Ebbing and Flowing

Earlier in the week I sat with someone who told me she had been thinking of me as she was looking through some cards she uses in her own spiritual practice when she got the feeling she was to share a particular card with me. The message of the card? ” I surrender joyously to the ebbing and flowing of life.” It went on: “The Universe wants you to know there are times to hold on for dear life, and times to simply throw up your hands and let go. Release the stress of needing to control things, wanting to determine the outcome of a situation, or expecting others to act in a particular way. There is a simple grace and beauty that unfolds when you truly let go.”

Luckily I like this person a lot. Otherwise I might have thought she had ulterior motives. Was she really saying I am a control freak? But since I am sure she didn’t I will just trust whatever source led her to think of me when she read this message. And what a perfect message it was for me! In a week that has lots of details and agendas pulling in many directions, this message of surrendering…..joyously….couldn’t have been more perfect.

This experience caused me to reflect on the times when I am present to others who are trying so desperately to control an outcome. Sometimes it is the simplest thing….the flow of a meeting, a child’s less that stellar behavior, the frustration of stop and start traffic. Other times this need to ‘hang on for dear life’ is truly that. In the face of illness or life challenges the desire to try to control outcomes is a much more multi-layered tapestry. The threads take on a magnitude that threaten to overwhelm which often leads to holding on tighter and tighter. It is a natural human reaction.

Perhaps there is wisdom in practicing letting go especially for the times when this is really the only choice we have. If we practice in the little things maybe we will cause ourselves less pain and suffering when the bigger situations present themselves. It is just a thought. Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he pointed our attention to lilies of the field and birds in the air reminding us that worrying, trying to control all the outward things of life, would only lead to frustration and a less than sacred walk in the world. Instead we should learn from the fragile lives of blossom and bird.

This message seems to hold particular wisdom on these bitterly frigid days. This cold that has come to visit we have no control over. It will last as long as it will last. We can, of course, bellyache about it, try to wish it away through sheer force. Or we could surrender to it. Bundle up and head out to notice how, when it is this cold, there is a fine, white, almost-snow that hits your face as you walk. What is this called, I wonder? And then there is the brilliant blue of the sky and the crows that seem to be blacker and more vivid as they wing their way in the air. Dogs sniff the air with a greater intensity. What are they detecting that I am missing? People’s eyes seem brighter in their cherry cheeked faces. We have the ability to see the air that fills our lungs and keeps us alive. Isn’t that a gift in and of itself?

O.K. Maybe I am pushing it with embracing these temperatures too fully. But, in the surrender to the cold, there is always the ability to daydream about the gifts that lie just below the frozen ground, holding themselves tight against root and soil. Soon they too will surrender to the softening, warming earth. They will throw up their equivalent of hands and push through to show us their green and colorful selves. And won’t we be glad they did? This surrendering to the ebbing and flowing of life….joyously….has much to offer.



The power of the artist to create never ceases to amaze me. That artist is, I believe, within each of us. Sometimes we are blessed to discover it and sometimes it lays dormant until a certain moment, sight or situation makes an appearance on our path. When this happens something deep within moves, jostles, rises up and the artist is born yet again.

On Friday evening we headed down to Rice Park in St. Paul to witness artists at work. Their medium? Ice. Their tools? Power saws. Sanders. Picks. Hair dryers. These artists, at some point in their life, saw a block of ice but saw something within the block of ice that needed to take shape, needed to be released from its icy home. And so they took up the tools they had in their workshops and garages and began to free the ice-held form.

Watching these artists decked out in layer upon layer against the frigid temperatures, I was astounded. Taking 300 pound blocks of ice, they chopped and chiseled then stood back to set their artist’s eye upon their work so far. Covered in thin layers of frosty white they moved back to cut and prod yet again. Soon the captive images began to emerge….animals, people, buildings, whimsical characters began to be visible to those of us standing nearby. All this from frozen water farmed from area lakes.

As I watched I wondered at what started these people on their path. At what point did they know they could, must, carve ice into art? Where did the muse first nudge them to pick up their tools and carve? Certainly, living in Minnesota, we must at some point of the long winters begin to either see the beauty it in or flee to warmer climes. Most of us read more books, knit more sweaters, eat more chocolate.

But these people picked up the gifts of the winter earth around them and made something more of it. It caused me to think of the other artists I know who make art because, they say, “they must.” Without creating their art, these people might perish. Perhaps not literally but certainly in spirit.

I believe we all have those things we ‘must’ do, must create or our spirits perish. Often in the push and pull of life it is easy to err on the side of responsibility and deny ourselves the time and space for these spirit nurturing ‘musts’. Has this been your experience? Have the obligations of life pulled you in directions that have created the illusion that there is not time or money or space to give to what your heart yearns so for?

It has been my experience that the days in which I can allow even a few minutes for the ‘musts’, I move me along the path of responsibility and obligation in a much smoother way. It often feels to me like I am filling my spiritual tank by tapping into that deep longing inside thus allowing the day to day tasks to be accomplished with greater ease. I have come to believe that this is because I am, perhaps, walking much closer with Spirit at these times.

And you? What calls to you that ‘must’ be done? What block of ice holds something only you can free? Today may be the day to pick up the tools at hand and get started. It just might make the day go more smoothly. And who knows what art you might create along the way?


Rear View

Somedays the Holy One just works harder to get our attention. For me, today was one of those days. My morning started early with a breakfast meeting that had me leaving home in the dark. The adventure of this was heightened by the deep cold temperatures and even deeper wind hills creating an air of danger. “Please don’t let my car fail me! I would die of frostbite in moments.” O.K. That may be a bit dramatic but suffice it to say it was cold. Very cold.

Merging onto the freeway with all the other early risers, I kept my head tucked deep into my neck and even deeper into the scarf that was wrapped firmly around both neck and chin. My imitation of a turtle was reaching completion when my eyes strayed for only a second to my rearview mirror.

Brilliance nearly blinded me. In the east the sun was rising with such an array of colors that it took my breath, now warm and steamy in my scarf, away. Orange. Fuchsia. Purple. Red. Yellow. Navy blue. All dancing against the clear blue of a frigid, Minnesota morning sky. I continued to move forward but my eyes were jumping back and forth from forward to rear with the speed and precision of the eyes of an insect. The show was so beautiful, so awe-inspiring, everything that lay ahead in my day paled in comparison.

That was until I arrived at the office. Bundled against the wind, my various bags balanced on shoulders and hands, I walked briskly toward the warmth of the door. But once again, boom! My eyes detected the quick flight of something large, very large. I turned to face an enormous hawk just landing in the tree not 10 feet away. It seemed to have something in its talons and sat just looking at me. Human eyes met hawk eyes. It did not make a move even when I reached for my phone to take a picture. Even when I walked closer and yet closer. What had appeared at first as a conquest soon showed itself as some foreign object( fabric, duct tape?) attached unnaturally on the strong and powerful leg of this beautiful bird.

What had been awe and a little fear quickly turned to compassion and concern. What could I do? How could I free this miraculous specimen of Creation from what must be causing frustration and fear? The wind picked up and with its force the large bird of prey was given enough power to fly away. I have thought about it all day and prayed that it found a way to detach from what had become entangled in its freedom.

I had a plan for this day. I was moving forward with a to do list, a plan of things I believed to be of great importance. My hope was to systematically check things off and at the end of the day I would feel a sense of accomplishment, as if some goals had been attained, as if I had paid my dues for the living of this day.

But instead of moving forward I was captured by looking backward, taking the rearview and the blessings it offered. Sunrise and bird flight entered my day with a grace that reminded me of this holy path I mostly only stumble along. Until…..until….the sky is painted with color and one of the winged ones looks me in the eye. Then I can no longer treat these days as trivial experiences filled with things I must ‘do’. Instead I must practice being present to the experiences that make gift of glimpses of heaven.
The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart once wrote that if the only prayer we ever pray is ‘thank you’, that would be enough. And so for this day, for all that rose behind me and ahead of me and above me, I say: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.


Good & Praise

Find the good and praise it.
~Alex Haley

On Monday, as I sat watching the inauguration ceremonies, I heard one of the speakers quote this short, six word phrase by the author of the inspiring and painful book, Roots. Six small words. And yet they stuck with me and challenged me. ‘Find the good and praise it.’ I wondered what my days might be like if this was my mantra. I wondered how it might change the way I walk in the world. I have even been so bold as to wonder if adopting its clear directive would have the power to affect the world. At least my world, anyway.

It is not news that we live in a culture that speaks more about what is not good than what is good. Our nightly news reports and the morning newspapers focus almost predominantly on the acts of people who have chosen paths of destruction and harm. If we allow it, we can be saturated with such messages. If there is any mention of something good, this story is usually placed at the very end of the broadcast, given a minute or two of fluffiness as the anchors sign off. We all know that what we have just heard and seen does not adequately reflect the movement of any given day, its fullness of both harmful and helpful, but we are powerless it seems to change the way the story of our world is told.

Or are we? Find the good and praise it. What if we took it upon ourselves to make this our personal mission? You will notice the phrase says ‘find’ not just see. It demands a certain amount of searching, discovery, sleuthing. Our work is to ‘find’ and not just ‘notice’. And we all know that there are certain situations and certain people that can make it more difficult to find the good. But as finders of the good, this could become our work.

I think of all the people I know who are caregivers. Doctors, nurses, workers in nursing homes and care centers. But also those who care for aging parents and loved ones in failing health or who simply need more help than they once did. All doing good who probably rarely receive praise. There are parents who every day do the good work of cooking, cleaning, nurturing,listening, reading, praying, offering their presence to the growth of another made in the image of God. Their days are often filled with unthanked, upraised moments and hours.

Every day we all make our way through its 24 hours touched by the good of others. Doors are opened and held. Groceries are bagged, food served. Restrooms are cleaned and sidewalks shoveled. Streets cleared, garbage is hauled. All good acts that make our movements easier, our lives simpler in some way. All acts worthy of our praise.

And what of those situations or people who make us have to dig a little deeper to find the good to praise? Even the most snarky clerk or the child full of tantrum is hiding a goodness waiting to be revealed. Perhaps the praise of their lovely face, sweet smile or even the color of their sweater might turn everything on its head revealing a good to praise. It is worth a try, don’t you think, my fellow finders of the good? My deep intuition tells me that when good if offered praise, more good is born and revealed.

And wouldn’t that be a fine way to warm a cold, January day?


Remembering to Breathe

Like many people around me, I am recovering from some form of illness. The flu is running rampant in Minnesota and in the circles where I travel. Last week it came to visit me and though it was a milder form than others have had, it still had the power to undo me. These bodies are fragile houses. We forget this sometimes. Being someone who visits hospitals a lot, I am always reminded of the gift of this home that carries my spirit about in the world.

Last week I sat with a group of people over lunch. We were reflecting on the factors needed for premature newborns to grow and be able to leave the hospital. On the top of the list? ‘Remember to breathe.’ Having spent the first months of their time in the watery world of the womb, babies of course are not breathing in the way they must outside this safe house. Coming into the world early requires speeding up the remembering to breathe reflex.

Another on the list? ‘Remember to breathe and eat at the same time.’ Ahhh, yes. Breathing and eating, in the same movements. I have thought about these needed acts a great deal over the last days. I have thought about how these same ‘requirements’ are often forgotten even by those of us who have been out of water and walking on land for some time. Perhaps my own labored breath of late impressed upon me how important the remembering really is.

I don’t know about you but there are many times during any given day when I realize I am holding my breath. In the tension of a conversation. In the frustration of traffic. When I am trying to think about the solution to a problem, make a difficult decision. Instead of allowing the inhale and exhale to send oxygen to my muscles, my brain, my heart, I am holding on for dear life to this one, simple, miraculous movement of Spirit within me.

So many times I eat the food that fuels my body while on the run or standing up or certainly without thinking, without honoring the calories that will allow my body to do the work it is meant to do. I was reminded of this while at a recent retreat. Sitting over dinner with women who filled me with such joy, I realized we were spending time eating mindfully, breathing in the beauty of the present moment, without rushing to the next thing. An hour passed and I was remembering to eat and breathe at the same time. Later I thought of how satisfying it all was and how I was not hungry in between the meals!

The Buddhist priest Thich Nhat Hahn writes: “Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment I know this is the only moment.” I am sure that those who have arrived in the world earlier than expected are doing just this. They are dwelling in the present moment in ways we who have walked upright for so long have turned our backs on over and over again. They will continue to fine tune their breathing memory muscle and so must we. It is the way of growth. It is the way of being present. It is the way of being alive. It is the way of the Spirit.

Are you remembering to breathe today? Are you savoring the blessed act of eating and breathing at the same time? May we all learn from these ones so new to the earth yet so recently in the palm of God’s hand.


Courage to Create

Creativity takes courage–courage to explore one’s deepest self and to let in the depths of the world’s struggles and joys, torments and agony…. Artists need encouragement, the building up of courage that community can lend us. The artist in each of us needs and deserves attention in order to build up the heart.”
~Matthew Fox

Over the weekend I was witness to the work of creativity. The retreat I was privileged to be a part of was filled with women of enormous creativity. Now I am not sure most would describe themselves as such but it is true. Many might laugh at the label I have given. But what I was able to observe was a gathering of people open to the movement of Spirit and what can happen when allowed time and space to enter into a certain invitation.

The invitation? To look at the thresholds of our lives. Thresholds that happen every day….the next breath, the beginning of the day, the choices we make, those we choose to walk away from. Thresholds that happen only a few times….having children or not, career and job transitions we have chosen or choose us, the doors of the different life cycles we all travel through,often with grace, sometimes kicking and screaming. It was big work. Important work. This amazing group of women did it with laughter(much laughter!), some tears, heaping helpings of faith and much creativity. It was a wonder to behold and proved them all as the artists they truly are. Artists. Another label they might choose to describe themselves.

I have always believed we are all artists of one kind or another. It is unfortunate that this name is often reserved for a select group. Each and every day we arise from our beds with a fresh palette of day in which to create the artwork that is our life. Sometimes we paint intricate and subtle brushes of color and detail. Other days we throw big globs of contrasting shades onto a canvas that looks like the modern art that makes the viewer squint in confusion. Still other days we move upon a landscape that is so perfect we know just the place to stand, pose and take our place.

All of this work takes courage as Matthew Fox points out. And it also takes community. A group of people who notice and encourage, those who caution and uplift, those who accompany us on the path. The courage must come from that deep well that is often frightening and filled with unknowns. The blank canvas or the undefined page. It is nothing short of a dance with Mystery with a capital ‘M’.

One of the activities that we engaged in at the retreat was the opportunity to take simple things…tissue paper, glue, paint, a little glitter…..and create a small box that would hold the blessings we needed for the work of crossing thresholds. At first, some were reticent, others knew just what they would do. And yet when the time was over, having been fueled by conversation, instruction, and peels of laughter, each box emerged as different from the other as the one who made it was from their creative partner who worked nearby. Artists all, creating their work, stepping out in courage, surrounded by community.

We are meant to remember we are artists. Every day. Weren’t we, after all, made in the image of the Great Artist? So, what creative act is calling you today? Can you hear your name echoing from some deep and holy place? Listen carefully. Quietly. Courageously.

The world needs you to add to its wonder.


This Life

It is always interesting to me how things show up on your path just when you need them. Yesterday was a rather scattered day for me. I was feeling a little out of sorts and kept trying to get my head around a day that seemed to be driving itself. Ever have one of those experiences? By the day’s end I had let go of it, mostly, and just chalked it up to the rainy, weird weather that has graced us in January. I decided to allow sleep to bring an ending to the unrest I felt.

And then this morning I awoke to a poem delivered to my email box that startled me. It came from a regularly sent source that I receive every day. But today’s words were particularly appropriate. They were written by Adrienne Rich a poet, feminist and essayist who died this past year. She wrote:

Dear Adrienne:

I’m calling you up tonight
as I might call up a friend
as I might call up a ghost
to ask what you intend to do
with the rest of your life.
Sometimes you act
as if you have all the time there is.
I worry about you when I see this….
I hope you’ve got something in mind.
I hope you have some idea
About the rest of your life.

In sisterhood,

Wow! Her words seemed a challenge to me. Perhaps it is because I find myself in many conversations these days with people who are asking this question ‘what do I intend to do with the rest of my life?’ Many of those I walk this path with are at places in their living where this question rides on their forehead like an invisible tattoo. The young ones. Those in their middle years. The elders. I hear us all asking essentially the same question. And this question seems to be made more pressing with the gray skies that hang above our heads. In this particular January of 2013.

Rich’s words will travel with me as I walk into the dreariness of the day. I offer them also to you. I would like to believe that her words arriving in my box, on this day, were a gift. Perhaps they will lead me, or you, to craft an answer to this ultimate question. My prayer is that the Holy will move in the cracks and crevices of the mulling and the planning and bless whatever ideas will come. Perhaps someplace in the low hanging clouds rests the answer for each of us.


“When we live without listening to the timing of things, when we live and work in twenty-four-hour shifts without rest – we are on war time, mobilized for battle. Yes, we are strong and capable people, we can work without stopping, faster and faster, electric lights making artificial day so the whole machine can labor without ceasing. But remember: No living thing lives like this. There are greater rhythms, seasons and hormonal cycles and sunsets and moonrises and great movements of seas and stars. We are part of the creation story, subject to all its laws and rhythms.”
~Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in Our Busy Lives

The last few days have been spent in planning for a retreat I will help lead this weekend. I love winter retreats. The act of retreat seems to hold hands with this time of January darkness and the cold of deep, blue snow. The days themselves seem to offer an invitation to step off the merry-go-round of our lives and spend time mulling over the turn of the year, what lies beneath the frozen ground. The call of clear blue skies and brilliant sun on icy water is the stuff of reflection for me. This reflection often leads to an urgent sense of creativity. It is what I am hoping for in this weekend away with a sweet circle of women. My prayer is that there are the right portions of guided time and unstructured time, time for deep words and even deeper silences, ample portions of laughter and silliness. All this is a good recipe for a renewed spirit.

As I have been planning I have thought about how most faith traditions have a value of retreat….that time to pull away from the regular patterns of daily living to give one’s self over to patterns of prayer and silence, scripture and contemplation, a time to allow the Holy to sit down beside our weary, programmed bodies. Yet so few of us take the time for this important work. Most churches I have known spend more time in meetings and large group activities than in a spirit of retreat. Sometimes even our worship has little sense of holding the precious sabbath time outside the regular rush of any other day.

The ancients and those who seek to follow their wisdom know that the work of retreat is important to forming the faithful life. Retreat can come in many forms. One does not need to pack up and head to a hermitage some place to have retreat, though I do love this idea, this practice. I know people who intentionally close their office door and remove themselves from the push and pull of the world for just a few minutes when they need to. Still others have a special chair, an adult-sized ‘time out’ chair where they go to stop the forward thrust of daily time. I wish I had the wisdom to adopt this practice with greater regularity. Any time we can stop our head long motion long enough to connect with our breath, remember our beating heart, pace ourselves to walk with the One who causes both breathing and beating, this can be the work of retreat. Look at the number of times our brother Jesus employed this wisdom.

I will continue to plan this retreat over the next few days. I will choose songs to sing and stories to be shared. I will make sure there are plenty of things to do. But what I will stop myself from doing is planning too much. I will make sure there is ample time for staring at the frozen lake or walking in the woods, for drinking coffee and talking quietly with an old…or new….friend, for doing nothing at all. Which is probably what most people need the most…doing nothing at all. It is so seldom our gift to ourselves. And yet it is most often the place where Spirit can move in to dance.



This week finds me reflecting on the gift of life. Perhaps this is a common practice at this cusp of a new year. As we make resolutions for yet another year of living, perhaps it is really a recommitment to the gift of life, a subtle, often unconscious re-upping to live fully, intentionally. Maybe those commitments to lose weight, to exercise more, to save money, to read or write, to create, to clean and organize are really another attempt to say ‘I am in this for the long haul. I am planning to become the best life-liver I can possibly be’. Maybe they are not just ego-driven attempts to be thinner, richer, more appealing.

I know I have been suspended in this reflective place because it has been my gift to be present, this week in particular, to the mystery of this living. On one day, one twenty-four hour slice of life, I was privileged to be in the presence of one who was leaving this earth too early. On the same day I was waiting to hear of one who was coming into the world earlier than expected. Each hand, my full heart, held both birth and death. The magnitude of it was not lost on me.

It is easy to be cavalier in the living of our days, to behave as if it will all last forever, as if each day isn’t a miracle unfolding. Minutes, whole hours, full days and entire years can be frittered away with details that in the grand scheme mean little or nothing. But the attention to the pure gift of living can have the ability to change the most ordinary day into a miraculous one. Isn’t it what we all want, really? To be present to the goodness of our own beating heart and the beauty of traveling this amazing planet? To notice the faces, the lives that travel with us, whose very living makes ours worthwhile? To know that our living is making an imprint in the world? To remember that the One who breathed us into being still fills our lungs, our cells with life?

Of course in times like this the words of Mary Oliver float through my head. She has the ability to cut to the quick for me what my own rambling brain can’t quite articulate:

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

Beginning this new year, knowing that at all times we are held between the mystery of life and death, I am re-committing to living in amazement, to taking the world into my arms. Both poles of life can come early, without our bidding, this we know. And so, this new year may we all be held in the grace of those who are not just visiting but are living into this full-bodied gift.

Amen and amen.


Mystic Work

In order to live our spiritual path, we cannot leave out any part of ourselves or our experience: every single bit of who we are and what we do has to be included. It is in recognizing the mystic we always were rather than in mimicking the pious practices of our faith that we discover the meaning beneath the meaning which has always been calling us.”
~Caitlin Matthews, The Celtic Spirit

I began my morning reading these words. What grabbed my attention was the phrase “the meaning beneath the meaning”. Many times I find myself in meetings or conversations when I am trying to discern the meaning beneath the meaning. We humans are a complicated lot and often spend much of our time playing roles other than ourselves. I know I certainly find myself in this camp at different times. Do you? I can find myself saying or doing something that is really more of a mask of someone I hope to be, long to be, try not to be. Wading through the layers of true self and constructed self takes a lifetime.

This life lived by those of us who have chosen the church is a multiple layered one. We are always searching for the meaning beneath the meaning. Over hundreds, even thousands, of years, those who have given themselves to its on-going survival have tried to create systems, rules, doctrines, laws, to define meaning. This has mostly been done with the best of intentions. And yet we, those of us living the faith, continue to look for the meaning beneath this created meaning. Questions live in our frontal lobe. Feelings work their way around our hearts. Words confound us and experience informs this lived faith.

On Sunday we will celebrate Epiphany Sunday. We will once again read the story of the wise ones who traveled in search of the Christ Child. Reading this evocative tale once again, I found myself with more, or at least as many, questions as I do each year. Who were these ones from the East? How far did they travel? Why? Why are we told they bring such strange gifts to a tiny baby? And on and on.

But the real gift of this story is the meaning beneath the meaning, isn’t it? How often have I been willing to turn away from all I know and follow the gifts of the Universe to find the Holy? To what lengths am I willing to travel to see the Face of God? What will I follow to get there? And will I have the wisdom to listen well enough to know to return by a different route to the place I call home?

The meaning beneath the meaning of this often told tale speaks of curiosity and courage. It speaks of humility and a heart filled with love. It speaks of sacrifice and confidence and a yearning that goes to our marrow. It speaks of long, circuitous roads that lead through dark, dusty, seemingly endless paths that eventually lead us home. It speaks of looking up to be guided forward.

The work of the wise ones was, is, the mystic’s work: the act of seeking the face of God in the journey itself, in the most magnificent and the most humble places, in the meaning beneath the meaning.May this year find us listening, seeking and witnessing the Sacred movement that calls us forward and leads us home.