Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Sabbath of Snow

The weather reports called for lots of snow. Where I live in the mountains, this is nothing unusual, but for the last week in October, this much snow was a bit unusual. Whenever the predictions are for more than a foot or so, some planning is in order. Since my husband works down the hill, he took what he needed to be able to stay with relatives in the Denver area if the roads got too bad. We made sure there was plenty of wood stacked by the wood stove to keep the house warm, put the snow shovel by the door, and checked the snow blower to ensure that it was ready to go. After my husband left for work, I began to prepare for a power outage, just in case; that meant getting the candles out, putting the old analog phone next to a jack, doing the laundry, running the dishwasher, doing some cleaning, and taking a nice, long, hot bath. Since we are on a well, when the power goes out the water doesn't run, you have to plan for that. Finally, I made a list of the things I could do without electricity, which mostly meant doing some writing the old fashioned way - with pen and paper. I was ready!

The snow had already been falling for about twelve hours. It was coming down thick and heavy. Before you know it, there was about a foot and a half on the ground. I went out for the first round with the snow blower the afternoon of the first day. The power was flickering on and off, but so far, we were still up and running. The snow continued for another day and then some. By the time it was all over, we had well over three feet of snow. Schools and businesses closed and cars couldn't go anywhere. The only folks out on the roads were the snow plow drivers. For two days I was home alone keeping the fire going, clearing the snow on the deck and driveway, and working on my computer. I was very thankful that the power hung on!

At times like this, routines are suspended. Life comes to a standstill. I tend to switch into survival mode - do what needs to get done to make it through. I also keep in touch with the ones I love. I spent a lot of time on the phone with my husband, kids, parents, and friends. We were all checking in with each other. What was happening? Was everyone safe and sound? What was everyone doing? Assured that everyone was fine, I could relax into the experience and treasure the spaciousness and quiet. These snow days can be Sabbath times: times for quiet, reflection, rest, and re-creation.

Sabbath time is a gift that we give to ourselves. In the past, a weekly Sabbath time was the norm for most folks. The Sabbath day was a time for God and family. Businesses were closed and day to day chores were put on hold. Even recreational activities were not scheduled. The other day of the weekend was the day for sports tournaments and yard work. But over the years, the discipline of Sabbath has been lost in our culture. I know plenty of people who spend their weekends playing so hard that they are exhausted by the time they return to work on Monday. We work and we play. These are needful things. But rest and re-creation is frequently dropped from the equation. It is no wonder that Americans have trouble sleeping - we have lost the discipline and practice of rest and renewal. Maybe snow days can be a reminder for us.

On a snow day, when routines are suspended and life comes to a standstill, perhaps there is an invitation. We are invited to enter into a Sabbath time. We are gifted with the time, the space, and the quiet that are necessary to be with God and family. We can take some quiet time and not feel like there is something more worthwhile we should be doing. The snow day invites us to experience the gift of Sabbath but it is up to us to engage it with intention. Once we have tried it a few times and begin to appreciate the value of it, then we can promise ourselves that we will go against the cultural inertia and regularly give ourselves the gift of Sabbath. It may take a lot of planning and preparation. We might have to be determined. We might have to say no to other invitations. We might have to miss out on other enticing opportunities. We might fail. But I believe the gift of Sabbath is one that contributes to health and happiness in life. Sabbath can help us to engage the rest of life with more energy and enthusiasm. Sabbath transforms our busy lives with a touch of that peace that passes understanding. Sabbath is a very worthwhile discipline and practice. This is age old wisdom that has been neglected in our culture. Perhaps it is time to recapture it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Walls or Welcome

Almost 35 years ago I met my husband, Tam. Tam and his family had just arrived in the United States from Vietnam and in spite of the language barrier, it didn’t take long for the two of us to find ourselves falling in love. But our romance was interracial and intercultural, and although interracial couples were not rare in our society back then, they were still considered edgy. There were plenty of folks, both strangers and family members on both sides, who did not approve.

As I got to know this Asian family and Tam and I grew closer, I knew I had a lot to learn. I would step into that Asian household and find I had no idea about the simplest things – things I usually took for granted. At a meal, where should I sit? When should I sit? With whom should I sit? After several awkward gatherings, it became obvious that this was an important concern in this new culture, and I was doing it all wrong. What should I call people? Whom should I talk to? What should I say?  When should I speak up and when should I be quiet?  The wrong manners could easily offend, and I didn't take me long to do plenty of offending! I could easily be offended as well by the strange manners I observed in this foreign culture. Clearly, this was a time for extra patience and giving the benefit of the doubt. This was a time to learn new things and even be delighted and surprised by diversity and differences.

As the years passed, I learned to appreciate the diversity that we shared in our marriage more and more. We raised our children in two cultures and helped them to appreciate the infinite variety of God’s creation. When things were strange or different, this was an opportunity to celebrate another discovery and delight in something new.  The diversity was enriching and taught me to have an open mind and to be generous with people I struggled to understand.

As our world grows smaller and we are exposed to so much that is diverse, whether it be culturally, ethnically, behaviorally, or spiritually, I hope we can celebrate and learn from each other rather than judge or take offense. What a gift it is to encounter people with different lifestyles and worldviews. We are all enriched by it and can learn so much.  But we can either put up walls or welcome the stranger, and contrary to how we sometimes behave, I believe that it is the walls that impoverish us, not the welcoming.

I recently attended the wedding of a same gender couple.  This was a new experience and it felt as if I was entering once again that foreign household where I understood so little and could offend or be offended through a lack of understanding.  I vowed to do my best to welcome rather than build walls.  The service itself offered some help.  The favorite passage from I Corinthians was read: “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not irritable or resentful. It endures all things. Love never ends… Faith, hope and love abide, and the greatest of these is love.” It is a passage many of us had heard at weddings, but since it is read so often at weddings, I wonder if we confuse Paul’s words and think he is writing about romance rather than love. Let’s try it out: romance is patient, romance is kind, romance is not irritable or resentful. It endures all things. Romance never ends. Faith, hope, and romance abide, and the greatest of these is romance! It doesn’t work very well, does it?!  This scripture passage is about every day, practical, rubber hits the road love – for neighbor, sister, brother, parent, child, friend... for foreigner and same gender couples.  It is about hard work. It sets the bar high.

We live in a diverse world, where things are often new and different. We may make mistakes. Our world requires all we can give of understanding, patience, kindness, and endurance.  Diversity is a great source of celebration and enrichment. It can also be a source of misunderstandings or offenses or hurt feelings. The only course to take is to come back again and again to these words about love that Paul has left us. We must apply ourselves once again with the promise to do better next time. We can count on always needing to ask ourselves how best to love each other and even still falling short much of the time. It is unfortunate when we fail, but be assured, there will always be plenty of opportunities to try again.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Simplification of Life

The Christmas shopping season has already begun!  If you are looking for a holy way to approach the coming holiday season, at Creative Spirituality, we are offering an online retreat. Our retreat, the Simplification of Life, will begin on the First Sunday in Advent, Nov. 29th and continue through Jan. 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany. I will be your spiritual director and guide as you join us on this road toward a Christ centered life.  For more information and an audio introduction, see our retreat page at Creative Spirituality.

Meister Eckhart, a late 13th century scholar and monk, preached a sermon in which he said, “This is the fullness of time, when the Son of God is begotten in you.” Each year, as the Advent and Christmas seasons approach, I once again begin to reflect on the depths of Eckhart’s meaning. To give birth to the presence of God within my being is a thought so rich with grace and transformation that the implications are manifold. As our society gets wrapped up in frantic consumerism and the consequence of clutter, my soul cries out for that birth within, the deepest reality of the Christmas gift.

In our retreat, The Simplification of Life, you will be invited to engage and explore that birth of the Son of God within you. Thomas Kelly will be our guide as we examine his spiritual writings which comprise his “Testament of Devotion.” Kelly was an early 20th century scholar of philosophy and the sciences. He was deeply affected by his Quaker upbringing and remained a highly sought after speaker and teacher in the Quaker tradition throughout his life. He would be pleased to know that one of his biographers described him as a man who lead an adequate life – a life that was filled with simplicity and grace, centered on the Light within.

Through the teachings of Thomas Kelly, we will journey through a series of short studies that examine the nature of the birth of the Son of God within and how it truly leads to the simplification of life. You will be encouraged to focus on the Light within, learning to peel away the many layers of busy-ness in which we trap ourselves and following God’s deepest desire for your life. As Kelly will show us, following that desire allows us to focus on God’s deepest call in our lives and leave the rest for others. He states, “We cannot die on every cross, nor are we expected to.”

Provisions for this journey to this focused life include a daily prayer guide based upon the monastic prayer hours. Each day, you will be given scriptures, psalms, and quotes from Kelly’s works to reflect on. The daily prayer cycle will be enhanced by a short reflection or teaching on Kelly’s thought. A weekly reflection of the Gospel appointed from the Revised Common Lectionary will be provided along with a video which will include materials to flesh out Kelly’s teachings. Discussion rooms will be opened where you can engage in conversation with me and your fellow travelers, and for those who wish to go deeper, personal spiritual direction is available.

In his writings, Thomas Kelly demonstrates how a deep and profound spiritual life is the most practical way of living. At a time of year when everything around us pulls us away from our center in Christ, I encourage you to travel with us to experience and explore that birth within. Let your life be transformed by the grace of God begotten in you.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Bird Baths Are Dangerous Things

Serving as a priest in an Episcopal Church offers some interesting and unique experiences. One of the things that happens on a regular basis is having a person or family whom you have never met come to you seeking sacramental services. This happens most often with baptisms, weddings, and funerals. A priest always hopes that the family, once they get the baby done or the couple started, will be back to attend services and join the community. This rarely happens. I always hope for that, too, but I don't mind offering those sacramental services with no expectations attached. After all, who am I to refuse the touch of God's grace in someone's life?

I must admit that I have always referred to these types of events as "drive bys:" drive by baptisms, drive by weddings, and drive by funerals. I hope you don't find me too irreverent.

Not long ago, we had a drive by baptism at my church.  The candidate, a three year old little girl, knew this was a special occasion and was very excited about it. We were in the church doing some baptismal instruction and this little girl excitedly dashed about.  When she saw the baptismal font, she exclaimed, "Mommy, look at the bird bath!" What a delightful and profound description! How often we use the symbol of the descending dove to depict the grace filled presence of the Holy Spirit, especially in baptism. In the great faith traditions, the cleansing of the body with water often points beyond to the cleansing of the soul. Water is also an archetype for God, reminding us of the creative, cleansing, freeing, nurturing power of the Holy. We come back to the bird bath, seeking that grace again and again.

We have a bird bath on our deck. It is only small one, but it attracts a variety of birds and they create quite a mess.  The mess begins with the inevitable evidence all birds leave behind and goes on from there. Certain birds seem to relish their baths more than others. It is especially fun to watch the beautiful mountain jays. They are large, brightly colored birds and are aggressive. They seem to overwhelm our little pool. They splash about, spreading water all around. They leave their feathers floating on the surface like tiny ships. The water collects bugs and windblown leaves. That bird bath requires regular maintenance.

When we approach the bird bath of our souls, it seems to me that we seek that cleansing of God in much the same way as that little three year old did. She had no idea what her baptism was really all about. She didn't know that this was the beginning of a relationship with God that requires much more. No one had shown her the warning label that must come with any approach to God. She didn't know that a bird bath is a very messy affair.

We approach the bird bath desperately needing that cleansing, creative, freeing, nurturing power of the Holy, but we must remember that discipleship comes with a cost. Those bird baths need warning labels! God needs to provide full disclosure. We must know what we are choosing when we choose God. The warning label might say, "CAUTION! Approaching the Holy One leads to personal sacrifice" or "God's grace requires that you encounter the hard truth" or "Being in the presence of the Spirit may result in turning over your life." We must not seek God's grace naively with no expectation that much will be required of us. Bird baths are messy affairs.

I believe in the power of the bird bath. God works through it, sometimes in ways that are not immediately evident and sometimes in ways we never even know. Let one and all come and be cleansed and nurtured. But often we come like children, naively forgetting the sacrifice that follows. Let us not bathe casually or in ignorance. Always remember those warning labels and, at the same time, embrace them fully

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Descending into the Cloud

Last week I spent a day guiding a group through a spiritual discernment process. The group was in Leadville, an old mining town in central Colorado. Knowing that I would be driving to Leadville at the end of the week, I had watched the weather reports carefully to make sure that I would avoid bad driving conditions as much as possible. I don't like driving over mountain passes in the snow; it can be a "white knuckle" experience. The weather reports were not good. The morning I was supposed to head out to Leadville, a storm was coming in so I decided to drive up the day before. The drive to Leadville was beautiful! The mountains in the fall are breathtaking and my route took me over Fremont Pass, which takes you up to 11,000 feet on gently winding roads. Although the aspen trees were past prime viewing, the peaks were snowcapped and the evergreens made for stunning contrast. The sky was slate blue and the sun was shining. I am always surprised and delighted by the beauty of God's creation.

The next day, the Leadville morning was greeted with the same gorgeous blue sky, but the weather reports in the Denver area were terrible. The roads were covered with ice, there was a 50 car pileup on I-25, and parts of I-70 were closed. The storm was pushing up against the Front Range and it looked like my drive home was going to be rough. After a prayerful morning of working with the discernment group, I anxiously hit the highway. Fremont Pass was once again clear and sunny. No sign of snow on the west side of the Divide made for a smooth approach to the Eisenhower/Johnson tunnel. As I began the eastbound descent from the tunnel and drove through Georgetown, it was still clear and sunny. I had not caught up to the storm yet but the radio station continued to report the terrible weather and road conditions in the Denver area. It was on the other side of Idaho Springs that I could see the dark clouds piled up. The storm was backed up against the Front Range and the plains were socked in. Idaho Springs was still sunny and bright, but I could see that soon I would be descending into the gloom. As I approached my exit, the clouds embraced me. I had entered a new world! Everything was covered with a layer of snow and ice, the type of thick frost that holds on to the tree branches and makes each twig and pine needle glisten. Mist filled the air.  The road that took me home was empty and the uncharacteristic mid afternoon quiet was serene. But even with the gloom and the snow on the grass and trees, the roads in the foothills cooperated by being dry - the icy roads were further down the mountain. My anxiety about the drive home dissipated as soon as I entered the cloud and I knew that coming home was going to be easier than the weather reports had indicated. I was grateful.

On the spiritual journey we find ourselves entering into the cloud at times. Perhaps the spiritual cloud is one to which we ascend rather than descend, but it can still be a journey of anxiety and uncertainty. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing describes dwelling in that place of mystery and serenity. The author says, "When you first begin, you find only darkness, as it were a cloud of unknowing. You don't know what this means except that in your will you feel a simple steadfast intention reaching out towards God. Do what you will, this darkness and this cloud remain between you and God and stop you both from seeing him in the clear light of rational understanding, and from experiencing his loving sweetness in your affection. Reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after him whom you love. For if you are to feel him or to see him in this life, it must always be in this cloud, in this darkness."

When we seek God, we enter a new world - one that is so different we cannot see clearly. Since we are unable to truly know God, we must acknowledge the mist that covers the eyes of our spirits. God is deeply unknowable. We can only hope to see the effects of God that change the world around us. It is like seeing the glimmering frost that makes the world beautiful while not being able to see the cold that collects the humidity on the branches. It should be no suprise to find the road home clear and our spirits quiet and serene.  If we can "reconcile ourselves to wait" in the mystery of the cloud, our eyes begin to see that loving sweetness, we find ourselves experiencing that peace that passes understanding. Let us not be anxious about entering into the Cloud of Unknowing, even when it appears to us like a storm cloud.  Let us rejoice in the presence of the Holy, especially when it seems we are surrounded by mystery.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Winter is Coming

Winter is coming. In the mountains just west of Denver where I live, fall is usually the most beautiful season, but it is gravid with the appraoching, unwelcome hardships of winter. Right now, the air is gold as the sun shines through the changing Aspen leaves and the temperature is crisp and pleasant. It is a delight to sit in the sun and breathe in the earthy smells, relishing these last warm days. But this year seems to be different. It is supposed to snow tomorrow and a wintery cold is on its way. This year, the change of seasons is just a bit early. As I sit at my kitchen table looking out at the Aspen grove just outside my window, you can see the chill. The leaves fall like rain with every gust of wind. A little chickadee flits about looking for bugs in the bark of the trees. It doesn't seem to notice that a change is coming. The Rocky Mountains are beautiful, but they can be harsh as well.

There's a fire in the wood stove. My kitchen is a warm refuge against those harsh and unpredictable elements. I sit in a cocoon, looking out at the world and feeling safe and protected. I appreciate this moment of safety with the knowledge that it is transitory gift. It won't be long before I must engage the world and all the elements that come along with it.

Winter is coming and there is nothing that we can do to keep it at bay. If we want to live, we are compelled to engage it. This change of seasons warns of cold and death - there is desolation just around the bend in the road. Cocoons don't last long. We move about in a world that can be harsh at times: life brings us an unexpected illness, someone we love is suffering, a job is lost, our hearts break with the breaking of a relationship. Safety seems impossible, it cannot last. The journey of the soul has similar bends in the road; we can sense a spiritual chill in the breath of a season. Our spirit is tired or worried or overwhelmed or grieved. God seems distant or absent entirely. These are the long dark nights, the times of desolations and sufferings and it is a reality of the spiritual life. Suffering is not something one would seek but it is something that cannot be avoided. No matter how hard we try to deny it, suffering is part of life. One contemporary statement of this reality is "shit happens." Yes, it does, and to deny it is foolish.

It seems, however, that we often do everything we can to deny the reality of suffering, to stave off the winter and hold back the snows. Perhaps one of the most extreme examples of this denial is how segments of our culture handle death. Most people don't even like to say that someone has died. We use all sorts of euphemisms such as "passed on," "went to a better place," or even "kicked the bucket." We don't have funerals anymore, only "celebrations of life." I suppose that's OK, but truly, I think we need to have both. Life and death are inextricably one. If we want to engage in the fullness of life, we are compelled to engage the fullness of death.

Even when the spirit is tired or worried or overwhelmed or grieved, when the winter of the soul is coming, we are creatures of hope. We endure the winter, knowing that spring and summer inevitably follow. Somewhere, somehow, new life will spring up. The winter snows provide the nourishment of the spring waters. The cold earth shelters the seeds of growth. The barren Aspen branches give birth to buds and shimmering new leaves. Sometimes our souls are covered with snow or buried in cold earth or waiting to give birth. But this season of death inevitably yields to the season of life.

Yes, winter is coming. But it harbors new life. To know God is to know the springtime promise, even when it seems that there is no evidence for it. The truth is, we may not see the gift of new life for a long time to come, but if we can trust that it is there, we are more likely to recognize it sooner rather than later.