Face to Face

Over the last two days I have been in northern Minnesota at a clergy retreat. We were blessed to have been staying in a condo overlooking Lake Superior. To watch the play of light on the lake at various times of the day was a great gift. The coolness of color in the morning sun gave way to brilliance by noontime. As the sun began to sink farther into the horizon the richness of the many possible shades of blue began to wash the sky.

Yesterday morning I was laying in my guest bed looking out at the morning sky as orange,peach,pink and yellow wove a pattern resembling a swirling silk necktie along the horizon. I was laying there simply allowing this gift of color and silence to awaken me to another day. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a figure moving as if in slow motion, like a mime walking an imaginary tightrope. I moved to a seated position in the bed sitting cross legged as in meditation. Not more than six feet from the sliding glass door of my room stood a deer looking straight into my watching eyes. Trying to take on this creature’s ability to stay still, I quieted my muscles and my breath until we were both simply being, looking at one another face to face. There was no fear in this wild creature who must know instinctively to fear humans. In that moment of staring into its beautiful, brown, unblinking eyes, I had the overwhelming feeling of being connected to a fellow creation in a deep way. It was a truly holy moment.

After several minutes of this encounter, the deer was joined by another and they walked slowly off into the woods toward the lake. I wracked my brain trying to remember the Mary Oliver poem where she writes so beautifully about a similar experience. I cursed myself for not memorizing those poems I love so much, for not being able to pull them up at will for such a time as this. But then I gently realized that the experience I had just had perhaps needed no words to define it. It was simply a true moment of being.

Back home I went to the bookshelf to look for the poem. It is called “Five A.M. in the Pinewoods” and in it she describes what may have been a dream about an encounter with two deer or a real experience. The poem ends with these words:

This is a poem about the world
that is ours, or could be.
one of them -I swear it!-
would have come to my arms,
But the other
stamped a sharp hoof in the
pine needles like
the tap of sanity,
and they went off together through
the trees. When I woke
I was alone,
I was thinking:
so this is how you swim inward,
so this is how you flow outward,
so this is how you pray.

Yes. Those were the words I was looking for to express my face to face encounter. I am glad to have found them. But what I am remembering are the beautiful, brown, unblinking eyes and the place they have made in my heart.


Every now and then in the novels I read a sentence will jump out and find a home in me. Right now I am reading a beautifully written book called Ahab’s Wife or, The Star Gazer by Sena Jeter Naslund. It tells the many layered life-story of the wife of Ahab in another novel, Moby Dick. It is a story of the love of the sea that is fueled by a home in a lighthouse and one young woman’s great courage to have a life of adventure and meaning. I highly recommend it.

A little more than a hundred pages into the book, one of the paragraphs begins:”I went to the window to inhale the world.” When I read these words a feeling of excitement swept over me. To inhale the world. What a joyous and exhilarating thought! I thought to myself: ” This is what I want to do.” Everyday. And so as I continue to wade my way through this quite long book, I return often to the page whose corner I turned down, to remind myself of my own endeavor.

This morning I was blessed to wake up on the North Shore of Lake Superior. I opened my eyes to look out the window that overlooks the water to see the waxing moon shining through the leafless trees making a pathway of silver light on the frigid water. I lay in the warmth of my bed trying to inhale the sight, its beauty, its stillness. I allowed my lungs to fill deeply with the power of the scene. Inhale.

Breathing out the shard of a disturbing dream I had had earlier, I breathed in the gift my window offered. The moon helped perspective float into my consciousness and I felt grounded in the ever-turning goodness of Creation. Out on the lake the shimmering ice chunks moved about, driven by a current I cannot see but whose presence is known. The Spirit and the unseen current have much in common. I inhaled once again allowing this truth to wash over me.

Of course, inhaling the world brings not only beauty and peace but also pain and uncertainty. To inhale the world I must see the fragile lives of people in turmoil and in harm’s way. It also means knowing the underbelly of a world often gone mad with greed, a world that forgets the intricate ways in which we are woven together..human..creature..soil..

To truly inhale the world we must breathe in all of it. But that is really the beauty, isn’t it? To be touched by the deep wonder and vulnerability of being alive means to embrace and inhale the fullness of all life has to offer. It is in those experiences when we come face to face with the Mystery of the One whose exhale brought us into being. It is in those moments when our grateful hearts find a connection we often name as prayer.

Out on the Big Lake the sun is showing its first light, spreading a show of pale pink against an even paler blue. I am standing at my window. Inhaling.


“In the beginning,O God,
your Spirit swept over the chaotic deep like a wild wind
and creation was born.
In the turbulence of my own life
and the unsettled waters of the world today
let there be new birthings of your Spirit.
In the currents of my own heart
and the upheavals of the world today
let there be new birthings of your mighty Spirit.”
~J. Philip Newell

This was the prayer I read this morning as I began my day. Having just glanced at the morning newspaper and watched the television broadcast of world events, it seemed fitting. Sometimes the world seems more in chaos than other times. Today is one of those days when the upheavals of the world seem extreme. I realize that it is all a matter of perspective but it feels to me that things are more out of balance than usual. You may or may not agree.

The situation in Japan continues to confound my mind and break my heart. For those of us of a certain age, the nuclear fears seeded in our childhood seem about to come to horrific fruition. Our country may soon be at war with three other countries. Countries whose mothers weep for their children as I often weep for my own. Countries whose fathers chests puff up with pride over the goodness of their children as my husband’s does for our own two beautiful sons.

In our own communities and throughout our country people continue to struggle to make ends meet and find meaningful work. Families live with uncertainty that renders adults immobile and children feeling frightened and vulnerable. Our leaders can’t seem to listen long enough to one another to remember their common hopes and dreams for a country they love equally and the people they propose to represent. Unkind words turn into outright meanness leading to stalemates that harm us all.

And yet at the beginning of our larger faith story, across traditions, there is a common telling of order coming out of a deep chaos. The Spirit that swept over the dark brewing waters at the beginning of time still sweeps, I believe, over the unformed possibilities of our time. We have seen this truth again and again in individual lives, in the life of the world and in the ever springing rebirth of Creation around us.

So my prayer this day is for new birthings of the Spirit. Birthings beyond my own small yet hopeful imagination. Birthings of new relationships that will mend war torn places. Birthings of new ideas to solve overwhelming problems. Birthings of a new goodness that reaches out through the hands and hearts of all humanity. Birthings of a humility that leads to deep listening and humble forgiveness. Birthings of a mighty, mighty Spirit.

Blessed be.


After six days of waking every morning to the singing of birds and sun and warm air flowing through our window, we will prepare to make a transition back to Minnesota. Tomorrow we will load our warm weather wardrobe into the suitcases, tuck the stones and shells collected as souvenirs into soft spaces for protection,and head back to the newly fallen snow that awaits us. In some ways we have received the gift of a glimpse of the spring that is to come….minus the sand and palm trees, of course. We have had a little break from pulling on layer upon layer and stuffing our feet into shoes that are completely utilitarian.With an assurance of what is to come, we will be privileged to come home and see the slow, gentle emergence of color, flowers,birdsong and new life that is only a few weeks away.

I was thinking about this transition as we walked yet another beach today. We had set the goal of visiting a different beach every day and we achieved our goal. Today’s beach, Coronado Beach, is graced by the exquisite Hotel de Coronado,whose white exterior and red roofs make a stunning statement on this stretch of the Pacific Ocean. We walked along watching children running and laughing as parents looked on from their beach chairs. Students wrapped in towels, perhaps on spring break, read books as they soaked up the much needed sun. One older gentleman was creating an amazing sand castle. Overhead jets flew low making an incredible noise as they executed maneuvers and headed back toward their base.It was a rich and beautiful scene which I reveled in soaking up.

And then I saw them. Three pairs of shoes lined up in a row heading out toward the water. The first pair situated nearest the land was a pair of brown winter boots. There they sat, empty, as if the owner had been lifted skyward out of their heavy leather so full of purpose. Within a few feet another pair of shoes stood in line, also empty,with no owner in sight. Running shoes. They were neatly positioned in line with the boots as if the wearer had discarded the boots and made their way into the freedom of these fast moving flyers.

But the topper was what came next in the lineup. A pair of flip flops sat even nearer to the waiting ocean. Boots. Running shoes. Flip flops. All lined up as if the wearer had gone from one to the other in the speed of a California minute. I laughed out loud at the thought of it.

Every time I visit a place where the seasons are not as pronounced as they are in my own world, I wonder what it might be like to have fewer times of transition. What is it like to have a more temperate climate for the majority of the year? What is it like to have fresh fruit and vegetables that have not traveled more than a few miles most of the time? Certainly those who live here notice changes that would be invisible to my nonnative eyes. Those who live in places where four seasons are not as pronounced may not notice the subtleties of the transition of winter to spring, spring to summer, summer to fall, fall back to winter. We all learn to see and know what the play of light is like in our own backyards and there is gift in being both native and guest.

I have worn sandals much of this week and my running shoes will carry home some of the sand that got buried in the tread as we fulfilled out goal of walking many beaches. But by Saturday morning my feet will be tucked back into my snow boots until it is time to make the transition. It will come when the time is right…..and not a minute before, I’m sure.


Seal Skins

Yesterday I spend some time observing dozens of seals. I stood with nearly the same number of humans overlooking a cove in La Jolla, California that is the resting spot of these amazing creatures. They lay nestled in the warm sand, their brown, gray, black and speckled bodies sunbathing in the blazing light. Out on a large rocky area the seals were nearly invisible until the ocean water pounded over the sea wall startling them from their basking. As the water shot out and over their rocky bed, the seals moved both their heads and tails to form the letter ‘C’. It think they were trying for the letter ‘O’ but never quite made it.

On the softer, sandier ground, mother seals cradled small pups in the crooks of their bodies warming them in safety. We watched as one small gray pup was nudged and prodded by the adult. Out into the water but not too far it went, closing monitored by the parent. What was going on here? A swimming lesson? At one point another adult seal got involved in the action coming toward the tiny pup as if to add their own instructions. The mother seal turned quickly on the other adult, hissing and clearly pointing out who was boss. Talk about your Tiger Mom!

Nearby another mother lay sleeping, her somewhat older, maybe teenaged pup snuggled near by. The younger seal was sleeping so soundly. I remember my own teenaged sons sleeping this kind of sleep that cannot be disturbed by noise or movement. At one point the adult slowly opened her deep brown eyes, her lovely long eyelashes blinking toward me. We seemed to share a knowing look.

What amazing creatures seals are! Watching them yesterday I thought of the ancient stories of selkies so prominent in Britain. Selkies, humans who had at one time been seals, were said to have come to land to become human, giving up their seal skins and often their souls as well, in an effort to become something other than who they were. Their stories are full of romance, melancholy and often tragedy.

Watching the seals yesterday, I imagined those early storytellers spinning the tale of these beings who came to live on land. The seals moved gracefully through the water, diving deep and coming up in places far from where they had begun. I can imagine those land-livers with vivid flights of fancy wanting to be able to do such wild and amazing acts and creating stories that would merge the life of land and sea. But observing the seals while on land was something completely different. It seemed neither their front flippers nor their back ones were quite strong enough to move on land. Here their movements were instead clumsy and labored, almost painful to observe.

As I watched these endearing creatures, I thought of all those who want to be something other than what they are. Many of us wish to embrace the wildness and grace of the seals in the sea. And at the same time we wish to have the assurance of the ground beneath our feet. There are sacrifices inherent in both. Often we give up great parts of ourselves without weighing all the odds. The selkie was often seen standing on shore looking out toward a life that had once been, unable to find the skin that would have allowed them to swim with grace once again. They had lost their uniqueness and were able to go home.

Today I am thankful to these beautiful beings for all the gifts they offered. The gifts of awe, beauty, joy, grace, and even mystery. As a land-living storyteller I was also blessed with the reminder to honor being comfortable in my own skin and to celebrate the unique and diverse beings with which I share this path of Creation.


Womb of God

One of the sure places to come face to face with your place in the Universe is when you stand on the shore of an ocean. I began my morning standing on the beach looking out at the endless horizon as waves made their way toward my minute presence. High tide had receded by about two hours so the gifts of that morning’s sea riddled the sand beneath my feet. Stones of a myriad of colors. Seaweed and kelp. Shells, both intact and broken. And, thankfully, only a few pieces of garbage returned from the careless toss of someone who had momentarily forgotten their role as steward. Sandpipers skittered across the dark, wet sand while overhead gulls and pelicans soared into the morning sunlight. The humans who made their way in the evolving light were mere actors in a play so vast we had barely remembered our lines, if we had ever known them. Over and over,the waves continued to roll sending sparkling spray that was nearly invisible into the blue of the sky. Squinting, I tried to commit to memory this scene.

Once, years ago, I had what can only be described as a mystical experience on this very beach. It had been a troubled year filled with illness, surgery and fear. I stood in the morning light much like this morning’s staring out at the sea rolling toward me. I stood trying to take in the beauty, the power. And then someplace deep within me a voice not my own spoke confidently: “This is the Womb of God.” I remember being shaken by the message so much so that tears ran down my cheeks. Only my young sons were with me and they were busy playing in the sand and surf, collecting shells and stones to fill their burgeoning pockets. The other adults had made their way on down the beach. No one heard this message but me and my experience stayed secret for some time. I simply did not know what to make of it. I only knew it was significant and it brought me a comfort and assurance I could not describe.

I walked into the rest of that day with an assurance I had not had in some time. I was connected to something so large I could not name it or find words to tell others. The waves that swept toward the shore that morning held and continue to hold me in the Mystery that brought me life and renews my life with the waxing and waning of the Moon and the rising of each day. I can’t be sure what the meaning of that message was, I only know it brought me an enormous gift. A gift that felt like promise, connection, and perhaps even resurrection.

Returning to the beach this morning I was reminded once again of how small my story is in the grand telling of this Life Story of which we are all a part. We are woven together with earth, water, air and the warming fire of the Sun. We are walking beaches and mountains, roads and river paths in partnership with those we know and those we will never meet. We continue to live our lives in their uniqueness and their similarities held on this spinning planet by gravity and the sheer force of will. We are minuscule and yet we long to live large, to find our place in the patterns and the chaos. All the while, I believe, that Mystery which whispers in our ear and sometimes roars in our hearts is reaching out to speak volumes to us. If we have the ears to hear.


Scent Memory

“For the sense of smell, almost more than any other, has the power to recall memories and it is a pity we use it so little.”
~Rachel Carson

I find myself surrounded by incredible scents. We have just arrived in San Diego for a few days vacation and time with family. As quick as our legs would take us upon our arrival at the airport, we walked outside to just smell the warm, moist air. The ocean was not far off our noses told us. As our eyes took in the green grass and the swaying palm trees, we were also flooded with a wash of flowery scents. It was a delight after so many months of frigid, sterile Midwestern air. And so have found myself walking up to nearly every green and blossoming plant, not only drinking in the color, but absorbing the richness of scent. Ahhhh……..

It is said that our sense of smell is most tied to memory. Most recently I was walking through a store and got the overwhelming sense of my grandmother who died over twenty years ago. I still don’t know what the smell was but it was some mix of flowery, sweetness that sent me back to times snuggled safely in her tiny house as we sat at a card table tackling the challenge of a jigsaw puzzle. The scent of memory has the power to conjure up so many experiences.

I recall a conference I attended many years ago on the subject of the spirituality of children. The opening ritual invited those in attendance to share their earliest memory of worship. I was struck with the memories of those whose traditions involved the sense of smell….sweet oil, incense, candles. Their memories were described in rich detail and represented experiences of a much earlier age than those whose tradition had abandoned these worship practices. I remember feeling sad that my own tradition had, over the years, been stripped of these practices.

And yet I perhaps will never smell the perfume Evening in Paris(do they still make this?) without thinking of worship services in my little church in southern Ohio. Positioned between my mother and my brothers I could smell the exotic, fruity scent of my mother’s perfume wafting in the humid, heavy air. My father’s Old Spice aftershave was no doubt filling my brother’s head with equally tranquilizing thoughts. These scents were not created for liturgical means but they provided the backdrop for the scripture and prayers of our tradition to be seeded in our hearts and minds. These seemingly elegant smells relegated to dress-up clothes and special occasions were not the scents of our every day. Combined with the peppermints we were secretly handed from the hidden treasure chest of my mother’s purse,we were kept quiet and attentive in worship by perfume and candy. Though not traditional elements of worship, they make up my sense memory to this day.

The power of our sense of smell gets neglected during Minnesota winters. But as the snow continues to melt and the Earth once again comes to life before our eyes and under our noses, the memories of experiences planted deep within us will float to the forefront. They are to be celebrated and honored for the gifts they continue to offer. Gifts of the present and also days long gone by.

Today I will continue to add to the my bank of scent memory. The native Californians may notice a woman stopping to smell every colorful flower she sees. Like the humming bird I saw yesterday hovering over the red flowers of an azalea bush, I will be collecting. Collecting the memories of scent to store away for another winter when I will need their sweetness and their assurance of life renewed.


On Tuesday I had lunch with a wonderful woman at one of my favorite restaurants, Lucia’s, in south Minneapolis. It had been a glorious morning. The air smelled of the spring that is emerging, a wonderful mix of moist air, mud and the scent of green. I waded over glorious, unfrozen puddles to get across the parking lot from my car, dodging little patches of blackened snow that are hanging on for dear life.

Siting down with my lunch companion we remarked about how blessed we were to be able to be able to sit down to such a lovely, healthy meal in an equally lovely environment. Then our conversation rambled to and fro about children, the world situation, the communities in which we live. Eventually the conversation meandered to the church. It was at that time my companion set down her salad fork and said: ” You know for my whole life I have been watching church. I finally have decided to be church.”

She continued on as if what she had said was the most normal thing in the world, as if what she had just said had not punched me right in the stomach. I stopped her and asked her to repeat what she had said. After she did I explained how important this statement was, how it is a remark that has the ability, I believe, to renew the life of our tottering faith communities.

Watching church. For those who have been a part of a faith community for many years, this may seem like an odd statement. But I know I have certainly observed its happening over and over again. I, myself, have been a watcher of church many times. I have allowed the performance and presentation of worship to be a spectator sport. I have watched choirs sing, preachers preach, scripture be read, heard prayers prayed, and yet I am not engaged in them. I have simply watched as if it is a grand show that someone else has created for my amusement. While this experience has happened to me, I am pleased to say it is not the norm. But I believe it is for many, many people. And so her statement got inside me and took up residence.

Church, like life, can find us unwilling to let the vulnerabilities that hold us fall away. We hold ourselves tight, guarded to an experience of a word, a sound or an action that might change or transform us. Fearful of what might happen if we allow our heart to be softened or our mind to be challenged, we watch. But we don’t really engage. It feels too risky. And yet something continues to draw us to a place, a community. I believe we show up out of a deep desire to engage in the very transformation we so often resist.

I imagine the early followers of Jesus did their fair share of observing. Observing what it meant to reach out to those who were hungry for a word of peace, a sign of hope, a piece of bread, a kind touch. Though no liturgical words were spoken, no choirs sang, they were quickly drawn into the action of being church. Church was not what happened for an hour on any given day, it was a way of life. No buildings confined their work or their ability to be present to one another and the Holy in their midst.

Again, like life, the church can be a place for watching, allowing the grand show to continue with us in the audience, applauding politely every now and then. Or life and church can be where our deep desires for connection, for meaning and for being known are brought and offered for the goodness of one another and the healing of the world. The choice is really ours. But we need to consider what we miss when we choose to be only watchers.

Have a blessed weekend……

Goose Blessing

This morning was as busy as most. I had been bustling around the house making piles of things I needed to bring into church…..magazines, soup, the bag with my computer, my purse. It didn’t help that I had slept in later than usual. Before I could make it to the office, I had several errands I needed to run for our Wednesday evening Lenten supper and gathering. I had made a couple of trips to load the car and was on my last exit out the door carrying a crock-pot of hot soup for tonight’s pot luck when I was greeted with a sound from the sky.

Overhead, flying quite low a gaggle of geese were making their way home. In their perfect ‘V’ formation they swept across the morning sky with spirit and intention. Nestled in the formation was one lone goose. It almost made the letter ‘A’ with its body! Only the sound of air being cut by wings echoed in the frosty blueness of the day. And then one single ‘Honk!’ I stopped in my tracks. My bustling came to a halt and I was royally chastised by this goose blessing. These beautiful winged signs of spring put me in my place simply by doing what they knew how to do: make their way toward home.

Immediately the Mary Oliver poem entitled ‘Wild Geese’ flitted through my mind.  Lines like:’You do not have to be good………Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-over and over announcing your place in the family of things.’ You see, in my pursuit to get all the things checked off my daily list, I had forgotten to be alive to the world, had forgotten to be awake to the sun glistening off the remaining icicles on the neighbors house. I had forgotten to notice the green grass emerging from under piles of dirty, tired snow. I had forgotten to be grateful for the gift of another precious day. I had forgotten my true home.

And then the geese flew over and jarred me out of my numbness. They blessed me with memory. As they used their inner resources to find their way home, they announced their place in the family of things. They also reminded me of mine.

And so the question has flown with me all day, does this mean that spring is really on its way?

Hearts Breaking

“To the home of peace
To the field of love
To the land where forgiveness
and right relationship meet,
We look, O God, with longing
for Earth’s children known.
With compassion for the creatures
With hearts breaking for the nations
and the people we love.
Open us to the visions
we have never known.
Strengthen us for self-givings
we have never made.
Delight us with a oneness
we could never have imagined.
That we may truly be born of you,
Makers of peace.”
~J. Philip Newell

Yesterday, on the first Sunday of Lent, we handed this prayer out to our community. The hope was that, this week,  we would all take a moment midway through our day, perhaps over lunch, and offer this prayer. The thought was that we would then be engaged in prayer, even a unified prayer, that would bind us together on the six other days a week when we are not together in worship. The prayer was written on a card small enough to travel with us where ever we might go this week, where ever we might open a lunch bag or sip a cup of coffee.  Who could have known that these words, chosen weeks ago to be printed, would have fit so perfectly for the prayers we are carrying with us?

As we have watched the unfolding events in Japan and speculate still about what will happen, certainly our hearts are breaking. The devastation and turmoil seems unimaginable. And yet these dear people whose lives have been changed forever are picking through the rubble looking for fragments of their past in order to pave a future. The rebuilding will require compassionate hearts, vigilant patience and ‘visions we have never known.’ Strengthen them, O God. Strengthen us, to continue our praying and self-givings in any way we can.

These are the times that remind us, because we forget so easily, that we are intricately woven together in this beautiful and unpredictable Earth. We are full of knowledge about how the Universe works but it is always only in part. We can understand the seasons and the geological construction of the Earth but we have no control over its workings. We can plan for disasters that never come or we can experience disasters we never planned for. This is life. Sometimes we cavalierly say that a certain event ‘changed my world.’ The truth is that the earthquake in Japan actually changed the rotation of the Earth’s axis and moved the landmass of Japan by as much as 13 feet. This change in the rotation will result in a shorter day for all of us. If we needed any affirmation that we travel as guests on this amazing planet, that does it for me.

And so at the end of the day, we are left with our fragile, beautiful lives that are held in a loving uncertainty. In many ways, this is the message of Lent we proclaimed on Ash Wednesday. We are also left with our prayers, those passionate messages we send toward one another and the Holy. And we are also left holding those deep silences we rest in as we listen for a reminder that we are woven in a complicated and exquisite pattern called living. This is the ‘oneness’ that can delight and can give us courage to continue on seeking to be Makers of peace for the healing of the world.