As this year draws to its end,
We give thanks for the gifts it brought
And how they became inlaid within
Where neither time nor tide can touch them.”
~John O’Donohue

The last week has been a ‘time-in-between’ time. With Christmas eve falling on a Monday and Christmas on a Tuesday, I have found myself feeling as if I am unsure what day of the week it actually is. These days between Christmas and New Year’s always have that quality of stream of consciousness, time suspended, don’t they? Nothing has a predictable rhythm. There are friends or family to see that you don’t see in the course of a normal week. There are parties on weekdays as well as weekends. The normal routine of work is interrupted by the celebrations of both holidays. It can feel like a strange time, a time that can make you long for the normal, the regular, the routine. It has been a time that has been so odd that I have not even made it to the computer to post anything in this space.

And yet I can say with assurance that the celebration of Christmas was lovely. We carried on traditions that have anchored us for years and will, God willing, do so for years to come. To sing the songs and tell the familiar story, to see the excitement of children spill over into our lives like a waterfall of joy is an unrivaled infusion of spirit. There is such purity in it all. I find I want to hold onto it, clasp it to my chest in the hope of keeping its light alive for the next 364 days. But, of course, this is impossible. Perhaps the gift of this suspended time between the holidays is the reminder of the fragile, fleeting nature of all time.

Tomorrow we will usher in a new year. 2013. It seems a big number and one that does not trip of the tongue as others have. Like many, I am wondering what the year will bring. How will I, how will you, be changed in this next year? What adventures does the year have in store for us? What lessons, what challenges will be offered? It is all still
in the realm of Mystery and for that I am thankful.

This morning in worship we reflected on the covenants we have made in our lives. We spent some time in silence honoring those covenants and giving ourselves an opportunity to recommit to them once again. For another year. For the beginning of this new journey we are calling 2013. Remembering the covenants made throughout time, we allowed the Spirit to move in the cracks and crevices, the spaces and slits of these covenants with another, an organization, a job, a dream, a hope, with ourselves. It seemed a holy, precious time in the midst of this suspended season.

What are the covenants you carry with you into this new year? To what are you giving yourself in 2013? How are you stepping out into the chill of this January journey? What gift of Christmas travels just below the surface of your skin or deep in your beating heart?

The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us: ‘To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven.’ And so it is. We find ourselves on the cusp of yet another year. May we walk into the gift that is 2013 knowing we are held by the One who breathed us into being and who continues to hold out to us yet one more day, yet one more year. May we cherish each step along the way and be open to all the year may bring.

Happy New Year! Blessed be.


Blessed Soltice

It is just before sunrise on a cold December day some three thousand years before the coming of Christ. For those crouched at the heart of the mound it must seem as though light has been banished forever. Then, suddenly, a tiny sliver of sunlight strikes the stone slab at the back of the chamber. Slowly it widens, climbs upward, illuminating a number of of mysterious carvings-circles and spirals, zigzag patterns. For the people crouched in the center of the great mound of Brug na Boine ( also known as New Grange) every symbol has meaning. But by far the greatest significance is the return of the sun itself. The light that enters the dark womb of the earth brings with it the promise of warmth and life to come.”
~ John Matthews

If you are reading this you know that, indeed, the world did not come to an end as was predicted by the Mayan calendar. I had resisted listening or reading too much about this expected event. While it may have meant something to those who had originally done the math of the world’s demise, I come from a tradition that has texts we name as sacred that seem to predict a similar experience. It seems to be that humans are predisposed to imagining that the world will end. It also seems that we are equally ego-centered enough to believe that we will be the ones who will witness its ending.

Today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year. To the ancients who did not know what we now do about how the Universe is ordered, these dark, winter days also seemed like world ending opportunities. I dare say that some future generations will look at our worldview and think us as simplistic as we might judge those that have gone before. It is probably inevitable.

Recently I had the immense blessing of standing in the chambers John Matthews describes in the words above from his book called The Winter Solstice. Climbing into the stone pathway that led to what felt like the center of the earth, I walked with others who wanted to connect with these ancient ones who waited for the return of the light. How they knew the perfect alignment of stone, earth, horizon and sun, baffles me. And yet they did. These ancient wise ones had found a way to honor the darkness that had held them, without the benefit of electricity, without an understanding of the cosmos. And yet they created a way to wait in the deep dark for the coming of the light.

Those of us who know something of how the world rotates stood in total darkness in this chamber etched with spirals, circles and designs that prepared the way for what we now call Celtic symbols. Silence shrouded our bodies as we stood, shoulder to shoulder, strangers in search of an ancient ritual. The benefit of re-enactment allowed us to experience what those who huddled before us knew in their bones as deep holiness. We became one body breathing in expectation. Slowly, slowly one tiny shaft of light moved down the pathway we had just traveled to get to this womb of stone. Its soft brilliance traveled until it hit the stone at the end of the walkway. Our faces became bathed in a beauty of golden light. We seemed to breath in the silence, the light, the wisdom of those who knew something we moderns only struggle to understand, something held in safety in this stone home.

The sun will begin to return its light to us again as we move into the next days. Those of us in the Christian household will prepare our homes for the celebration of the Christ Child, the one we call the Light of the World. Some of us will indeed have what seems like world-ending experiences. We know of those who are already holding the depth of this at the center of who they are. We reach out trying to wrap them in the light.

Whatever our journey brings us, may we somehow know in the place where real wisdom lives that the Light will return. No matter how deep the darkness. No matter how cold the cave, how thick the stone. The Light will at some point slowly move to illumine our way.

A blessed Solstice to you all!


Raven Dark

When the light around you lessens
And your thoughts darken until
Your body feels fear turn
Cold as stone inside,
When you find yourself bereft
Of any belief in yourself
And all you unknowingly
Leaned on has fallen,
When one voice commands
Your whole heart,
And it is raven dark,
Steady yourself and see
That it is your own thinking
That darkens your world……..
~John O’Donohue

We are walking this week toward the observance of the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. The sun has been setting at its earliest time in this part of the world and has been doing so at the same time for the last several days. The sunrise has also, for only the last couple of days, been happening later. Children leave for school in the dark and arrive home in the dark. Many adults do the same. It is indeed ‘raven dark’.

This blessing by John O’Donohue is simply titled ‘A Blessing for Courage’. It does take courage to walk in dark days, to continue to look for the Holy when the light lessens. But that is our work in Advent. So, like a superhero dawning a cape, we arise each morning ready to do the work that needs to be done. We continue to pay attention to the metered steps of making our way in a world still reeling from the recent school shootings. We see images of sweet faces being celebrated and laid to rest. We are bereft.

In the fall of this year I was blessed to travel with a group of pilgrims to Ireland where we visited the grave of O’Donohue. It was a powerful moment for me, one that had not been planned but was offered by our Irish guide. Set out in the barren, rocky coastal farmland of what is called The Burren, is a small, unassuming cemetery. There among stones that have stood hundreds of years we found the burial place of this poet who has influenced so many with his words of encouragement, his timeless blessings. Instead of a large monument, O’Donohue’s grave is marked by a large piece of wood that holds a stone shelf for balancing a candle. In the powerful wind of this place, this marker will not survive like the others around it but spoke so clearly of this man who offered his deep, deep wisdom, his pure humility and experience of the Holy.

Search and you will find
A diamond thought of light.
Know that you are not alone
And that this darkness has purpose;
Gradually it will school your eyes
To find the one gift your life requires
Hidden within this night-corner.”

Advent offers this, if we allow it. This Advent in particular may do it more than others have. And so we continue stumbling in this night-corner, searching for that diamond thought of light that will guide us homeward.


Not Yet

Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
? Mary Oliver

We were given a box full of darkness on Friday. It is a gift we do not understand, did not want, do not know what to do with. As news trickled in about the horrific shooting in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, we became held captive by a darkness that threatened to overwhelm. At both times wanting to listen, watch, and wanting to run from this horrid scene, we once again felt helpless in the wake of yet another shedding of the blood of the innocents. How to hold such darkness……

It is too soon to look, as Mary Oliver reminds us, for the gift in this. The grief is too large, too raw. It will take, as she says, years to understand what may be at some time in the distant future named as gift. But even in the darkest corners of this black box, the light of hope still refuses to be snuffed out. As we learn of teachers who became superhero protectors, we see a glimmer. As we hear of those who responded first and shielded children’s views from things that would scar their eyes, for a lifetime, we get another glimpse. These are strands to hold onto until our learning evolves.

All through Advent I have lifted the image of darkness and light and the holiness that resides in both. The last few days have made that more murky, less visible even as a metaphor. And yet something inside me believes that even in those who walk in darkness, a darkness that no human heart is prepared to live, some experience of the Holy One still exists. This is, perhaps, the true hope of what can seem like sentimental notions of Christmas, of the in-breaking of God in the every day lives of people.

I have thought much about the young ones who did not come home on Friday. I have found myself looking more intensely at the children who have crossed my path. I have noticed their smiles, their eyes, the ways in which they move with confidence or reticence in this world. I have remembered to note how precious they are. To look, to really look, and to bless them. To remember that Jesus said that heaven belongs to them.

But I have also thought about the young man who visited such violence upon this world. I wondered at the box of darkness that had been handed to him, perhaps from his birth, the one that traveled with him every day as he tried to find his way in an unwelcoming world. It was never gift to him and there must have seemed no one, no older, wiser adult, who could make it so. What is it like to wrestle with such darkness each and every waking moment?

We will, of course, continue to try to make some sense of this tragedy. The years have taught me that there may not be any words or way to fully understand. We will speak of gun control yet again. Hopefully, we will speak of mental illness and how to help those who suffer, their families, their communities. We will look for answers that may or may not be present. We will chase after the haunting ‘why’?

Some day we may see that we see some sharp-edged or luminous gift in all this. But not yet. Not yet.


Holy Fire

Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.
~Anne Frank

Slowly, ever so slowly our house is being readied for Christmas. Our tree went up last week and one of my favorite moments of the day is when I walk over and press my foot against the button which will bring this tree into its fully lighted self. I try to do this without turning on any other lights in the house. This allows its ever-green presence to be center stage. As if a seven foot tree placed in a room does not already occupy that identity! But I do love the moment when darkness draws my vision toward the tiny, twinkling lights that adorn the tree. It never fails to fill me with a sense of magic.

Last night I sat with a friend in a darkened St. Paul restaurant. The mood was illuminated by the same small, white lights that dress our tree. Candles on each table flickered a pale yellow light making everyone’s face soft, dreamy, beautiful. Candlelight, a flame’s fire can do that. It can take even the most weary, beleaguered face and make it that of an angel. Don’t you think so? Try it sometime.

Though the light of electricity has replaced candlelight, we are people meant to sit around fires, to allow the glow to wash away the grime of worry and toil of whatever life has handed our way. Last week my husband and I took our walk later in the evening rather than in the morning. We took a different path than usual and were busy solving the world’s problems or those of our respective work places as is our custom. Turning a corner which sent us along the backyards of neighborhood homes, we came upon a man bundled up in his winter gear. He sat on a stump of wood which faced a blazing fire. Nearby were other empty stumps ringing the blaze. His face glowed a bright red in the dark of night, the brilliance of fire. He was intent on watching the dancing flames. I wondered what his day might have held.

“I want to go sit with him.”, I said. Being the voice of reason my husband cautioned against it. There was a fence after all. And we did not know this man. Who knows what he would think if a strange woman hopped the fence and just joined him in his watching, his meditation upon fire? He might not understand that I saw his fire as an invitation to join in all the fires that have been lit throughout time. Fires to warm the body and clear the mind. Fires around which stories were shared and meaning was made. Fires to cook food and ward off warriors. Fires for dancing and singing around. Fires that reminded the humans of their power to create and also destroy.

Fires defy darkness but also define it as Anne Frank points out. This light and dark is at all times in a constant dance. If we are attentive, we can experience the holiness that lives and breathes in both.

How is the darkness defining you these Advent days? What light are your longing to see? What fire calls to you? What fire burns within you? The early Christian household talked of ‘tongues of fire’ dancing over their heads when they felt the Spirit’s movement. May this day bring an experience of fire to each of us. And may we know it as holy.


The Grace of Stars

When you have thrown
the cloak of evening
across me,
and when you have drawn
your midnight hand
across my face;
when you have made my soul
as dark as the nighttime sky,
and when the shadows
are my only companions;
then, O God,
turn my face upward,
that I may know
the grace of stars
and give myself to rest.”
~Jan L. Richardson

Last week I remarked that, for my money, no one writes more eloquently about Advent, than Jan Richardson. Her book, Night Visions, continues to be my go-to Advent text. The ways in which her collage images and phrases capture the longing and expectation of these waiting days always stuns me.

The last two weeks in worship we have read the scriptures of the apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This past Sunday had us imagining his words as those of a Christmas letter. Instead of the usual outpouring of the events of the last year, the triumphs of children or the demise of health or a parent’s condition, we imagined his words of affirmation and love coming to us. We also imagined what it would feel like to send those words as our own Christmas letter. As I did this, these ancient words became alive for me again in new ways. Ahhh…..the gift of living word!

The reality is that Paul was writing his letter to this community of new faith from prison. His new faith had got him into a heap of trouble. It would seem to me that when a person is in prison they have ample time to reflect on the people and places that have shaped them. There is, I’m sure, plenty of time to think on those you love, those who have made you crazy, those relationships in which you have regrets. Paul used his prison time to try to build up and instruct the many people who had come to understand the Way of Jesus as a life-changer, those who were willing to go out on this faith limb with him. To that I say ‘God bless him’.

The ‘cloak of evening’ is thrown over people in myriad ways and can feel like an experience of prison. For instance, I know those who are staring straight into the face of a first Christmas without a loved one. That blanket is mighty heavy. Others I know are wrestling with the ways a ‘midnight hand’ has altered their lives…..separation, divorce, illness, job loss, struggling children.at this time of year, nighttime dark souls can become a double whammy of hurt and sorrow and bone deep pain. To those in this place, again, I say ‘God bless you.’

Cloudy nights do not allow us the view of the stars that clear ones do. And yet we know the stars are in the heavens blinking their shiny messages to us. Dark soul times often obscure our vision of the Holy, keeping us from connecting with the Eternal relationship that never walks out the door. And to this I say ‘God bless us’.

On this Advent day, may we be feel the release from whatever prison holds us. May we be blessed by the grace of stars and find rest in this place.


Snow Pilgrims

To say that making your way around the Twin Cities these past few days has been difficult is really an understatement. The snow that graced our presence on Sunday has wreaked havoc on the act of getting from point A to point B with any attention to time schedules. It seems the combination of snow, low temperatures, chemicals that need a certain temp to actually work and, perhaps, an attention to snow removal that was less than timely, has made for some of the slowest and painful commutes in recent memory.

Yesterday morning as I was creeping along the road, a certain nugget of wisdom that I learned on the Island of Iona a couple of years, came to mind. ” You can only move at the pace of the slowest pilgrim.” This caution was spoken to a group of folks I was traveling with just as we embarked on what became a nearly six hour Pilgrim’s Walk around the sacred places on this tiny island. This declaration ensured that we were attentive to one another, the pace each was able to walk, that no one was left behind, that no one rushed ahead.

Thinking of this way of walking as a pilgrim,my mind then jumped to something poet David Whyte said when he was here in October. Speaking of the many names and identities we wear during a lifetime, he asserted that the one that remains true throughout our living is that of pilgrim. We are always a pilgrim in this life. Traveling from one identity to the next, one year to the next, one day to the next, one breath to the next. We are always on some pilgrim path.

So as I traveled my pilgrim way yesterday, I was aware of a car several yards ahead of me. Moving at the snail’s pace in which we were all engaged, this particular pilgrim was unable to make it up the slight incline that had become an ice rink. His tires spun. His car slipped left, then right. I watched as the pilgrims between me and our slowest kin tried to decide what to do. Wait. Pass. Slow down. Speed up. Feel anger. Offer compassion. So many choices on the pilgrim path.

Eventually, several passed by this whirring pilgrim trapped in his metal container. Most did so with trepidation. His spinning could result in a face to metal experience of this fellow traveler. As we all made our way past him, something moved in my chest knowing that I had broken the cardinal rule of the pilgrim walk. We were leaving our slowest one behind. Traveling on without him. Leaving him to fend for himself.

Practicalities had to prevail on a day like yesterday. Decisions needed to be made about staying put or going on, about passing or taking the risk of not having enough momentum to make it up the hill myself. My heart still went out to this one whose name I did not know but who shared this identity as pilgrim with me.

Advent continues to unfold and we are pilgrims on the journey toward Christmas. The darkness continues its hold on us. More lights appear every day as people rail against the night by decorating their windows and walkways with lights that spill color and illumination. It must be done. For we are people who walk in darkness yet long for light.

This morning this Blessing for Courage by John O’Donohue seemed appropriate:

When the light around you lessens
And your thoughts darken until
Your body feels fear turn
Cold as a stone inside……
Close your eyes
Gather all the kindling
About your heart
To create one spark.
That is all you need
To nourish the flame
That will cleanse the dark
Of its weight of festered fear.” <



Advent again,
and the very stones are silent.
In the east, no star;
only shadows
and the threat of darkness.
We have run out of light,
and we wait in fear.
from the cosmic distance,
tentacles of brilliance probe,
seek us out, look for a dwelling place
among us.
~Caryl Porter

One of the truly wonderful and beautiful things about my work is that people often send me poetry, words they know I might enjoy or find helpful. A few times, and what a joy it was, someone has actually called me and read me a poem over the phone. It is at those moments, among others,that I pinch myself to think this is my work!

The poem above came to me last week from a dear friend and colleague. I read It over and over and felt the weight of it on my chest. Yes, Advent again. I have often said that the true gift of the seasons of the church year is the fact that, if we are blessed or lucky, we will have the opportunity to go at them once again. And the truth is I am different than I was last Advent. As are you. As is the world. The life experiences we have lived have made it so. Our hopes, our disappointments, what we’ve learned, how we have chipped away at our unknowing, has brought us to this place in the second week of December with, perhaps, recognizable faces but changed spirits. It will always be so.

Yesterday I sat with two friends and we talked about the fear that comes of darkness. Literal darkness and the darkness that threatens to overcome in what we are uncertain of, future and past. We talked of our own times of darkness when we faced illness, our own or of a loved one, what it means to grow older, our view of the world’s environmental changes that seem dark and foreboding. In those times, it is true that it seems ‘we have run out of light’ and ‘we wait in fear’.

But just as quickly as we painted these pictures of dark and stormy nights, we began also to speak of the people who held the lamplight for us. Those who, often through very small acts or a well turned phrase, allowed us to not let the fear debilitate us. It was as if there was some miracle of light that illuminated the darkness, making it holy.

Today I am thinking of all those for whom this may not be the case. People are living through life situations and doing so in very lonely ways. Those with a chronic illness or chronic job loss. Those who suffer from the darkness of depression or the effects of loss of sunlight. Children seem lost. Parents are aging and need more help than any child can offer. The cold has surrounded and there is no bed, or home, or friend to walk beside.

And yet, here we are, me writing and you reading. From what I know of the faith story, of all sacred scriptures, we are imprinted with the tendency toward goodness, kindness, and love, by the One whose very Breath caused us to be. That breath of never-ending Life,probes the darkness and asks to breath through us. We are the lamplighters. We are the tentacles, dim as we may be, whose acts of hope have the power to change the world. Or at least one life. On one day. In the cold, dark days of December.

So be it.


Advent Shadow

When you light a candle, you also cast a shadow.
~ Ursula K. Le Guin

The past two Sundays have provided interesting sources of reflection for the walk in Advent. December 6, Advent 1, was shrouded in fog as people headed out to church. Yesterday, Advent 2, provided us with our first snow storm of the season. Driving to church in the pre-dawn hours, I was peppered by fine, feathery snowflakes that made the drive doable if speed was not a goal. By the time most people were arriving for worship, the storm had settled on us in earnest. Looking out the windows, it looked like we were being held within an enormous snow globe. Shake! Shake! Shake! Visibility……very narrow.

While I am completely aware of the dangers of both kinds of driving conditions, I have to say the ways in which they both contributed to the experience of Advent was very satisfying. Waiting? Check. Anticipation? Check. Reflection? Check. Slowly down? Check. Both fog and snow contributed to what is needed for a true Advent practice. (I am smiling right now.)

Yesterday nearly everything in the afternoon was cancelled. Those that still soldiered on happened later than advertised and offered grace to those who arrived late. How perfectly Adventy! Instead, today people I have spoken with told me about all the ways in which they stopped what they had planned, made alternative plans or no plans at all, simply sat in the comfort of their homes and watched nature’s wonderland form before their eyes.

As I drove to church in the falling snow on Advent 2, I listened to one of my Sunday morning rituals: Naturalist Jim Gilbert giving the news of what is going on in the world of weather, sky, earth. Keeping my eyes firmly ahead of me, hands clenching the steering wheel, I heard him say that in December our shadows are longer than at any other time of the year. The December light does that to these dark days. I remembered how tall I had seemed to myself on a recent walk, my shadow making me appear much more statuesque…..and thinner…..than I actually am. In that moment I loved the December light for this illusion.

Fog. Snow. Shadow. These three kings of light and dark are doing their part to lure us into being, really being, in Advent. They are trying with all their might to keep us from the baubles and glitz that want to make us jump too quickly to Christmas. When something, or someone, is waiting to be born the time of not-yet-knowing adds to the excitement and celebration once the day arrives. When a gift that has been longed for sits unopened, anticipation fuels the joy that can grasp our heart.

If you are out traveling about the snowy, icy streets today, be safe. Go slow. Breathe. Notice the shadows. How tall you seem. Advent is emerging in its own, sweet, metered time.

And aren’t we blessed?



In this strange season when we are suspended between realization and expectation, may we be found honest about the darkness, more perceptive of the light.
~Jack Boozer

The wonderful thing that happens when a theme is chosen for a season like Advent, a theme around which a community centers itself, is that that theme begins to pop up in places not necessarily associated with that community. Or at least that is what happens for me. When our faith community established a theme like ‘Holy Darkness, Holy Light’, these words, or some related phrases begin to come into my view in the oddest of places.

Take yesterday morning for instance. I took the box of oatmeal out of the cabinet to prepare breakfast. As I was watching the water boil and after I had poured the oatmeal into the cup ready to go into the water, I stood staring at the box marked ‘McCann’s Irish Oatmeal’.There on the side of the box were these words: May you have warm words on a cold evening.A full moon on a dark night. And the road downhill all the way to your door. I smiled at this blessing for the darkness of night. From a box of oatmeal no less!

This season of Advent is a time when we are ‘suspended between realization and expectation.’ We have a sense of the expectation of what births might be possible but they are not realized yet. We know the story and how it turns out but it is not the time to reveal the fullness of it yet. Instead we give attention to the rituals that take the steady, ordered steps in its telling. There is a sweetness in this time honored unfolding. The light of the Advent wreath does not go fully ablaze but is slowly illuminated.

To practice this ‘not yet’ quality of the path toward Christmas requires a certain honesty about darkness. The darkness of these hovering winter days. The darkness of our own ever changing understanding of this story of birth of the Christ Child and of ourselves. This practice requires not moving too quickly through darkness for fear we might miss an important detail we have not noticed before, one that has been hiding in the shadows waiting for just the right time to appear. To move too quickly through the darkness might make the light blinding to our eyes instead of allowing the gradual flicker to become the soft glow that leads us……to what?

On Christmas Eve, as we sing Silent Night, one person will light a candle and pass the light through the waiting darkness of those who hold their breath for want of it. Slowly one light becomes another and another until……..but I get ahead of myself, ahead of our story.

For now it is time to be honest about the darkness. Suspended between realization and expectation.