Category Archives: spirituality

Winter Gifts

Eli in the snow

My soul shall be filled as with a banquet.
- Psalm 63: 2-9

At dawn my sleepy lab whines softly. I rise and let him out to sniff his boundaries and empty his bladder. A few minutes later he pounces on the door. Eyes glinting light, he shakes off the blanket of snow on his back. Then lifting one front leg after the other, he prances in the kitchen, pulls a dish towel off the counter and waves it toward me. The toaster, jar of peanut butter, and humming refrigerator sparkle like icicles in the sun.

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I love winter – all of it – grey dishwater skies, wind rattling the siding on the house, cold, ice, blizzards, early sunsets, long nights, and dogs ploughing glad furrows in the snow.

I love that winter is a force I cannot control, but only yield to with humility and respect.

I love winter’s summons to gather up the scattered pieces of myself, burrow down deeply, and simmer in darkness, drawing strength for spring.

I love having to wait and trust in what is unknown and unseen.

Winter grows gratitude in my heart for the privilege of shelter, warmth, running water, and the freedom to stay home. Winter also blooms with compassion and sends me out to help those for whom winter is not some cozy spiritual experience.

 winter woods

Winter spirituality is a less-is-more Holiness of pared down praise. Winter speaks in koans and says, “Behold the fullness of this emptiness!” Now excess in prayer and lifestyle seem gauche and redundant in a world, stripped down to its bare essentials – all bones and angles, holding out its harsh, nonnegotiable truths.

I had had enough of winter thirty five years ago, when I pulled out of my drive in Kalamazoo, Michigan and headed south to Kentucky. I had spent the previous thirty three years of my life in Michigan and Iowa. I am not sure why I am so hungry for ice and snow now.

Hermitage winter

In contrast to the world of humans with our getting and spending, the natural world never tries to impress or persuade me of its opinion. It has nothing to market. It simply is in its implacability, given over to being what it is – a dead maple limb in my front lawn after the storm, a dried tomato vine, a fox checking the garbage can, a rabbit without regret or apology leaving tracks in the snow.

What is implacable about me, unchanging, or nonnegotiable? I wonder. I am a hermit at heart and welcome snow days. I love people and I love being with people. And love for them burns in me like a furnace and pours out molten in my prayers.

And there is this other love – a love of absence, silence, solitude, simplicity – a winter of the soul, where I sit down to a great feast so satisfying that I need nothing else.

Sunset Heartland Center

Manure and a Praying Life

Note to Praying Life Readers:

If you are a subscriber to Holy Ground Quarterly Reflection on  Contemplation  or support the The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer you already have received in your mail the letter posted here. A mistake was made by the printer on the envelope enclosed for you to mail in your gifts. The wrong address is printed on that envelope. The printer is sending a postcard to you with the correct address. We have contacted the post office about this error. If you have already sent the incorrectly addressed envelope, please let us know by email or phone lross@fromholyground.org . We will let you know when it makes its way to the correct address: 1600 SW Campbell Ave, Topeka, KS 66604.

We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you. As for the printer, he is deeply repentant and will be forgiven shortly. I figure another twenty-four hours and God’s grace will have overcome my anxious fretting. Besides a wise person told me when I began this ministry, “Your mistakes and failures are like manure for God’s garden in your soul.” I am anticipating a bumper crop in 2014! 

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The Sanctuary Is Celebrating 25 Years !

It all began with a resounding NO. Twenty seven years ago I applied for a church position as head of staff.  Few, if any women were heads of staff anywhere in those years. Still I held out hope, even though I was warned. The clerk of the Presbytery told his wife (who told me), “She doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting that job. And besides, it would kill her creativity.”

When the phone call came and the caller broke the bad news, I wept and stomped my foot. My daughters, who were outside playing, began pounding on the door. Dashing inside, breathless and red-cheeked, they shouted, “Mom. Mom! The wind is blowing. It’s blowing hard. Blowing all over the place. We need something to catch the wind with!”

Laughing in spite of my tears, I reached under the sink and pulled out a couple of big black trash bags. The girls ran back outside. I stood at the door, watching them race up and down the yard with the bags billowing behind them, catching the wind. Their wild exuberance and thrill in the blustery Kansas day, swept away my tears and anger. I felt rinsed clean and surprisingly reoriented.

It would be a while before I fully understood what God was up to in that heartbreaking no. Slowly I began to dare what seemed impossible: to pursue a ministry, which focused on the spiritual lives of people and prayer. As I began to say yes to this deep desire, door after door swung open. At some points I almost wished someone would say no, for I had little idea how to actually accomplish it.

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A ministry of prayer, which included a lifestyle of prayerful solitude, as well as organizational structure, as I envisioned it, was so removed from my denomination’s understanding of what pastors do. There were no models within my tradition. There was no provision for salary, pension, or manuals on how to do this “decently and in order.” I had only something I sensed was missing from many churches – something I and others hungered for – and the will to somehow supply some of these missing pieces.

The work has been challenging. I made mistakes. The Spirit has refined my motives and fine-tuned my sense of what I am to do, and is still challenging me to grow.

I have been immensely blessed. After twenty-five years of listening to people’s stories of their faith, it is still miraculous and thrilling to watch the wind of the Spirit of God at work in an individual soul. I see how personal transformation radiates out into the world, initiating family and community change.

Through the years God has been faithful. Needs are provided for and inspiration given.  You have been faithful too. Once when I was about to give up, one of you who had come for a visit to the hermitage said, “I have faith in you. I believe you can do this.” I have never forgotten those words of encouragement.

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You are why The Sanctuary exists. Your desire to deepen your faith, willingness to struggle with difficult issues, to pray and nurture yourself for service to your church, community, and the world has summoned this little “Roadside Fruit Stand,” as one of our board members called it.

You are also the how of The Sanctuary, for we are nothing without you – a far-flung community of varied faith expressions, people of compassion, wisdom, and love. You provide accountability for this ministry, a community, and a covering of prayer, as you teach us what you need and how to better serve you. You spread the news of this Fruit Stand out here in Kansas through your friends and contacts. Your subscriptions and generous gifts make this possible.  Thank you so very much!

As we celebrate 25 years in the coming year, we have some surprises and good things to share with you. Watch for a new website coming soon. Meet some new board members. Get the inside news on the progress of Loretta’s new book, Account for the Hope. Keep up with us on Facebook and our blog, The Praying Life, Pinterest, and Twitter.

We remind you to renew your subscription as it comes due. (The date of your subscription expiration is on your address label in the upper right hand corner. ) And please donate to The Sanctuary Fund. Your subscription fee allows us to break even on publishing costs. Additional gifts to The Sanctuary Fund enable us to maintain our web presence, offer spiritual direction at reduced rates for those of limited means, pay for business operations, and keep this roadside Fruit Stand open.

If you have questions  about your donation or subscription, let us know. And please keep sharing your feedback, ideas, and comments on how we can best serve you. You can phone us at 785-354-7122 or email at lross@fromholyground.org. We always love to chat with those we serve.

The wind is blowing here in Kansas today. Dried leaves rattle as they tumble down my street. The maple shakes out her falling locks, shedding what is no longer useful, and waves her dark branches to an approaching winter storm. To begin this celebration I am going to reach under the sink, pull out some trash bags, and go catch some wind. Will you join me?

Yours, chasing after the Holy Spirit with love and gratitude,

Loretta F. Ross

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But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Galatians 5: 22-23

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DONATE to The Sanctuary Foundation

What the Trees Said – Coyote

coyote

Last night coyote,
whose mother
raven said
was hit
on the highway,
turned himself
three times
scratched
sank
midst the gnarled
knees
of grandfather oak
tucked his face
beneath his tail
and slept til dawn

May we all find among the trees resting places for our sorrow.
Go out among trees today.

Let the Beauty We Love Be What We Do

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The children also greet Christ with palm branches and lay their garments on the ground honoring Him as King.

I kept Holy Week and Pascha with Saints Peter and Paul Antiochian Orthodox church this year. The Orthodox Christian Church celebrated  Pascha (Easter) on May 5. I did not make it to all of the holy week services. There were seventeen, beginning with the Saturday before Palm Sunday, the Saturday of St. Lazarus, the Righteous.  The people and their priest, Father Joseph Longofono, offer their gifts and talents with generosity and devotion. They are warm and welcoming to this awkward Presbyterian who comes among them to pray and learn more about a faith tradition she has long admired from afar.

On Palm Sunday, (April 28 this year) at the end of the service we processed outside with our palms, songs, incense, and other regalia and holy items for which I do not know the words.  I can tell by The Services of the Great and Holy Week and Pascha, the book of Holy Week liturgies I purchased, that most of these words are Greek. I learned enough Greek in seminary to pass the class and my ordination exams. Since then translation is an afternoon’s ordeal involving a concordance, Greek grammar book, Kittle’s ponderous Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, and trying to remember the Greek alphabet.

A few startled sparrows rose out of the shrubbery as we poured out onto the lawn.  Cars buzzed by heading East on one-way Huntoon Street. Along our path I smiled to see at my feet a little shrine of twigs overlaid with narrow strips of green moss.  Easy to miss, barely a foot or two in height, the shrine was a small construction of sticks stuck at various angles in a patch of moist bare ground.  Tucked in the crotch of a branch was a white spirea blossom.

The happy procession wound back inside the small sanctuary, its walls alive with glowing icons of the saints. You can feel them all looking tenderly on from heaven, adding their voices to our prayers and songs and benediction. I read that Orthodox draw no distinction between the Body of Christ in heaven and those on earth. They view both parts of the Church as inseparable and in continuous worship together of God. Orthodox worship therefore expresses this unity of earth and heaven in every possible way so that the earthly worshippers are continually reminded through all their senses of the heavenly state of the Church.  Wikipedia

It is as though for the Orthodox, worship is a continuous act since the beginning of the church. Everyone in heaven is there and we show up to join in the perpetual praise and leave and return as our lives allow. When we return we merely pick up where we last left off. And unlike many churches I am familiar with, nobody here is in any hurry. After all we have eternity.

The church was packed with more children than adults this day. Older children stood quietly with their parents, toddlers sat on the floor, mothers, fathers, grandparents, and aunts held babies crooked in their arms and nestling against their shoulders. Some kids sat on the few pews.  (Orthodox Christians stand for worship. The pews are reserved for the elderly, children, and fainthearted visitors.)  Toddlers wandered about. There was an ease about their presence, parents taking them in and out of the service as needed. The occasional cries, thumps, or exclamations formed a descant of baby babble to the chants and songs sung in four part harmony throughout the service.

After church I chatted with a little girl, admiring her cute flip-flops, and on the way to my car came upon the twig shrine with a red haired boy kneeling before it. The twigs and blossom had been kicked over.

I said to the boy,” Oh did you make this? It is very beautiful.” Nodding yes, he told me that his sister knocked it down.

“I am sorry. It is a holy thing,” I said.

His sister joined us and said, “Luke doesn’t like to sing the holy songs.”

“Hmm,” l said, as Luke worked on rebuilding his shrine, “sometimes people prefer to make holy things than to sing holy songs.”

“He doesn’t like to come to church,” she said in the irksome manner of sisters who broadcast a brother’s private life to strangers.

“Yes, there are people who feel that way,” I said to the little girl as her brother struggled to get the blossom to stay in the crook of the twig. I thanked Luke for making a holy thing and repairing it, and walked to my car.

His sister, shouted after me, “He is hypert,” as she, appearing a little hypert herself ran racing around the church yard in a holy dance of her own.

Luke, kneeling in the dirt with his offering, as brothers everywhere have learned to do, ignored her.

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Hundreds of Ways to Kneel and Kiss the Ground
The impulse to worship and to express the beauty and awe of our souls to the author of our being seems nearly universal in human experience. I believe this desire is placed in us by God in the core of our being, like a magnet, which draws us through our life experience to reach out and connect with the one who put it there. We may spend a lot of our lives seeking ways to express this sublime impulse. Yet if we trust our hearts, we will be led to places and forms of worship, as though guided by a God-given implanted GPS device.

There are many ways to worship God.  Sufi poet, Rumi tells us, Let the beauty we love, be what we do.  There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. I believe that our efforts at praise and worship are like building little shrines in the mud, each dear to God, each delighting the heavens, each precious.

When the beauty we love, becomes what we do, even the mundane may hold the potential of sublime worship: Lucille’s macaroni hot dish; the green and pink chintz curtains Elsie made for the ladies room; the deacon holding the door for you; your desperate prayer; a pile of rocks in the desert; your garden. In all kinds of ways we gather sticks, find a blossom, and put it out where someone will see it. Praise will be offered.

To be human, made in the image of the Creator, is to pour out our hearts on something we love which is greater and beyond ourselves.  Our responsibility is to discover ways to kneel in reverence, which will express our deep yearning and connect us to what is good, true, beautiful, and free. For me that is worship of God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ.

Luke’s Palm Sunday act of worship reminded me of another child’s offering. When she was around six or seven, my daughter, Diana, brought me a stick with dandelions, grass, and pink phlox wound around it. I wrote about it in my book Letters from the Holy Ground,

“This is a prayer stick, mom. I made it for you.” It was a large stick with flowers woven round the top. Could I let the stick pray for me? For I do not know how to pray aright. I lean the stick against my altar. “Pray stick,” I say. “Pray now.” I go off to other things, while the stick holds the offering pointing toward heaven. Dare I trust creation to pray for me, to bear my prayer? Here stone, pray. Here river, pray. Here moon, pray. Just by being what you are, a maple branch salvaged from last fall’s ice storm, wrapped round with pink petals, transformed by the touch of a child’s hand into something sacred.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? That is the question. For our hearts are heavy, and we, captive by this mortal flesh sit down and weep.

Loretta Ross (-Gotta), Letters from the Holy Ground  – Seeing God Where You Are, Sheed & Ward, 2000, p 67

How shall you sing the Lord’s song? Find that gps device in your heart and let it point you in the direction of the worship of your soul. I would love to hear about the things which lift your heart to God in the comment section below.

Severed

sea

Drawing her arms
through the salt sea
legs straining
giving her body
to the task

she swam among
the floating limbs
reaching after them
before they turned
to sink slowly down

to shocked shipwrecks
astonished clams
coming to rest in a cloud
of silt, the softly yielding
residue of other remains.

She heard no sound
but her breath
and the slip slosh of sea
as she ploughed the
surface of their sorrow.

She thought
she could retrieve them
gather the fragments
siphon up the spilt blood
return to all donors

bring mothers
their sons and daughters
reborn,
wrapped in seaweed

take this leg, uprooted,
to the young man
Here it is yours, she’d say.
I found it in the sea.

So deep, so wide the wound
of flesh and bone
so piercing, urgent the ache
to be re- membered.

__________________________________

for those whose lives have been blown apart
for those who must pick up the pieces

Loretta F. Ross, 2013

Faith and Fear

A two part series on giving birthddddxxxxx CDC zf
to redemption in your time and place.

Part Two – Conceiving the Inconceivable

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Mary takes hold of,
seizes
the inconceivable.

The purity and faith of the virgin
penetrate the illusion and falsity
that surround her,
and she offers her whole being -

intellect, imagination, heart, and body-

to deliver redemption into her world.

She claims her power
as the mother of redemption
and joins with God in a dance of saving love.

That same dance has the power to transform Cousin Carl in his fake angel costume and Aunt Edith with her hair in curlers into the heavenly hosts,

and you and me into bearers of Christ.

Do you see the mutuality in this exchange of love
between a mortal and the Holy One?

The prophet Zephaniah calls Israel to rejoice
because God is in her midst;
he further proclaims that this God in her midst is rejoicing over her with gladness (3: 14-18).

Israel rejoices over God.
God rejoices over Israel.
God chooses Mary.
Mary chooses God.
We long for peace and wholeness.
God longs to give us peace and wholeness.

What prevents more of this dancing in our lives and world?
A significant impediment must be our fear.

In the story of Christ’s birth several of the players are exhorted not to fear – Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds. The gospel writers over twenty times show Jesus admonishing others not to fear.

Fear may be seen as one of the indicators of the presence of God. Fear of God, which is the human response to God’s overpowering majesty, glory, and power, is an appropriate and desired reaction. In contrast, fear of the world, fear of self and others is seen as counterproductive to God’s action in our lives.

Beatrice Bruteau writes of faith as an attitude of the consciousness that is participating in divine activity, God’s creative work in the world. Faith is “the disposition which Jesus declared to be a condition for the realization of his works. The doer of the work had to have faith, and the receiver of the work had to have faith.”

Brutear considers faith as “not only the consent of the intellect to the reality of something that does not appear immediately to the sense, but it is the consent of the imagination and the affective faculties attached to the imagination.”
- Beatrice Bruteau, Prayer: Insight and Manifestation, in Contemplative Review, Fall 1983

Thus, the new thing God is doing enters this world –

as we agree something better is possible,

as we are able to vividly envision the new thing,

as we feel in our hearts the joy and delight of that yet unborn promise,

as we persevere in that vision in the face of fear and threats,

and as we live expectantly as if the vision is accomplished.

Fear keeps us stuck in the present reality, constricted and paralyzed by the very thing God is setting about to redeem. Fear distracts us from watching and waiting eagerly for the in breaking of God’s promises into the world. Fear turns our eyes away from the coming bridegroom to become mesmerized by the horror of a realm that does not know God.

Fear, then may be seen as faith in your enemy.

The danger, as Ian Matthews writes, “is of folding in on oneself. Pain does that, and the temptation is to look for a both/and:

both staying with the new setting, and feeding on nostalgia for the old one.

Unhappily this both/and tends to backfire. We cannot both indulge self-pity and make the most of a new situation.”
- Ian Matthews, The Impact of God – Soundings from St. John of the Cross

Simply put, our faith, as does Mary’s consent, allows Christ to enter the world.

Think for a moment.
How do you feel when someone expresses faith in you?
When another trusts you and has faith in your gifts, are you not enlarged, empowered, and more willing to offer your gifts?

Perhaps the reason why Jesus urges his followers to have faith, why he shakes his head in dismay at the disciples doubts and fear, is that their faith in Jesus empowered Jesus.

So, as Annie Dillard writes: “Faith, crucially, is not assenting intellectually to a series of doctrinal propositions; it is living in conscious and rededicated relationship with God.” Annie Dillard, For the Time Being.

Further, faith is not a vague and wispy sense that God is out there somewhere looking on us with a benevolent eye, nor is it an exercise of philosophical proofs.

Faith is the means by which God enters and changes our reality.

Faith is an interactive experience, a dance of mutual love between a mortal and God in which both parties are needed, affected, and changed for the benefit of the whole world.

Annunciation, Nvoman Darsane

Annunciation, Nvoman Darsane

Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Shout, Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
Daughter Jerusalem.

The Lord has removed your judgment;
he has turned away your enemy.
The Lord, the king of Israel, is in your midst;
you will no longer fear evil.
On that day, it will be said to Jerusalem:
Don’t fear, Zion.
Don’t let your hands fall.
The Lord your God is in your midst—a warrior bringing victory.
He will create calm with his love;
he will rejoice over you with singing.
Zephaniah 3:14-18 (CEB)

Adapted from my book, Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Chapter 38

Faith and Fear

A two part series on giving birth
to redemption in your time and place.

Part One – Mary and Cousin Carl

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Most every epiphany or showing of God in scriptures is met with fear. When the angel Gabriel comes to Mary saying,  “Rejoice, O highly favored one. The Lord is with you,” Mary does not break out in ecstatic bliss. Instead she is greatly troubled at the saying. As Luke tells it, she considers in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And well she might. It was probably not the first time some itinerant ladies’ man claiming to be an angel had come on to her.

The angels in the Bible get some of the worst lines. They are hard to pull off with any authenticity. Enter one angel Gabriel with a flourish of wings and heavenly splendor who must make believable both his incredible presence and the words: “Rejoice, O favored one.”  Smile, God loves you. This is your lucky day! Any virgin with an ounce of sense might consider in her mind, “Right sweetie. Have I ever heard that one before.”

The immensity of the heavens is about to invade Mary in a mysterious and awesome conception that will defy rational explanation and accomplish an incarnation that ushers in the redemption of the world. Yet before Christ is born, Mary must face her fear and make a choice. And so it is with us. When God’s cheery messenger meets us with the news that we will conceive and bring forth the fruit of salvation, fear rather than joy is likely to be our first response.

A-Annunciation_da_MessinaMessengers sent by God to announce God’s saving love often wear camouflage. They have a hundred disguises. Can we trust that they are who they say they are? This seed of hope they want to place within us, dare we believe it, receive it? What if we are mistaken and this is all a dream or a product of our own egotistical imaginations? What arrogance makes you think you can bear sacred saving gifts into the world? This is no angel, but Cousin Carl dressed up in Aunt Edith’s chenille bathrobe with some tinfoil wings and a halo made out of a pie pan!

In real life angels rarely look like the ones in paintings. And yet, does it matter if the angel really is Cousin Carl? To me, what matters is that we believe that holiness and salvation are afoot, whatever ridiculous disguises they wear.

Prior to the advent of God’s redeeming love in our lives and world comes a courageous act of faith. The birth of Christ is contingent on the belief of a young girl with an imagination creative enough to envision the impossible and a sense of her worth strong enough to defy fear and anxiety. She places her whole being in jeopardy as she lays out her life and all that she holds dear on the gamble that there is a God in the heaven who might have some business to do with her.

We are to rely on faith rather than evidence, Ian Matthews writes in his interpretation of St. John of the Cross. Yet, here’s the kicker: the danger St. John warns of “is not so much that we shall trust in the wrong thing, but that we shall stop trusting at all; that, while we may never say it in so many words, we shall cease to believe that we are factor in God’s life.”

Matthews continues:
Survival demands a certain skepticism. We are trained to cope as social beings by keeping our desires within realistic limits. But where God is concerned, the problem lies in our desiring too little, and growing means expanding our expectations; or rather, making [God's] generosity, not our poverty, the measure of our expectations.  - Ian Matthews, The Impact of God – Soundings from St. John of the Cross

Mary, sizing up her heavenly visitor, is moving from the rather safe place of conventional norms into a new realm where few of the old rules will make much sense. No one else can judge for her the validity of that grinning angel holding out joy like Aunt Edith’s peanut brittle. Should she take a bite? She hasn’t forgotten that incident in the garden with the serpent. What is truth? How can she be sure this is an invitation from God?

There are no books she can read, no wise men and women she can consult. She alone must determine and act on her own truth. How will Joseph or her village ever believe what is happening to her? Yet what others will think is not her ultimate concern. Her concern is obedience to the living God, to hope, to the possibility of wonder that lies beyond what the eye can see.

Joseph and the others must come to their own conclusions. They, along with the rest of us, are given that freedom. In W. H. Auden’s poem, “For the Time Being”, Joseph says to Gabriel:

All I ask is one important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.
Gabriel responds:
No, you must believe;
Be silent and sit still.

Weighing the odds, Mary asks one question, “How shall this be since I have no husband?”

“No problem,” guarantees the angel. And citing the case of barren Elizabeth, he assures her that with God nothing is impossible. Mary’s question raises a far from minor point. The participation of a male is a basic ingredient for conception. When God sends a divine messenger to us announcing that we have been chosen to bring forth some saving work, it may appear that some major components for success have been omitted. How shall this be since I have no money? Since I have no work? Since I have no education?

“No worry, it’ll be a cinch,” says Cousin Carl, snapping his fingers. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.”

Finally it is up to Mary. The redemption of the cosmos is resting on the consent, the free choice of this mortal woman to have faith, to believe that what she is experiencing is true, and to claim and live out her experience of that truth by conceiving the fruit of salvation.

What will be your answer to Cousin Carl?

 

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_______________________

 To be continued ~ watch for part two of this two part series. Will Mary say yes?  And what’s faith got to do with it?

This post is adapted from my book, Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Chapter 38

The Visitor

I hear you,
muffled
by the clamor of my mind
stomping the snow off your boots.

The little cloud of steam
your breath makes
seeps through the cracks
of my door.

Where have you been –
walking to and fro in the forest
gazing into the eyes of the doe
leaving traces of your countenance
wherever you go?

You tap softly.
Why do I keep you waiting?
You bring,
tucked into your sleeve,
the bunny with a missing leg
the sparrow with a broken wing.

You wait.
I do not see the silver dagger
gleaming
like a flame in your pocket.

I am cozy in my chair
wrapped in my reverie,
lulled, at ease, and insular.

Abruptly I recall the man
coming this morning to give
an estimate for repairing my fence.
Get dressed!

I will let you in after that.
But task leads on to task
breakfast, mail, the phone.
The fence man comes and goes.
So does the sun.

Later, I think of the bird and the bunny.

Did you find a warm place
for the weak and broken ones
you carried?

In the night turning over in my sleep
I wake,
bent double and breathless,
pierced by the stab
of your two-edged sword.

I do not know when
you took it out of your pocket
or when it neatly penetrated
between joint and marrow
separating the thick sinew
of self from will.

I only know I am so sorry
here in the dark
and so slow

to learn that opening the door to Life
means the death of me.

. . . God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point where it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions. No creature is hidden from it, but rather everything is exposed to the eyes of the one to whom we have to give an answer. Hebrews 4: 12-13 CEV

 

The Writers Workshop, A Love Story

Lovers entwined, a kiss-print still/singeing your collarbone come morning,

Buzzing cicadas, whose mouthparts reek of root juice.

A splayed hand
nailed to tar shingle
on a Texarkana roof.

A silo squats in kindling grass, kneeling like a giant monk,

Laundry day debunks the laws of physics, where the personal is the thermodynamic, for this homemaker

A Requiem for a shoe: a shabby wingtip with broken ties ….lying on its side in the byway … becomes, somehow holy.

A teacher singing show tunes and weeping in a middle school classroom, filling empty space with melody, another period/full of lyrics; accidents.

These images and snatches of experience, have been resonating in my mind, calling out to me, reflecting parts of myself, and connecting me to someone else’s story, passion, or singular beating hope.

The lines are the work of the following poets in the order in which the excerpts appear:
Timothy Volpert, “Love, don’t limit me to looking,” (untitled poem, first line)
Leah Sewell , The Cicada Fling, excerpt
Ben Cartwright,  Accidents, excerpt
Peter Wright, The Silo, excerpt
Cale Herreman, The Personal Is the Thermodynamic
Sandy Morgan, Requiem for a Shoe, excerpt
Ben Cartwright, Melody and Empty Space, excerpt

The Topeka Writers Workshop

I spent evenings this past summer in the company of a small group of local writers. Mainly younger than I, they are part of what I like to think of as “the hip scene of Topeka creative life”- that outpouring of energy among young artists, musicians, writers, thinkers, and entrepreneurs of the past five or six years.  We meet after hours at the Blue Planet Café to drink coffee and munch the cookies the owner leaves for her writers.

The Topeka Writers Workshop was founded three years ago by Leah Sewell, who facilitates it as well. Leah gently leads us in writing exercises and the workshop model of critique. I joined the group because I wanted to get out of a box and mix it up with people different from me around a passion we share in common, good writing.

The group turned out to be mostly poets. At first I was afraid to tell them I am poet too, having written and published poetry since I was ten or so. But these were real poets, serious poets, the kind, who say they are addicted to poetry and take big risks for it.  One is a PhD candidate in creative writing, another is an MFA candidate. Besides, what I was bringing to the workshop was prose, chapters from a book I have been revising forever.

 

Confession, Mom and the Starlit Road

Yet I need to confess that poetry is in my blood. I remember gathering with my family around the radio in the evenings to listen to Len Howe read mom’s poems, broadcast from WHO radio in Des Moines, Iowa. I recently found in her files a sheaf of postcards dating back to 1948 from the radio station telling her when her poems would be read on the show Starlit Road.  Over 79 of her poems were read,  some more than once.

In the kitchen mom often stopped mid task to grab a towel, wipe her hands, and scratch out a line of poetry on the back of an envelope. I recall her urgency to get a phrase or image written before it went down the drain with the dishwater. Sometimes I sat on a chair while she ironed and read aloud from the first poetry book she owned, Untermeyer’s Modern American and British Poetry, (1928). I loved Edna St Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, and Walter De La Mere.

Only much later would I learn of mother’s inner struggle between longing to be a poet and the demands of wife and mother. When she asked the poet, Paul Engle, why through the ages only men had become great writers, he told her, “Women simply do not have the stamina for rigorous creative arts. It happens in all the other arts as well as writing.” He went on to say that great writing required the writer to suffer great tragedy which apparently the obtuse fellow assumed only came to men.

Poets Exposed

I never took a creative writing class. I skirted around the edges of poetry, deciding to perform it rather than create it. My undergraduate and M.A. degrees were in speech and theatre with a minor in English. I only began to claim being a writer in my mid thirties.

So I sneak into the group with my prose to be critiqued, and, of course, they go after it like poets. Write that paragraph like a prose poem. Take out all the extraneous words. These economical sifters of sound and meaning hone in to the spare, bare truth. They sculpt experience and meaning until reality is exposed, glistening on the page – a newly delivered child wet luminous – like a miracle:

 her long legs dawn strawberry blonde
 & I am an old wolf maintaining the furnace

(Peter Wright, teaching me to swim, excerpt)

They talk about my writing, while I listen:

I don’t think this fits here. It’s good, but use it elsewhere, says one.

This is contemplative. You pose a question and then approach and answer in different ways, notes another, getting what I am up to.

If you can’t already tell, I have fallen in love with them. The tall pianist who lopes in, plays a prelude, and reads his hilarious ironic piece on the ill-fated love story of two workers in a call center for a sex hotline. (Ok, I did blush a little.) The house-husband with a gentle soul needing to talk of something other than lunch boxes, cartoons, and laundry and be known as more than dad and husband. The unassuming woman, who quietly grieves the unspeakable loss of her dearly beloved. The PhD candidate who sends me to the dictionary to look up anamorphic and writes poems that turn over in my mind like ancient runes. The young woman, who shyly offers her poem, anticipating abundance in the putting together of two lives. And our guide, Leah, who tosses off these stanzas:

Above my head a dark sight
thrums and swoops, careens
fast to the blunt flatness
of a fence post. Fallen starling,

parted beak, gasp of dread
glint-wing broken open
in a sinister cape. I cup
its gloss in my palm.

The children fret and coo as I carry the bird
to a canopied place, wish it peace,
and bow away from its pointing eye.

The storm’s outskirt arrives
in black overhead. The wind
grips my face, tells me to get inside.

(Leah Sewell, Backyard,  excerpt)

(By the way, you must read this poem excerpt out loud to taste and feel the wonder of its consonants and rhythm in your mouth.)

Each member brings poems which stun me with their beauty, jolt me with clarity, slap me with surprise, intrigue and invite me into the warm mystery of another human being.

And I like it that they are not churchy. Trust the reader more, they tell me. (Don’t preach.) Let us make the connections. (Don’t patronize.) Let us have our own meaning. (Don’t proselytize.) We are open and welcoming, but please don’t write like the kind of Christian, we were afraid you might be, when you first joined the group. Like hound dogs, they sniff out my defensiveness, my need to please, and expose my vulnerability.

They confront me with my own prejudices and what it means to write about God and even use the J word (Jesus) in a culture where the word, Christian, makes many people, including me sometimes, squirm.

Flannery O’Connor called poetry the accurate naming of the things of God. Taking their cue from the great southern writer, these poets simply inspire me to write poems, to trim away the fat, to consider just what I am trying to accomplish here, and cast off all self consciousness. They make me more contemplative and honest.

Psychologist Carl Jung observed,

Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible.

I am interested in communion, that co-union of minds and hearts, that bridges the isolation and the apparent inadmissible truths between us, where we find a home,  if only for a moment or two, in one another. I found it with these poets, reaching beyond their isolation with the things that seem important to them.

Don’t Miss This

If you are looking for a home, a little clarity for yourself, and some good entertainment, come to the Blue Planet Café on Friday evening, September 21 from 6:00-8:00 pm for Topeka Writers Workshop READS. Be there to listen and meet these writers. I think you will fall in love too.

______________

Leah Sewell is a poet, book designer, magazine editor and MFA candidate at the University of Nebraska. She is a past recipient of the Association for Women in Communications Women Making Headlines Award in media and the Penwomen Scholar Award for Letters. Her poems have or are expected to appear in PANK Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, Roufus City Review, Weave Magazine and Begin Again: 150 Kansas Poems. She is the founder and facilitator of the Topeka Writers Workshop in Topeka, Kansas where she lives with her family.

Boring Church and the Vulnerable God

There is a bit of the scientist in anyone who sets out to test in his or her own life if Jesus Christ is really all he is cracked up to be. “Prove it,” the contemplative says to God. Here are all these promises: freedom, joy, abundance, peace, wholeness, justice, truth, and life eternal. “Show me,” says the contemplative, setting out to experiment with divinity in the laboratory of experience.

In the beginning God is the object of the search. At some point God may peremptorily rise out of the test tube and take over the experiment. I find myself being dissected. My soul is flayed open by truth. I am blinded by glaring light and toasted over a Bunsen burner, where my impurities are burned away and I am distilled into my essence. I am no longer in control of this process. The knower and the known have shifted places. And truth is not something I can find, but something that has me in its grasp.

Theologian Lesslie Newbigin observes, “Reason, even the most acutely critical reason cannot establish truth.” … [This is because] You cannot criticize a statement of what claims to be the truth except on the basis of some other truth-claim – which at the moment – you accept without criticism. But that truth-claim on which your critique is based must in turn be criticized. Any claim to know truth is, therefore, simply a concealed assertion of power.” (Truth to Tell, The Gospel as Public Truth, Eerdmans, 1991, pp 29-30.)

The work of scientist Michael Polanyi reminds us that “all knowing involves the personal participation of the knower, that knowing always involves the risk of being wrong, and that the struggle to know calls for the fullest exercise of personal responsibility.” Truth to Tell,  p.51)

Instead of seeking proofs of God from reason or experience, the contemplative finds fulfillment simply and humbly dwelling in love in God’s presence.  The contemplative gives God entry into the world, not through a claim of truth, but through a believing heart. Instead of an exercise of power through the assertion of my reality over yours via dazzling argument or feats of spiritual prowess, the contemplative takes the vulnerable route of allowing God to make God’s own appeal through the context of his or her surrendered life.

I acknowledge my vulnerability when I say, “I cannot know it all. I may be wrong. This is what I see. This is what I am responsible for articulating as clearly as I can.” We might characterize the spiritual journey as the process of discovering right relationship to this vulnerability, which we meet in ourselves, others and in God.

By vulnerability I mean capable of being wounded and wrong, open to attack or damage. Our vulnerability may include our sin and temptation to evil, our failure and weakness – wherever we are not whole, wherever we fall short of the glory which is our promised inheritance as God’s children.

We can relate to our woundedness in many ways: with anger, resentment, impatience, contempt, deceit, shame, and blame. We can so identify ourselves with our vulnerability that we know ourselves only as victim. Then, committed to our suffering and stubbornly resistant to healing, we may defend our wounds with fierce loyalty.

God sends into our consciousness, into the heart of matter, Holy Vulnerability in the form of Jesus. It teaches, heals, suffers, dies, and rises saying, “Look, watch me. This is what it means to be human. It is all right. Everyone is wounded. Follow me and be healed.”

Over and over Jesus’ ministry reached out to the vulnerable ones. He brought home the lost and the misfits saying, “You belong too.” He didn’t bring them back to turn them into Jews or folks like him. He just brought them back saying, “You, just as you are, are important. You have a contribution to make. We need you. You belong.”

Loving Jesus takes away our shame for being human like nothing else can. For he shows us how to be poor, how to value and appreciate our vulnerability. He tells us the vulnerable ones will see God and inherit the kingdom of heaven. He helps us get off our high horse and come down where we ought to be on our knees.

In the painful encounter with our vulnerability and diminishment, we meet the diminished suffering God and our own holiness. For in my poverty I discover my true worth. Stripped of what I can do, what I possess, how I am known by others – all the external ways I have attempted to create worth for myself, I find my true self in the center of my humility, which is also the dwelling place of the Trinity.

I used to read my children a story about a little girl who was born with a long tail like a dragon. Various characters seek to help the child with what is perceived by some as her disability. I liked Mike the cat’s approach best. “Teach her to love her tail,” he sagely advised. He shows her how to switch her tail back and forth, wind it around the fire escape railing and hang upside down. Teach her to love her tail.

Part of the task of the church is to teach us to love our tails and God’s tail, Jesus. Spirituality without Jesus Christ is spirituality that may be resisting the fundamental truth of our vulnerability. It may be a spirituality that, well or ill disguised, is exercising power, trying to be God.

The world holds vulnerability with fear and contempt. The church ought to teach us to hold it in our arms and love it. But the church is, of course, vulnerable too.

I was trying on a new hat when eleven year old Cicelia observed that you should always wear a hat to church. “It protects you from boredom, mom. The boredom rays, like the ultra violet rays from the sun are in church and sometimes at school. If you have a hat, you will be protected from the boredom.”

I hope the place where you worship is not boring. Maybe if churches had more to do with being with God and less to do with talking about God, things wouldn’t be so boring for Cicelia and others. As EvelynUnderhillobserved, “God is the interesting thing.”

A good deal of church seems to have little to do with God and is conducted as though God were, if not absent, at least very far away. Little time is given for God to get a word in edgewise. Our frantic activity and anxious busyness comprise our faithless creed that not much of anything can happen without our doing it ourselves.

Perhaps it is just too risky, too frightening. What if nothing happens? Nothing is changed or accomplished? Once Cicelia put a sign on her door painted in large red letters: KNOK or ELSE! Red paint ominously dripped from the letters like blood.

Jesus, we know you stand at the door and knock, but beware! We are resistant to transformation, devoted to our losses and the sins of others against us, and do not really trust your power in our lives.

The church will always be imperfect. It will be unimaginative and boring and rigid sometimes, because we are unimaginative and boring and rigid sometimes. Thank goodness God’s presence doesn’t depend on our winning academy awards in best Pentecost service of the year.

I have been in so many churches where you wonder why anybody comes at all. What with the dozen dusty arrangements of silk flowers and the sappy pictures of Jesus and the bad roller rink organ music you wonder what the appeal could be.

The appeal is, of course, Jesus. Jesus is there and active, because the people believe in him. Their vulnerable belief holds the door open for the vulnerable God to enter.

Knok or Else.  He is likely to walk right on in.

This post is an excerpt from my book written about learning to pray as I raised children in small town, Holton, Kansas. Loretta Ross (Ross-Gotta),  Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Sheed and Ward, 2000,  pp 119-122.