Loretta F. Ross

loretta f. ross | THE PRAYING LIFE

A modern hermit, Loretta spends one day a week in solitary prayer. She is interested in how contact with Holiness changes us. Ross is retired as assistant pastor at Crestview UMC and executive director of The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer.

Fear and Faith

December 18, 2012

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

Part Two - Conceiving the Inconceivable

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.

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

It Begins With A Howl

December 3, 2012

It begins with a howl            

a muffled sob at midnight

a “Help me!” filling the dark alley with terror
a fist banging on the door

a blank stare and a hand clenching a ball of tissue       

a sudden lurch and collapse,
face down in the open field.

This is how it begins, what we call Christmas.
Salvation is summoned by its negation.

The raw expression of the creation’s need
calls out its savior -

the scream
that rises from the soul shattering
collision
of what is with what should be.

Christmas begins when God hears

And God heard the voice of the boy… Genesis 21:17
I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Exodus 3:7

Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Luke 1:13

Christmas begins when God sees

I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt.  Exodus 3:7

My tears will flow without ceasing, without respite until the Lord from heaven looks down and sees. Lamentations 3: 49-50

She answered God by name, praying to the God who spoke to her, “You’re the God who sees me!”
“Yes, he saw me; then I saw him!”
That’s how the desert spring got named God-Alive-Sees-Me Spring. Genesis 16: 13-14

Christmas begins when the earth turns,
writhes, and convulses in its lamentation.

When the protest of the human heart joins its sorrow
with the heart of the One acquainted with grief,
Holiness steps out of the forest
into the clearing

"Here," bending over our
our small shaking bodies
our hopeless cynicism
our little hands grasping at straws

"Here is my answer," Holiness says,
and places in those hands
a child
wet and wild.

"And the name of the child shall be Love."


This post is an edited version of a post which was first published November 29, 1011.

Take and Read

November 25, 2012

The sheer activity of reading scripture ... is itself an act of faith, hope, and love, an act of humility and patience. It is a way of saying that we need to hear a fresh word, a word of grace, perhaps even a word of judgment as well as healing, warning as well as welcome. To open the Bible is to open a window toward Jerusalem, as Daniel did, no matter where our exile may have taken us.
~ After You Believe, N.T. Wright

A temptation in the contemplative life is to step away from our theological and Biblical underpinnings and become self absorbed in one’s own experience of God. Prayer, meditation, and contemplation are important practices, but without turning and returning to the Word of God in scripture we may lose our way. The witness of those who came before us, which we find recorded in the narratives, histories, wisdom literature, and poetry of the Bible forms us in the mystery of the human experience of the Holy One.

Yes, the Bible is sexist, racist, contradictory, bound by historical events, political realities, tribal animosities, tedious, nonsensical, and other limitations brought by the motley crew of human beings ,who have put their hands on it. The Bible is also shot through with the sublime and transcendent Holy Spirit, who has chosen to associate with our species (only God knows why) and expose itself to all our messes, as it calls us and holds us accountable to a Being greater than we ourselves.

Reading the Bible is like opening up a dusty old trunk in the attic full of family records, dim photos, grade cards, farm records, yellowed newspaper clippings, diaries, bills of sale, and baby booties. Why did they save this? What was so important about this clipping that someone put it away so carefully? Oh, look, there is great great grandpa by the old homestead. Hey, listen at this entry. It's about great uncle Harry's trial for stealing horses, “They led the disheveled man in chains into the courtroom…”

In scripture we learn about our roots, who God is and who God calls us to be. We come to know the nature of God, the limitations and weakness of the creation and what it means to be in right relationship with God, with ourselves and with one another. Scripture is a privileged place of meeting the Holy One and a powerful means of spiritual growth.

The discipline of daily Bible reading and reflection holds our feet to the fire. We are unable to squirm away from confronting difficult texts, hard sayings, and truths we may not want to hear. Being moored to scripture keeps us from floating off into philosophical abstraction and metaphysical flights of fancy, by anchoring us to the specific ground of God’s revelation in time and space in particular communities and individuals. Likewise reading scripture encourages us to pay attention to God's revelation in the concrete messy details of our own lives.

Disciplines – A Book of Daily Devotions 2013. Find light for your daily walk with God through The Upper Room Disciplines. In this best-selling devotional book, 53 writers from diverse Christian backgrounds and locales help you explore the Bible’s message for your life.

New in 2013: Each week opens with a Scripture Overview, followed by four questions or suggestions for reflection for personal or small-group use. Widely available online and at your local bookstore in Kindle and paperback, Disciplines 2013 makes a thoughtful gift for Sunday school teachers, pastors, or anyone who wants to mine the rich treasures of scripture.

I am honored to again be invited to contribute a week of reflections on the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary. But don’t buy the book just to read my thoughts. You will discover fifty three other writers, waiting to guide you into the transforming encounter with the Word of God. ~ Loretta F. Ross

Take and Read
Here is a little story about the power of reading the Bible.

I was . . . .weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo, I heard the voice as of a boy or girl, I know not which, coming from a neighboring house, chanting, and oft repeating, "Take and read; take and read."

Immediately my countenance was changed, and I began most earnestly to consider whether it was usual for children in any kind of game to sing such words; nor could I remember ever to have heard the like. So, restraining the torrent of my tears, I rose up, interpreting it no other way than as a command to me from Heaven to open the book, and to read the first chapter I should light upon.

For I had heard of Antony, that, accidentally coming in whilst the gospel was being read, he received the admonition as if what was read were addressed to him, "Go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me." And by such oracle was he forthwith converted unto Thee.

So quickly I returned to the place where . . . . I had put down the volume of the apostles, when I rose thence. I grasped, opened, and in silence read that paragraph on which my eyes first fell, -- "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof."

No further would I read, nor did I need; for instantly, as the sentence ended, -- by a light, as it were, of security infused into my heart, -- all the gloom of doubt vanished away.
~ St. Augustine, Confessions

For Fraught Souls

November 19, 2012

Autumn Invocation

Lord of courtesy, you=ve brought the corn
In, you=ve hung the trees with ripe, rich fruit,
Master of tides, you=re cooling down the sea,
Watcher at horizons, you=ll deliver
Most ships securely at home.
But Master of the moon, this world is dark
With terror, evil, not dark like dark of space
And stars. O God, save us from our fraught selves,
Put prayer into our minds. Be in the shrine
Of vivid, innocent imaginations.
Receive the love there is, Lord, help all nations.

Author unknown


In this season of thanks, let us pray for all fraught souls, those heavy laden with sorrow, the oppressed, the lost, and discouraged. May each one reach into the eternal harvest of gratitude that opens to those, who have passed through suffering and loss. Sustain us, Master of the tides, with appreciation for the simple gifts of life. Amen

I have loved this poem for years, but somehow lost the name of the author. If you know, please leave the name in the comments. I would like to give credit for this beautiful piece of writing. A Blessed Thanksgiving to you and yours! Loretta F Ross

Morning News Pre-empted by Older Story

November 7, 2012

Today while listening to the morning news, I heard an old hymn edging its way between the story on the election and the update on survivors of the hurricane.

I will tell you what it was in a minute, but first I offer you my Op-Ed.

I am not counting on my vote getting the leadership I want us to have. Nor am I counting on getting my views on our responsibility to the suffering of others to prevail.

What I count on and lay down my life for, is the goodness of a Reality larger than politics, economics, global warming, war, and corporate interests. I am putting my support on a Being greater and more graceful than the tiny brains of human beings. My candidate is the invincible Substance of things hoped for, which sees beyond what is, yet dwells in the midst of our chaos and sings in the human heart.

Under my fears I can hear the wondrous freedom song that nothing can separate us from the love of God, not human sin, stupidity, or weakness, not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created. (Romans 8: 38-39 CEV)

The Holy One dwells as ground beneath our feet in astonishing humility – wiser, brighter, and kinder than we are – who will hold us up and see us through.

In this season of distress, polarities, and uncertainty, I am banking on the hidden connections among our species, those channels of mercy that run deeper than ideologies and seep into the crevices of our vulnerability, which is both our great flaw and our greater glory, penetrating down into the solid rock of compassion, imagination, and strength.

The world does not need our anger, our outrage, our fear, or our grasping need to get others to believe as we do. I believe the world needs our humility and our faith.

For my part I can think of nothing better to offer this little piece of history than these simple gifts of the soul.

Now, here is the hymn which intruded into my morning news:

On Christ the solid Rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand;
All other ground is sinking sand.
Edward Mote

The Visitor

October 27, 2012

I hear you,
muffled
under 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 bird with a broken wing
the bunny with a missing leg.

You wait.
A silver dagger gleams
like a flame in your pocket.

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

Suddenly 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, pierced by the sharp stab
of your two-edged sword.

I do not know when
you took it out of your pocket
or when it neatly penetrated
between bone 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 3: 12-13 CEV

You Will Die Before You Finish This Prayer

October 16, 2012

“I think what is going to help you most when you start your prayer – and it doesn’t matter whether it is long or short – is to make quite sure that you are certain that you will die by the time it is ended, that you will finish before your prayer does!” cheerfully advises the fourteenth century English author of the Epistle of Prayer.

The author, likely a country parson, is writing to a young person, who asked for advice on how to control the mind when saying prayers. This is a request I, as a spiritual guide, often hear. Some things never change in the praying life.

I recently tried the parson’s advice and it about did me in. I attempted to make certain I would die before I completed my prayer, and learned that there is little like death to focus the mind:

The world rushed in with her fetching beauty, her clear blue sky, and yellowing maple leaves, waving, “Don’t forget about me, and me, and the red bird house, and the wren, and the dragonfly and the glaciers gripping the ground, and the wild horses pounding over the plains. The wind, whooshing leaves down the street, sent a shower of glimmering memories – babies, kitchens, ginger snaps, story books - I gave thanks for galoshes to help me wade through all the goodness. I will be ancient or dead before I finish stringing the pearls of this gratitude.

After the gratitude came the love, flowing up to the porch, running under the door, pooling at my feet and rising, slowly to my knees. I climbed up on the table and the love still mounted. Love is the color of spring and snow and fire. It moans and sings and weeps. It tastes bittersweet, smooth and creamy, warm and rich as hot chocolate. Then I grew bold and dared to believe that I could breathe in it, could breathe under-love, and that I would not drown in it. So I slipped off the table and swam a few strokes around the room, then let the love sweep me out an open window into the world, buoyant and giggling.

When I came across the English parson, I had been feeling little gratitude and not the least bit buoyant. Instead of gratitude and this exuberant love, sorrow and longing for God had occupied my heart. My praying life had honed down to a narrow naked ache, like a thorn, for several weeks. I hurt. I went to sleep with the thorn and woke with it, a stab of incompletion and desire, lodged like a fish hook in the center of my being. There was no one thing I could name that would satisfy or heal this pain, but only the one whose name was above all names, who was before there were names.

The thorn was part grief and a prickly call to deeper freedom. As I grieved recent and older losses in the midst of many present blessings and considerable gladness, I was being weaned from some of the things of this world, which are lesser than God. And it hurt. I sensed there was something I was to let go of, but I couldn’t see what that was, though it seemed to have to do with some of my mental constructs, attitudes, ways of naming and holding what I knew as reality. It seemed to have to do with who I thought I was and how I held myself together. And this felt really, really scary.

So I prayed, meditated, read holy words, exercised, talked with friends, listened to and felt deep compassion for others. I also played a lot of mindless solitaire on my phone.

I went to the Antiochian Orthodox church down the street, where, except for the jean clad worshippers, I felt I had stepped into an ancient Syrian synagogue where Paul might step out and begin preaching any moment. I let the tonal chants in four part harmony wrap around me, as the icon saints gazed out from all four walls. Each word and act in worship was directed, not to audience appeal, market demographics, or video screens, but to the Holiness that filled the space. It was clear most of the people, as well as all those saints with their sorrowful eyes, also had thorns of longing love in their hearts too.

I have had periods of prayer like this before and trusted God was at work somehow. I know that uncertainty, alienation, and disorientation are part of growing in faith. The temptation during such times is to turn in disgust on oneself, dredging up failures, mistakes, weaknesses, and falling into a dark pit of self-negation. Yet I have learned over the years, that it is precisely, when we feel the most pitiful, that we are most in need of our own tender compassion and love.

During this time I gobbled up The Cloud of Unknowing, another fourteenth century English classic I first read years before. The writer affirmed what I was experiencing and assured me that it was God at work in me. He counsels “to reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after God whom you love. … Your whole life now must be one of longing… And this longing must be in the depths of your will, put there by God, with your consent.” Oh, dear. One really must be careful when one says yes to God. Don't forget to read the small print in the covenant.

Then, suddenly, the thorn was gone. The longing remains, but the acute pain has disappeared. This was a few days after I imagined that I would die before I finished my prayer. I have no idea why or how it left. I am just grateful to not feel so gripped and mournful reaching out to the heavens. Living in the cloud of unknowing and uncertainly is difficult to those of us who take pride in our intellect, our ability to be in control, to know things, and manage our own destinies.

Some religion is all suffering and damnation. Some religion is all sweetness and happy thoughts. Mine is sorrow and love. In the painful friction of sorrow and love new life ignites, leaps forth, and gives light in the darkness. Lately the words to When I Survey the Wondrous Cross have been singing themselves in my mind. So much of Christianity is mystery and wonder to me. I am clueless. I go walk around the block with my dog, praying that God make something holy of my life. I do not care what it is.

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

See, from His head, His hands, His feet
Sorrow and love flow mingled down
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were a present far too small
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
– Isaac Watts

The Writers Workshop – A Love Story

September 12, 2012

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.

Do You Know What You Know

August 27, 2012

Four Great Questions

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

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

The questions are in the book, Yoga and Anxiety – Meditations and Practices for Calming Body and Mind by Mary and Rick NurrieSterns on page 102.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take some time this week with these questions. Find out what you already know and let me know how it goes.

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

2. I know I need to ___________________________.

3. The real truth is ___________________________.

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

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

Not Ten Best Practices for Prayer

August 14, 2012

“Your writing has changed lately,” a friend who reads these blogs said last week. “Is that related to the retreat you went on?”

I have been thinking I ought to write a more accessible, timely post, something about the weather we have endured here in Kansas, or the contentious world of politics, or an entertaining piece about my dog, or a list: Ten Best Practices for Prayer. Copy Writer tells me lists always get lots of views and shares.

Yet, if this is a blog about prayer, it ought to reflect the experience of one who is praying. So at least for today I bring you another update from the silence. One word is really all I have to say: longing, deep vast yearning, reaching toward what I cannot really name.

And as some of you know, my friends, such longing is really kind of awful. Awful in the sense of how it stretches and stretches one ever beyond one’s self. Awful in the sense that it has no end. Awful in the sense that it is out of one’s control or naming. Awful in the sense that it is love that ever seeks its fulfillment in the beloved.

The writer of the Cloud of Unknowing called such prayer a naked intention of love directed to God alone.

A Failure to Communicate

I would like to stand and hold my balance on the threshold
with the wind whistling through the space
where my heart used to be
and watch the birth and death of beings
the coming and going of existence

and somehow fasten myself in that place,
the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.

I have had it with these little cages
we stuff full of significance
and string out across a page
like a rumbling circus parade of gaudy wagons drawn by camels.

Meaning like penned beasts paces back and forth
while we snap the whip and totally miss the show.

Nor is communication a fortune cookie “thought for the day.”

Flirting on the edge of my awareness
where words dissolve
and nothing separates
love broods.

I bang against the bars.
Let me out.
Set me free of me.

Why I long to escape the confines of language I do not know

for when I meet you there, my friend,
in that other country, our native land
I will have nothing to say or offer
because you will already have all you ever need.

__________________________

I tell you this: it is more profitable to your soul’s health, more worthwhile, more pleasing to God and the hosts of heaven – yes, more helpful to your friends, natural and spiritual, dead or alive – that you should have this blind outreaching love to God himself, this secret love pressing upon the cloud of unknowing, that you should have this as your spiritual affection, than that you should contemplate and gaze on the angels and saints in heaven and hear the happy music of the blessed.

The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works