Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Domestic Mysticism

I must give credit to Grace for the title of this posting. Grace and her sister came to our church once recently and stayed for lunch and the inquirer's class afterward. We were talking about calling, and Grace said that she is called to domestic mysticism, among other things, you know: where you meditate as you sweep. Someone else that day was a proponent of mindfulness while doing dishes.

Poet Ann Weems poses the question of how we might do this in her poem, The Holy in the Ordinary, from her book, Kneeling in Jerusalem, a recommended resource for Lent and Easter. The last part captures the question:
Spiritual contemplation is all right
for those who have the time,
but most of us have to make a living.

Most of us have to live in the real world
where profanity splashes and blots out
anything holy.

Where, O Holy One, can we find You in this unholy mess?

How, O God, can we find the holy in the ordinary?

The Buddhist version of domestic mysticism is found in the saying, "chop wood, carry water." How do we practice mindfulness in everyday life? How do we gain the understanding that our everyday tasks are worthy and holy?

Molly Wolf has a book worth reading, or skimming and re-reading, if you've already read it, about this: White China: Finding the Divine in the Everyday. Mostly, I think this is about paying attention, about knowing that God really is present everywhere, and about understanding that being made in the image of God allows the possibility that we are and can be whole and holy, and Wolf emphasizes, while not letting our language about "God-stuff" get in our way.

Personally, cleaning is something I prefer in small doses. Unfortunately, like much of the rest of New England, I spent a lot of time the past two weekends cleaning out my waterlogged basement. After bailing out buckets and buckets of water to keep my basement from overflowing while it rained, mopping up, and picking up and taking out sixteen bags of soggy tiles and trash, I think that I may not want more opportunities to be a domestic mystic for a while.

As Passover coincides with Easter this year, though, I am reminded that a critical part of the ritual preparation for Passover is the attention paid to cleaning the house—mindfully and thoroughly. As we are planning to have both a Passover Seder and an Easter dinner, I just realized that I'm going to need to find the time to give the house a good cleaning. I think I may need to ask for help.

But you know, I don't find the phrase "clean house" in the Bible. So perhaps I will turn to this song that is often used during Lent instead:
Give me a clean heart, so I may serve you, a paraphrase of Psalm 51: 10:
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
May our hearts be swept by and with the Spirit, and perhaps then cleaning our houses can be an ordinary, yet mindful and holy practice of our spirit filled hearts.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

What matters?

O God, my God, I pray that these things never end...
I've had this song as a part of my listening collection for several years now, and just found the sheet music in the UUA hymnal supplement: Singing the Journey. It's written in Hebrew and in English, but here's the English text for the really haunting tune by David Zehavi: Eili, Eili
O God, my God, I pray that these things never end:
The sand and the sea,
The rush of the waters,
The crèche of the heavens,
The prayer of the heart.
~Hannah Senesh, 1921-1944
Hannah Senesh was a young Jewish woman, a writer who wanted to make a difference in the world, and who volunteered as a paratrooper and was killed after being captured while on a rescue mission to Hungary during World War II.
There are stars whose radiance is visible on earth
though they have long been extinct.
There are people whose brilliance continues to light
the world even though they are not longer among the living.
These lights are particularly bright
when the night is dark.
They light the way for human kind.
~Hannah Senesh
A more recent addition to my collection is the song by country/pop group Lady Antebellum: I Was Here.
You will notice me
I'll be leavin' my mark, like initials carved in an old oak tree,
you wait and see.
maybe I'll write like Twain wrote,
maybe I'll paint like Van Gogh,
cure the common cold.
I don't know but I'm ready to start 'cause I know in my heart

I wanna do something that matters,
say something different,
something that sets the whole world on its ear
I wanna do something better, with the time I've been given
and I wanna try to touch a few hearts in this life
and leave nothing less than something that says, I was here

I will prove you wrong
if you think I'm all talk, you're in for a shock
'cause this dream's too strong, and before too long
maybe I'll compose symphonies
maybe I'll fight for world peace
'cause I know it's my destiny to leave more than a trace of myself in this

I wanna do something that matters
say something different
something that sets the whole world on its ear
I wanna do something better, with the time I've been given
and I wanna try to touch a few hearts in this life
and leave nothing less than something that says, I was here

And I know that I, I will do more than just pass through this life
I'll leave nothing less than something that says I was here,
I was here,
I was here,
I was here

Wanna do something that matters
something that says I was here
wanna do something that matters
something that says, I was here,
I was here
Most of us are probably more like the person who wants to do something that matters, who fears that others will scoff because she is perhaps is all talk, with a dream that we don't know how to make come true. Hannah Senesh was right: we need to work and pray for the things that are important, those things we want to last, and in doing that perhaps we will become one of those people who do make a difference and light the way for others. That seems like a lot to ask some days.

Yet Emily Dickinson put it another way:
If I can stop one Heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one Life the Aching
Or cool one Pain

Or help one fainting Robin
Unto his Nest again
I shall not live in Vain.
(from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson)

So what if I am not a star that lights the way for all of human kind? We don't have to be heroes, write like Mark Twain, paint like Van Gogh, or cure the common cold to matter: just cool one pain, help one robin, ease one life. Surely, we can do that? It's a helpful perspective for me when I wonder if I am making a difference, if I'm doing the ministry I "should" be doing.

In doing something that matters: I gave up "shoulds" for Lent, yet in this last week I cooled one pain (brought out the icepack for my daughter's bruised shin), helped at least one robin (found a bag of bird seed in the basement to go out into the feeder), and eased one life (had a phone conversation about living in a relationship with chronic illness with someone who doesn't have nearby supports). It's perhaps not the ministry I could be doing or hoped I'd be doing now, but it is the ministry I am doing, and that's what matters.

Let us do what really matters. May the prayer of my heart and yours never end.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Foreseen in Joy, Present in Grace

This morning I took time to read a poem and my hand fell on Sabbaths by Wendell Berry and I opened to this poem, number X:

Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.

Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.

And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we're asleep.

When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.

What do you look forward to in joy? Is it your work? Do you have a vision, a goal or a harvest that you are willing to sweat for?

Yet, catch the punch line: "no leaf or grain is filled by work of ours; the field is tilled and left to grace."

How are you at leaving things to grace?

I find I am often busy doing, and am less successful at being present in grace, whatever that is. To know and understand that we are a forgiven people, to rest in true Sabbath in God's love and presence, to turn our work and our lives over with the understanding that our work and lives are a part of a greater work, those are inklings of grace.
I do not at all understand the mystery of grace -- only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us. ~Anne Lamott via Jim Taylor in Rumors
Yes, what is grace? My word processor's dictionary offers these definitions:

grace n
1. elegance, beauty, and smoothness of form or movement
2. dignified, polite, and decent behavior
3. a capacity to tolerate, accommodate, or forgive people
4. a short prayer of thanks to God said before, or sometimes after, a meal
5. See grace period
6. a pleasing and admirable quality or characteristic (usually plural)
7. in Christianity, the infinite love, mercy, favor, and goodwill shown to humankind by God
8. in Christianity, the condition of being free of sin, for example, through repentance to God
9. See grace note

1. to make a pleasing contribution to an event, often by attending it (often used ironically)
2. to add elegance, beauty, or charm to something
3. to add ornamental or decorative notes to a piece of music

Encarta® World English Dictionary © 1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. Developed for Microsoft by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
I think about grace often—my name, Nancy, means "full of grace" or "gracious." This morning my "Nancy" tea mug reminds me of that. Fortunately, I didn't discover that when I was adolescent and gawky and not at all living up to my name in being graceful. Now I understand grace more broadly, not just in large movements of the body, but in smaller gestures of the hands, and in actions toward others: that "capacity to tolerate, accommodate, or forgive people," made possible mostly by God's grace: "infinite love, mercy, and favor."

What is important about this poem is the reminder that joy and grace go together. Looking forward in joy requires grace in the present, or being present in grace. It also may mean getting unstuck from the past as this acronym of GRACE illustrates:

1. Grieve to flush out the frustration over disappointment.
2. Rest to replenish your strength.
3. Accept new hope rising inside you.
4. Create new dreams.
5. Engage life with fresh energy.
Note the first letter of each strategy to identify the great comeback agent that makes all the difference in the world.
from Faithbook by Kirk B. Jones

The grace note to this morning's writing was the singing of Amazing Grace as our closing hymn today at church.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
Grace taught my heart to fear? That's in an old sense of that word: to be awed and to have wonder. It's a play on two meanings of the word, where today fear is almost always used negatively. But it is always wonderful when grace appears.

This morning's serendipitous occurrence of amazing grace reminded me of the bumper sticker I saw the other morning on the way to work:

The grace, joy and peace of God be with you.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Envy of the Sleek and Sound

I wake up creaky some mornings. Sometimes it's because I've been a bit too ambitious with developing my exercise habits this year. Like last weekend, when an evening walk led to trash picking a mini-exercise bike and my test drive of this working exercise equipment gave me sore legs for most of the week. Many other times it is our "friend Arthur," as my mother would say. Why me? —I don't understand.
Because I envied the proud
and saw the prosperity of the wicked:

For they suffer no pain,

and their bodies are sleek and sound;

In the misfortunes of others they have no share;

they are not afflicted as others are.

I have been afflicted all day long,

and punished every morning.

When I tried to understand these things,

it was too hard for me;

Until I entered the sanctuary of God

and discerned the end of the wicked.

But it is good for me to be near God;

I have made the Lord God my refuge.

Psalm 73: 3-5, 14, 16, 28
According to one article I just read, I can improve the creakiness by eating. Foods containing high quantities of sulfur may help to reduce arthritis pain by decreasing joint inflammation. These foods include avocados, lentils, broccoli, cabbage, coconut, soy beans, and garlic.

Additionally turmeric, oregano, dandelion, grapple plant, myrrh and juniper have a history of relieving aches and pains. They interrupt the inflammation process and help to increase the circulation in the joints.

My thought: but what are those foods going to do the digestive system? Those foods are often hard to digest and cause gas. Do I trade creaks for rumbles?
Maybe the sleek and sound don't worry about such things.

I know that I can also exacerbate the creakiness by eating, particularly from the nightshade family: potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and spinach.
I suspect I'm not alone.

Do we really know someone, anyone who suffers no pain of any kind, who is not afflicted at all? I don't think so. But there are times I certainly get so involved in my own aches and pains that I don't have much sympathy for anyone else, until I "enter the sanctuary of God," that is, until I allow God's presence to be the filter for my awareness, and then I realize that the "wicked" come to an end in their own afflictions just like the rest of us.

God, be our refuge. Give us strength. Your strength helps us bear our aches and pains. Help us remember:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Psalm 46:1
Here is a favorite choral setting of Psalm 46:1 as a musical reminder of that. It'll shake away your aches and creaks.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Fearing to be God with Skin On

Last May, at my seminary graduation, I got a copy of God with Skin On: Finding God's Love in Human Relationships by Anne Robertson, as part of an award from the Mass. Bible Society. Robertson is the executive director of the Mass. Bible Society. It's a slim volume, and my early skimming of the book indicated that she is an engaging writer. I packed it for reading on at least three trips during the past year, as well a number of times for my lunch time reading, but somehow never quite started to read it. After packing it for my recent retreat and bringing it home again unopened, I had to ask myself: what about this book am I avoiding?

In her acknowledgments, the author gives a clue:

There were some days when just writing the first page of a chapter brought up so much junk that I couldn't write for the rest of the day. (p. vii)

Exactly—who among us had not acted or suffered in a relationship that we knew was not God-like, on our part or the other's?

The title of the book comes from this story:

A little boy reached that terrifying time of day when his mother would turn out the lights in his room and leave him for the night. Afraid of the dark and of being by himself he cried out for his mother to stay. Being a woman of faith, she reassured her son that God would be with him through the night. "But, Mama" he cried, "I need God with skin on!" (p. ix)

Here is the premise of this book:

What I want to do is explore the ways that our various relationships might impact our own relationship to God and how our actions toward others can help or hinder their ability to find the God of Jesus Christ.

You may be the only Jesus some people ever meet. You are "God with skin on" in every relationship you have. That's a huge responsibility, but also an amazing gift with the power to help "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." We may not get all the way there, but all of us can do a bit better tomorrow than we did today. When we do that, the God of grace will make up the difference. (p. 4)

Okay, it was clear to me why I had been avoiding this book. If I am in an uneasy place about any of my relationships with loved ones, friends, colleagues, members of my church, ex-loved ones, or even rude drivers on my commute, I don't want to confront the part of myself that is the face of God for those people and know that I am coming up short. When I am sarcastic, impatient, unkind, or angry, is that the face of God that people see? When I don't reach out to friends in trouble, when I don't find the time to call or write, does that mean that God's face is turned away from them? Yikes!

Yet over the past year I also have begun to have a relationship—of sorts—with Anne Robertson. She blogs and has a podcast and I have read those writings and listened to her reflections and she is a warm and compassionate human being. She's a "friend," well, an acquaintance, on Facebook, and even from her postings, she doesn't seem like the kind of person who would set me, or her other readers, up for a fall. So this past weekend I finally sat down and read her book.

Robertson spends a chapter each on various types of relationships: parents, siblings, covenant partners aka marriage, friends, peers/colleagues, authority, enemies, furry, virtual, and God. In each chapter she shares a story, gives some brief psychological insight or theories about the relationship type, opens up the Biblical witness about that kind of relationship, and then talks about being God with skin on—putting the psychology and Biblical witness into action in our lives. The book has discussion questions at the end of each chapter, although I can't quite imagine leading or participating in a one-time book group based on the book. I can imagine using the book chapters and the Biblical witness stories in particular as a springboard for a series of adult education classes and having discussions that way. Robertson opens up the Word with keen human insight, compassion and reason. I came away grateful, yet still challenged by the notion that I might be God with skin on.

While I do agree that I am called to love our neighbor as God loves us, and in that way I can be as God, the cautionary note that I would add to Robertson's book is that I am finite and God is not. I am not always successful at loving people. I hope that God is. I am not always successful at showing people whom I do love that I love them: I get tired or I forget to send a card or call or I get grumpy. God has more time and patience than I do. It's true that, like God, I don't always do what people want me to do, and that might be a useful reminder that God, with or without skin, is not ours to control.

Perhaps, I fear this idea because I know that I come up short, and I don't want people to think that God comes up short because they see God in me. Yet, I am also reminded of the old joke about the man caught in a flood:

It was flooding in [pick your location]. As the waters overflowed the banks, a man was standing on the stoop of his house by the river and another man in a row boat came by. The man in the row boat told the man on the stoop to get in and he'd save him. The man on the stoop said, no, he had faith in God and would wait for God to save him.

The flood waters kept rising and the man had to go to the second floor of his house. A man in a motor boat came by and told the man in the house to get in because he had come to rescue him. The man in the house said no, thank you, he had perfect faith in God and would wait for God to save him.

The flood waters kept rising. Pretty soon they were up to the man's roof and he climbed out on the roof. A helicopter then came by, lowered a rope and the pilot shouted down in the man in the house to climb up the rope because the helicopter had come to rescue him. The man on the roof wouldn't get in. He told the pilot that he had faith in God and would wait for God to rescue him.

The flood waters kept rising and the man in the house drowned. When he got to heaven, he asked God where he went wrong. He told God that he had perfect faith in God, but God had let him drown.

"What more do you want from me?" asked God. "I sent you two boats and a helicopter."

God with the skin on was there—sometimes we just don't see God right in front of our faces. We need to recognize God in our neighbor's face and that's why we are called to love our neighbor.

My morning Psalm reading captured it in this way:

Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck
I am sinking in deep mire, and there is no firm ground for my feet.
I have come into deep waters, and the torrent washes over me.

O God, you know my foolishness, and my faults are not hidden from you.
Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me, Lord God of hosts;
let not those who seek you be disgraced because of me, O God of Israel.
Psalm 69: 1-3, 6-7

Here's the key—our relationship with God is played out in every relationship we have. Oh, not on God's part, but on ours: how else do we learn to have relationships but through the ones we see and experience? Do we see a violent parent? Do we think God is a god of wrath? Do we trust in the love of our parents? Do we know the love of God? The more I act in a loving way, the more loved I am and the more secure in that love I feel: God's love and human love.

Thanks, Anne, for sharing ways to see and know God's love.

May we see and be God with the skin on for one another, yet recognize that we humans are finite and have limits and that we must continue to seek God when human relationships disappoint us, and still give humans a chance to grow in love.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What does the wind tell you?

My pre-Lenten retreat reading was The Holy Way by Paula Huston. She examines ten spiritual practices: solitude, silence, awareness, purity, devotion, right livelihood, confidence, integrity, generosity, and tranquility. There is a lot of food for thought and room for action.

From her chapter on silence she writes:

When I looked at my own life and asked myself whether I could make it more peaceful, I was not at all hopeful. …
First, however, I had to learn how to seek out and refresh myself in the pools of silence that lay hidden along the pathway of my noisy daily round.(p. 40)
She had already begun a practice of solitude, but discovered that being alone is not always quiet—rather we often create our own internal noise. Once she quieted her own mind enough, she began to notice things.

The first thing I noticed was that the wing feathers of flying ducks make a hushed but definite squeaking noise, like the stiff rustling of hurrying petticoats. This, of course, was not silence—but it required some measure of silence for me to even notice it.

Next, I heard the dawn wind stirring the tops of the pines. This reminded me of the verse in John in which Jesus is telling his disciples an important fact: "The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3: 8). I realized that a person who did not regularly listen to the wind would miss entirely the point of Christ's metaphor—and would miss a fairly significant theological statement about how things work in the spiritual realm. (p. 41)

We had wind gusts while I was "on retreat," up to 50-60 mph. I will tell you that I notice the wind when it howls around a house at those speeds, or as it buffeted the car with sand on our drive. But most days, I don't notice the sound of the wind. Now, inside my own house, I hear the hiss of the radiator and the rumble of the furnace, and outside in the back yard I can see the dead leaves that remain on the honeysuckle vine shaking somewhat, but I don't hear the sound of the wind. To Huston's point, I wonder how often we don't notice the movement of the Spirit, just as we don't notice the sound of the wind unless it really is howling around us?

Having written that, I walked outside for a few minutes to see if I really could hear the wind that was stirring the leaves. I stood next to the vine and even bent down next to the branches that I saw moving, but all I could hear was the susurration of the cars going down the parkway a block away, a plane overhead, and one car going down the street in front of the house. As I turned to walk back in, there was a small gust, and finally I could hear it rushing by my own ears.

Who Has Seen the Wind?

by Christina Rossetti

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.

Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.

What will it take for each of us to pay attention to the movement of the Spirit? Who has seen the Spirit at work? Huston recommends finding and spending time in silence. I suspect that is a relative silence—I have been nowhere that I can recall where outside sounds don't intrude, but even that will help still our jangling selves, so that we can know the presence of the Spirit of God. Perhaps like the trees we can bow our heads and know the Spirit is passing by.

Perhaps we just need to

Be still,
and know that I am:
Psalm 46: 10.