Category Archives: spirituality

Faith and Fear

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

Part Two – Conceiving the Inconceivable

A-annuncia_Fra_Angelico

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

A-annuncia_Fra_Angelico

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?

 

A_Annunciation_Collier

_______________________

 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.

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. 

There’s a Limit and It’s Good

“There’s a limit!” Mom yells up the stairs. My brother and I are throwing plastic race cars at each other. It is bedtime, and we have been arguing and annoying each other for half an hour. Mom yells again. “If you kids don’t settle down, I am coming up there with a stick with a bee on the end of it.”

That usually did it. The thought of the miraculous power of our mother, who could coax a bee, stinger and all, onto the end of a stick, and stride up the steps, wielding the buzzing weapon, aiming it  at our bottoms,

sobered us right up.

Mom, ninety eight, now lives at Pleasant Manor Care Center and chuckles when I remind of her ability to settle us down.

Her words, there’s a limit, have been coming back to me lately. As I watch the news, listen to the pundits and politicians, and observe my own little world, I hear her saying in that no nonsense way, “There’s a limit!”

There is a limit – to what people can stand, when their boundaries are violated. There is a limit to what people can bear, when their basic needs are unmet, or they are unable to meet them themselves. There is a limit to the foolishness, whining, blaming, and fighting people can take. There is a limit to what the seas, rivers, forests, and the creatures that make their homes in them can survive. There is a limit to human ability to repair, mend, and change. There is a limit to how much suffering, how much trauma a person can endure before he loses hope, meaning, and his mind.

There is a limit. And limits are good.

There are places in creation which dare not be plundered, usurped, or penetrated. These virgin territories of purity and goodness, by definition need to remain separate, apart, and whole in themselves. There is a holiness, which dwells in the core of individuals, communities, and the creation itself. Respect for the singular distinctions of creation lies at the heart of reverence for life itself.


IN PRAISE OF BOUNDARIES

Glory be to God
for bounds and limits.
Thanks be for fences
and for barbed wire
pad locks, bolts
and abrupt unmoving
dead ends

for stop signs
ramparts
split rails
outlines
outskirts
contours
confines
borders
margin, hedge and rim
shore, bank and brow.

Blessed art Thou
for shalts
and for shalt nots
for oughts and shoulds
for prohibition
inhibition
and command.


I praise Thee

for enclosure
circumference, courtyard
croft, crib
corral and coop
pen, balustrade
and fold
for chamber
hutch and manger
paddock, cote and stall
for palisade and parapet
trellis, enclave, wall.

“To be properly bound
is to be properly free,”
said Luther of his God.

So blessed be Thee
for bindings, wraps
and swaddling cloths
for all quilts, covers,
comforter and counterpane
for lids, roofs, tents
hulls, shell, and pod
and all that partitions
holy from profane.

Thank you,
kind and gentle God
for edges, parameters,
and the delicate beauty
of borders thin
that separate this
from that
yes from no
the skin
from the juice
and Thou, sweet Trinity,
from me.

Oh Mighty Fortress,
glad hosannas raise to Thee
for the secret custody
of houses, stable,
shrine and temple
for garden locked
and fountain sealed
where Love tabernacles
under Thy bright wing
in shielded sanctuary.

Praise and laud
forever unto Thee.
Oh Thou art
a most exalted Canopy!
In thy strong shelter
sleeps the virgin
safe and free.

 

 All creatures great and small,
be wary!

Mr. Collins Serves Me a Scone


 –  Love and Gratitude in a Season of Sorrow


I had breakfast this morning with Billy Collins, American poet laureate. We met on the patio at dawn. I chewed my breakfast bar, while I watched him chew his thoughts –   snatches of his days – savored, digested, and transformed in that warm oven of his imagination into tasty little scones.

And, the Lord is my witness, the man reached across the table under the tan umbrella and deftly placed the buttery sweetness into my mouth with his long, elegant fingers.

The trees were full of glad chatter, tweets, and whistles. Down the block a car started up. I slowly relished Mr. Collins’ scone, so rich and luxurious, beside my sensible protein bar. My dog, snoozing at my feet never noticed, when I fell in love with charming Billy. But that brown squirrel on the power line might have seen the cockeyed gratitude oozing out the corners of my mouth and running down my chin.

Here, help yourself to one of Billy’s scones:


As If to Demonstrate an Eclipse

I pick an orange from a wicker basket

and place it on the table

to represent the sun.

Then down at the other end

a blue and white marble

becomes the earth

and nearby I lay the little moon of an aspirin.

 I get a glass from a cabinet,

open a bottle of wine,

then I sit back in a ladder-backed chair,

a benevolent god presiding

over a miniature creation myth,


and I began to sing

a homemade canticle of thanks

for this perfect little arrangement,

for not making the earth to hot or cold

not making it spin too fast or slow


so that the grove of orange trees

and the owl become possible,

not to mention the rolling wave,

the play of clouds, geese in flight,

and the Z of lightening on a dark lake.


Then I fill my glass again

and give thanks for the trout,

the oak, and the yellow feather,


singing the room full of shadows,

as sun and earth and moon

circle one another in their impeccable orbits

and I get more and more cockeyed with gratitude.

              Nine Horses – Billy Collins

I know. Life is hard, even horrific. I wish I could give you answers and take away the pain. All I have is Billy. Take down a glass. Fill it to the brim with homemade gratitude. You know the kind, fermented with what is handy – the cat sleeping in the sun, the hot coffee in the brown cup, the yellow feather –

and sing a little cockeyed canticle of your own.

Empty Pockets and Trust in God

The way I see it, a mystic takes a peek at God and then does her best to show the rest of us what she saw.  She’ll use image-language, not discourse. Giving an image is the giving of gold, the biggest thing she’s got… Hurling and wielding the best stuff she can imagine, insisting on an unmediated Way of Wakefulness,…she agrees to the quiet morning hour in front of God in exchange for a bit of revelation.  She doesn’t ditch tradition as much as take it for its word and peer inside its cavernous shell.  There must still be something worth saying. There must still be something worth pointing to.
 -Jessie Harriman in God Laughs and Plays by David James Duncan

 I greet you with my pockets turned inside out, holding out a few crumbs I picked from the seam.

Most every time I write this blog, I write from such a place of intellectual and spiritual poverty, that I feel like I am scraping gum off the sidewalk to offer you.

Oh, I have plenty of previously written material. Some of it you might like or find useful. I also seem to have an endless supply of ideas, opinions, and questions we could take up together here. However the longer I sit in that quiet morning hour waiting for a bit of revelation, the more stale and the less true all my previous thinking and posturing appear to be.

Something in me insists on peering into the Mystery anew each time I write. This is both an irresistible delight and a harrowing encounter with my own empty pockets.

I haul myself and the collected wear and tear of personal and world events before the throne of Great Stillness. There I reach out beyond my limits and press my palm in the face of Mystery and say, “Here. Here. Put it here.”

Then I wait.

In that waiting there is only the ache of love – nameless, infinite, ever beyond my control.

“Trust” was the word I found in my palm this week. Trust? That old thing? How many times does this word turn up in scripture and in the words we say to each other? How about something new, fresh, maybe a little edgier? 

Thousands of children with stick legs and arms are dying in the horn of Africa. A young man just nineteen years old came home to the little town up the road, where he was buried with military honors. Global markets, drunk on anxiety, dip and sway, fall and crawl up again. Politicians argue. A self-styled prophet of God goes to prison for doing unspeakable things to little girls.

Holy One, the world is going to hell in a hand basket and all you can offer is trust?

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, 
And lean not on your own understanding; 
In all your ways acknowledge Him, 
And He shall direct   your paths.
Do not be wise in your own eyes; 
Fear the Lord and depart from evil.
It will be health to your flesh,
And strength to your bones.
         Proverbs 3:5-8, New King James Version

So – help yourself these crumbs:

 

Trust in what you cannot fully know or name or understand, or write about.

Trust in the enduring love in your heart that weeps with compassion and yearns for justice and struggles
to know what to do in these challenging times. 

Trust in your conviction that God will not be defeated by the evil and sin of humans.

Trust that Someone is afoot, knitting together the broken bones of Christ’s body.

And most amazing of all:

Trust that our trust and faith are the salve,

which heals all wounds.


And he could do no miracle there except he laid hands
on a few sick people and healed them.
And he wondered at their unbelief. Mark 6:5-6