Many years ago I discovered the poetry of R.S. Thomas. I can’t remember how it happened. Perhaps I was drawn to the name I knew to be Welsh and so I began to read. The poem that I read and have continued to read every now and then is simply called ‘The Other’. It paints with Word a picture of someone, sleepless, lying awake listening for the sounds one hears in the night, sounds that often are magnified in the wee hours, sounds that can be frightening or calming depending on what it is that is keeping us awake. This sleepless one allows the sound of the waves to lull him into imagining another who is always awake, who is companion in both sleep and wakefulness, receiving our prayers over and over into eternity.

The first time I read this poem I probably wept. The words were so rich and the depth of feeling so raw with the hope of having prayers heard…by someone, anyone. And today this poem came into even sharper focus for me. Stumbling as I did into a small church on the northwest coast of Wales, I found a whole wall dedicated to this poet who was vicar of this church from 1967-1978, this church which hangs on an outcrop of land with the sea’s waves crashing just outside the door. I did not know that Thomas had been a minister here. Being in this place was pure chance and I was taken by surprise to find this connection.


Walking around the church I saw evidence that this tiny parish is vital and still engaged in the big, deep questions that Thomas loved. Every nook and cranny is filled with simplicity and beauty that reflects the land, air, sky and sea that no doubt has shaped the identity of this small village, that has created the theology that holds them. The words chosen to welcome and those that fill a booklet meant to lead the guest around the space are poetic and well chosen. They are clearly a people who have been led by someone whose love of language must have been ever present, someone who had won several awards for literature and, I learned today, was even nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996. When I say this is a small church, I mean it could not seat more than maybe 150-200 people. Given the state of most churches in villages this size to see one that appears so vital warms my heart and to have found it seems like some amazing gift.

Most of my life I have been a good sleeper. But over the last months there have been times that I, like Thomas, have been awake listening to every strange and tiny sound that creaks through the house. Usually in these night time thrashings, I go over all the things I have done, usually the ones for which I am filled with regret or those that I wish I could undo. Or I lay there making a skin deep list of all I have left undone, the procrastinations or details that eluded me in the waking hours. This stew pot can get hot pretty fast and before I know it, it is boiling. Does this sound familiar to you?

Tonight, as I lay my head down in the deep darkness of a place with no streetlights or ambient light, I can hear the waves crashing over and over just outside the hotel window. Just next door the church is standing as it has stood for centuries receiving the sound of the waves. Inside the door is a simple piece of wood with the words for ‘The Other’ printed in crude letters. My prayer is that if tonight brings sleep or restlessness that I have the grace to imagine the One who is awake as well holding my prayers…and your prayers…the prayers of those with deep faith…and the prayers of those whose doubt is real. May The Other receive the prayers of the world this night..for a few hours…and for eternity.

A Sad Story

It’s a sad story. About a King and a faithful dog and a baby boy. And a wolf. We are staying in the village of Beddgelert in northern Wales. This tiny town has its identity built around this story this sad story that goes something like this:

Llewelyn the Great had a favorite dog, Gelert. He also had an infant son. One day the Prince went hunting leaving his faithful dog to watch over the child. Coming home he found his home in chaos and blood smeared everywhere, including on the dog, and his child was missing. Thinking the dog had killed his son, Llewelyn, in a rage slit the throat of his companion Gelert contributing to the chaos and bloody scene. But moments later the Prince finds the child safe, unharmed, beside a huge, dead wolf. Gelert had killed the wolf and protected the child. Llewelyn is said to have never smiled again.

It is a story that grips the heart. And it is a story that is not true…factually anyway. It was created in the 18th century by a crafty resident to draw people to this picturesque village nestled between two tall hills and a swiftly flowing river. The story has been believable enough that people still come to visit the grave of Gelert placing coins around the stone that marks the site of this dog who was wrongly judged and died for a crime he did not commit. It is a fascinating phenomenon. Since this is also my second time to visit the grave, it has caused me to reflect on it all.

The story of Gelert contains much of what all good stories hold…mystery, intrigue, tragedy and an element of a happy resolution. Clearly, this story pulls at the heartstrings of dog lovers everywhere, of which, the British certainly are. Dogs and their companions are everywhere! The story also holds the ancient nature of a legend that has endured time. And it also carries some lessons and a bit of wisdom that challenge humanity at our core.

Reading the story once again I was reminded of the times I have jumped to quick judgment with results that were troubling, while certainly not as tragic as Llewelyn’s. I think most people might say the same. I am reminded of the times I act without weighing the possible outcome, without thinking what my actions might set in motion. I think of the times I have seen, and perhaps been involved in myself, a misuse of power over those who might be seen as ‘smaller’ or with less status. All this can be thought about individually and communally. How often do we as nations and communities act too quickly to judge without listening or getting the fullness of information? How often do we think the worst of someone or a whole group of people? Our newspapers are full of such acts and we live daily in the chaos and the blood-letting of it.

Perhaps the story of Gelert and Llewelyn has continued in this sleepy village because it holds an element of truth we each carry, something that invites us to a certain kind of reflective confession. Though not factual this story holds much truth. My hope is that the story continues to be told for generations to come, that people continue to visit the ‘grave’ of Gelert and place coins around the stone. In acts like this, may we each find ways to make amends for the ways we have harmed those who might be labeled the least, the lost and the left out, many of whom are companion and protectors. As we make our offerings, may we find healing…and lost smiles.



What Is Right

Traveling, being away from home, when terrible things happen is always disconcerting. Not being able to reach out to your steady friends and family, to have the grounding of what is familiar, shakes a person in ways that at other times can be processed in a more metered way. Being far from home, hearing the news of the horrific events in Las Vegas from a stranger whose voice and inflection sounded so unlike your own, gives a jolt that messes with all your vulnerable edges. It always seems to me that it is easier to be with tragedy when you are in a place whose fabric you know like the back of your hand. Maybe others experience this differently but this is true for me and it always surprises me the degree to which I am unnerved.

Hearing this news as I did, in such a lovely and peaceful place as the island of Iona, also caused me to begin to reflect on something quite different. I began to notice, not what is wrong in the world but what is right. I didn’t do this to deny or minimize the horrible, the violent, the incredibly sad events. I did it because I was also being confronted moment after moment by kindness, beauty, wisdom and deep acts of faith. I began to notice what holds a greater truth that can sometimes get hidden in the chaos and ugliness we have been experiencing lately.

Looking all around me, I saw the brilliant green of a landscape that knows at least a little rain nearly every day. It seems, because people expect this gift from the sky, most are prepared and do not complain or dread its arrival. They see it as the necessary companion of green fields, rolling valleys and rainbows. Having been blessed with an abundance of rainbows over the last days, another thing that is right in the world is that it seems nearly impossible to tire of seeing them. Rainbows are “awe” inspiring…and awe is always right and good. Most of us could do with more awe.

Nearly every day I have eaten food that came from within a few miles of where I sat down at a table. Gardens grown by those who likely also cooked vegetables recently clinging dirt and fish pulled from the sea by fishermen in small boats whose livelihood has likely been passed down for generations makes for a just and sustainable community. The food was not only fresh but inventive and artful on the plate that carried not only nutrition but pride. If I was inclined, as some are, to take photos of their food, I would have a camera full of meals.

What has been ‘right’ with people I have met? To a person, nearly all have been kind and helpful. Many have offered an empathetic word for what has been happening in our country from hurricanes to violent tragedy. Some have offered prayers on our behalf. None have dispensed judgment or been disrespectful. Conversations have been thoughtful and questions open. Last night our young waiter told us of his university work as a student of geography and disaster control and relief. He spoke of volcanoes, hurricanes and floods and their impact…I felt confident in a future for our world in the guidance of hands like his. All right and good.

Outside our windows, from rooms, trains and buses, sheep grazed offering their Zen master calm and presence in the moment. Cows linger near by sheep and they coexist with peace and harmony sharing the grass that helps make the rich milk and cheese we have enjoyed. Overhead birds swoop and dive, occasionally landing on the head of a sheep to eat insects off the sheep’s head. What an arrangement!

Last night we walked streets that were lined with buildings built in 1400 and 1500 and the wall that rings the city of Chester claims its origins in 70 A.D. These stones have seen much of the pain and anguish that humans can ladle upon one another. And yet they stand tall and continue to also be at the ready to welcome visitors and strangers. Inside one of them we could see a group of women of varying ages gathered around a table piecing together what appeared to be a quilt. Learners and teachers around a common lesson…throughout time this has been true.

The headlines are harsh and we need pay attention to them. We need offer our hearts to those who have lost loved ones and work to corral the love of guns that provide tools for such violence. And from blended knees in prayer and behind computer screens, at work and play, and in places of worship, we would do well also to remember all that is right in the world. In that remembering, may our gratitude be great and our resolve to continue to create more of what is right for the healing of the world.




Breaking Sun

And suddenly the sun broke through the sky
And I was home, a broad Atlantic
Stumbled over the rocks and creamed in rage
A tug of storm hung low across the shores
Water color blue and broken green.

How did I lose my way or once believe
That there were riches bigger than this simplicity
Or that any other tide could speak, or heal
The wounds of searching deeper cut than pain
Where here I stood by heaven hearing God?”
~Kenneth C. Steven, Iona

And so…it did indeed ‘all work out’. Just as the woman at the Iona book shop had said. We were able to make our pilgrimage walk. ‘Suddenly the sun broke through the sky…’ Taking off across the island paths we were bathed in its light and the ever present swirling winds. Walking in footsteps that have been walked over and over again, in faith, in fear, in desperation, in great hope, we put one foot in front of the other and made our way. Along the way, we stopped and prayed and sang and with each step we formed a deeper connection. Hands reached out to help bodies that were tired or had stumbled in mud and over stone. Quiet conversation or deep silence walked as companion. Each of us had our own reason for walking. Each had our own expectations. And so we continued our walk, step by blessed step.

When we made it to our destination, St. Columba’s Bay, we stood looking out toward Ireland much as Columba and his companions had done more than 1500 years ago. We looked at the seas which roiled and turned blue, then aqua and finally, brilliant white as they crashed over the rocks. The stones beneath our feet were smooth from countless waves that had crashed before. As those who had made it here after over three hours of walking, we searched the stones for the smooth, green stones known as St. Columba’s tears. Tears shed for a land he had loved and lost. Tears also perhaps shed for those he had left behind. We now searched for these stones to carry with us. In days to come, these stones may be held as we pray for our world and for one another. These stones connect us with the ancient prayers of all the others spoken, offered on this beach.

To have made this pilgrimage walk was privilege and gift. And to have walked it with this group of fellow travelers is an experience I will carry with me forever.

In the evening we prayed this prayer from more ancient words gathered by Andrew Carmichael in Carmina Gaedelica:

The guarding if the God of life be on you….the guarding of the loving Christ be on you…the guarding of the Holy Spirit be on you…every night of your lives…to aid you and enfold each day and night of your lives. Aided and enfolded, we rested well.


“Bless the God of all
who everywhere works great wonders
and by whose will all things are made.
The shining stars are the beauty of the universe,
a glittering array in the heights of God.
Look at the rainbow and praise the One who made it.
It stretches across the sky which its glorious arc…..
The swelling sea is full of danger
and strange creatures crawl forth from its depths.
By heaven’s word all things are created.
We could say more but could never say enough.
Let the final word be, ‘God is in all things.’”
~Ecclesiasticus 43,50

The winds are rushing and wild. The ferry was halted all day yesterday and looks to be so again today. Though the rain is intermittent, the temperatures are warm. This tiny island of Iona where I am traveling with a group of pilgrims is now cut off from the land we can see just a 10 minute ride away on ordinary days. But this is not an ordinary day. This land is also held in the flow of the Gulf Stream which holds its temperature mild allowing even some tropical plants to flourish. It also is affected today by the winds that have been fueling the hurricanes that have blown through the eastern seasides of the United States. This is another reminder of how, though far away in miles perhaps, we are inextricably connected on this planet we call Earth, this planet we know as home. Looking out my window the white caps are dancing a wild and raucous dance.

Yesterday we read the words above in our morning devotion time. I was struck with how they echoed what we were experiencing outside our walls. I was also moved by the line ‘We could say more but could never say enough.’ Isn’t it always so when we are in the presence of winds that blow wildly and beauty that takes our breath away as we have been these last days? Being confronted with colors that have surprised us and landscapes that are varied within minutes…we could say more but never enough. As we gathered yesterday morning in the small Parish Church for worship, the music and words were so beautifully written and spoken. Our group swelled this community by many and we were enfolded into their ranks with grace and ease. I, for one, was overwhelmed with the way the service was so gently crafted. It made my heart full…I could say more but never enough.

Today is to be our Pilgrimage Walk across the island following in the footsteps of St. Columba who came to this 3 x 1 mile island more 1500 years ago. Our guide is willing to take us if the winds allow and many of us will try. We have learned in our days in Scotland that weather can change even more quickly than in Minnesota so we will each make our own decisions about what to try, how to enter into the walk, or not. I am taking to heart the words of one woman I met yesterday who is part of the Iona Community. Reflecting on the possibility of the weather today and our ability to make this pilgrimage Walk she simply said: “It will all work out.”

It will all work out. I walked away from her thinking these are some of the most comforting words a human can speak to another. It will all work out. Though many of us have had expectations of this Walk for some time, it may not happen…probably won’t happen…in quite the way we planned. Life often works that way, doesn’t it? Winds blow. Hurricanes move through. So many experiences are a crazy mixture of what we plan, what we hope for and the result of our connections to the greater world.

I could say more but it would never be enough. It will all work out. Perhaps the woman who spoke to me yesterday offering those words really was saying “Let the final word be ‘God is in all things.’” If we walk, God is in it. If we stay inside away from the effects of the hurricane, God is in it. If we remain dry and warm, God is in it. If we are tossed by the winds and drenched by the rain, God is in it. There are three more hours before the pilgrimage walk is set to begin. The weather could change. Whatever happens…God is in it.