Hidden Joys

“I have a friend who is so deeply connected with God that he can see joy where I expect only sadness. He travels much and meets countless people. When he shares, he tells of the hidden joys he has found: someone who brought him hope and peace….little groups of people who are faithful to each other in the midst of turmoil….the small wonders of God. And I am disappointed sometimes because I want to hear ‘newspaper news’, exciting and exhilarating stories. But he never responds to my need for sensationalism. He just says, ‘I saw something very small and very beautiful, something that gave me much joy.'”
~ Henri Nouwen, Return of the Prodigal Son

In Days to Come…Great Joy. This is our church’s theme for Advent. Once again I am coming face to face with the concept that, once you begin to live into one of these themes, once you start thinking about a particular word or phrase, similar words begin to pop up everywhere. Which is what happened to me this morning when I opened a newsletter I receive monthly. This quote by the beloved priest Henri Nouwen was tucked in at the bottom of one of the pages. I shook my head and thought: ‘Here we go. Joy will be cropping up everywhere.” There certainly could be worse things, right?

Joy. What does this word mean to you? Is joy the same thing as happiness? How does one achieve joy? Or is there even really anything we can do to claim this rich three-lettered prize? I had this conversation with two friends yesterday. As we walked further and further into joy-talk, we probably had more questions than answers. We agreed that being ‘in pursuit’ of joy rarely works. It usually leads mostly to disappointment, a loss of something that never existed based on expectations that were created out of a deep longing. I think we agreed that joy comes to us….most often in the smallest events and through something over which we have very little control. But when joy makes its entrance, we know it.

On Sunday, I offered people small booklets that simply had the words ‘Great Joy’ on the cover. I invited people to make a note about the experiences in their day that had brought them joy, perhaps even great joy. I suggested that this could become a practice during Advent. To be present to the joy that comes our way every day….not just on the mountain top days like Christmas or our birthday. But every day. Writing down these moments of joy,I believe, could provide us with the opportunity to see where joy brushes past us bringing a blessing to the ordinary movements of our life. The journal of these blessings could also provide an opportunity to honor those moments and offer our gratitude to a Universe that longs to have delight in us.

Where have you experienced joy already in this day? This day which is a gift, never to be repeated? Perhaps if we are awake and aware of the joy that is already present in our own lives we might have the courage…..and it does take courage……to reach out and offer a joy-filled act to another. I am imagining a pyramid scheme that is actually a good thing, that actually brings benefit to all involved. Joy building on joy.

Sounds to me like a pretty good way to walk the days of Advent.


“Sometimes we have difficulty believing we will see anything new. After all, we know the story. We’ve heard it year after year. What could we possibly see or hear that we have not seen or heard before?” ~Mary Lou Redding, While We Wait: Living the Questions of Advent

Advent…..the beginning. Yesterday was the beginning of the new church year, the first Sunday in Advent. Christian churches everywhere began their walk into a new year. During this short season that leads us toward the celebration of Christmas, we use words like ‘anticipation’, ‘expectation’, ‘waiting’, ‘watching’ to describe the spirit of these days. We watch and wait for the birth of the Christ in our midst. We anticipate a time when God’s presence among us will be visible, palpable, a time when the human family will live in the full light of the Holy. Like the gospel writers who told committed this story to print, we each have our own ways of how we believe this manifestation will come to be.

As I look out my office window right now, the skies are gray and snow and rain are spitting against the glass. The large oak tree which keeps me company daily, its strong presence a constant source of inspiration, is dripping in the starkness of the day. Advent comes to those of us in this part of the country during the darkest, often most somber part of the year. And yet this season holds within it the warmth and light of all that can be born from just such bleakness. Candles will be lit. Food will be shared. Gifts will be given. Hopes will be shared. Stories will light up the eyes of children, the heart of memory of those who are older. Sacred texts will tell of a surprising God who shows up in the most unexpected places.

Our work during this time is to follow the command of Matthew: “Keep awake, for you do not know on what day your God is coming.” Our work becomes the practice of being present for all the ways in which the Holy comes to us, not only in December days,but each day. Even in the madness that can become what we call Christmas, our work is to be always watchful for the goodness, the love, the kindness, the joy, that creeps into the most mundane and marvelous experiences that come our way. How will we see God….even in places we don’t want to believe possible? Like the mall. Or the traffic. Or Christmas music that is played over and over again. Or the newscast that tells of war in far off lands. Or the young man who holds the sign at the corner stoplight. Or the politician whose ideas drive us to distraction.

For in truth, God’s presence moves through all this and more. As people who watch and wait for the coming of Christ, how can we open our hearts to welcome the Child that lives in each of those we meet, in all the places where Breath moves? How can we make time and space for welcoming the Christ child that waits to be born us us?

Advent…..beginning…..what is beginning in you on this bleak, dark day?

Deep Hope

We all drink from one water
We all breathe from one air
We rise from one ocean
And we live under one sky

We are one

The newborn baby cries the same
The laughter of children is universal
Everyone’s blood is red
And our hearts beat the same song

We are one

We are all brothers and sisters
Only one family, only one earth
Together we live
And together we die

We are one

Peace be on you
Brothers and Sisters
Peace be on you.

~Anwar Fazel

Yesterday I had the immense privilege to participate in an Interfaith Thanksgiving Service hosted at our church. This service is held every year on Thanksgiving morning and culminates a five week interfaith dialogue that is conducted by the Minneapolis downtown churches. The worship service rotates between the houses of worship and, very ten years or so, it is our turn. The service is led by several clergy from Protestant Christian communities, a priest from the Basilica of St. Mary, a rabbi from Temple Israel, a minister from the Unitarian Society and one of the imams from a Muslim house of worship. These clergy know one another as colleagues and friends and that respect and love they have for one another is visible.

Also in worship were people representing each of these communities. As we lifted our voices in song and shared prayers, I wondered whether a stranger to what was actually happening would understand the power of what they were observing. As we heard the sacred texts of each tradition read in Hebrew and sung in Arabic and translated and read in English, I thought of all the beauty in the languages, how they had held people together for centuries. As we heard the President’s Thanksgiving Day proclamation read and then joined our voices in singing together ‘America the Beautiful’, I looked around the gathered crowd to see tears that matched those on my own cheeks. It was truly a powerful moment of a shared sense of unity.

Later in the day I reflected on the courage and commitment it takes to build relationships as these people have done, as our congregations have tried to do. For the years these interfaith conversations have happened, much has happened in our world that would seek to divide our faith traditions. Institutional dogma has tried. Warring factions have tried. Political parties have tried. Those who profess to speak for their interpretation of any one of the traditions have tried.

But these downtown congregations keep coming back to the table. To drink coffee and eat cookies together. To ask one another the big questions, not only of our faith, but of our very lives. To try to understand what it means to practice a 21st century faith that found its birth thousands of years ago. To find a thread within our common humanity that binds us together for our day, for our time. To build a sense of understanding and respect for the traditions of the other.

Such courage, such faith, such compassion and commitment filled me with pride on this day set aside for gratitude. Pride and a deep, deep hope.

This Week’s Blessing

This week has come roaring down on me like a steam engine. I am not sure what happened that caused so many projects, so many systems to align to produce an overload. But it did and here I am in the midst of it all. For the most part, ‘it is all good’, as my son likes to say. Nothing is broken, no one is ill. All that needs to be accomplished will be done. But for now, I am a little on the frenzied side. I do know, however, that in the end I will recognize the blessings that have come my way even while, at the moment, they are invisible to me.

And aren’t blessings what this week is about? As we approach this Thursday when we will gather to celebrate Thanksgiving, it is a time to count our blessings. Whatever the original meaning of this holiday…..historical, national, political, religious…..it is a day when we can take a break from the normal rhythm of our life, take stock of all the goodness that has come our way, and offer thanks. It is my prayer that, no matter our life situation at this point of this year, everyone can find at least one thing they call a blessing. What is your blessing?

I am thinking of all the people who will have been involved in bringing the Thanksgiving dinner to any table. Unseen hands, full lives, people paid well and those who have worked for wages that neither fit the work or the effort, have all contributed to any meal that will be shared. From tables laid with china and crystal and those with disposables dinnerware served from long lines of strangers, lives we do not know have sacrificed for our feast. Those bent over potato fields.Those whose muscles ache from lifting pumpkins onto trucks. Farmers who raised turkeys also took their lives for our sake. In factories, people ran machines that churned butter and bottled cream. Truck drivers probably missed a child’s baseball game or concert so food would arrive at grocery stores in time for our holiday celebration. Women who checked out and bagged the groceries we purchased went home to soak their swollen feet after standing for hours on a concrete floor.

And then there are the hands, hands we know and love, who make the pies, mash the potatoes, create the stuffing just the way a grandmother did so many years ago, so we might not only have our stomachs fed but also our rich, deep memories.

As we approach this Thursday, let us never forget that the meal we will eat is a feast denied to the majority of the world. It is a meal that is filled with hard work, sacrifice, and great love. To sit down to such a feast is a blessing. A blessing which is accompanied by all the other blessings……at least one…..of which we are privileged to offer our gratitude.

I offer this prayer written by Brian Woodcock. If you are not a ‘natural’ pray-er, you might want to make it your own on Thursday: ” A blessing on this food and all who have prepared it. A blessing on this house and all who eat within it. A blessing on the work of buying and selling, of carrying and storing, of farming and harvesting. A blessing on the land and all who live upon it. A blessing on the rain and sun, the care of the Creator; a blessing on this food. Amen”


“There is plenty of room for you in God’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? ” ~John 14:2″ The Message, Eugene Peterson

This morning I was having a conversation with one of my colleagues who creates magic every week as a cook in our church kitchen. She was describing to me her joy at reaching a goal this past year. She had set the goal of planning menus so well that there was very little, if any, food that would go to waste. In the course of the conversation, she said something like, “I do not want to waste any food. I want to be able to re-home any food that is left over.”

Re-home? Have you heard this world before? I hadn’t. But the sound of it captured my imagination, softened my heart. I feel as if we hear the word ‘homeless’ so often these days and the plight of homelessness is ever present just outside the doors of our church. But ‘re-home’ is something new and different and a word that will make its way into my lexicon.

I think of the stories in the Hebrew scriptures in which God’s people were re-homed. Moses and his exodus brood traveled through the wilderness looking this way and that, complaining, gaining wisdom, waiting to be re-homed. Other prophets challenged and urged the people of Israel to wake up to the Holy’s movement in their lives and in their lands, in a sense, saying: “Come on people! Make a new home!”

In the Christian scriptures, Mary and Joseph and the Child Jesus, traveled from one place to another trying find a new home, a different home, where they could grow into the lives they were called to live. Saul had an experience of God on the road to Damascus and was re-homed into a life of following Jesus. He even got a new name out of the deal….re-homed and renamed…..all in one fell swoop.

So much in our world is longing to be re-homed. Looking past the obvious and easy things like old coats and boots, sofas and cookware, cars and bicycles that can find a new home through giveaways and thrift stores, there are much deeper and hope-filled longings humans have for their lives. Children who struggle with poverty and living on the fault lines along with the adults in their lives, long to be re-homed in a place of confidence and compassion, safety and peace, a warm, predictable meal.  Wounded souls and those with mental illness long to be re-homed in a safe, healthy world, in a mind and body that does not fail them. Those most lonely among us hope to be re-homed in a place where they can reach out and be touched by the unconditional love they believe God wants for them.

What needs to be re-homed in your life? What part of you feels lost, without a nest in which to settle? What home do you long for? What does it look like, sound like, feel like, smell like?

My prayer is that however home needs to appear for you, in whatever form, on whatever shore, that you find yourself walking through the door of the place that feels safe and soft and brings wholeness and hope to your days. May it be for you, for me, and for all.

Have a blessed weekend……………….


” When confronted with a dropped plate, what is your proclivity? Keep it? Repair it? Relegate it to the dump? Sometimes a single I’m sorry is all it takes; sometimes a person can say I’m sorry a thousand times and that glue will never dry……This metaphor culminates,obviously, in relationship, which is,after all, a marvel of construction, built over time and out of fragments of shared experience.”~Stephanie Kallos, Broken for You

I have just finished reading a wonderful book entitled  Broken for You by Stephanie Kallos. It is one of those books whose story haunts you, travels with you throughout your day, living in some closet of your mind, a door which opens and closes at will drawing you back  into the story even when you have important things to do….like pay attention in meetings or answer email. I recommend it to those who like to be gripped and challenged by a powerful tale.

What probably held me captive is that the story centers around a concept, a way of seeing the world, that so resonates with my own. It is actually a Jewish concept found, I believe, in the Talmud called Tikun Olam. I believe I wrote about this understanding of the world in this space a couple of years ago. Tikun Olam has its home in the story that when God created the world, the container to hold all the beauty that was created was too large and so the container broke apart sending the beauty and all that was created into splintered pieces that continue to fly around, pieces that contain and elude our lives. The story goes that God then assigned humans the work of repairing the world…….bringing the broken pieces into some form that will re-establish that beauty, that will, in truth, heal all the world.

This concept is, for me, one of the most compelling ideas. I believe it is also what draws me to collage art, mosaics and anything that brings together smaller pieces to create a greater whole. In fact, I am blessed to see this happen every week in so many ways….as the gifts of people are offered in worship, as ideas are shared and the original spark is fanned into a roaring fire by other’s additions, as ingredients combine to make a meal. Tiny pieces offered to be held together by some invisible force.

Every morning I awake to read the newspaper filled with the broken pieces of beauty and terror that fly around in the air we all breathe. Some of those broken pieces have been swirling for years. Painful childhood wounds. Rivers streaming with polluting debris. Systems of institutions aimed, not at the good of all, but rife with the greed and power of a few. Life stories that continue to swim in negative, hopeless narratives. Cells that split and create, not greater life, but stronger disease. So many broken pieces.

And so on this day which has never been before and will not come again, we are invited to pick up the pieces, take a giant glue stick and begin to make a stab at mending the world. How to do it? Kindness? Activism? Words of hope? Being fully present to another? A cup of water extended to a thirsting soul? A song sung? A joke told? Prayer?

Yes, this and so much more. Each of us an artist who takes the small and broken pieces and mends, gently mends, trying to heal the world.

Just In Time

An artist is merely someone with good listening skills who accesses the creative energy of the Universe to bring forth something on the material plane that wasn’t there before. It was a part of Spirit before we could see it as a book. a painting, a ballet, a film.” ~Sarah Ban Breathnach

Over the weekend, we received the first snow fall of the season. And I have to go on record and say it was just in time! I had mentioned to a friend earlier in the week that the continuing good weather had begun to wear on me and mess with my internal, creative rhythms. You see, I need a certain amount of incubation time that only winter seems to provide. For me, there is nothing like the ruminating that can happen when snow has rendered travel a less than viable option. There is nothing like staring out the window as the flakes fall slowly to the ground, transforming the landscape before your very eyes, knowing that the only wise track to take is to stay put. Oh, rain will do in a creative pinch, and provides its own inspiration, but a snowfall holds within it danger, romance, frivolity and sheer magic. What better way to feed your inner muse than by being gripped by a snowstorm? No matter your creative outlet……cooking, knitting, painting, writing, napping….a good snowstorm will never disappoint.

This year,the way in which the summer/autumn seemed to want to be the guest that wouldn’t leave was stalling my winter mulling. Internally, you see,  I sense Advent ‘s imminent arrival and have desire to ruminate on the gifts of this mysterious, life-bearing season. But how to do that with the roses still blooming on the stems outside the church? It seemed impossible to me to think of planning for all December offers while some people were still walking around in shorts!

Now I know the seasons are not imperative for many people to get in touch with their creative side. After all, much creative work happens in warm months and creativity flourishes in warm and wonderful places. But for those of us who need the incubation that going into the cave of darkness and cold provides, much like returning to the womb, there is nothing better than the experience of the first snow fall. “Now,” we say, ” the real work begins. Now the reflective life calls. Now is the time to stare into the middle distance while the poem takes form, while the problem is solved, while the seeds take root.”

For those of you who find your muse for whatever your creative outlet in the warm, summer like months, God bless you. Those of us who need the gifts that only ice, snow, and dark days can offer beg your indulgence. The fact is the world needs us all.  The world needs the creativity of summer sun dancers and winter blues artists. The world needs the heat of a good steamy novel and the longing of a sparse poem. So let’s celebrate the dance of the seasons and the different and unique blessings they bring. Whether sun or snow, brilliant light or brooding darkness, whether ice or flowering beauty, there is enough inspiration for everyone if we are awake to its presence.

And isn’t that the most amazing thing of all? So, get cracking. Pull out those paint brushes and sharpen the pencils. Clear off the table and dig out the 2000 piece puzzle of Monet’s Waterlilies. Buy some yeast and bake a loaf of hearty bread. Write a letter to a dear friend that lives across the country. Sit down at the piano and play show tunes. Sing at the top of your lungs until the neighbors look out their windows.

Snow is on the ground. Let the creativity begin!

Bible Bee

A recent issue of the Star Tribune reported on a Bible memorization competition that was to take place in the the Twin Cities over the weekend. I read the article with interest and a growing knot in my stomach. It reminded me so much of a time in my adolescence. At my grandmother’s church, not my home church, there was often a game played called “Bible Baseball.” This was one of those youth group events in which various ages of youth came together, led by dedicated, caring adults, in which massive amounts of food were served. It was a time to come together with friends and have fun as much as anything else. I am sure other games were played but my main memory is of Bible baseball.

Allow me to describe it. Home plate was the pulpit. Around the edges of the sanctuary, there were designated spaces dedicated to first, second and third bases. The pitcher, usually one of the adults, stood in the middle of the sanctuary and called out a Bible citation, like John 1:1. The pitcher ‘threw’ this to the batter who then might boldly say:”In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Having answered correctly, the batter would proceed to first base. The game could also go the other way with the verse being thrown from the ‘pitcher’s mound’: ” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.” A well-studied Bible student would yell out:”Ezekiel 37:7″ and make their run to the base.

Let me say right up front, this game scared the living daylights out of me. I was not, and still am not, filled with memorized Bible verses. It is not how I think or how I learn. And so this game usually did little to further my Biblical literacy but, perhaps, did much to improve my prayer life. I prayed for verses I might have a chance with like, for instance, Genesis 1:1 or Psalm 23:1. And if all that failed, I prayed for massive quantities of grace and healing from humiliation.

A story was often told in our family about my Aunt Mary. She was engaged in one of these games of Biblical memorization. The game had gone on for some time and she was on a roll, spitting out all the memorized verses she had crammed into her, now throbbing, brain. It must have been a single elimination of Biblical wizardry. The person in front of her stood at the ready with, as every one knows, the shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35: “Jesus wept.” She had nothing left in her scriptural artillery, but determined not to go down in humiliating defeat, she answered: “He sure did.”

I don’t know who the winners were in the Bible Bee that happened over the weekend. From the article, they all seemed well prepared, having spent countless hours memorizing and discussing the verses with their families. There was both a written and spoken part to the competition. I imagined family dinners: “I am the Bread of Life.” “John 6:35!” ” For when I was hungry you gave me food.” “Matthew 25:35!” “It is the bread the Lord has given you to eat.” “Exodus 16:15!” And on it would go as chicken and mashed potatoes, bread and butter, and jugs of milk were passed to hungry, thankful people.

I pray it was a good and grace-filled experience for them all. I am thankful that there are those who have the ability, and the desire, to do this work. Though I am not one of them, I still long to stand at the pulpit with nothing but the scripture of memory in my hand and hear someone yell “Home Run!”

Flesh and Breath

“The Spirit of God made me what I am, the breath of God gave me life!” Job 33:4

This past Sunday our church community was blessed to have storyteller Kevin Kling with us to further Illuminate our theme of ‘A Story to Stand On’. What a gifted human being he is! The ways in which he can weave a story that makes you laugh down to the tips of your toes, and then in the next minute turn to a subject of such depth and poignancy that you want to weep, is a testament to his talent. And permeating it all is a humility and a full-bodied grace that is, quite simply, like being in the presence of a shaman.

The stories he told chronicled his experiences of being struck by lightning, the wisdom and diversity of the love for his two grandmothers, the difference in telling a story in Minnesota and in New York, and his motorcycle accident that left him with a permanent disability. All were very full and inspiring stories.

But the one statement that had me running for a scrap piece of paper and a pencil was his description of the Bible. He made it while talking about the gift of the oral storytelling tradition. He pointed out the power of stories that had their first lives, not on a printed page, but as tales passed down from person to person around fires and food laden tables, over tankards of mead and as tales that lured children(and adults) to sleep.

“The Bible’s first cover was flesh and its first words were breath.” he said. How often we forget that this is true! There were no reporters poised with pens or cameras to ‘get the perfect quote’ or ‘record the statement ‘word for word’ as spoken by Moses or Abraham or Esther or Jesus. The truth of the stories were told over time, again and again, reflecting the meaning the teller found in the content. These storytellers carried these messages in their bodies with hope and promise of passing them on and shaping their children and their children’s children. The words they chose were carried on the breath given to them by the One who breathed them into being and delighted in the unfolding lives of the story keepers. It was only over time that the stories were written down, again with an interpretive telling by those who had the training and resources to do so.

It was a great reminder for those of us in the church who continue to haul these stories out each week. It was an important message to remember that the words we hold as sacred have always been so but perhaps in different ways at different times in the life of the faithful. And these same stories, if we do our work well, will continue to be heard and embodied in still different ways for the church of the future-whatever that looks like.

So many times we want to argue over the ink on the page, assign it perhaps more power than it deserves rather than holding the story’s message lightly. Or better yet, allowing the story to get inside our flesh and be carried around while the words begin to fade into the distance and become a part of our very breathing.

Flesh and breath…..the embodied story of God.

Kitchen Geologist

Our family has always been collectors of stones. While on vacations we come home with our pockets filled with stones from beaches, mountains,hiking paths,cabin yards. We carry them back wrapped in dirty socks, tucked into toiletry bags, inside shoes and in leftover sandwich bags. We then often add them to our garden and the little fish pond in the backyard. But most of the many faceted stones we have collected as souvenirs of our travels, end up in our home. They rest in bowls, often with water covering them, so they continue to give off the sheen that attracted our eyes to them in the first place.

I have just such a small bowl of stones sitting in our kitchen right now. I have moved it from the counter to the center of the stove and back again. It began its journey in our home on the kitchen table. Any place where I can be sure my eyes will fall on the unusual green stones several times a day. These are stones I picked up in St. Columba’s Bay on the island of Iona. They range in shades from a deep, dark forest green to a nearly gaudy lime green. There are several that are speckled white and green, orangish-brown and green, like little birds’ eggs. I chose them from the beach after a three hour pilgrimage across farmland, a golf course, past a heather ringed mountain loch and on rocky trails. Our guide told us that, if we were lucky, we might find a completely iridescent green stone known as ‘St. Columba’s Tears.’

St. Columba reached the bay in 563 A.D. after fleeing from Ireland where he had been a priest, an artist, a poet, a prophet. He had copied and illuminated some of the scriptures and kept them which caused, so the story goes, a battle to break out and many people were killed. He and his monks fled Ireland and landed on this tiny Scottish island only to turn back toward the sea and realize they could not see, nor return to, their beloved homeland. They say as he wept on the beach, for the lives lost and the land he loved, his tears fell to the ground and the stones turned this brilliant green. It is a lovely, sad story and a wonderful explanation for these beautiful stones.

I am not a geologist. I do not know what causes certain stones to be the way they are, the color they are, the shape or texture they are. But I love to think about the tears that have been shed in the world…..for lost loves, homes, lives, dreams……and the idea that those tears might turn into something beautiful. Like a green stone. As I look on these stones resting in their white bowl, I know they are covered with good old St. Paul tap water and not the salt-infused ocean. But they carry, at some level I also do not understand, a story of a place and a people that now has seeped into my story. The tears shed on that beach, and I have no doubt there have been many, cannot be washed off or dried up and so they must become a part of the stone itself.

As I move around my kitchen, making a meal or a cup of tea, I find my eyes gazing on the green stones that have become a part of my daily walk. I think of all the tears that will be shed this day. At hospital bedsides. On battlefields. In classrooms. At desks. In shelters. On sidewalks. Under bridges. On playgrounds. So many tears.

May the One who watches over all broken places and people, take these tears and create something beautiful.

Have a blessed weekend………………………