fun. What started out for many as an ordinary commute became a transformative day. 

Now I have to admit that I am a huge fan of all musicals. I can sing nearly every song from many and identify songs from others. For me the idea that people might break into song at any moment seems like something that should be possible. Do you agree? The idea that we might be moved to sing a chorus at the end of a well executed project seems reasonable. The hope that we might sing a song of encouragement to our children seems admirable. The possibility of singing our love to friends and family seems a thing to encourage.

And yet we don't break into song. We don't dance openly, with everyone watching, lest people think we've gone a little loony. So, as I watched these people be lifted above the ordinary of their day by the gift of music, dance and the sheer surprise of it all, I not only smiled but tears of joy spilled from my eyes. Who knows but what that act by complete stranger may have filled a casual commuter with the hope they desperately needed? Who knows how the surprise of being suddenly a part of something so beautiful and full caused those ordinary people to do equally surprising and beautiful acts the rest of their day? Who knows if those who stood on the sidelines were found singing louder in the shower and dancing in their living rooms? 

All I know is that for the few minutes I watched, I forgot about the gray day, about all that had not been accomplished, about the world's problems in which I feel helpless.It was a spirit lifter.  I was filled with Julie Andrews' voice and it became a mantra:"When you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything!" 

I was told this video has been around awhile but if you haven't seen it, you can go to:

Have a blessed weekend……..


Sometimes you simply need to hear your mother's voice in your head. And if your mother's voice is one that brings more turmoil than anything else, there are other voices that send gentle reminders. Today, for me, the reminder voice came from the daily newspaper's horoscope column. "Give yourself instruction and then follow it. Your directives don't have to be difficult. Ask yourself to do specific, simple tasks. The point is to put your higher self back in charge." Geminis who read this daily missive might have read the same thing.

Though I rarely skip a day's reading, this column does not always speak to me. But today's words cut to the quick. I have a million little loose ends floating around my head that simply need to be dealt with. Sound familiar? So I am setting about this morning creating the lists that will help clear out the clutter that has kept me from the more creative acts I want to pursue. Sewing up those dangling tasks will be the easy part of the horoscope to follow. But by clearing that path out, I will get to the important point: 'putting my higher self back in charge.'

I don't know about you but I so often let the knit-picky, finger-pointing, shallow self be in charge of my daily actions. I get drawn into this little contention or that little piece of gossip and before I know it my day is consumed. Given the direction of my 'higher self', I walk away from those little opportunities to gaggle around the water cooler, sharing useless, even harmful bits of news. Given the guidance of my higher self, I look for the good in every situation, the possibility rather than the limitation. Give the guidance of my higher self, I listen to the voice of Spirit to move me, to choose my words, to place before me the greater good in any given situation. This higher self is my Spirit-guided self. This is the self that is made in the image of God.

What instructions are you giving yourself today? What do you want to follow? Where is your higher self living these days? In driver's seat, the back seat, or the trunk? Though this horoscope was meant for spring birthdays, I think those born in all seasons could benefit from its direction, don't you? If you are inclined, I invite you to share in this wise nugget to shape the day. We can all wait to see the surprises that 'putting our higher selves in charge' might bring.

"Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of Spirit in the bond of peace." Ephesians 4:1

Wisdom & Peace

"And have you brought the wisdom
That we have near lost?
Or have you brought the peace
That we're all aching for?"
~Mary McLaughlin

Wisdom? Peace? These are words we often throw around with abandon particularly in church circles. We are 'searching' for wisdom, we say as we look for the right answer to a question, a problem situation. We are trying to 'find' peace as if it is a misplaced glove or a stray quarter. Wisdom and peace are two of the really big words that represent some of our core desires as humans. And yet they always seem just outside our reach. Why is that?

When I saw these words of Mary McLaughlin, I wondered what she meant in writing them.  I had seen them in a book over Christmas break and jotted them down for further reflection. I did not know who Mary was so, in typical 21st century fashion, I googled her. Of course, there were at least three people with that name who bubbled to the top of my google search: a Celtic singer, a U.S. judge and a ceramic box artist. Not knowing which Mary wrote the words made me wonder what each one might mean when they spoke the words 'wisdom' and 'peace'. What might each have intended in writing this quote that caught my eye?

But, perhaps, that is not the point. The writer, whether singer, artist or judge, looks outward toward someone who will bring whatever wisdom and peace is needed. And haven't we all done this? Looked to another person to bring the wisdom which will turn us toward vision, the compassion that will turn us toward peace. Rather than mining our own wisdom we look to someone else…..someone older, richer, seemingly more powerful. Rather than listening for the deep peace that resides within, we wait for another to bring the olive branch. 

We each carry the wisdom of our lives to offer the world. We each bring a small offering that can ignite a larger flame of peace. The mirror is ours to hold. The time is now.

Scraps of Paper

"We are here to abet creation and to witness to it, to notice each other's beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house." ~Annie Dillard

I have a habit, some might call it a bad habit, of writing little cryptic notes to myself on small scraps of paper. Usually I put them in my pocket or slip them inside my datebook or journal. I refer to them for ideas for writing, a sermon, or just because I found the words beautiful, important, inspiring. You get the idea. In most circumstances when I am finished using them in some way, I pitch them in the trash. 

Over the Christmas break, I was cleaning out some books I no longer have need of and this quote of Annie Dillard fell out of the book and onto the floor. Reaching down to pick it up, I read the words and a great smile spread across my face. This is a statement I have loved for a long time and I had forgotten it. "We are here to abet creation and to witness to it, to notice each other's beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house." Let those words wash over you. Doesn't it give you a sense of purpose? Doesn't it fill you with some deep seeded joy? So, this is the answer to the question of why we are here!

I think I also love this phrase because it redeems the word 'abet' meaning to support, encourage, approve, affirm. This is our work as humans: to encourage and support Creation. This is our work: to approve the beauty of the faces of those we meet, to affirm the complex nature of the humans and non-humans in our lives. What if we gave ourselves this mission statement and set goals each day to accomplish the work of our lives? Can you imagine the change it might make in the world? It is a wonderful idea to imagine coming to fruition.

There are people I have met who seem to have known that this 'abetting' stuff was their life's work. They are the ones who look you right in the eye as if you are the only person they would want to talk in any particular moment. Their gaze causes you to stand taller, feel more confident, be more authentically yourself. These are the people who notice things, little things, that are good and comment on them. They are almost always the ones who send a little note out of the blue to tell you they enjoyed something you did, something you said. 

Still other 'abettors' I know are the ones who you will find standing quietly under a tree looking up into the branches, head tilted slightly to identify the song of a bird. They are the ones who can be seen showing a small child a tiny insect on the sidewalk,passing on the importance of the work of ants, spiders, even mosquitoes. They are the ones who can be seen gazing out toward a sunset with a far off look in their eyes as if trying to become a part of the mystery and beauty of that ending moment. 

I want to become more of an 'abettor', to follow the wisdom on this recovered scrap of paper. I want to do my work and do it well. I want to be the awe-struck audience member at this Universe play…..the one who doesn't rudely whisper to my neighbor, who doesn't rattle the candy wrapper making unneeded noise, who doesn't cough so incessantly that I distract those around me. I want to be present to the play, to offer fullness of my presence for all its worth, and when the time is perfect, applaud my appreciation.

Looking Skyward

On the other side of the world people are experiencing a Solar Eclipse. I have been following it on television and online. I am always interested in these events that draws us in to the amazing workings of our Universe. They seem to provide a wake up call to my usual way of moving mindlessly past the miracles and wonders that surround me at any given moment. There has also been that certain touch of danger about a solar eclipse instilled by elementary teachers and protecting mothers. "Don't look it directly! You'll go blind." While I am sure there might be the possibility of damage to the eye, the warning has always ranked right up there with those given about B-B guns.("You'll shoot your eye out!")

But the Solar Eclipse took on new meaning and now sweet memory when several years ago our church was visited by a choir from Haiti. This choir is a part of a sister church we have in Port-au-Prince. Many from our congregation have traveled to this poor nation over the years to build, paint, work, and worship with these kind hearted, faithful people. Each time those who went to help received more than they ever gave. 

The Haitian choir was here in the summertime when Minnesotans love to complain about the heat. These dark skinned, beautiful people were right at home in the sweltering summer weather. They were also here when we were to experience a Total Solar Eclipse. We had been following the time at which the eclipse was to happen. Equipped with our pieces of paper with a small pinpoint hole punched in it, the staff of the church and the Haitian choir members headed out to view this phenomenon safely with our handmade protection fit for anything third grade classroom. We stood around on the concrete with the heat reflecting on white and black skin. American English, Creole and French filled the air as we oohed and ahhed at this gift of from Creation. While we could not understand one another's words fully, we knew this: We were, all of us together, witness to a miracle, an experience of awe and mystery.

I do not remember the names of those who shared in this rare and beautiful experience with me. I am hoping that someone from our community has been able to stay in touch, knows how to reach out to them. I do not know if they are alive today or if they, like so many of their fellow citizens,have fallen victim to the horror of this earthquake. In a land that is poorer than anything I can imagine, the events of this past week seem a tragedy that is beyond reason. And yet in one of the many television clips I have now watched, one stands out. It is a group of people, homeless, without any personal belongings left to their name, standing together by the side of the road……singing. Singing with full voices, gentle smiles on their faces, arms lifted in praise and faces looking skyward. 

I want to believe that among those singing were relatives, co-workers, neighbors, even those choir members themselves, waiting, as we all are, for some kind of miracle. 

"No storm can shake my in-most calm, 
While to that rock I'm clinging.
Since Love is lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?"
~Robert Lowry