Many Gods

The last week has had me traveling in the Pacific Northwest, a time to celebrate a significant birthday with a dear friend and also spend time with our two wonderful sons who now call Seattle home. The landscape of this area speaks to my heart……vast expanses of water, mountains ringing the horizon,warm days and cool evenings…..all settle well on my Celtic soul. Plus the very experience of travel is enlivening. In a few short days, I stored up sights for the eyes, the smell of water rich with seafood and the sounds of languages and lifestyles more exotic than what usually comes my way.

One early morning while walking the almost vacant streets on Pike Place Market, I heard a statement that has been ringing in my ears and will not let me go. What a gift it was to watch the farmers unload huge bunches of yellow sunflowers and a myriad of brilliant, rainbow-hued dahlias, many the size of dinner plates. These laborers worked side by side with fishmongers and an array of artists setting up their booths for what would be a busy day. The streets were freshly washed, still wet in places, the grime and evidence of yesterday’s happenings gone. A new day ahead for everyone. Tourists would soon arrive and marvel at the beauty, the quirky, the artistry of this well traveled street and all it holds.

Over the palette of this morning activity one young man’s voice rang out as he moved a rolling vegetable cart into place, its colorful and healthy contents ready to dazzle passersby. “We had to go visit one of our other gods. We are not monotheistic.” Holding my cup of coffee purchased from the ‘first’ Starbucks to warm my hands against the chill of the morning, I was stopped in my tracks by his words. These were not, at least to me, trivial words shared over morning preparation. I kept repeating them over and over in my head so as not to forget them until I could get to a place and write them down. Balancing coffee and journal and IPad on a ledge, I jotted down his words on my Starbucks receipt. And then I began to think about what he said.

I wondered at these other gods. What did he mean? Where were these gods? To what Mount Olympus did he travel on a weekday in Seattle? Was he alone….it didn’t sound so….as he had used the plural ‘we’? Who was part of his worshiping community? What did that worship look like? How did he come to worship this god?

As I chewed on his words at the beginning of a new day, his statement soon took me to other places. Perhaps this young man, simply making early morning conversation with a co-worker, was making a truer statement than any of us have the courage to speak. Even those of us who claim fully and boldly to be ‘monotheistic’, those who claim one God with a capital ‘G’ spend much of our time worshiping other gods. I know I do. I worship the god of fear and anxiety, the god of judgment and my own truth. I take my worship to the feet of these holies with great regularity. I offer my presence, my gifts, my service with a devotion that is nearly priestly.

This is to say nothing of the god of ‘stuff’, of possessions, I worship. I don’t know about you but I take my adoration to the mall, the check out line and pay with good money in an effort to buy the very thing that will make me whole, fill me up, bring about perfection, wholeness, that will make me appear more beautiful or acceptable. When the stuff I have worshiped becomes too numerous, I organize it and pack it into boxes and label it in order to make room for another trip to the cathedral of consumerism. It can be a fervent religion, this.

Gods come in all sizes and shapes. We can make our nation a god also, worshiping a sense of nationalism that can often shade our eyes from things we might do well to see in a brighter light. I have been a part of the institution of the church long enough to recognize the many ways those who call it home can also worship its existence instead of the God it is meant to adore.
Those of us who make our way through the scriptures of the Jewish and Christian households can point to many times when the people were warned against creating gods out of gold, gods to a variety of deities. When reading those stories it is often easy to take them lightly, to think they have nothing to do with me, with my life.

But on one particular early morning a young man’s voice and the words he spoke woke me up to the many ways gods are created every day. Monotheistic? I don’t know but I do know that it is always wise to pay attention to what is pulling at the heart, what is longing to make a home in us, and what is worthy of our worship. For this reminder, I am grateful…….


Important Experiences

Storytelling in general is a communal act. Throughout human history, people would gather around, whether by the fire or at a tavern, and tell stories. One person would chime in, then another, maybe someone would repeat a story they heard already but with a different spin. It’s a collective process.”
~Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Sometimes you have an experience that you know is so much more than the actual activity that is happening, the activity that is seen by onlookers who may be pass by. This is probably so more often than we are aware because, truth be told, we walk around not in the present moment but in the troubled past or the longed-for future. But sometimes, sometimes, you are in the midst of an experience and some voice within says so loudly…..”This is important. Pay attention.”…… that even the most deadened soul perks up and does just that.

Yesterday I had just such an experience. I am visiting Seattle, one of my favorite cities and the now-home of our two sons. I had made contact with someone whose mother is a part of our church, someone who has a successful cooking business near Pike’s Place Market. She has a job which sounds, at least to me, like a dream come true. She takes people through the Market as they choose food to buy and then helps them prepare it. The activity is communal…..around food and a table and the fire that cooks and is their center. Like people throughout time, they gather to cook, eat, be warmed by the fire and the presence of one another. In this activity, they are fed in both body, mind and spirit and who they were before the meal becomes something more. Something more.

Diane, the chef, shared stories of her work and the people she meets in this work. As someone whose early education was anthropology, it was clear to me that she knows exactly what she is doing. This ancient act of gathering round the hearth beats within us and it is something that cannot be fueled by fast food. It is the slow act of cutting and slicing, stirring and kneading that is required. It is the creation of nutrition and beauty. It is the looking across the table into someone’s eyes, seeing their expressions change and take shape, sometimes in the light of literal candlelight fire, that helps us remember who we are and the stories we are telling with our lives. For it is around these fires, these tables, that our human story is remember, reimagined, retold, reaffirmed.

Several times during this encounter in her beautiful kitchen of black granite and blonde wood, tears were present as stories were told about where certain pieces of depression glass and Fostoria glass cake stands came from. Stories of how she came to be doing work she loved, work that she believes is making a difference in the Universe flowed freely between us. The way in which her values and commitment to gathering people round the table and the fire shapes her every moment was both inspiration and challenge. All was pure grace.

Yesterday, as I was processing what I knew was an important experience, one on which I am still reflecting, I thought of the communion table to which we invite people in the Christian Household of which I am still a part. That image and experience of gathering around the table, has many layers, some which are more important to some than others. It is a table that is meant to help us tell our story, to remind us why and how we have gathered round the fire of our faith for all these years. I wonder if it always does this. My sense is that most often we forget to bring our own human stories, our own important experiences, to the telling. I know that is true for me.

Yesterday I was present to an important experience whose impact is still working its wisdom in me. Its transformative qualities will emerge in their own time. Like any good meal, this takes a certain rhythm that can’t be driven but must unfold. Warmed by the fire, held in beauty, nourishment will arrive. And the story will be told.


Many Colored Tree

There is a tree I am watching these days. It sits in the yard near the church where I work. Unlike some of the trees in the neighborhood, trees that have had long lives watching the changing face of this urban area, this tree is newer, younger. It was planted to replace some others that were taken down in the sweep of progress and renovation. It is a maple tree and so it also has the gift of showing us the pace of the changing seasons. However, this tree seems to be trying to hold two worlds within its limbs. One side clearly shows forth the green, vibrant colors of summer. The other side is a rich, red, shining brilliant into the crisp and cooler days we have been experiencing. Like the Janus face of comedy and tragedy, this tree is holding two seasons.

As I have been watching its leaves theses last days, I seem to remember that this was its behavior last year. I have no idea what chemistry or ecology or botany is at work. I only know that it makes for a fascinating show of color and an equally fascinating thing to reflect upon. Like the tree, most of us are feeling a little melancholy at letting go of this beautiful summer. It has been filled with all the goodness these warmer months hold out to us…..bright blue skies, a more leisurely pace of living, time spent outside with friends and family, an opportunity to soak up sun and bask in the color and beauty that gives way to gratitude. All these to be stored up for the winter, like the ever-fattening squirrels that also are running frantically around our green spaces. Like this two-toned tree, most of us are not anxious to let go of this lovely season.

And yet there is also beauty in the red and orange the tree holds on its other side. Its colors invite us to the coolness of autumn with its new wave of foods and tastes…apples…pumpkins…squash….all mirroring the colors of the very landscape around us. It is as if the landscape dips down onto our plates and paints a picture of itself. Plus there is the letting go that fall demands and the trees teach us this important life lesson we can never fully embrace. And so each autumn we get another chance. As the trees let go their leaves, we are invited to let go of those things which may have been born in the warmth of summer but must be let go for our growth, our healing, our own good. I have a few that might fit this description. Do you?

Over the next weeks, the maple tree which seems to be in a battle with itself will eventually let go all its leaves. Both red and green leaves will have reached their fullness and will fall to the earth below. If workers are not too quick in raking them up, these leaves will have the opportunity to nourish the ground and the roots of the tree that has been their home. Thinking of this I am reminded of a poem by Nancy Wood that I often read at memorial services which speaks of this amazing cycle of which we are all a part:

You shall ask
What good are dead leaves
And I will tell you
They nourish the sore earth.
You shall ask
What reason is there for winter
And I will tell you
To bring about new leaves
You shall ask
Why are the leaves so green
And I will tell you
Because they are rich with life
You shall ask
Why must summer end
And I will tell you
So that the leaves can die.

I will continue to watch this tree of many colors allowing its wisdom to bless me. I will continue to marvel at its beauty and to look for the lessons it might teach me. Like the tree, each of us in always involved in a summer,an autumn, a spring and a winter. Sometimes those seasons are more visible to us than others.

Whichever season is most visible in you this day……blessings, blessings, blessings.


Gospel Clouds

“God writes the Gospels not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.”
~Martin Luther

Our teachers come to us in many forms. It is that time of year when new student-teacher relationships are being formed. One of the gifts of social media is seeing all the first day of school pictures that arrive in my Facebook feed. There are the sweet faces of those headed off to the first day of kindergarten. There are also those less than happy to be photographed photos of students headed out for the first day of junior high. There are even a few photos of patient high schoolers indulging their parents in this yearly tradition. If you look closely you can see the spirit of the kindergartner still present in that young adult face and petulance of the adolescent. Each one, no matter the age, is headed off to form relationships with those people who will become teacher. And any good awaiting teacher knows that among those students who arrive in their classroom will be one or two who will also be a teacher to them.

Most often we think of other people as teachers. I know I can name a long list of those human ones who have been the wisdom holders, those who have made the journey of life full and rich and filled with purpose. Some of these folks have been in the profession of being a teacher. But many, perhaps even most, have not been. They have been the people who have shown up in my life at just the right time, said or done an often simple thing that has made all the difference. Many times it has not been words that have provided the lesson but their very presence that has been the gift.

Other times our teachers are not humans at all. How many times have you spoken to a dog or cat owner who tells of the lessons they learn from these four-leggeds? I am certain that those who work and live with other kinds of animals can also tell stories of what it is they learn from these beings without words yet holders of wisdom. I know bird-watchers who can talk for hours of the lessons of the winged ones. As they speak their faces light up with something just shy of conversion.

Over the past days it has not been human or animal or fowl that has been a teacher to me. Instead it has been the clouds. There are certain times of the year when clouds seem to be more brilliant, more vivid than other times. These September days are one. Perhaps it is the interplay, the relationship, of the color of the sky and the clouds that makes it so. I don’t know. I just know that, if you have been paying attention, you will also have noticed the clouds…their formations, their shapes, the colors that they seem to pour forth into the blueness.

On Tuesday, I lay on my back in a boat looking up at the clouds dancing in a clear, azure sky. Big puffs of white that seemed set, painted in one place, surprisingly moved slowly, slowly into new shapes more fascinating and beautiful than before. Every now and then a small piece of the cloud would slip away and float all on its own, its feathery shape undulating with its own purpose, now unleashed from the larger form. Other times a small slip of a cloud would remove itself from a larger cloud and dance and move across the sky until it disappeared altogether. Gone.

Yesterday, on an evening walk, I turned the corner and walked onto the High Bridge that connects St. Paul and West St. Paul and suspends itself above the mighty Mississippi River. The Cathedral rose out of the horizon with its sister architecture, the Capital, in all their showy splendor. But last night, last night, they were upstaged by the clouds. The nearly setting sun was shining through clouds that turned pink and lavender and purple and orange. They seemed to want to draw all Creation into their beauty. Standing suspended above the earth as I was, I gave thanks for the Gospel not written in words but offered to me in that moment. A Gospel….the good news…that the Holy is an ever-working Artist whose work is the stuff of the ever day. Some place in that wisdom was the the lesson that I am….you are….also a part of that beauty, that good news.

It was a good lesson to learn.


Ordinary Time

On Sunday morning I was deeply into what has become a pre-church and all-that-Sunday- morning-can-hold ritual. From 6:00-7:00 a.m as I get dressed and eat breakfast before departing for church, I listen to Krista Tippett’s radio show ‘On Being’. This week her guest was poet Marie Howe, a poet that was new to me. I listened with one ear on the radio and one eye on the mirror. I was drawn in by her jovial spirit and easy going conversational way, something not always found in those whose lives are given to an efficiency of words. She told wonderful stories of how she coaxed poems out of surprised students who never thought of themselves as ‘that kind of writer’. I listened with interest at her unabashed love of her Roman Catholic upbringing and all the layers of liturgy and tradition that came with it. But what brought me up short was the title of one of her collections of poetry: The Kingdom of Ordinary Time.

The Kingdom of Ordinary Time. I sighed with understanding. I thought of this church season in which we travel these days…..Ordinary Time….the longest season of all. It does not hold the mystery and introspection of the days of a Advent. It isn’t the full-bodied ‘Alleluia’ of Christmas. It does not demand of us what Lent and Easter ask. It is not flashy or colorful like Pentecost. Ordinary Time is where we spend the majority of our time, the fullness of our days. With its prescribed color of green, Ordinary Time presupposes growth, that something will bloom out of us. Something that may have been born out of Advent, refined in Lent, transformed by Easter and even inspired by Pentecost.

For those of you who don’t walk around in the church world the way I do, this might sound like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. But for those of us who have made a home and struggled in the Christian household, these words name the seasons of the church year. And if you stick around in this beautiful and messy house you soon begin to measure the passing of days not only with January through December but also Advent through Ordinary Time.

When I heard Marie Howe refer to this book of poetry, I scribbled the title down on a scrap of paper and tucked it inside a book,as is my practice. Later in the day I ordered the book and now await its arrival. I look forward to seeing what this poet laureate of New York does with her ordinary times. I wonder how she sees the ‘kingdom’…..the inbreaking of the Holy….in the tasks of washing dishes and driving the car. I am excited to read how she stacks words one on top of the other to spell out the holiness of riding the elevator or passing the person whose sign reads:” Help. Homeless. God bless.” I am anxious to read the ways in which her living in the every day is threaded with green and growing moments that light up her spiritual path.

Over the years I haven’t held much with the term ‘kingdom’ as it shows up in the scriptures. In the community in which I travel we often change the word to ‘kindom’, making note that we understand more of what it means to be kin than what it means to reside in a kingdom. But in hearing this title, I have to admit I was drawn to its use and its meaning. How often I like to believe that the daily work of my ordinary life is pulling me into a place of beauty, a place that rises to some status close to royal. Do you share this belief? I want to believe that as I go through the mundane and miraculous movements of my every day, that some of the acts really are sacred. Setting my feet on the blessed ground. The fact that my two legs hold me up and gravity prevails. The way the coffee pours so elegantly and tastes so delicious. The slant of the sun onto the kitchen table illuminating the fruits and vegetables that reside in the wooden bowl, red, yellow, green, orange. The looks on the faces of those I meet, the way their eyes light up and the smiles form on their faces. The kindness of words and the missed opportunities for connection. The blessing of sun and moon and water and sky…..again and again and again.

All these small yet significant acts of any day lead me further toward The Kingdom of Ordinary Time. And you, what are the acts that are leading you toward this blessed place where the Sacred brushes your shoulder and reminds you of its Presence?