Category Archives: faith

Do You Know What You Know?

Four Great Questions

The word is very close to you.
It’s in your mouth and in your heart, waiting for you to do it.

 I was putting away some of the books which had clustered around my reading chair:  David Brooks, The Social Animal; Contemplation Nation, edited by Mirabai Bush;  poetry by Wendell Berry, The Hunger Games; The Cloud of Unknowing… when I randomly opened one of the books and found Four Great Questions.

The questions are in the book, Yoga and Anxiety – Meditations and Practices for Calming Body and Mind by Mary and Rick NurrieSterns on page 102. I will tell you what they are in just a minute.

I find the world fascinating and cannot get full of the knowledge and wonder of it all. I usually am reading four or five books at the same time. Often what I read opens doors of understanding and appreciation. Other times reading confirms my own intuitions and understanding, or it invites me into whole new places and realities I have never experienced or imagined.

“He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He’s actually kind of dangerous,” a friend recently said to me about a young professional on his way up the ladder to “success.” Sometimes we do not know what we don’t know. We may then set out to decrease our ignorance, or remain self-deceived, uninformed, arrogant, and even dangerous.

On the other hand there are occasions when we don’t know what we know, which could also be dangerous. The questions I found on my way to my book shelves are aimed at uncovering truths we already know, but are ignoring, denying, or deceiving ourselves about.

For example, we may know more about what is the best course of action for us, than we allow ourselves to own. Sometimes I play dumb in my relationship with God. I will go back to God over and over with some question I really already have the answer to. Yet I insist on double checking, second guessing, and reconfirming. It is my anxiety and doubt that send me back for continual assurance. I almost seem to prefer wringing my hands and hemming and hawing, than striding confidently, calmly into the next step.

This commandment that I’m giving you right now is definitely not too difficult for you.  It isn’t unreachable.  It isn’t up in heaven somewhere so that you have to ask, “Who will go up for us to heaven and get it for us that we can hear it and do it?”  Nor is it across the ocean somewhere so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the ocean for us and get it for us that we can hear it and do it?”  Not at all! The word is very close to you.  It’s in your mouth and in your heart, waiting for you to do it.   Deuteronomy 30:11-14, Common English Bible (CEB)

Four Great Questions

Sometimes we are not ready to face a truth for various reasons, so we choose to remain ignorant. These questions help you consciously acknowledge a truth that you know deep inside, or to bring into the light a nagging realization that keeps popping up.

1. (Fill in the blank) The truth about this relationship is ______________.

2. I know I need to _______________________________________.

3. The real truth is _______________________________________.

4. What do I know about myself and my life that I haven’t been listening to?

Take some time this week with these questions. Find out what you already know and let me know how it goes.  “The word is very close to you.”

Questions from Yoga and Anxiety – Meditations and Practices for Calming Body and Mind by Mary and Rick NurrieSterns

The Closing

A life time is like a flash of lightening in the sky
rushing by like a torrent down the steep mountain.  Gautama Buddha

It is done.
The message glowed in my palm.
The screen went dark.
The home full of light and memory
had passed neatly out of our hands.

Half a day’s drive north
we rose with the birds
to wash our faces
walk to our cushions
sit in stillness
as the sun came up.

Occupied with the throb
and slosh
of humans being,
minds alert
to the swell and surge
of experience,

we did not gulp or grasp,
but lifted our forks slowly
to savor what was on our plate.

Carrying our cups attentively
like offerings of fragrant brew
we got insights
we got bored
our necks ached
our necks really ached
our legs cramped
our minds sank.

Fur grew in our brains.
A cat named Torpor climbed up our bodies,
stretched herself across our shoulders, purring.

We stepped carefully along the drive,
the wooded path, the lawn.
When the bell startled
the still air and the finches flew,
we returned to sit
and then to walk
and sit again.

Up against our limits for the taste of God,
we picked up our hand held devices
just to check the time
and well, maybe, any messages
and then like hopeless junkies
shot up
with the news.

And, Lord, like Peter, (say it)
we slept.
We could not stay awake one hour
to watch our own suffering
let alone yours.

And the tall ones,
full of grace, like some exotic species,
came and moved among us.
We tried not to grasp
their beauty with our eyes
or covet their youth.

When they left too soon,
we, shoulders shaking, sobbed,
Oh no. Oh no.
Oh please don’t go.

But they with other roads
to travel and business
of their own stepped easy
over the threshold, saying

Let go. Let go.

And Mary said,
They have taken away my Lord,
and I do not know where they have laid him.

And the angel said, He is not here. He is risen.

And Jesus said,  Don’t
cling to me.

And raccoon, rotund and tight with bloat,
lay on the side of the road
and said,  See my insides are turned out.

And Coyote
trotting briskly across the clearing in bright midday
paused to look behind his shoulder
then disappeared into the woods.

A thick snake of ancient sorrow
rose up in us from miles below the surface
twisted, heaved us double with its force.
A wind whistling loneliness
whined and keened through all the spaces
in our bones.

every
thing
is going
back
and forth
across
a threshold

coming into existence
and going out of existence

while the dying rising one stands ever
on the brink
offering
a torn fragment of what is so

lost opportunities
things we have done we cannot change
our loved ones whose graves we want to tend

 we gaze at the ragged piece of our existence
resting in his tattered palm

Jesus, how will this ever be enough
to satisfy our hunger,
or slake this sorrow?

 Take. Eat, he says.
Be healed of thy affliction.

Thou, who gives and bears away,
grant us mercy
to take each moment
to our lips
and drink the cup you give
bitter,  sweet.

Give us,
O Sentry at the terminal,
where all things come and go,
the appetite and wit
to swallow and digest
entirely
what is so.

________

You sweep people away like dreams that disappear. They are like grass that springs up in the morning. In the morning it blooms and flourishes, but by evening it is dry and withered. Psalm 90: 3-6 New Living Translation

This existence of ours is a transient as autumn clouds. To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance. A life time is like a flash of lightening in the sky rushing by like a torrent down the steep mountain.  Gautama Buddha

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Do not let them be afraid. John 14:27

Prairie Lamentation

Driving west on Interstate 70 from Topeka, Kansas around ten in the morning, I plunged into that green swath of oceanic beauty called the Flint Hills. Named by explorer Zebulon Pike in 1806, the majestic sweep of bluestem prairie extends north to Nebraska and south all the way to Oklahoma.

Formed 250 million years ago when Kansas and Oklahoma were covered with shallow seas, the land is compared to the undulating roll of a great body of water. The shallow soil rests on seabed layers of flint, shale, and the fossilized remains of sea animals.

Reveling in the beauty, I was sailing down the road, when I came abruptly upon a sight that brought my heart to my throat and sent a chill down my spine. A huge shimmering whiteness moved off to the north along the road. Bigger than the side of a barn, it lifted and fell back to the ground. It seemed alive somehow, but no animal could be that large.

I slowed, curious and wary. The highway was deserted. Was this a UFO? Maybe I should look for an exit and turn back. I drove a bit further, then coasted onto the shoulder, and stopped about 100 yards away, watching that white thing waving.

It looked like huge wings. One wing spread up the side of a hill, the other lay nearer to the road in the valley. A few iridescent feathers lifted in the wind and reflected the blue sky like mirrors. The wings were rising and falling slightly in a convulsive shudder.

It’s hurt. It needs help. But it’s huge. Would I scare it? Would it attack me? And what is it?

I looked up and down the road. Still no traffic. I opened the car door and slid out. A sudden rush of wind whipped past and slammed the door shut. The air was cool and smelled of grass. The only sound was the soft swish of shuddering feathers. Standing by the side of the road between earth and heaven, I pressed my hands over my mouth and stepped forward. I had taken a few more steps when, suddenly, the thing, the bird hiccupped. It convulsed and heaved in a ragged sob.

I nearly jumped out of my skin, but I saw that it was crying. The beautiful bird had spread herself over the sea of grass to weep. Don’t ask me how, I just seemed to know the bird was a she.

I moved a little closer, wondering if I could be of comfort. May I help you? But before I could finish the thought, a river of grief and anguish engulfed me and I tumbled over and over, gasping for air, drowning in sorrow. A deafening roar of cries and sorrow filled my senses. Then a battering wind and hellish screams pulverized me into tiny pieces, flinging me into darkness. After that, nothing.

When I came back together as myself, I was there in the quiet August morning with the hills, the sky, the empty highway, and the still bird. She seemed calmer now. The shuddering had stopped.

Are you all right? I asked. Are you able to fly? And again, instantly, I was drawn out of myself in a sickening swoop over mountains. We dove into the depths of the sea, peered into the eye of a whale, and crawled with a crab on a shore. I saw the molecules of a heart valve, and plummeted into the shrunken belly of a child in Sudan. We whooshed through glittering palaces of power and stood on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. She laid those wings over a pile of bodies in Pakistan and sat on the shoulder of a man holding an AK47 rifle. We splashed in a child’s swimming pool with a little girl in a pink and green striped bathing suit. She whispered to an artist bent over a painting, and coursed up the stem of a tomato vine in Fremont, Nebraska.

This time, reeling and breathless, I didn’t want to ask any more questions, or bear the answers. I gazed upon her wings spread over the prairie grass and the reflection of the blue sky, the puffy white clouds, and the tall grass waving. In the play of light and color I caught of glimpse of a woman peering back at me and realized with a start that the woman was myself.

Then she lifted one wing. She drew her head out from under it and turned her eyes on me. A bolt of love and compassion seared through me with the crackle and snap of flames rising from dry wood.

I sank down beside the bird. What do you want of me?

Tell them.
To stop.
Hurting me.

I cringed, shaking my head. I can’t. I am complicit. I have blood on my hands, too.

She waited for me. The wind ruffled her feathers. The puffy clouds moved across the sky. Somewhere a meadowlark called.

Okay. How?

Be brave.
Be brave, she told me.
Be brave.

_____________________________

Don’t grieve God. Don’t break his heart. His Holy Spirit, moving and breathing in you, is the most intimate part of your life, making you fit for himself. Don’t take such a gift for granted. Ephesians 4: 29 (The Message)
 
 
Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. Ephesians 4: 29-32 (NASV)
Prairie Lamentation was first posted on August 31, 2010.


Ain’t Nothin to Worry About

She is sitting on a chair in her bedroom. I show her the new pants and blouse. “Try them on mom. I got them for you.”

“Oh, I don’t need any new clothes.”  She gestures to a pile of folded shirts on her dresser.

“Mom, you are holding up your pants with safety pins. That blouse is worn thin.”

She slowly pulls on the new pants, then stands and hitches them over her narrow hips. I help her button the blouse. We both like the results. “You look great mom.”

She smiles, then announces, “After ninety the worst is over.” We observe a thoughtful silence, and then burst into laughter. Eyes twinkling, she says, “Then they dress you. They fix your breakfast.”

The good news from Irma: if you are over ninety, relax. The worst is over. If you are not, take heart, the best is yet to come.

When I was a child the word used for senile dementia was “childish.” Uncle Lou was “getting childish.” Grandpa “was childish.” That meant that they were older and acted young somehow. Because of this, we were to understand and watch over them a little more. It was a gentle term, a matter of fact acceptance. When mother returned from visiting blind Aunt Ethel in the rest home, who, after she broke her hip, never got out of bed again, mom would say, “Aunt Ethel told me to go out back and get a chicken and dress it and make her some chicken and noodles. She doesn’t know where she is. She’s getting childish.” Mom would fix chicken and noodles with a store bought chicken and take them to her anyway.

__________

The house I grew up in is the kind of place where God shuffles around in his jammies and house slippers like part of the family – deeply loved and cherished, but not made a big fuss over.  Mother grew up Quaker and married my Mennonite father, whose family descended from the Swiss Anabaptists of the Reformation period. In some kind of compromise they became Presbyterian. When I told a seminary professor about my parents’ religious pedigree, he remarked, “Well it confirms what I have always felt.  Presbyterianism is many people’s second choice.”

Mother’s pastor brings her communion. She is grateful for the fellowship, but I wonder if the sacrament seems redundant to this old Quaker, already immersed in the Light. When she prays for me and my daughter before our Christmas dinner, she draws the words up from some deep place and forms them with a conviction that leaves me shaken.

My mother’s house has many rooms of treasures. If you come to visit, some of her childishness may rub off on you – her simplicity, transparency, and sense of humor. When two hip twenty-something graphic designers from a big city came for Thanksgiving, they were entranced by the carvings, my deceased father’s fifty year old book on design, the advertising in old magazines, and the relics of native Americans my father found.

The young men rooted around with my daughter in closets and basement, amazed and delighted. Because they had been raised well, they recognized “childishness” and listened to Mom’s stories with kindness and gentleness. Mother showed the same politely curious interest in the tattoos, which covered most of one of the visitor’s arms, as he did in her apple dolls.

Then the visitors all went out to play across the street on the swings and toys in the school yard, snapping photos on their iphones to send to their friends. They arrived early and stayed late. It was nearly midnight before Mom and I turned in on that magical day.

A poem by Thomas Merton has been coming to me lately:

Come my love
pass through my will
as through a window
shine on my life
as on a meadow
I, like the grass,
to be consumed
by the rays of the sun
on a late summer’s morning.

The poem is based on St. Johnof the Cross’s poem, The Dark Night of the Soul. In the poem John compares the soul to a window. He sees the spiritual journey as the process of cleansing and removal of anything in us that might impede or distort the Light of Christ as it passes through our lives. In this process we become more and more transparent and childlike.

My mother drinks her tea this morning as she watches a squirrel and a cardinal at the feeder. “I am remembering,” she says. “I am remembering how when I was a kid and would get upset or complain about something, Pop would say, ‘Oh that ain’t nothing to worry about.’”

“Gosh mom, that doesn’t sound very empathic.”

“Well that is what he would say. ‘Oh, that ain’t nothing to worry about.’” And she smiles out the window.

I want God to pass through me like a window, to shine on my life as on a meadow. I want to be consumed as the grass on a midsummer day.  I can ask for it, pray for it, but I think it ain’t nothing to worry about. In the end such childishness is given simply, quietly in the gracious surrender to growing old.

Mother puts down her tea cup and says, “After ninety three things get interesting. It is like reading a book backwards. I never understood before why people would look at the end of a book and read it first. It is smooth going. You can do what you want. People don’t expect much of you. They think you are childish. They try not to laugh, but you can see they are just dying.

I don’t let on I know.”

 

This post is adapted from Holy Ground, Vol. 19, No. 4  Winter  2009. Holy Ground is a quarterly reflection on the contemplative life, written by Loretta F. Ross, and published by The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer.  

 Go here to read the entire issue online.  Download a FREE copy of Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter 2009. 

The Star Stopped – Part Two

Joy: Our Chief and Highest End

When they had heard the king, they set out;
and there, ahead of them went the star that they had seen at its rising in the east, until it stopped over the place where the child was.
When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. Matthew 2:9-10

Once there was a man who played with Jesus a kind of peek-a-boo and hide and seek, asking to see him while he walked.  I go now where the man prayed and Jesus is everywhere, sitting in the trees, hanging upside down from the hawk’s nest, swinging his arms up ahead along the cow path, turning in wide circles in the heavens, glinting under the silver wings of geese.

“Jesus, get out of here,” I say.  “I have work to do, prayers to pray, fears to nurture, pain to bear, miles to go before I sleep.”

He just grins, riding down the back of the willow leaf. You bet,” he says, “who do you think is in charge here anyway? I came that you might have life abundant.”

“Yes, but there is so much suffering and sorrow in the world. I have survivor’s guilt.”

“Deal with it, sweetheart, joy is your burden to bear.”  Then quoting scripture, “‘Do not be like a horse or a mule without understanding, who must be curbed with bit and bridle, or else they will not stay near you.’  (Psalm 32:9)  Daughter, you are forgiven for being happier than some of the others.  In your joy is my joy made complete.”

____________

What is the chief and highest end of humankind?” asks the Larger Catechism.
Humankind’s chief and highest end is to glorify God and to fully enjoy God.

A friend of mine died after a long debilitating illness. Before he died he told me, “Life is funny. You know, I used to say life is messy. Now I say life is funny. God must be laughing his head off at us, saying, ‘Don’t they get it?’ I have no complaints. Life has been very good to me. I just try to enjoy.”

To enjoy:  to put into a state of or to be in joy – to indwell rejoicing. Joy is the emotion provoked by well-being, success, or possessing what one desires.

How strange that little teaching in the church has to do with helping us to be faithful to our highest end. We know how to read and interpret scripture. We understand the dynamics of church growth. We can conduct things decently and in order. We can do mission. We are even beginning to understand our spiritual life and prayer. But how many of us can state precisely how it is that we glorify and enjoy God as individuals and as a community of faith? When many of us start to enjoy we feel guilty. To claim that anything I might do actually glorifies God may sound arrogant. To seek enjoyment of God seems hedonistic and wrong.


It takes courage to risk joy. The older we get, the more we know of the ravages of life and sin, and the woeful limitations of the flesh. My dying friend, weak and suffering, says, “I just try to enjoy.” Perhaps that is when joy is born the truest, when we are firmly fixed in the limits of humanity, held by the teeth of our extremity with no illusions. Maybe you won’t get better. Maybe your friend will die. Maybe your heart will be broken. Maybe the divorce will be final. Maybe the worse that can happen will happen.

Now here, just when you thought it was all over

here

stop

where the star has stopped and let joy in.

It will take a mile if you give it an inch. Watch how it eases a hand and foot through the crack – pushing in a shoulder and hip, and flinging the door wide open on bliss.

What did you think would make the star stop, if not the sad song of mortal need?

A lot depends on the way the yellow willow leaf swims like a slim minnow downstream to rest in the musty shallows of earth.

Now it turns, spins in circles, now it dips and glides, now stops, still in the air, then drops like a sigh.

A lot depends on such surrender, but even more depends on someone noticing.

Jesus, help us to love you
more than the search for you.
Give us hearts of merriment and gratitude.
Teach us to tolerate goodness, to stable delight.

And Merciful Savior of loss and defeat,
bestow upon us the wit to trust
and to consent to contentment
that your joy and our joy be made complete.

Mirable Dictu (Wonderful to Behold) Harvey Bonner


Excerpted and adapted from Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Loretta Ross (Gotta), Sheed & Ward, 2000, chapter 23.

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The Star Stopped – Part One

Joy: Our Chief and Highest End

The Magi Journeying

When they had heard the king, they set out;
and there, ahead of them went the star that they had seen at its rising in the east, until it stopped over the place where the child was.
When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. Matthew 2:9-10

The star stopped.

Did they slam into one another like dominoes – camels, gifts, magi all in a scrambled pile before the manger?

They had been seeking joy for so long; and they knew more about traveling than arriving, more about need, than about fulfillment.

The star stopped.

The momentum of the journey, the habit of search, sent us lurching forward even as we beheld the prize. Like ones on a long auto trip riding over the flat stretch of prairie, we lie still at night in our beds feeling ourselves hurtling along phantom highways, our flesh imprinted to motion.

So we arrive at our destination, yet act as if we are still on the way. We shuffle on unsteady legs to the doorway where the light glows, the breath of cattle steams, and something makes a low choking coo. We are overwhelmed with joy, a sublime apprehension of the beauty and perfection of what lies before us under the stars and that we need travel no longer.

It doesn’t get any better than this:

the glad dog bounding gleefully after the yellow cat in the sun

the clutter in the child’s room – a still swirl of hair brushes, dirty socks, ribbons, Tootsie Rolls, and crayons

you and your friend laughing over lunch in the cozy diner

your own wrinkled hand and all it has grasped and caressed, pushed, smoothed and manipulated


You think you need to get busy. Accomplish something today. Wild-eyed John in his camel’s hair is out in the pasture yelling to get with it. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance, you brood of vipers,” he shouts. There is so much to do, so far to go. You think this or that thing has to be done. You think joy is up ahead, when you have reached some goal, satisfied that hunger.

We ought not to pray for things, as to pray to live as though we had the things we pray for. We ought to discover just what it is we think these things will give us, to consider carefully what is the sub text of our desire.

The star stopped.


Did they pile into each other like keystone cops? Was a screeching cosmic brake applied? Or was it so silent as was hardly noticed in the din of rising galaxies and earth teeming with the shrill frenzy of life and death? Perhaps it was a gentle slowing pressure in the heart, an impulse to do something unfamiliar, maybe a sudden press upon the shoulders to bend the knees and halt midway down the stairs absorbed in Joy.


The star stopped and cast its radiance like a neon arrow:

Exit now. Food. Gas. Lodging.

Here this is it. You need go no further.

The star stopped and they were overwhelmed with joy, writes Matthew.Well, how long did that last? How long before they began to fret, to glance anxiously at their watches and their bank balances, and worry about the future, recalling Herod and their disturbing dreams. There would be the trip back home by another road, and how they would explain the dishes still undone, the laundry piled upon the floor, the unpaid bills.How long before they would begin to doubt their own eyes – that they had seen what they had seen? “Perhaps I was mistaken, it all seems so unreal. It was long ago. I was ill, or grieving, young and foolish. We’d better keep on looking, just in case.”


O immaculate tenderness, O sweet hay in the wind, ground of our beseeching, joy of our desiring, we meet and greet you, kneel to adore and leave our gifts, then what? You are too much for us – you in your completeness, sufficiency. We, overwhelmed with joy, cannot bear the light and back out of the radiant stable to return to the familiar world of anxious fear and endless seeking.


The tension of incompletion fuels our lives and impels our action. Consummation is hard for us to take. People shouldn’t be so happy. “I’m sorry mom, but I just can’t keep my smiles down,” confides the eight year old apologetically on her eagerly awaited trip to the ice skating rink.


If we get too satisfied, won’t there be no striving, no invention, no creativity, no urge to improve, discover, move on? Won’t it be boring? Won’t it be dull?


Our capacity for satisfaction is much less than our capacity for hunger.

Who dares to take a vow of stability?
Who dares declare that this is it
this broken down stable of a life
this very life in shambles shelters Joy?

What most characterizes American culture, poet Richard Wilbur has said, “…is not unity, but rather a disjunction and incoherence aggravated by an intolerable rate of change.”

I gaze in bewildered nostalgia at old photographs of myself and loved ones. Motion is an essential property of things. Everything at one level of its being or another is in motion and change.

Is there anything in the universe that is absolutely still? The earth heaves, crumbles, splits, powders. The flesh pulses, sighs, and dies in the slow dance of decay. Electrons careen around nuclei. Five-flavored quarks flash in kinetic quick-step.

A lot depends on the way the willow leaf turns in the wind and curls to a dry crisp under the bird feeder, but even more depends on someone stopping to notice.


Our awareness gives birth to Christ. Seeing that the star has stopped and climbing down from the camel to kneel before the holy child dwelling in the heart of matter with innocence and salvation is what opens the door for God’s entry into our world.

The child yearns to be noticed. The child waits in the crib of creation for us to stop and pick it up and deliver it to the world by virtue of our own seeing.

Christ is born by our consent.
It all depends on someone saying, “Let it be to me according to thy word.”

Then a still small soul magnifies the holy one, and, like a mirrored prism, bends light into multicolored beams of joy.

~ to be continued in next post

Excerpted and adapted from Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Loretta Ross (Gotta), Sheed & Ward, 2000, chapter 23.

Midsummer Tragedies

In the midst of life we are in death.
Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Book of Common Prayer, Burial Service

He carried the news gently in his mouth. I took the gift from between his soft lips and mourned. The black retriever had scooped the lifeless, winged thing from under the bird feeder. 

The night before I stood on the glider and peered into the nest, hidden in the leaves. Two naked heads with open beaks peeped softly.

We discovered the nest, while trimming the trumpet vine, which covers the trellis around the patio. We put down our clippers and traded gardening for bird watching. For the past three weeks we delighted in the cardinal couple and their chirps and whistles. They took turns guarding and sitting on the nest and often perched on the trellis or on the glider under the vine.


What had happened? Mom and Dad had vanished and the other fledgling as well. The nest was vacant. The air was empty. Gone was purdy, purdy, purdy; chip, chip, chip; and the what-cheer, wheet, wheet, wheet, songs and calls.

We glowed under the blessing of their nearness. I wanted to see the youngsters learn to fly. Did a blackbird, blue jay, or that bold squirrel, who kept coming up close to the patio cause the tragedy?

I was going to write a blog about the fruitfulness of summer. Instead I buried the bird in the garden next to the zinnias and wondered where the cardinals had flown and how they were doing. I hope they begin again in a safer place than my backyard has proved to be.

It has been a tough week. A seventeen year boy was killed in a car accident. A family gathered to remove life support from their beloved. A woman, whose organs have begun to shut down, makes a last journey home to be with family. Twenty seven people die in an Afghan hospital when a bomb explodes. In Minot, North Dakota, the Souris River rises to snatch its prey – over 4000 homes flooded, eleven thousand residents have evacuated.

You know. You know. In the midst of life we are in the midst of death. A squirrel carrying off a bird is in the way of things. And so hearts, breaking from love and loss, are in that same way of things – life ending, people and things we love being destroyed, wearing out, wasting away.

So I say look while you can. Pour out the precious oil of your loving attention on what is before you. Allow yourself to be anointed ahead of time for the deaths you will witness and mourn, including your own. Hold your dear life close with open arms. You can always trim that trumpet vine later.

Oh, Ick, a Christian


“I don’t like telling my friends that I am Christian,” she told me. “I always have so much explaining to do.”

Maybe you have felt patronized, judged, or violated by someone’s attempt to evangelize you. Others may know the discomfort of identifying yourself as Christian and watching people stiffen, bristle, and look for an easy exit from a conversation. I cringe when news media sum up Christianity with a one dimensional sound bite, which shrinks nuance, metaphor, and a 2000 year history of religious thought and lived expression to nail clipping snippets.


The image of Christianity in the United States has suffered a major setback in the past twenty years, and not without good cause. Dan Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons call this “a growing tide of hostility and resentment toward Christianity.” From the beginning Christians have disagreed about interpretation of faith. They have treated one another terribly in the process, as well as many non Christians, who have crossed their path over the centuries.

Yet outsiders in the twentieth century held a favorable view of the disparate followers of Jesus. In 1996 eighty five per cent of the people on the outside looking in at Christianity had widespread respect for Christianity. However today, only fifteen years later, younger people outside the faith, as well as some inside the faith, have lost much of their respect for Christianity.

Among the twenty four million outsiders (agnostics, atheists, and persons of other faiths) who are age sixteen to twenty nine, thirty eight per cent have a bad impression of present day Christianity. One-third say Christianity presents a negative image with which they do not want to be associated. Seventeen per cent maintain very bad perceptions of Christian faith. (David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Un Christian – What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity  … and Why It Matters, Baker Books, 2008, pp 24-25.)

Clergy today are held with suspicion and even contempt by some people. Professional misconduct, the flagrant abuse of those entrusted to their care, scandals, and fraud have left a bad taste for all of us, and deeply scarred many.

I recently heard about a congregation which observed a day of repentance for the sins of Christians against others and against the earth. I like this idea so much that I think it ought to be incorporated in church calendars – a day of atonement for sins committed in the name of religion.

Once in a while I come up against hostility in thoughtful, intelligent, open minded people and am stunned to find a bigot.  At such moments I give thanks I am not in Rome when Paul was, or other places today where Christians are persecuted and killed. And in such moments I get a glimpse of what Muslim brothers and sisters must endure from those who perceive them as potential terrorists.

I also realize with a sigh that I have a lot of explaining to do, if I want to do the work of developing a more intimate and honest relationship with this person. This is not because I think the person needs to be saved, but because Christianity so deeply defines me, that for us to have an authentic relationship, we both need to be known as we are.


So why am I Christian? I will do a little explaining. My mother was a Quaker and my father, Mennonite, and faith was as common and sustaining as the air they breathed. When they got married, they joined the Presbyterian Church and there I was raised. Unassuming faith, which never had a conflict with science or a searching mind, was woven into our lives and led my parents to take stands to protect the environment and to respond to injustice.


In my early twenties I stepped back from the faith of my father and mother and did some exploring. Then in my early thirties I had a crisis of faith. It was not a crisis in my faith in God. No. It was a crisis in my faith in myself. I painfully discovered that I could not find wholeness and peace by how smart I was, how good I was, by how hard I worked, by what people thought of me.

In the giddy 1970s psychology and the human potential movement were going to save us. I remember clearly the day when I came up against the endless striving of my ego and saw the emptiness and futility of all my efforts to establish my well being on what I could do, or know, or possess.

I began to discover that peace and joy seemed to hinge more on my capacity to love and forgive others, my willingness to risk my personal well being for another’s well being, and to help those who suffered.

For as long as I can remember, Love has burned in my heart, as a nameless yearning, an aching desire for more, for expansion, and connection. Love has opened my heart to its breaking, driven me to the limits of my hope, my intellect, and my strength over and over. Love continues to draw me beyond myself, and my known world, toward what I can neither fully name, nor live without.

Because of this Love, which will not let me go, I want to live well, even nobly, while I am here on this earth. Faith helps me to do that. I suppose, given all the bad press and worse behavior of some Christians, if I could avoid it, I wouldn’t be a Christian, but it is the best way I know to be whole and free and full of joy.

My friend, Jeff Bean, recently posted this on his Facebook page:

Why do I love the Lord? To learn to love my wife better. Why do I love my wife? To learn to love the Lord better. Life is about perfecting our love.

Like Jeff, life is for me is about perfecting my ability to love, and boy do I need help. This is why I am a Christian.

The Christian faith helps, even makes it possible for me to strive toward that perfection and to love well. A relationship with Love, which remains ever beyond my possession and control, who will not become anyone’s brand or commodity, who stands always beyond in the mystery of Being itself, informs and shapes my relationship with the universe and everything that is in it.

Being a Christian invites me to forgive, which is the only way I know to bring lasting peace. It calls me to be more than I am, more caring, more compassionate, more honest and transparent. It exposes my brokenness and sin – my greed, selfishness, lust, envy, pride – and asks me to take responsibility for it.

Christianity  bows before a Power beyond my coercion to whom I am accountable for how I live my life. Christianity offers a community to support, teach, challenge, and love me into greater love.

Christianity gives me a story, a narrative of the journeys and wisdom of others who have struggled and learned to love. In their stories I mine my own story, like a vein of gold woven into the layers of the lives of other people, who have responded to and resisted Love’s call and demands. The multivalent resonance of the Bible, echoing, reflecting, and revealing truth and meaning, connects me with a purpose and a reality larger than my own tedious little drama.

The group of believers, the church, (and yes, sometimes they drive me crazy) asks me to trust in the wisdom of a community as the church keeps forming and reforming itself. Since its beginning the church has been falling down and getting up again, which gives me courage and hope, because I fall down all the time.

Christianity takes me to the extreme limits of my self identity, who I think I am, and draws me through the narrow channel of the cross of suffering to the death of parts of myself, which impede or block the flow of love.

Gina Beukelman, Topeka, KS The World Race Mission Volunteer

Christianity asks me to go places I want to avoid, to love people I don’t want to love, and to live with integrity and purity of heart in the midst of a world awash in deceit and greed.  My faith requires me to resist evil, in all its guises – empires, systems, and institutions – and to commit myself to work for justice and peace.

As a person of faith I discover my security not in what I own or who I know or how much power I possess, but rather in how many possessions and how much power and status I give away.

Finally, in the despised and rejected Palestinian Jewish peasant, who called himself the Son of Love, I am met by a most unlikely lover of my soul, who unfurls endlessly before me, the way, the truth, and the life.

I find in Jesus, who was the enemy, both of religion, and the oppressive empire, the grace to make us one. Here I find the generosity, compassion, and freedom to love even the icky ones – Christians, pagans, Muslims, atheists, Jews, rednecks, republicans, democrats, and my own icky self.

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Resurrection’s Rude Affront

But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.   Mark 16: 6-8

It is no wonder that they didn’t get it at first.

The distance from his line to theirs
is years of light –
from sorrow to joy,
despair to hope
death row to picnic in the park.

We still don’t get it.
We still haven’t made the perilous journey
beyond the edges of the known territories.
We want mostly to slouch around the tomb
spicing up death
dissecting sorrow.
Misery is kin.
Failure familiar.
But the man acquainted with grief
is intimate with gladness.

And when they arrived,

he was gone.

Of course,
just when you think you are going to put your hands
on divinity,
just when it seems to be holding still enough
to catch
just when swirling matter and energy
hesitates
pauses 

it’s gone to Galilee.

And we are left holding the spices.

Best make a pie
for death will not lie down
to wear grief’s flavor.
There is a joke here,
a cosmic practical joke.

If you go to the tomb
to tend to the dead
and talk to the angel,
you risk losing everything
that holds your life together.
But after you have already
lost most of it anyway
in the event that has brought
you to death’s house,
you really haven’t much to lose.

It is the suffering, the anguish
that has you scurrying at dawn
to touch for one last time
your love.
It is there you may see angels,
when all hope is lost,
all reality laid low.

Then the words of angels
will strike you,
crack you
open
and leave you spilling
down the sides of mercy.

Someone is laughing
and you still damp with tears
had hoped to spend the night
in sorrow’s arms.

A rude affront to ones
adjusted to the gloom,
this grinning angel,
garish almost in his gleam.

 

This post is excerpted from Quem Quaeritis?Whom Are You Seeking by Loretta F. Ross. This readers’ drama has been performed extensively, including a performance by the Metropolitan Memorial Methodist Church in Washington, DC.
The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer
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Pear Blossom Blessings

It snowed pear blossoms here in Kansas this week. Tiny white petals floated down like confetti and drifted into the corners of my patio. They festooned the back of my black lab, Elijah, and rode into my kitchen stuck to the soles of my shoes.

The pear flurries crept up on us quickly and then were over. All week I planned to stand under the tree and gaze up through that lacy veil to the branched blue sky above. When I finally went out to behold this beauty, the green shoots of leaves were already pushing off the petals and the moment was over.

Dripping with blossoms, the tree was stunning in the sun, lifting her arms like a bride to her beloved. Then, impetuously, she dropped her gown, sending her skirts floating past my windows.

Watching the petals fall on the lawn, I remembered the poem my mother read to me one spring, years ago.

The Pear Tree
In this squalid, dirty dooryard,
Where the chickens scratch and run,
White, incredible, the pear tree
Stands apart and takes the sun,
Mindful of the eyes upon it,
Vain of its new holiness,
Like the waste-man’s little daughter
In her first communion dress.
        Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1919

Spring comes like a sudden lump in the throat, a sharp stab to the heart, a pear blossom falling too soon. Beauty does that to us. Beauty, a thing we cannot possess, or control, belongs, finally, to the Creator. The waste-man’s little daughter will outgrow her communion dress. She will move past her vanity and grow into holiness, as her girlish charm gives way to the inner radiance of the Bread of Life she takes between her lips.

Like the woman of Bethany, hastening through the streets with her perfume for the beautiful Savior, soon to die, spring spills her treasures over us, and then is gone.  The pear tree blooms for a week. Too soon her splendor falls softly, grows transparent, yellows, and dries in the cracks of the sidewalk.

Last week I saw a man with a pear blossom petal caught in his eyebrow. He wore it, perched like a tiny cap, over the arch above his spectacles.

I would like to be so baptized with pear blossoms. May you each have your transcendent moment in the sun, and see yourself as the stunning beauty you are.

Ought we not always be pouring the priceless gift of our attentive love on every particle of this world? Ought we not be running recklessly through the streets and fields, smitten and ravished?  We, here so briefly, so soon to be released and blown to rest in the softly greening grass, are surely born to be pierced through by such beauty and spendthrift love.

Are not we here for this above all reasons:

to lift our arms like brides,
and to wear the kiss of God upon our brows?

Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”        Matthew 26: 6-13 (NIV)


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