By the waters of Babylon there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land? Psalm 137
O God of Seeing, after we have swallowed the knowledge of good and evil and our eyes are opened, how can we sing your song? When the scales have dropped away, when the clay has been washed off, when we put on the soft garments of grace you made for us, we stumble dazzled by the light, hearts aching for home.
Wayfaring strangers, exiles, we wander here in these soft skins yearning for a better country. We had bit down and tasted, chewed and swallowed that fruit. Our eyes were opened and we had seen. We had witnessed something that we could not speak of, yet must tell. We really weren't absolutely sure what it was we had seen, but we thought most of the time that it was God. It is true we asked for it, prayed for it - to see God and live, that is. Perhaps it would have been better to have died. Perhaps there are very good reasons why persons who see God rarely live to tell the tale. For now how could we sing a song in this strange land - this earth where gravity weighed hearts to the soil; and mind lay flattened between the pages of time?
What happens if you do not sing? What happens if your eyes are blinded by the light, and it all unfolds before you? What happens if you know the Lord's song by heart yet do not sing it? Does it rankle in your soul, turn sour, spoil and grow soft mossy mold? Does it take on a parasitic life of its own, feeding on your body, stealing your joy, eating up your hope?
Diana, 32 years ago when you were born, they brought you with swollen eyelids, wrapped tight in the swaddling cloths for the first feeding. When I put your mouth to me, you shuddered. For two days you shuddered as I held you, as one exposed to a chill or some horror. "Lambie pie," I called you then.
It is too much for us. It is all too much for us. To have eaten what we have eaten. To have seen what we have seen. To know what we know. One day I prayed for hours and could only pray: "Yes, Yes, Yes. Yes there is light. Yes there is hope. Yes there is love." Even though I felt none of it.
How do you sing a sacred song in a strange land? Maybe you just sing it. Maybe you don't attempt to be understood. Maybe you just sing what is so, because it is so. For the song's sake, for the singing's sake. Could I sing for the song's sake - for your sake, my sweet Lamb of God? Could I sing you a lullaby as you lie cradled next to my heart shuddering in your mortality?
Once, Diana, you brought me a gift. "This is a prayer stick, mom. I made it for you." It was a large stick with flowers woven round the top. Could I let the stick pray for me? For I do not know how to pray aright. I lean the stick against the old trunk. "Pray stick," I say. "Pray now." I go off to other things, while the stick holds the offering pointing toward heaven. Dare I trust creation to pray for me, to bear my prayer? Here stone, pray. Here river, pray. Here moon, pray. Just by being what you are, a maple branch salvaged from last fall's ice storm, wrapped round with pink petals, transformed by the touch of a child's hand into something sacred.
How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land? That is the question. For our hearts are heavy, and we, captive by this mortal flesh sit down and weep.
I believe that
in the face of Noes
the Song must begin with Yes -
knotted, clotted, congealed evil, wads of anguish, passing
through the yes into eternity, cleansed and free. The yes
like a filter, a rinse of spray. You can look at the sin or you
can look at God. If you look too long at the evil, you will
Not my will but thine.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=005fsCnzg4k&w=420&h=315]Link to Sweet Honey By the Waters of Babylon
This post is excerpted from a chapter in my book, Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are. Some of these phrases and images have been returning to me lately. As a culture, as a global society, as families, and as individuals we may find ourselves in various contexts of alienation, estrangement, or even captivity. This sense of dislocation and disorientation may be experienced both externally and internally.
Are there ways you feel like a stranger in a strange land, taken to a place you did not wish to go?
How do you express your grief?
How do you sing a holy song in alien places and times?
How do you consecrate and make holy the strange lands in the heart and in our world?
Of what does your song consist?
Together we plow the light.
So much love in my heart for all of you.
On Trinity Sunday I arrived early at First Congregational Church, a block from where I live, and settled into my pew to contemplate the glory of the Holy Trinity. Yes, I know, who does such a thing? But the Trinity is something I can actually get carried away by. Before I left for church I read the beautiful prayer to the Trinity by Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity. Her prayer begins with these words, O my God, Trinity whom I adore; help me to forget myself entirely that I may be established in You as still and as peaceful as if my soul were already in eternity. (You can find her prayer below. Be careful, if you read it, though. It is pretty hot stuff for Protestant non mystical types.)
First Congregational United Church of Christ is a denomination, whose Reformed roots I share, and I feel gratitude for. Thirty two years ago United Church of Christ folks hired a young Presbyterian minister, fresh out of seminary, and pregnant to boot, to be interim pastor of one of their churches here in Topeka, Seaman Congregational Church. That baby she was carrying, whose footprint you can still see in the sidewalk behind the church, turned 32 last month.
As my imagination was roaming around the abyss of God’s greatness with Elizabeth, the good Rev.Tobais Schlingensiepen was moving about the sanctuary checking on his sheep as they arrived. He passed along the rows in his robe, sleeves billowing, shaking hands, and patting shoulders like a benediction. No skinny jeans and sport coat for this pastor. Nor was he busy checking his twitter feed. He spoke to the sheep by name, asked questions, looked for nettles, matted coats, signs of infection, injury, illness. Had any wolves slipped into the fold over night? Were the pregnant ewes eating well? The lambs coming along okay? He checked the weather and the flock’s energy. What do they need from him today? Is what he has planned on track with what he is seeing this morning?
Arriving at my row, he reached to shake my hand. “Hi, how are you today?”
I responded with something like, “Splendid, just fabulous,” all smiles. (Because I really was in that high dazed state of the fullness of love for God that comes upon me sometimes.)
He smiled, looked in my eyes. And asked again, “How are you…,” leaning in a bit more, waiting. He knows how sheep lie.
“I am great!” a little embarrassed by my own high spirits. “Sometimes I feel people shouldn’t be this blessed.”
“I just wanted to be sure you were not being ironic. People use irony so much.”
Let’s take a moment to let this sink in. Is this the world, the church, we find ourselves in? A place where bliss and ecstasy are so rare that they may be mistaken for irony? Or has irony, that sarcastic twist of reality into its opposite, created a world of smoke and mirrors, where what one says rarely matches with what one means?
Without irony the psalmist shouts, “I was glad when they said, ‘Let us go into the House of the Holy One!’ I among many others have carried a very heavy heart with little or no joy into the house of the Lord on some occasions. And on those days I also know how very much it matters that someone notices, shows concern, and checks for any irony in my voice.
Yet are really happy sheep, saturated with love and joy, rare? I do not think so.
The kingdom of heaven will come when men and women are willing to be penetrated by bliss.
Years ago in a very unhappy season of my life I read these words by poet and potter, M.C. Richards. Richards’ words opened my eyes to my own freedom and responsibility for the joy I my life. I knew deep down that her words were true, absolutely, and I have been wriggling my way into such a reality ever since. I believe that joy awaits us and is ours by virtue of our willingness to open the door, receive it, and to offer that willingness on the altar of the messes in our lives and this world.
The Sunday before I went to First Congregational Church, I was on retreat listening to Father William Meninger, a Trappist Monk, and one of the leading voices in the conversation on Christian contemplative prayer. We had gathered at Rockhurst University in Kansas City. Meninger is now 81, and an unfettered, jubilant soul, if I ever saw one.
He began the retreat and introduced himself with the Buddhist saying, The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon. Meninger said the way (method, creed, practices, and means of revelation) to God is not God. The way (your way, my way, the Presbyterian way, the bumblebee’s way) is a finger pointing beyond itself toward ultimate Truth. I’m not the Christ but that I’m the one sent before him. John 3: 28
Meninger might have been channeling the German theologian, Karl Barth, who said that the Bible is a whole gathering of people pointing up at the sky. The Bible is not God; it points us in the direction of God. The particular mode through which God reveals divinity is less than the reality to which it gestures toward. For God is always beyond any particular description, form or conception of God, which we can reduce, carry around in our minds, and try to shove down somebody’s throat as The Way.
Speaking of contemplative practice in the church Menninger addressed the group of 140 lay people, nuns, pastors, and priests from a wide variety of Christian faith traditions, including Assembly of God and Evangelicals. The group included one or two young people under thirty. Meninger is quite clear that contemplative practice arrives for most people in the second half of life and did not gnash his teeth over the lack of young people in attendance at the retreat.
“They are not ready yet. They have other things to do first.”
But he refuses to let us off the hook when he says, “Our churches today take their people to the door, but we hold them back. We don’t lead them into the silences.”
At First Congregational we had some silent time. The worship leader took us to the door and gave us some time to cross over. The bulletin said: Silence (30 seconds). I would have liked 30 minutes, but I figured that was all that the sheep here could tolerate; and that it helped them to see a time limit in print; and that, further, this silence thing was not going to go on and on and leave them sitting there stewing in their own juices forever.
I think Meninger is right. We do take people right up to the door to the deeper mystery and beauty of God, but we stop short. I see this often. Why is that? I wonder – failure of nerve and lack of faith, or maybe because some pastors do not spend much time on the other side of the door – simply surrendered to Christ in love, being in union with all there is – and want to get through the next point of the sermon and the sheep out the door before noon.
Our problem is not that the sheep have never crossed over to the silences. You know how sheep are. They will poke their noses anywhere. They know and have experienced union with God, that shimmering silence and peace which rises up in their hearts, but they will call it something else. Day dreaming, sitting on the deck, holding their grandchildren, looking at a sunset…
We all have moments where words fail, time stops, and a moment brims over with beauty and joy.
What the church may fail to do is give us time, space, and permission to savor, taste, swallow, and deeply enjoy these moments and value them as holy. Instead we get anxious, feel we are wasting time, need to stick with the agenda, or are being lazy. We worship the relentless, mean, crushing, 24/7 gods of consumerism and production instead of the endlessly abundant, overflowing goodness of the Trinity. As neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson writes, we have a serious problem in our brains and in our culture with our ability to take in, soak in, and absorb the good in this world which is constantly pouring itself out upon us.
On Trinity Sunday the Holy Spirit at First Congregational kept opening the door and I am sure quite a few of us there that morning went over the threshold to some kind of communion with the Trinity.
The sublime guitar and violin duet did it for me. Pastor Tobias did it. He swung a door wide open in his thoughtful probing of the creation story in Genesis 1 as he invited questions and observations from his flock. He gave us some history and asked us to see beyond the story to the minds that told this story and found incredible hope in it in a time of their captivity. In this poetic account of the beginnings of things we find a God who stands outside, beyond the fingers of time, space, creation, and history. Here is a God who is sovereign over all that I can possibly imagine and not subject to anything that has been made or thought by the creation. Here was a God who was more than my little piece of history and present suffering who had made a world that is good and who was worthy of my hope. Surely such an open door inspires a long silence, a bent knee, and a prolonged dwelling in the wonder of this God.
So I say be bold in leading ourselves and others into the silences! Encourage ourselves to take more than a tentative sniff. Take us gently by the scruff of our necks and say, "Come on, try it. I will go with you."
Holiness likes to camp out in those nooks and crannies of time and space, for which we tend to have such disdain. We even call them “dead spaces.” Look again. Such unscripted moments are empty tombs resonant with the echoes of a risen God and the swift beat of wings.
Go ahead. Take a chance on bliss.
Note to Topeka Area Readers:
Father Meninger is interested in offering a retreat in Topeka next year. Any persons interested in helping to make that happen please comment or contact me. firstname.lastname@example.org
Well it’s finished
I would have to go all out
purge myself of doubt
hold on till the final hour
push for verification
of the one veritable transitory power*
to seal what happened
what was and is and ever more shall be
with the indisputable fact,
the terminating stamp,
of my own story.
Why not take their word?
I trusted them enough.
We saw him risen in the light!
Our own eyes feasted on the sight!
Where was I then
delayed in darkness
caught in traffic
held up by bandits
lost down blind alleys?
And when I arrived,
he had come and gone
the meeting was adjourned.
Was it so wrong to have yearned
to know for myself,
not only to have heard,
of what glory they were so assured?
How could he come when I was gone
and leave me, coming,
to be slapped with that second hand joy?
I did not know how he had spared me
how my delay was grace.
So I choking, sputtered
strutted through their glee:
I shall not believe what I cannot see!
Then you came back.
What were we doing then
talking about the Cubs
debating the umpire’s call?
You came back
or was it we who moved?
You came and went
climbing out of centuries
striding through solid wall
and stood once more before us all.
“Here, here,” you said
and slipped my hand
into your side pocket
wrapping me with your anguish.
The room spun round.
My skin turned inside out
and my soul’s raw quick
swaddled in the mitten of your wound
chafed next to your rib.
till I was no bigger
than a speck
upon your shoe.
I had loved you
of that I had no doubt.
But your gaping spaces opened my ears
to the triumph shout
of life’s Word
and seared me,
sealed me with the sight
of what till then I had only heard:
that you loved me before I ever knew
that you came back all torn
and maimed for me to see
that I would see
you love me too.
So now I sit
unable to pretend I never wore
the ring of your palm round my finger,
unable to deny
we have been wedded by your pain,
unable to forget
the moist seam of your wound
and the intimacy
in asking me to touch you there.
Unable to swill in perplexity
to feign ignorance
to sulk amidst the heart’s strivings
or fume when things go all awry,
for that which I had heard
which I saw with my eye
which I looked upon
and touched with my own hand
that which has completed my joy
has completed me.
And I am finished,
for now, my dearest, dearest love,
there is only you.
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. John 15: 9-12
*the one veritable transitory power, from T.S. Eliot’s, Ash Wednesday
for Topeka, Kansas Area Readers
Topeka area residents, watch for a fun way to support local charities, including The Sanctuary Foundation. Save this date: June 3, 7:00 am – 6:00 pm, at Fairlawn Mall.
On that day your gift to The Sanctuary Foundation fund will be increased by a pro-rated match gift from The Topeka Community Foundation. Watch for more details on how to stretch your dollars in supporting the wonderful work being done in Topeka.
We are looking for helpers to sit at our booth for an half hour or so to share with people why The Sanctuary is important to you.
We also need comments from those we serve about what The Sanctuary means to you, how we may have made a difference in your life, stories, anecdotes, etc to help us let others learn more about us. You can comment here, or at our website , on our Facebook page, by emailing us at email@example.com.
I always have toast (crispy) with peanut butter (crunchy), a good shake of cinnamon, and honey smeared liberally on top for breakfast. I cut my toast into four squares on a small white plate. I eat it slowly with my coffee, licking my fingers and (if nobody else is around) wiping up the drips of honey and peanut butter on the plate with my tongue. And I always use Food for Life’s Genesis bread. You know, the expensive funky frozen bread in the organic food section made of nuts, sprouts, roots, berries, sticks, and pebbles from around the world.
We are creatures of habit. Our habits shape and form our character, lifestyle, health, skills, talents, beliefs, and the kind of people we become.
Because of my breakfast habit, I look for good buys on organic, crunchy peanut butter and local honey. I will use gas to drive across town to get it. I read the articles about the decline of bees and the sweeping implications of that for agriculture, not to mention my daily portion of honey. I often carry my own breakfast supplies when I travel. And when Food for Life stopped making Genesis bread, I suffered. I saw how my little habit might be verging on an addiction.
Our lives are filled with dozens of similar habits, as well as habits of thought, emotional responses, eating, sleeping, exercise, etc. As these are repeated over and over some of these practices affect many other areas of our lives in negative and positive ways. Our personal habits affect our relationships with others, the environment, and the whole planet.
What habits have you formed in relation to your spiritual life? What do you practice over and over, like a musician, a dancer, a surgeon, or a woodworker? What do you return to daily, each time learning more, honing your craft? Some days there may be struggle and one seems to be losing ground. Other days you are met with an incredible ease and joy in your practice. Over time, years and years of practice, you find yourself maturing, deepening, and knowing more and more of the ways of God. You will begin to recognize the contours of grace, the lessons of humility, and the deep, endless sea of love.
Whatever you choose to call it –becoming like Christ, following Jesus, being a disciple, union with God, transformation, healing, or growth – relationship with God requires awareness and intentionality, or in other words: practice. Deep faith is given through a continual returning to the Source, the Living Water. Daily, year after year, we go back, we kneel down, sit down and place – not our skill as practitioners, or our religious credentials – but our naked need, vulnerability, longing on the altar of our lives. Here we open our whole being to the infinite One. Through this surrender we are formed and reformed into the likeness of God.
Here is a link to the latest issue of Holy Ground, published quarterly by The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer. I wrote this issue about the practice of prayer and why it is so important. Our shallow culture of sound bites, video clips, and surface relationships does not nourish the deep places of our lives, nor does it help us develop the wisdom and depth of understanding our world is crying out for. The peace we are seeking for ourselves and our world, which is writhing in pain, is waiting for us within us. Seek that peace within. Cultivate it. Nurture it. Practice it. And you will become peace for those around you. This is how the kingdom comes.
There are many books and website about spiritual practices. Here are two for you to explore.
Spirituality and Practice;Abbey of the Arts
Special Notice: I will be reading poetry with Leah Sewell from 5:30 to 7:30 this Friday, April 4, at Warehouse 414Warehouse 414 at 414 SE 2nd St in Topeka. Come on downtown for a feast of poetry, good conversation, and April fun. I would love to see you there. To learn more: Downtown Poetry Crawl
Epiphany has drawn to a close and now we are leaning into lent, a word, which originally meant spring and referred to lengthening days. Most of us are weary of this harsh winter.
Before we turn to lent, here is a final word from Epiphany, not unlike the long goodbye we are getting from winter this year. One of the reasons I love Epiphany is because the word, epiphany, is euphonious, which means pleasant to the ear and fun to say aloud. Epiphany sounds like a soft whisper or a rabbit sneezing. There are qualities of the liturgical season, which we are leaving behind , which offer good preparation for Ash Wednesday and the journey to the cross.
Blessed Are the Pure in Heart for They Shall See God
generous span in midwinter,
the season of showings,
promises to the swift and clear-eyed
no less than a glimpse of Divinity
high tailing round the corners of our lives.
Now that the trees and earth are bare,
the God we hunger for will dance naked
for those bold enough to believe
God will dance wild
and free over the frozen land,
while we shiver in our veils
longing to see with faces
bare of illusion
bare of pretense
bare of guile
aching to see
with hearts stripped and clean,
as the maple whose slim limbs slice space
in great chaste swaths,
chalking off a place on the floor of heaven
for God to trip the light fantastic
and leave us all blinded
by a graceful shimmy
rubbing our eyes, amazed.
Oh dancing God
create in us clean hearts
slick and smooth
as a copper pot
that we may not miss one grande jeté
that we may see
Twenty five ago I published the first issue of Holy Ground – A Quarterly Reflection on the Contemplative Life. Back then we called it Making Haqqodesh (Hebrew for the holy ground), I had just established The Sanctuary and thought a newsletter would be helpful as a way to stay in touch with the group of people supporting this new venture in ministry. I wrote the poem above for the front page of that issue. During this year, as we celebrate our 25th Anniversary, I will post excerpts from some of those early issues of Holy Ground from time to time
Here is a bit more from the first issue:
Our deep hunger for God calls out, hollows out, spaces in our hearts, in our lives, and in creation for a sacred meeting with the One who made us and is making us. Our willingness to go down into the emptiness and the out of the way places on the far side of the wilderness thrusts us and our need before burning bushes, where we behold our God and receive our mission.
One of our board members, Catherine Jantsch Butel offered this definition of holy ground:
Holy ground is that burning reality which can only be apprehended – which breaks into really – the present moment (mine or another’s) and which, surprisingly, disorders, reorders, rearranges, resynthesizes all my previous arrangement of Reality.
In twenty five years I have never come across a better definition.
In those early years before the resurgence of interest in spirituality, before the establishment of hundreds of training programs and curriculum in spiritual formation and spiritual guidance, and before the internet I had few models for the kind of ministry I wanted to do and faced many doubts. Yet I always found encouragement and support. Here are a few memories:
Riding across the Kansas prairie with a friend who was also a minister, who after listening to me hem and haw for sixty miles, blurted out, “Loretta, what is it going to take for you to decide that God is calling you to do this?” Then she handed me a check for fifty dollars.
Preparing for the first gathering of Evening Prayers held in our dining room in my home, I nervously asked my friend, Cathy, “Do you think I am just being crazy?” Cathy looked me in the eyes and said, “No. Loretta, you are not being crazy. You are just being obedient.”
I also encountered warning. A priest asked, “How do you handle failure? These places always fail you know.” I was reminded that to be faithful to the gospel, the Sanctuary must stand in opposition to the world and that holy ground is conceived through the cross of suffering and surrendered love.
Murray Rogers, Episcopal priest and founder of contemplative communities in India and Hong Kong told me, “I am very suspicious of spiritual manipulation. These things take time, you know. You can’t hurry holiness.” He counseled trusting the Spirit, simplicity, and waiting for doors to open.
As you prepare your hearts for lent, what do you need for the journey ahead? The words of counsel I was given twenty five years ago offer me a useful guide for what to carry with me this lent. These are my prayer for your journey:
• An honest friend who will help you discern God’s will for you.
• Obedience to God regardless of what others might think of you.
• Acceptance of failure and suffering as part of the journey of transformation.
• Simplicity and patient trust in God.
• And a pure heart, a heart scoured slick and smooth as a copper pot, that you may follow your dancing Lord all the way to Easter morning!
May this season offer you richness, astonishment, and a few graceful shimmies, as Christ transforms you from one degree of glory to another.
Help us celebrate Twenty Five years! Check out our new website, The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer Let us know what you think. What would help you in deepening your faith and peace? How we can improve and best serve you for the next twenty five years?
Well, maybe not twenty five, but so far I have had no signs from God to stop this foolishness.
My soul shall be filled as with a banquet.
- Psalm 63: 2-9
At dawn my sleepy lab whines softly. I rise and let him out to sniff his boundaries and empty his bladder. A few minutes later he pounces on the door. Eyes glinting light, he shakes off the blanket of snow on his back. Then lifting one front leg after the other, he prances in the kitchen, pulls a dish towel off the counter and waves it toward me. The toaster, jar of peanut butter, and humming refrigerator sparkle like icicles in the sun.
I love winter – all of it – grey dishwater skies, wind rattling the siding on the house, cold, ice, blizzards, early sunsets, long nights, and dogs ploughing glad furrows in the snow.
I love that winter is a force I cannot control, but only yield to with humility and respect.
I love winter's summons to gather up the scattered pieces of myself, burrow down deeply, and simmer in darkness, drawing strength for spring.
I love having to wait and trust in what is unknown and unseen.
Winter grows gratitude in my heart for the privilege of shelter, warmth, running water, and the freedom to stay home. Winter also blooms with compassion and sends me out to help those for whom winter is not some cozy spiritual experience.
Winter spirituality is a less-is-more Holiness of pared down praise. Winter speaks in koans and says, “Behold the fullness of this emptiness!” Now excess in prayer and lifestyle seem gauche and redundant in a world, stripped down to its bare essentials – all bones and angles, holding out its harsh, nonnegotiable truths.
I had had enough of winter thirty five years ago, when I pulled out of my drive in Kalamazoo, Michigan and headed south to Kentucky. I had spent the previous thirty three years of my life in Michigan and Iowa. I am not sure why
I am so hungry for ice and snow now.
In contrast to the world of humans with our getting and spending, the natural world never tries to impress or persuade me of its opinion. It has nothing to market. It simply is in its implacability, given over to being what it is - a dead maple limb in my front lawn after the storm, a dried tomato vine, a fox checking the garbage can, a rabbit without regret or apology leaving tracks in the snow.
What is implacable about me, unchanging, or nonnegotiable? I wonder. I am a hermit at heart and welcome snow days. I love people and I love being with people. And love for them burns in me like a furnace and pours out molten in my prayers.
And there is this other love – a love of absence, silence, solitude, simplicity – a winter of the soul, where I sit down to a great feast so satisfying that I need nothing else.
Hail Mary full of grace,
blessed art thou among women
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners now
and at the hour of our death.
As I made my way through congested traffic to finish up my shopping, this simple prayer started up, unbidden, inside of me. The Hail Mary or Ave Maria is one of the prayers and scriptures on my inner playlist. It is part of me like an internal organ, quietly fulfilling its purpose and helping to keep me alive. In odd moments I overhear this interior worship. As I step away from my self preoccupation, I find myself occupied by the Spirit with its sighs and groans too deep for words.
I have always loved this prayer, which is a part of the devotional life of many people. The first two lines are the greeting of the angel Gabriel to Mary as found in Luke 1: 28-30. I recall memorizing it, as I walked along the sidewalk of the campus at the University of Northern Iowa in 1966.
This entreaty to Mary as Mother of God is for some Protestants a "Catholic accretion" and considered unbiblical and theologically unsound. Some will say that we do not need Mary's intercession, when we can go directly to God on our own. Such views ignore the power and influence of mothers throughout the Bible, as well as their privileged status before God as persons of God's particular compassion and love. Those who write doctrines tend not to be poets or comfortable with metaphor and mystery.
The scriptures contain numerous images of God as feminine. The Hebrew word for Holy Spirit in Genesis is a feminine noun. My seminary teacher liked to translate Genesis 1: 1 as, In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form and void, and as for the Spirit of God, she was moving over the waters.
Of course God is much more than what we may consider as feminine or masculine attributes. God is beyond gender. Yet Christians believe that two thousand years ago God came into our midst for a time dressed as one us with gender. God condescended to enter into our cultural biases to bring truth and freedom and radically change the world. If the form God chose had been a woman’s, would the outcome have been the same? Given the culture then I doubt if a woman would have ever received the same attention or regard. Instead God chooses a woman to enable God’s self to become one of us.
No matter how hard some scholars may have tried to stamp them out, the feminine dimensions of divinity in whose image both men and women have been created make their way into our consciousness in one form or another and seek expression in our faith and worship.
Personally, I like the notion of God having and/or being a mom, a generating source. I know it makes no sense for some, but I like the image of God as a fecund nurturing womb, engaged in creative, life-bearing activity, a Spirit “brooding” over the waters like a hen. Acknowledging the feminine in God is an important balance to patriarchal images and wholly masculine notions of Holiness, which leave some women feeling excluded, and have been used as a rationale for the disregard and abuse of women for centuries.
I learned this prayer in college, when I converted to Catholicism. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was looking for feminine imagery and feminine gifts in the expression of my faith, which were largely absent from the rational Presbyterian worship of my childhood. I was Catholic most of my young adult life and found there opportunities to worship with more than my mind and my voice. Incense, kneeling, bowing, colorful statues, many of which were women, saints, guardian angels, rosaries, a veil perched on my head, a small prayer book to carry – all allowed the imagination and passion of my young soul to find expression.
Yes, my Anabaptist and Quaker ancestors were probably turning over in their graves. Yes, it was patriarchic. The singing wasn't the best and Biblical study nonexistent, but I arrived with plenty of that preparation. To find a woman, no matter how sentimental and passive she may have been depicted, prominently figuring in worship allowed me to feel that this was a place, where I belonged. Remember this was sixties.
So out shopping, I pondered Mary being full of grace? What does it mean to contain nothing, but grace in one's being? The people I encountered seemed full of many things instead of grace – anxiety, impatience, and weariness. There were some exceptions, like the insurance salesman who works on weekends at Orscheln’s, paying off medical bills and some credit card debt. He had a lot of grace inside himself. Some of it spilled out on the receipt he handed to me, and I have carried it in my purse all week.
Mary is full of grace, because her womb is full of Christ, who offers grace to all. Parking in front of Best Buy, I decided to take a look at what in me might be crowding out the grace of God.
Here is what I found:
• That deep wound I get out sometimes and pick at
• The steady current of mindless, slightly hysterical, anxiety which makes me critical, paranoid, and assume things about people which are not true
• That nagging expectation of catastrophe that hides under perfectionism
• A to-do list telling me I am way behind, lazy, and going to be counted tardy
• Insecurity and self-doubt making pronouncements about how I am too old for this or that and how my writing sucks
What in you is not graceful, kind, forgiving, loving? How do you delete these freeloaders from your inner playlist?
We handle the negatives in ourselves gently with kindness, mercy and forgiveness. Love the little boogers. Say, “Hello, To-Do list! Come here. It looks like you need a hug.” Here’s the secret. It takes grace to be full of grace. The way to make room for grace in our lives is by being graceful to ourselves first. Then grace naturally flows from us to others. To forgive others we must forgive ourselves.
What would it be like for you to be full of grace – stuffed to the gills with mercy and forgiveness? Why not try it? See what happens, what you notice. So little grace is present in our national discussions and relationships with one another. We hold grudges, harbor resentments, and take a perverse delight in the missteps, failures, and sins of one another.
In an NPR interview Rabbi Shaul Praver, who spoke at the anniversary observance of the school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, offered these words:
We have found the cure for the social disease of violence, hatred, and bigotry, and that cure is good old-fashioned loving kindness. When everyone practices that it does change the atmosphere of a room, of a town, or a community, of a state and a country. And so, it is not of only local value, but it is of universal value.
Grace – unmerited, undeserved, unearned. The hope, the first budding of such kindness is growing in Mary's womb.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, may it be so for all us sinners.
Learn more about the Hail Mary prayer on Wikipedia.
At the woods’ edge I wait for you
to come heal the violence in me.
I look and look at the trees,
framing the plum stained sky.
I look and look at the fawn in the clearing,
the cedar with blue berries,
the red sun sliding under the horizon.
I look and look at the dark
creeping over the countryside.
At vespers you
peer in windows,
meow at the door,
home into my heart.
I cannot get enough
of you filling my senses
with sweet awareness.
You, the Word
in whom our wordiness dissolves,*
As leaves loosen and float to the earth,
we tumble over, lay our bodies upon the path.
You come, finger over your lips – Hush, be still –
to take back territories in our souls,
lands occupied by greed, fear, envy.
It is 5:28 pm, and I am weary of words,
the fury of opinions, righteous indignation,
and ideas clanking in the mind like heavy coins.
The vain prattle cannot muffle the murmur
of Herods plotting to kill innocents,
nor the hiss of evil waiting under every rock.
Yet I do believe that all we say and do
counts as nothing next to you,
into us from on high.
His father opened his mouth
out came Jesus.
His mother squatted over cold stones,
pushed, out came an infant
The child gazes into our faces.
A hand reaches toward us.
You – absorb our isolation,
sponge up our misery –
a soft warm cheek
to hold against the dark.
Freedom and the Electric Fence
The brown and white English spaniel sits erect on the broad green lawn. Elijah, trotting along beside me, halts, stares, and sniffs the air. My black lab and I look at the dog sitting still as stone. He wears a small box at his throat. Elijah has seen stone dogs before and stone rabbits too. Once he went up to sniff a stone deer standing in someone’s front yard and barked and barked at it. Giant inflatable Halloween yard ornaments, jiggling and bowing in the wind, scare the wits out of him.
Elijah scents the air again, nostrils dilating, inhaling the meaning of this mystery. Then he tilts his head, wags his tail, tugs at the leash. This dog is not stone! Yet the spaniel remains still, forlorn before this large house on its immense, immaculate sweep of real estate, free of unsightly fences.
Elijah bows and barks. The dog sits, unmoving. I walk closer and say, “Hello, little dog. How are you today?” He gazes into my eyes with a soulful intelligence and silent pleading, which take my breath away. When I speak again, he replies in a whimpering yelp.
As Elijah and I move on, the pup rises and silently follows us along the line of his invisible fence.
Anymore, I have less and less stomach for keeping things in cages – dogs, rabbits, people, theories, truth, God. They won’t stay anyway. When you force them to remain, they wilt, turn gray, and whimper.
We become what we love
and who we love shapes what we become.
If we love things, we become a thing.
If we love nothing, we become nothing.
Imitation is not a literal mimicking of Christ,
rather it means becoming the image of the beloved,
an image disclosed through transformation.
This means... we are to become vessels
of God´s compassionate love for others.
~ St. Clare of Assisi
Many years ago I deliberately chose a path of what I called “downward mobility.” I chose to become a minister and made a subsequent choice to become the sort of minister for which there were few or no models, namely, to consider prayer as the heart of what I offered. I took up work which I knew would not reward me financially and might well require other sacrifices. Instead of remaining on a career track of higher education administration and teaching, I followed a Love that would not let me go anywhere else, but into its heart.
I was naïve. I thought ministry would be different from the stressful, competitive world of higher education and academia. I thought I would be able to focus on prayer and help others who were struggling with their relationships with the Holy One. Of course, I brought along all of my own unfinished business and the issues that had plagued me in that other world were all waiting for me on the doorstep of the church.
And, yes, this is where ministry and personal/communal growth always occurs: right in the midst of a stressful, competitive environment, with a lot of personal unfinished business.
Downward mobility includes more than lesser income, status, and pension benefits. Downward mobility includes the inner life as well. Over and over, my attachment to lesser gods, my selfishness, my controlling ego, and my pride are exposed, as Jesus invites me to come down off my high horse and revel with him in the lowly, fertile ground of humility.
In the midst of the muck Love seems always to meet me with a different agenda than my own. I call it Love’s way and it haunts me day and night, as I both resist and plead to be conformed to this path of humble trust in God. Love’s way, which is described extensively in scripture, is accessible, freely available to everyone, and is being offered to us moment by moment. And in Love’s way is where I long to dwell all the time.
I fail over and over. When that happens I am like a child lost in a dark woods. A kind of desperate panic comes over me, until I fumblingly discover where I got off the path and make my way back to joy and peace. I need at least an hour a day of contemplative prayer to maintain this deep abiding in Christ. If I want to work with others and help them in their prayer and relationship with God, I need more time. If I want to deepen and grow in knowledge and understanding of God, I need still more time.
I do not for the life of me understand how faith can deepen and flourish in the hearts of people without a serious commitment to spending time alone with God in prayer. And further, while I am on this rant, the internet is insidious in the way it cheapens us, makes us shallow, feeds surface hungers, plays upon and manipulates our opinions, self-understanding and understanding of the world.
Let’s take a deeper look at the way of Love. Here is how Jesus described it:
“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light. Matthew 11:28-30, (CEB)
I especially like the way Eugene Peterson puts it in his paraphrase of Matthew 11: 28-30, The Message:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me - watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
To put on Christ’s yoke and learn from him is to become gentle and humble and to find rest. To become an image of Christ is to put down our heavy loads and bend our necks beneath a yoke, which is easy and light.
Peterson enriches Matthew’s words with the beautiful phrase unforced rhythms of grace. That’s it! How would it be if what characterized our lives was not harried, stress-filled days, constant multi-tasking, distracted, pushing and shoving, controlling and anger, but rather the unforced rhythms of grace?
I suspect many of you know those graceful rhythms, when you find yourself in step with the Spirit and your day unfolds with beauty. I also suspect such days do not occur as much as you would like. How would your life look if you put on Jesus’ easy, light yoke more consciously and deliberately? What might change or what would you do differently?
What if your goal was not success and achievement, but gentleness and humility?
How do we do this? Is it even possible in the world we live in? Matthew tells us how. Jesus tells us how in these verses. Go back and read them again.
Quite simply, becoming like God and wearing the easy yoke, has to do with the company we keep. “Come to me,” Jesus, says. “Keep company with me.”
The only return Love asks for the gift of living in its way is our love – not our money, time, talents – but first and foremost, Love desires our love. This always slays me. The Love that animates life, binds the whole universe, flows into our hearts with joy and delight wants our love! Love wants to be loved. Jesus affirmed this divine desire in the greatest commandment:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:27)
I know how important it is to me to be loved by my children and family, my dog, and my friends. Here is what we may miss: God finds it very important to be loved by us. God desires our attention.
Perhaps, this is because, as St. Clare has written, we become what we love.