Our Ordinary Unmysterious Lives

Definite beliefs are what make the radical mystery
those moments when we suddenly know there is a God
about whom we “know” absolutely nothing –
accessible to us and our ordinary, unmysterious lives.

And more crucially:

definite beliefs enable us to withstand the storms of suffering

that come into every life, and that tend to destroy
any spiritual disposition that does not have deep roots.

~Christian Wiman from My Bright Abyss

photo of Wiser Lake Chapel sanctuary by Barb Hoelle

Does anyone have the foggiest idea
of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews.

~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

Unexpected God,
your advent alarms us.
Wake us from drowsy worship,
from the sleep that neglects love,
and the sedative of misdirected frenzy.
Awaken us now to your coming,
and bend our angers into your peace.
Amen.
~Revised Common Lectionary First Sunday of Advent

We are only a few weeks away from the beginning of Advent, a time when I am very guilty of blithely invoking the gentle story of Christmas Eve’s silent night, the sleeping infant away in a manger, the devoted parents hovering, the humble shepherds peering in the stable door.

The reality, I’m confident, was far different.

There was nothing gentle about a teenage mother giving birth in a stable, laying her baby in a feed trough–I’m sure there were times when Mary could have used a life preserver.
There was nothing gentle about the heavenly host appearing to the shepherds, shouting and singing the glories and leaving them “sore afraid.” The shepherds needed crash helmets.
There was nothing gentle about Herod’s response to the news that a Messiah had been born–he swept overboard a legion of male children whose parents undoubtedly begged for mercy, clinging to their children about to be murdered.
There was nothing gentle about a family’s flight to Egypt to flee that fate for their only Son.
There was nothing gentle about the life Jesus eventually led during his ministry:  itinerant and homeless, tempted and fasting in the wilderness for forty days,  owning nothing, rejected by his own people, betrayed by his disciples,  sentenced to death by acclamation before Pilate, tortured and hung on a cross until he took his last breath.

Yet he understood the power that originally brought him to earth and would return him to heaven, and back again someday. 
No signal flares needed there.

When I hear skeptics scoff at Christianity as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate the courage it takes to walk into church each week as a desperate person who will never ever save oneself.   We cling to the life preserver found in the Word, lashed to our seats and hanging on.  It is only because of grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, guilt and self-doubt to let go of our own anger in order to confront the reality of the radical mystery of God.

It is not for the faint of heart, this finding a “definite belief” within our ordinary unmysterious lives and giving it deep roots to thrive. It is reasonable and necessary to be “sore afraid” and “bend our anger” into His peace.

And not forget our crash helmets.

walking to church in Tokyo


Imagining

I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna
or on any river for that matter
to be perfectly honest.

Not in July or any month
have I had the pleasure — if it is a pleasure —
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

I am more likely to be found
in a quiet room like this one —
a painting of a woman on the wall,


a bowl of tangerines on the table —
trying to manufacture the sensation
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

There is little doubt
that others have been fishing
on the Susquehanna,

rowing upstream in a wooden boat,

sliding the oars under the water
then raising them to drip in the light.

But the nearest I have ever come to
fishing on the Susquehanna
was one afternoon in a museum in Philadelphia,

when I balanced a little egg of time
in front of a painting
in which that river curled around a bend

under a blue cloud-ruffled sky,
dense trees along the banks,
and a fellow with a red bandana

sitting in a small, green
flat-bottom boat
holding the thin whip of a pole.

That is something I am unlikely
ever to do, I remember
saying to myself and the person next to me.

Then I blinked and moved on
to other American scenes
of haystacks, water whitening over rocks,

even one of a brown hare
who seemed so wired with alertness
I imagined him springing right out of the frame. 
~Billy Collins Fishing On The Susquehanna In July

Edmund Darch Lewis – Susquehanna
Hayfield–oil painting by Scott Prior http://www.scottpriorart.com

I live a quiet life in a quiet place. There are many experiences not on my bucket list that I’m simply content to just imagine.

I’m not a rock climber or a zip liner or willing to jump out of an airplane. I won’t ride a horse over a four foot jump or race one around a track. Not for me waterskis or unicycles or motorcycles.

I’m grateful there are adventurers who seek out the extremes of life so the rest of us can admire their courage and applaud their explorations.

My imagination is powerful enough, thanks to the words and pictures of others – sometimes too vivid. I contentedly explore the corners of my quiet places, both inside and outside, to see what I can build from what’s here.

When the light is right, what I see in my mind is ready to spring right out of the frame.

Take the Hand You Know Belongs in Yours

I think of the story
of the storm and everyone
waking and seeing
the distant
yet familiar figure
far across the water
calling to them…

…so that when 
we finally step out of the boat 
toward them, we find
everything holds
us, and everything confirms
our courage, and if you wanted 
to drown you could, 
but you don’t 
because finally 
after all this struggle
and all these years
you don’t want to any more
you’ve simply had enough
of drowning
and you want to live and you 
want to love and you will
walk across any territory
and any darkness
however fluid and however
dangerous to take the
one hand you know
belongs in yours.
~David Whyte from “The Truelove” in The House of Belonging

Yesterday was the wrap-up to my thirtieth academic year working as a college health physician.  Despite budget challenges, inadequate staffing, a higher severity of illness in a patient population with burgeoning mental health needs,  our staff did an incredible job this year serving students and their families with the resources we do have.  

Reaching the end of the school year is always poignant: we will miss the graduating students we have gotten to know so well over four or five (or six!) years,  while we watch others leave temporarily for the summer, some to far away places around the globe.

We weep for those who have failed out, given up or fallen away from those who care deeply about them, some never to return to school again, and a few giving up on life itself. They did not take the hand offered to guide them through, even though they tired of drowning.

In my work I have tried to do what is needed when it is needed no matter what time of the day or night.  There are obviously times when I fall short– too vehement when I need to be quiet, too urgent and pressured when I need to be patient,  too anxious to do something/anything when it is best to simply do no harm.

I can only hold out my hand and wait. 

Each year I learn enough from each patient to fill volumes, as they speak of their struggles, their pain, their stories and sometimes hearing, most tragically, their forever silence.

I honor you, our students, on this day, to confirm your courage stepping out from the safety of the boat — not to drown, never to drown — but wanting to live, wanting to love, wanting to move healthier, better equipped and joyful into the rest of your lives.

Just take the outreached Hand that belongs in yours.


In Great Deeds, Something Abides

In great deeds, something abides. 
On great fields, something stays. 
Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; 
but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. 
And reverent men and women from afar, 
and generations that know us not and that we know not of, 
heart-drawn to see where and by whom
great things were suffered and done for them, 
shall come to this deathless field, 
to ponder and dream; 

and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, 
and the power of the vision pass into their souls.
 
This is the great reward of service. 
To live, far out and on, in the life of others;
this is the mystery of the Christ,

–to give life’s best for such high sake
that it shall be found again unto life eternal.

~Major-General Joshua Chamberlain at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 1889

Riley Howell and Kendrick Castillo were just regular high school students only a week ago – preparing for the end of the school year and for their long lives ahead of them.

Now their families and friends grieve their loss in the wake of more school shootings.

These two young men are now wrapped in the bosom of God forever; they gave their all and gave their best < themselves > to protect others when it was the right and brave thing to do. We can only stand in awe and reverence, heart-drawn at this act, in gratitude for their sacrifice.

Courage is not acting fearlessly. It is acting in spite of fear, knowing it may cost you everything.

May there never be another reason for someone to have to throw themselves at a shooter to stop the bullets. May evil intentions be crushed before they can ever be realized. May the selfless acts of brave souls abide in our hearts so we too will do the right thing to make sure this never happens again.

Unhurried

God never hurries. There are no deadlines against which He must work. Only to know this, is to quiet our spirits and relax our nerves.
Those who are in Christ share with Him all the riches of limitless time and endless years. For those out of Christ, time is a devouring beast; before the sons of the new creation time crouches and purrs and licks their hands.
~A. W. Tozer from
The Knowledge of the Holy

When worries overwhelm and fretting becomes fearsome,
I need quieting.
When the noise of news headlines screams for attention,
I call out for quieting.
When there is sadness, conflict, tragedy, illness, estrangement,
I long for quieting.
When too many balls are juggled at once, and I drop one,
I desire quieting.
When the ache lasts too long, the tiredness lingers, the heart skips a beat, and one too many symptoms causes anxiety,
I am desperate for quieting.
When tempted and ready for surrender, forgetting confidence, conviction, commitment and faith,
I pine for quieting.
In order to stay still reflecting restoration and rest,
I am called to quieting.


Just remaining quietly in the presence of God, listening to Him, being attentive to Him, requires a lot of courage

~Thomas Merton

photo by Tomomi Gibson

The Power To Break Rocks

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pavementpansies

 

“The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks.”
~Tennessee Williams in “Camino Real”
(These words became his epitaph)

 

pansy2

 

Some beginnings in this life commence on inhospitable ground:
no soil, no protection, no nurture, barely enough water.

Here lies a drive to thrive and transcend: forcing through a crack in the pavement while exposed to relentless heat.

Such delicate beauty comes from nothing but a seed packed with the potential to transform its circumstances through perseverance.  We all are created with the potential power to break through rocks and change the world.

Forever and ever.

Amen.

 

pansy1

 

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Preparing the Heart: Swollen with the Breath of God

halloweencactus

Pierced by the light of God
Mary Virgin,
drenched in the speech of God,
your body bloomed,

swelling with the breath of God.

But in wonder within you
you hid an untainted
child of God’s mind
and God’s Son blossomed in your body.

~Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) from “Antiphon for the Virgin”
translation by Barbara Newman

cactus2

It must have been extraordinary for a young woman to be told by an angel she was to bear the Son of God.  She is troubled despite his reassurance, completely perplexed about what it all meant.  She asks because she needs to know: how will this happen?

We too are puzzled when God intervenes in our lives in ways that are completely unexpected and sometimes downright inconvenient. We are touched in ways we have never been touched before, as His power “overshadows” us so deeply that we can never possibly be the same. A transformation takes place, we are swollen with the breath of God and new life begins to grow in us.

We are all virgins before God touches our lives, filling us with the light and the Words of His spirit, despite our being sullied by the mire of the world.   What makes Mary unique is her complete and total surrender to His will for her life:  “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.”

Let it be for us as well.  May our hearts be made ready to bloom.

cactuscandle