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)
Posted in Contemplation, prayer, faith, God, Lent
Tagged beauty, communion, Easter, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Kansas, Matthew 26: 6-13, Pear, spring
I have been pulling out thorns, stick tights and nursing cuts and scrapes. I spent the past couple of weeks in a briar patch. Tangled up in old resentments, anger, and feeling sorry for myself, I had worked myself into a wadded mat of prickly brambles.
A briar patch with twisting vines, which cut or trip or cling at every turn, may be a good place to begin lent. In some respects, we, like Br’er Rabbit, are born and bred in the briar patch of human existence. I, however, did not find it as comfortable, as my cousin, Brother Rabbit. I felt trapped and wanted to break free of the barbed burden of myself.
My pride and arrogance coiled around one ankle. My entitlement and envy looped in a thorny noose around my throat. And soul smothering self pity sat on my chest like a heavy stone.
I could not seem to untangle myself. All my efforts only bound me more tightly. And, to tell the truth, I do not think I really wanted to get free. An insidious part of me seemed to enjoy how awful I was feeling. At the same time, another voice was asking, when I was willing to listen, “How happy do you want to be?” as if my happiness was somehow up to my simple consent and my willingness to receive what I desired.
Finally at my wits end and the end of my own strength, I prayed – not for God to fix the things that had me trapped, not for God to turn the briar patch into a luxury hotel, not for God to give me insights, knowledge, or explanations, but for mercy. I asked for God’s mercy – unmerited, undeserving, unearned mercy.
I, sick of myself, surrendered and stopped defending, justifying myself, and arguing with imagined foes. I came to my knees and asked for mercy.
And mercy was given
falling softly like a gentle rain.
Later that same day I discovered I had been set free from the briar patch. The heavy weight of myself was gone. I was no longer chaffing and pulling out splinters.
And the word, mercy,
sounded sweet in my ears,
like birdsong, unbidden and blest.
Perhaps there is no better prayer than to simply commend ourselves, others, and the whole world to the redeeming mercy of him who died and rose for us. According to Balthasar Fischer, this ancient prayer means more than “Help us!” It means: “Take all of us with you on your journey through death to life.”
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth, as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless’d;
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes: . . .
Though justice be thy plea, consider this—
That in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer, doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice
Posted in Contemplation, prayer, Lent, Spiritual Formation, spirituality
Tagged God, Jesus, Kyrie, Merchant of Venice, Prayer, Religion & Spirituality, repentance
“The reason why pastors are so tired around Easter is because they have to preach about something they don’t really believe and it just wears them out,” announced a colleague to the group of clergy. Some clergy will tell you their fatigue is due to all the extra services, studies and observances that cluster around the season. One wonders what it is that calls out the sudden burst of piety and round of religious soirees, if it is not the need to reinforce our sagging faith.
Evelyn Underhill describes spiritual growth as a “series of oscillations between states of pleasure and states of pain which fatigue the immature transcendental powers.” (E. Underhill, Mysticism, p. 381.) Whatever the cause, the amazing truth of Good Friday and Easter is more than most of us can swallow, let alone integrate in such a way that we remain in possession of the power of the Risen Christ, while at the same time surrendered to that power.
Death is wearisome. Suffering is wearisome. Evil wears us down, grinds us down. As the opposite of creativity, evil employs repetition as one of its weapons. The slow steady accumulation of minor abuses and violations turn over time into an onslaught, which erodes our best intentions. Sick and tired of it all, we finally succumb with a yawn and let death have its way with us.
Jesus says, “It is lent. Come on. Take up your cross and follow me.” Jesus does not summon us to a quick easy death. He says cross – that slow torment that keeps you hanging around, conscious, gasping, while the body strains and sags against the nails that pin us to our own circumstances and the slow agonizing drag of gravity does its job.
We sink slowly into the earth, the forces of the universe pulverizing us over eons into dust. At such a prospect, heartily endorsed from pulpits far and wide, one’s transcendental powers, mature or immature, might well benefit from a swig of Geritol.
“Have a Happy Death,” my friend says. And I go read about those eccentric saints who extol the joy of suffering and actually prayed to share in Christ’s pain. What did they know I don’t know?
A while back I got a large envelope in the mail with the words SECRETS THAT CAN BANISH PAIN emblazoned across the front. Inside a Mr. Mark Bricklin promised to send me secrets that would save my life and show me HUNDREDS OF WAYS TO GET FAST RELIEF. I looked over his offer and decided to take a nap.
Our culture has little capacity to find anything redeeming in anyone who would deliberately seek to suffer. We have a difficult time distinguishing between the suffering of sacrificial love and suffering that is meaningless and self-defeating. It is hard for us to believe that suffering consciously chosen and accepted could be anything other than dysfunctional behavior.
This may be part of the reason why the season wears us out. This Jesus hanging on a cross for our sakes appears hardly functional. He makes none of the promises of Mr. Mark Bricklin who exhorts me not to deprive myself and my loved ones of the chance to truly banish pain. (Mail the enclosed card today!) The effort of leaning up against that cross in a culture that seeks to banish pain, and the real spiritual work of extending ourselves past our exposed doubt deeper into God is more than a little fatiguing.
Spiritual growth may be seen as slowly deepening belief, or the steady erosion of our hypocrisy. Layers of pretense and self deceit peel away to expose our fear. What is revealed is the limit of our belief, its edges. A good deal of our suffering is that raw exposure of our doubt, our unbelief, to the light of the Risen Christ. It stings, smarts. We think we are dying, losing everything.
Perhaps the difference between tragic suffering and the redemptive suffering in which Christ invites us to participate lies not in the amount, kind or quality of the pain, nor in its cause. What makes one kind of suffering sacred and healing, and another simply one more case of horror and abuse inflicted upon an innocent victim may lie in the extent of our personal freedom to choose how we respond to the pain we experience when others trespass against us.
And here we might look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter, “who for the joy that awaited him, endured the cross, despising the shame…” (Hebrews 12: 1-2) We do not have to love our suffering; we just have to bear it. We take up our crosses. We consciously receive the pain that comes our way, not for the pain we must endure, but for the joy that awaits. In this way we become martyrs, not in self abasing, whining, self-righteous martyrdom, but in the original sense of the word. Martyr in Greek means witness, one who has seen God and is willing to testify by one’s life that God lives – even in the midst of death and evil and defeat.
Perhaps what those long-suffering saints know that I and Mr. Mark Bricklin haven’t yet grasped, is that what makes suffering redemptive is enduring the cross despising the shame, making light of its disgrace. The self which dies is the ego, the grasping, controlling, faithless part of ourselves which believes everything is up to us. Unlike Jesus, we do not despise the shamefulness of our suffering. We despise ourselves instead. We are humiliated and contemptuous of ourselves in situations of disgrace, defeat and loss which expose our limits.
We want an explanation for our pain. The ego anxiously searches for meaning in the mistaken notion that in understanding we may find relief. Jesus does not seek to justify himself. His focus is not on the cause of his suffering, but on obedience to the One he loves and from whom he came and to whom he is headed in joyful reunion. Jesus does not despise himself, instead he despises that which seeks to humiliate and destroy his identity as the holy Child of God, in other words, his innate goodness and sanctity. Jesus does not stop loving himself or God in his suffering.
To be beaten, to be rejected, to be abandoned and despised without beating, rejecting, abandoning, and despising oneself is to know oneself as a child of the Holy One. To suffer, despising the shame, is to remain grounded in one’s essential goodness, even when one has reached the limits of one’s ability to do good.
A blessed lent to you and to Mr. Bricklin too. May we all enjoy a happy death, a good rest, and steadily maturing transcendental powers.
This post adapted from Letters from the Holy Ground, Sheed & Ward, 2000, written by Loretta F. Ross (Ross-Gotta).
Read more about prayer www.fromholyground.org
Contact the author email@example.com, www.fbook.me/sanctuary
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Posted in faith, Lent
Tagged Christianity, Easter, Evelyn Underhill, God, Good Friday, Hebrews 12: 1-2, Jesus, Religion & Spirituality, resurrection, suffering
The moral revival that certain people wish to impose will be much worse than the condition it is meant to cure. If our present suffering ever leads to revival, this will not be brought about through slogans, but in silence and moral loneliness, through pain, misery and terror, in the profoundest depths of each man’s spirit. Simone Weil
To accept defeat, to accept suffering for love of God and in obedience to God’s will is extraordinarily difficult. Yet such surrender is what saves us. The purification of our intention, the corrections in our thinking, the deepening compassion, and the redemptive power released from the profoundest depths of a person’s spirit transforms, heals, and frees. The church, as the place which could most clearly articulate and live out how to die to oneself, personally and corporately, seems to avoid any direct attention to such a notion. More often we find ourselves caught up in the push and glamour of success, the tasks of survival, and pumping up egos, rather than teaching them how to die.
That I must die to myself and suffer loss and pain and that such a death might be participation with Christ in a redemptive mystery goes against the grain of the independent self reliant spirit and the “me first” character of our times. However, when we settle for slogans, consultants, and committees, we circumvent the opportunity to discover strength in weakness and victory in failure. We build our case on ideology and successful practices, rather than a witness to God and faith. We succumb to a simplistic understanding of God’s saving action in history as winners or losers, and do not know ourselves as active participants in the redeeming of a broken world.
I am not sure why we don’t get this. Christians are a people who bow before a man dying on a cross, for heaven’s sake.
Christians the world over are about celebrate that dying man. They will tell again the ancient story of their God and how he came to be betrayed, humiliated, beaten and nailed to a tree. They will recall how this God, who was supposed to bring an end to their sorrow and oppression, failed miserably.
They will remember, too, how they failed miserably. How they betrayed, abandoned, and killed their God. They will see again how they had got things all wrong, how they had so horribly misperceived the truth with their narrow minds, jealous hearts, and faithless souls.
And they will be astonished by the Grace, which rolled away the stone of their rigidity and fear, and defied their wildest imaginations. What they thought was ruined and dead now stood before them in the bright morning sun and spoke, “Go and tell the others to go to Galilee. They will see me there.”
This was an old story. Calling something names, beating up something, and killing it to take away our pain and anger and sin wasn’t new. For thousands of years, we had been killing things and one another and offering them up to God as a way to set things right, get what we want, and make up for the messes we made.
But this time was different. In their fury and fear, this time they killed God, divinity itself. And Holiness let them. God wore their spit upon his face, their rage upon his back. He opened wide his arms to be penetrated by their malice.
This time God said, “OK. I will show you. This is what it looks like to kill God. This is what it means to see the truth about yourselves. This is how to love.
I am willing to bear the pain of your sins against me and against yourselves. This is what forgiveness looks like. This is what peace costs.”
With that willingness and love their God sucked the poison out of sin. He defused the power and grip of evil on the human heart. He took the hell out of everlasting damnation and gave them eternal life.
And he told his followers to do the same with the suffering in their lives.
Today many Christians wear little replicas of that cross of execution like tiny gold electric chairs or lethal injection needles. They wear death on a string and carry life in their hearts.
For having died with their God, they rise with him. And from the profoundest depths of their spirits flow rivers of living water. This is what a moral revival looks like.
Everyone who is thirsty, come.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Matthew 5: 3, 8
The slender branch of the maple tree outside my window extends itself in a graceful arc. Along its slim fingers it sports rust colored jewels, intricately cut opening buds, bursting with light. When did this happen? Last time I looked, barren twigs jutted stiffly into the cold air.
Here in Kansas, held captive for weeks under heavy overcast skies, we have plodded through our days with only basketball to get our blood pumping. Meanwhile, spring is quietly sneaking up on us.
Dare I say this? I am not ready. With only a few weeks of lent remaining, I have fallen off my wagon of simple living and over indulged in complexity, excess, and that ancient tempter, anxiety.
I need a little austerity, some ordered calm, and spaciousness, not a riotous burst of color luring me into getting anxious about gardening and yard work. I am looking for a paring down of tasks, and to tethering my heart to what is most important, not pecking mindlessly after every crumb I see.
I need a spare, bare mind, swept clear of clutter and fuss, rather than the cramped, narrow, over stuffed rat’s nest I have created. These gray days are revealing to me more clearly the contours of my addiction to my agenda. How will I ever be ready for Easter splendor and the enchanting dance of spring with so much of me running the show, asserting itself and its way?
I am Peter, pulling Jesus’ coattails, saying, “No Lord, no cross! No death! We can win this on our own!” My spirit has not been poor, aware of its total dependence on the mercy of God. My heart has not been pure, willing only one thing, but rather, adulterated with conflicting desires.
My fetching maple beckons with her pretty fingers. “Come, you fool,” she whispers. “Let go. Dwell with me in the pure driven snow of grace.”
Prayer for Lent
Make me lean, Lord.
Teach me the quiet asceticism of winter trees
whose bare branches articulate space
Set me down before the bowl of emptiness
where you swirl, swell, steam,
brimming at the brink of nothing.
Feast me from the platter of want,
where need of anything but you is indigestible.
Cut away the obesity of pride,
the folds of selfishness.
Make me meager,
a mere thin thing flapping its limbs
composing snow angels
across the pristine sweep of your celestial substance,
an anonymous indentation pressed in desolation
telling your glory.
My sustenance: your Word.
And my life: glad graffiti splashed
across some time’s wall:
God goes here.
For a good time,
A Cautionary Tale of Lust and Regret
Last November I upgraded my mobile phone. I was two years overdue for the money saving upgrade and I was envious. I lusted after a fancy smartphone, one with which I could check email and surf the web. My brother, sister-in-law, and one daughter all sported iphones. Other friends had BlackBerries. I felt dumpy with my unimpressive phone which only made calls and took photos. I envied my friends and colleagues, pulling out their phones to check their calendars and show them off. I wanted to be smart, “digitally literate,” and able to communicate with “millennials.”
So I picked up Eris Droid at my carrier store. Eris was a fetching beauty, slim, and full of apps. He was young and lively, sensitive and eagerly responsive to the warmth of my touch. And when he flexed his hefty rebate, I nearly swooned.
It took Eris and me a while to get acquainted. He didn’t like that I choose not to use Google for my email. He put up a little fuss and went into a pout about that. His gizmos and whiz bangs were fun and impressive. Yet as young lovers often do, he raised my cost of living with his taste for the internet.
But boy did I fit in! I could pull him out and watch heads turn. “Oh, a droid!” Eris and I spent a lot of time trying to understand each other, when he wasn’t recharging. Funny how he wore out faster than I did. Then after a few months, I realized I wasn’t actually using most of Eris’ impressive attributes. But I was still cool. And he was in my pocket.
Then in a dumb move I laundered my smartphone along with my jeans. Pulling out the wet clothes, I saw him sitting forlornly on a little ridge in the back my new front loader.
Oh no. And I hadn’t bought the insurance.
I pulled out his battery and buried it alongside Eris in a bowl of rice to dry out. After 24 hours, still no pulse. It was over. No matter what I did, I could no longer turn him on.
Last week I went back to the store, figuring I would just have to go ahead and purchase a new phone. I figured this might cost me a couple hundred dollars. Oh naïve dreamer that I was! To replace my phone would cost five times what I paid when I purchased it, $589. If I choose to cancel my contract and go sign up with a different carrier, that would cost me $300. If I was willing to downgrade (horrors!), I could get a phone like the four year old one I had upgraded from for between $200 and $300. I used a bad word at this point.
To his credit my young salesman, every bit as good looking as Eris and much more alive, was almost as grief stricken as I. He kept telling me, “I am so sorry. I feel so bad about this.” I do believe there was even a tear in his eye. You see we had already compared notes on dogs and learned we both have labs, he a yellow lab named Coach, me a black one named Elijah.
Coach’s master, new on the job I think, had accidentally given me some misinformation. He initially quoted a replacement price of much less than $589 and I had agreed to it. It was, as he was writing up the sale, that he discovered he had read from the wrong column. That would be the column headed, Cost of New Phone for Stupid People Who Launder Them and Do Not Have Insurance.
At this point, between a rock and hard place, inspiration struck. Driving over to the store, I had prayed. At the end of the day, tired and frustrated with Eris conking out on me, my landline not working either, and feeling stressed with finances, I just surrendered the whole sordid affair to God. “Whatever you say, Lord. Let it be to me according to your will.”
Standing before the cheap dull phones, which people normally get for free when they upgrade, but which were going to cost me $200.00, while Coach’s master gamely tried to console me, I thought, “Wait. Why not use my old phone?” I had brought along the pitiful, clunky thing in order to transfer contacts, since they would not be able to get the contacts off my laundered phone. “Can I just use my old phone?” Well, duh, yes. Dumb woman gets smart!
So here I am after a three month fling with Eris, back with my old phone with lowered rates. On July 11, 2011 I can upgrade to an Eris or whatever new phone catches my fancy, maybe even an iphone by then. Or not.
A day or two later I picked up the card my salesman had given me. Turning it over I learned that I can receive a $25.00 credit for every person I refer to the Wanamaker Road Verizon Wireless store in Topeka, Kansas, who signs up with Verizon. Advanced appointment is required. Tell them Elijah and I sent you. Trust me. They will see you get what you need. But be sure to buy the insurance.