Stories move in circles.
They don’t move in straight lines.
So it helps if you listen in circles.
There are stories inside stories
and stories between stories,
and finding your way through them
is as easy
and as hard
as finding your way home.
And part of the finding
is the getting lost.
And when you’re lost,
you start to look around
and to listen.
~A Traveling Jewish Theatre, Coming from a Great Distance.
Maybe today is the most perfect time to talk about coloring. Now that we are moving into the season of Spring, it’s good to be reminded of the little and great things that bring color to our lives.
Sitting down with the intention of coloring is one of those life-bringing activities that I wish I did more. One of my favorite memories when we were little was Mom’s bringing home a brand-new box of 64 Crayola’s (wait for it…) WITH a crayon sharpener built into the back. All those colors. Rows of them all lined up. Brand new crayons. Those boxes were my earliest glimpses of bliss. Now that I’m older, there are choices upon choices upon choices for coloring. Crayons still, sure. Colored pencils, and now there are colored pencils that have multiple colors on the same tip (who thought of that one???). Paint (oil, water, more). Chalk. All kinds of ways to bring color to a page. All kinds of ways to break loose and jump in.
More often than not when I start coloring, I find myself drawing circles and coming round to mandalas. I first met mandalas in seminary and have loved them ever since. They are symbols for healing, for meditation. Mandalas are symbols holding the universe. Symbols reminding us of the center, of our center. They are known to be symbols of balance. Symbols of the sacred, inviting us to go beyond what is here to what is coming.
With a little imagination, you can see mandalas in so many things. As the trees have been blooming, I’ve been mindful of trying to get pictures. When I walked up to a tree and looked all the way to the top, I could see a circle at the top, with the branches forming the design of the mandala on the inside. Not far along in my walk, I saw the same thing with the fire hydrant. Then I saw mandalas in bicycle tires. Beauty is all around. Finding circles and stopping just a moment to see what is pulling us in. Is all about stopping for a moment to see.
I've heard it said that stories move in circles. I believe spending time with mandalas keeps me listening to my story. So, take a piece of paper and draw a big circle. Grab your crayons or paint or chalk or colored pencils, find a comfortable spot and see what happens. It's. All. Good.
There's a song in every silence, seeking word and melody;
There's a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me.
From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
~ Hymn of Promise Natalie Sleeth
Unrevealed until its season.
Lent is our shared time of moving from season to season. From one season to the next. Winter to Spring. Together we move from watching sunsets through the tree’s bare branches to seeing sunrises with branches now bursting with buds. We see colors come awake and come alive. Birds lift up their songs. All along the way we are reminded that life never stands still, but is always shifting, always transforming.
We mark our years by the number of candles on the cake. Most days we mark our time hour by hour, minute to minute. Still, somehow we know that there is something greater always holding us. The notions of our seasons feel much more authentic to the living of our lives than measuring only by calendars or wrist watches. Seasons aren’t exact. Seasons are experienced more by the color of the leaves turning or the smell and feel of the dirt as we are planting seeds. We live out seasons of Innocence and seasons of Despair. There are seasons of Wing-Spreading and seasons of Face Plantings. There are seasons of what was that? and seasons of what’s next? When we speak of those kinds of places, of our life-seasons, then we are talking about mystery and mercy and grace. Then we are bearing witness to the most vulnerable and valuable moments of our lives.
“A song in every silence…A dawn in every darkness…” Natalie’s song invites us into life’s shifting mysteries. Time and time again we know that being alive is recognizing that what was is no longer what is. It is seeing both the realities and the possibilities of what is now will surely change.
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
These words bring comfort. They acknowledge pain and hope side-by-side. They acknowledge the seasons of our lives. Sometimes lasting three months. Sometimes three years. Sometimes three breaths. A time. Measured. Lived. Past. Then we move on to the next season, the new season. All the while God is with us. Until what is next is revealed.
1 The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When the wicked advance against me to devour me,
it is my enemies and my foes who will stumble and fall.
3 Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.
4 One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.
5 For in the day of trouble God will keep me safe in his dwelling;
God will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.
6 Then my head will be exalted above the enemies who surround me;
at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy; I will sing and make music to the Lord.
7 Hear my voice when I call, Lord; be merciful to me and answer me.
8 My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, Lord, I will seek.
9 Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger;
you have been my helper.
Do not reject me or forsake me, God my Savior.
10 Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me.
11 Teach me your way, Lord; lead me in a straight path because of my oppressors.
12 Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes, for false witnesses rise up against me,
spouting malicious accusations.
13 I pray that I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.
Today's lectionary (shared readings given for Protestant and Catholic churches each Sunday of the church year) contains this reading of Psalm 27. This was Mom's favorite psalm. We read it many times in the last months of her life. Mom had a beautiful soprano voice, and she would tell of the beautiful pieces she had sung on Sunday mornings using words from this psalm. When asked which verses she especially liked, she talked about the first and fourth verses. As we read it over and over, I grew to love the 13th verse, "I pray that I see the goodness of the Lord..."
As I've carried this verse with me over the years, I've grown to appreciate the Yin and Yang to this goodness talked about in this psalm. This goodness walks the halls of hospitals and nursing homes, of courthouses and prisons, of classrooms and playgrounds, of border crossings and refugee camps every hour of every day. This goodness of the Lord. Words that whisper and proclaim, that remind and remember, that breathe in and through - the goodness of the Lord, that embodies God Incarnate, God-with -us.
We're told in Acts 20:35 that "it is better to give than to receive," and that is a mantra we used in our house growing up. Along the way I've been reminded time and again that there are two sides to every coin. I've found that this "it's better to give..." is not always true. Or, maybe better said, it is true but not the whole of the truth. What is true (the other side of the coin) is that sometimes it is also good to receive.
This has been brought front and center for me this past weekend. My sister, Betsey slipped while hiking this past Friday and broke her wrist. Her right wrist. Did I mention that she is a Massage Therapist and her hands are her livelihood? Needless to say, it was a blow to her and to all who love her. You see, my sister, Betsey is a giver. She is mindful and intentional and generous as she makes her way in the world. She gives of her time and energy and resources -- day in and day out, hour in and hour out. And suddenly her world (and her wife, Mary Ellen's) made a 180 degree turn this past Friday. Upside-down and inside-out. Betsey, the one who is so generous in her giving is now (whether she likes it or not) into the position of receiving. It will be a new muscle for her, a new rhythm, a new way of being in the world.
And if Mom were still living, I can almost hear what she would be saying to youngest, "There is goodness in this, Betsey Ann." My hunch is that if Bets and Mom could share a conversation it would be about the give and the take, the Yin and Yang of loving others. In these days that are ahead, Bets is now in a place where she will be receiving much more than giving. I can hear Mom's voice telling her that the message handed down through the ages is that there is goodness in receiving as well as goodness in giving. Love is right there in both.
At work when I talk with parents whose children are in the hospital, I am mindful almost daily of this verse. I pray that goodness will find them, maybe in the hallways or the garden or in the cafeteria or at the bedside. I pray that they will be comforted and strengthened and empowered by the love that is ever-moving. This love, like our breath, moves in and out. Circular. Fluid. Living grace. Giving and receiving. They've been side-by-side all along.
There are so many amazing kids in the world. I was reminded again just how precious encounters can be with them. I got to spend a little bit of time with one amazing kid not long ago at the Children's Hospital where I work.
E. is seven or so and he is interested in the world around him. He and I had a great conversation. I was grateful to talk with him and hear what he was thinking. I guess that’s not unusual for kids who spend half of their days in the hospital. They are used to talking with grown-ups. Some grown ups they like. Some they don’t appear to have much energy for. With many of these kids, you can tell pretty quickly. When I stopped by to check in with E, I was honored to be in the “not so bad, I kinda even like her” category.
E said it was ok for me to sit down, and soon we started talking. He told me he was having a “not-very-good day.” He told me about a test he had had earlier and that he really didn’t like it very much. I told him I hadn’t ever had one of those tests and asked him to tell me about it. For most of it, he was asleep, but the parts he remembered weren’t any fun. Somewhere along the way I told him that I thought he was a “swell kid.” Well, that got us going.
E told me he didn’t know that word and he didn’t know if it was good thing or a bad thing to be swell. His mother, who’d be listening and I exchanged smiles and I tried to tell him what swell meant. And pretty soon I realized that “swell” was an old word and not used much anymore. I talked about it being in the same group as “good” and “nice,” but different. I said that if I heard a boy or girl described as “swell,” I would probably like them before I even knew him. It was a conversation I’m not sure I would have ever had with anyone else on the planet except E. And I knew (and I hope he did, too) that I enjoyed our talk from start to finish. It was the highlight of my day. I still carry it with me, days later.
After we’d kicked that can as far down the road as it would go (another expression for another day), I started to take my leave. I asked if we could talk about another word the next day, and he said he wanted to. So I asked him what the word should start with. He thought for a minute and said “E.”
The next day’s conversation was about the word “Earnest.” E was in "school," so I shared the word with his parents. Now there’s pressure. they asked me to write it on the white board, so E could see it later. Talking abut something is one thing, writing it on the white board meant that it was gonna be up there for all the world to see for a time. So, I wrote the word E A R N E S T. The next thing I wrote was something like: even though it has “ear” and “nest” in it, earnest doesn’t mean either of those things. (So, what did it mean?) “Deep truth.” “You are talking with somebody and you are being as honest and kind to them as you can be.” (His Mom nodded, so I thought I was at least in the ballpark. – Yes, another expression for another day).
And so it went for me and E while he was staying in the hospital. “Wonder” was another fun one I thought about. "Courage." "Tolerance." I don’t know about E, but thinking about what words meant to seven-year-olds was a gift to me. It was so apparent that what mattered most for me was right in front of me. They were moments when I was aware that I couldn’t do everything, but I could do something. They were instants when we listened to and for one another. They were moments of sharing Sacred Words.
Sometimes the Sacred Words we are seeking are the ones being spoken all around us. The gift is to be paying attention, so that we don’t miss them.
I am God.
~ Psalm 46:10
In these days of instantaneous everything, it might be a healing practice to consider the notion of silence. Not speaking. Not texting. Not emailing. No screens at all. No phones at all. Silence. Just silence.
Praying silently asks us, invites us, encourages and welcomes us into the awareness of God being present. Recognizing God’s presence in our lives. God in our minds. God in our hearts. God in our breathing.
In silent prayer as we create a place for what appears to be nothing, we just might discover and rediscover everything. No agenda. No supplication. No confession. No proclamation. No earthly idea of what is to come. Silent prayer is being open to being open.
This might sound like I’m talking in circles. I really don’t mean to. What I do want is to speak about the mystery that is always companioning us. When we are mindful of it and when we are not. When we are naming and claiming it and when we are not. Perhaps time spent in silent prayer can allow us the space to encounter grace. Encountering something greater than ourselves - more loving, more hopeful, more generous than we can see ourselves ever being. As if for the first time.
For centuries we have been called to be still and here, in this time and place of silent prayer we are invited to embrace it. All in. Heart, mind and soul. Silence. Focus on the One who is God, who was, is and will be.
(I’ll quit writing, so you can try it. The Lord be with you.)
About 700 years ago (give or take) my partner, Linda had a conference in San Francisco. It was pre-boys, and I got to tag along. I remember learning that our hotel was a less than a mile from Grace Cathedral. I was thrilled. I planned my days around my walks to and from the Cathedral. What I didn’t think through though, was that sometimes in San Francisco,you have to walk uphill both ways. Oh. My. Goodness.
So why Grace Cathedral? Grace is an Episcopal Church on San Fran’s Nob Hill. From it’s website you can learn that, “Grace Cathedral is home to two labyrinths. Labyrinths have appeared in many cultures since ancient times and in Christian spirituality since the fourth century.” The site goes on to talk a bit about the significance of labyrinths. “The labyrinth is an archetype, a divine imprint, found in all religious traditions in various forms around the world. By walking a replica of the Chartres labyrinth, laid in the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France around 1220, we are rediscovering a long-forgotten mystical tradition.”
I’ve been walking labyrinths now for over a third of my life. I’ve been asked before if it’s “just walking around in circles”? No, it’s not. “Is it just an elaborate maze.?” No, it’s not. What is it then? For me it’s a path that is always just long enough to slow me down, each time. It’s a series of turns and turn-backs that lead me unpredictably forward, each time. It's a pathway traveled where countless others before me have also slowed down, each time.
When I enter a labyrinth often I carry a question in with me. Some question or concern about something that is troubling me. As I’m walking the labyrinth, I am intentional about "unpacking it." I listen as it rattles around in my head. I try to push my way through it as I move into the labyrinth. And somehow, somewhere along the path in, toward the center of the labyrinth, there is a shift. Something happens that moves what was into what may be. As I continue walking toward the center, the question that I brought in with me, most often melts away. Several times, when I come to the center my heart slows and I physically stop. I stop and look around. And I pray. What I brought into the circle shifts into something else. Several times with this shifting comes the feeling of a warm blanket covering me, I become mindful of something else. Several times, this something else becomes the heart of my journey.
I remember the first time I walked the labyrinth at the Retreat Center in Kunuga (NC). We were encouraged to `carry a question in, and see what happens.’ My question was about a dog we had to put to sleep the week before. As I walked the labyrinth I thought of Nessie’s death. I wondered about her and was feeling my grief about her. Many minutes later when I got to the center, my thoughts about Nessie fell away. Instead, what I understood to be right in front of me was my grief about my father. Dad was ten years into his struggle with Alzheimer’s. I remember standing in the center with my heart overflowing with grief and sadness about him. And after a little bit, I realized that my next step would be following a path out. Literally and figuratively, I was going to be moving from my first understanding of this deep grief. Each step meant that I wasn’t where I had been (just minutes before). Each step represented that this path ahead was not going to be a straight line, that it would not be possible to see the end from where I was standing. Instead, I would have to follow the path that was ahead of me. As hard and as easy as that.
It’s the slowing down, I think. It’s all about left foot, right foot and the strength that comes when you keep going. Because of the way the path is set up, you really can’t go fast. At least I can’t. The turns and the winding back and forward invite, encourage, insist on going slower. Not in the way that you feel hampered at all. Instead for me, there is an intentionally about the walking. The course has been put before me, all I need to do is continue on. It’s not up to me to decide where I’m going, it is up to me to take the next step.
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am? --
If I were a Shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise (One)
I would do my part, --
Yet what I can I give Him, --
Give my heart.
~ based on a poem by Christina Rossetti
(many of us know it as "In the Bleak Mid-Winter")
This is probably my favorite Christmas carol. I find myself humming it at the most unexpected times. The old Music Therapist in me believes that whenever a melody appears, it’s important to sing it from start to finish and pay attention to the words. More often than not, there is a gift somewhere in the lyrics that my subconscious knew I needed at just that moment. This carol came to me a few days back. When I was singing this fifth verse, I had a notion why.
These are incredible times in which we live. As Dickens would say, “They were the best of times and the worst of times.” These are days that are continually surprising, bringing out somehow at the same time - our best and our worst. Our politics are ruling the day and our spirits are being dragged far behind. Missing, so often seems to be our leaning more in the direction of Anne Herbert’s “practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty." And boy do I miss the we we were when she'd wrote those simple, life-saving words on a place mat in 1982.
There’s an old story about a starfish-covered beach after a storm. The story goes that a grandfather and his young grandson loved to walk that beach. After the storm had passed, the boy ran on up ahead of his grandfather. The old man could see the boy reaching down and appearing to throw something into the waves that were coming ashore. Over and over and over again. As the grandfather got closer, he could see that the boy was picking up the starfish that covered the beach. One after another, the boy would lean down, pick up the starfish and heave it as far as he could into the water. When he was near enough to the boy, the old man asked him what in the world the boy was doing. “Throwing them back in,” his grandson replied, not stopping to even look at the man. “If I don’t throw them in, they will die in the sun.” “Why, my boy,” he said, "there must be thousands of them. You can’t possibly throw them all back in the water. You won’t really be able to make much of difference.” The boy picked up the next closest starfish and threw it farther than he’d thrown any of the others. Then he turned to his grandfather, “It made a difference to that one,” the boy said as he continued down the beach.
The work before us is great. Most every place we turn there are people who are hurting. Missteps on our left and right are ruling the day. It would be understandable to be like the grandfather walking the beach. Even as he approached his grandson, he probably was shaking his head. The old man's heart probably ached for all the starfish as far as his eyes could see. It would be incredible to be like the young boy. The two walked the same beach. They saw the same sight. Something from somewhere stirred in the boy to reach down and pick up the first starfish and toss it out into the water. And then the second...and then the third. "What can I give him?" We can, you and me, do the next best thing that is right there in front of us.
"It made a difference to that one," they'll hear us say.
We’re all in this together. You and me and him and her and they and them. Those folks and the folks that love them. Us folks and the folks who love us. It turns out - we are all loved.
When we dig to the core of whose we are, it’s never been us versus them. Instead, it is all of us. The ones who speak like us and those who speak in languages we don’t yet understand. The ones whose skin tone is darker or lighter than ours. Our differences of who we love, our differences of gender identity and gender expression, where we live, how much money we have, how much education we have – these are all parts, but not the whole of who we are. There are so many ways we have learned and perfected the ways we separate ourselves, one from another. And all the while God shakes her head and must be wondering why.
With all the brokenness in the world, why do we hurt one another day after day? Why so much time judging our differences? With all the pain and suffering, why do we spend energy and resources building visible and invisible barriers?
As I journey through these forty days of Lent this year, I am mindful of paying attention while on this path. These are not ordinary days. They are meant to stretch and pull us; they are meant to renew and reorder our faith. If I spend these days staying put, I will learn little and I will get nowhere else, nowhere new. If I pass this time doing what I’ve always done, I’ll keep doing mostly what I've always done. I pray that will not be the case.
Pilgrims on the road - a strong image for me for this Lenten journey. Fellow pilgrims who are also journeying through these days. With some fellow journeyers, I will be spending regular and intentional time. With others, we may share only one encounter, for only a brief time. With these pilgrims, may I not hold on preconceived notions. May I let go and be open to what is to be discovered and re-discovered. May I be generous of heart and mind. May I offer lovingkindness, offer generosity, offer my best, May I see in each one the face of Christ, and be mindful of the gift I, too am receiving all along the way.
A week ago Rev. Simon Mainwaring of All Saints Episcopal, preached and as I heard his words, they words found a resting place in my heart. He was talking about the morning's Hebrew reading which recounted Deuteronomy's story of our tribe’s beginning. The phrase that resonated so quickly with me was in the context of saying that it’s important to recognize God’s continual presence in our lives. He said, “God is within the story, not beyond it.”
Hearing his words broke my heart wide open. Time and time again, I find that I put off marking moments. Time and again I forget that in the wishing for something at some other time way down the road, I am missing the amazing life I have been given to live right now. The moments of my life aren’t out-there, somewhere else. The moments of my life are right here, right now.
As I am traveling through this Lenten season, I pray to be open to opportunities of presence. I don’t want to miss a moment. I don't want to miss the chance to give from what I have been given. No strings. No expectations. Moving in and through the world with the phrase from Rev. Mainwaring whispering in my ear, “God is within the story, not beyond…” God is here. Right now. As I look in the eye of my sister or my brother, God is right here. With us. And my prayer is that I don’t miss an opportunity to be more deeply present with the One who is always present with me. With us.
Do all the good that you can,
in all the ways that you can,
to all the souls that you can,
in every place you can,
for all the people you can,
as all the times you can,
with all the zeal you can,
as long as ever you can.
~ John Wesley
On Tuesdays I’ll be writing about Spiritual Words. Some quotes and phrases sound timeless. Some have a way of always ringing true. They are words that, written long ago speak to this particular moment and time.
Words unite us and untie us. They can hold us up and can bring us to our knees. They help us dream and can put us to sleep. Some can bring us to new understandings, some to despair. Words matter. Spiritual words for me that have deep roots. The quote above was probably condensed from sermons John Wesley gave in the 1790’s. Like the image of opening a feather pillow on a windy day, his words have floated on people’s hearts and minds down through time.
It’s almost as though I could hear him saying them on a walk around the block, or from the pulpit on a Sunday morning. I wonder what the occasion was for him to speak them aloud? Had he seen a child be mistreated on the street as he was walking to a gathering? And when my great grandfather first heard them, what about these words rang true? Had he seen a man turned away when asking for a cup of water or something to eat? What about my grandmother when she heard them, had she seen someone walking who had no shoes? And what about my father, when he joined the Methodist Church because he’d asked Mom to marry him? Had he seen a bully taunting an old man? And then I wonder if our boys will ever think about these words when they see someone or something that calls them to be better, kinder, more loving?
These Spiritual Words have stood the test of time. They call us into the moment, call us to be participants in the world and not merely watching from the audience. They give us our focus and our purpose in fifty words. [Editorial comment: When I think about all the ways we waste words today, lobbing insults at one another and injuring relationships…these fifty words of something-better sound like a gift.]
Wesley doesn’t call us to `wait and see’ or to `listen out for’ or even to `teach the next generation that they might…’ Instead he calls us, you and me to action. We are to do. “Do all the good…” Here we are given a road map for our days. Here we are given a to-do list that speaks to the best of who we are called to be.