First Sunday of Advent

As every woman who has been pregnant knows, there comes a time when, no matter how tired and uncomfortable, swollen ankles or not, a deep urge to clean house rises from places primaeval. Often called "the nesting instinct," the compulsion was so strong a few days before my youngest daughter's birth that I canceled house guests so I could organize my closets. To this day, I feel a twinge of regret I just didn't have them down no matter what.

The liturgical season of Advent is set aside so that we may welcome anew the Spirit of the Christ child, preparing ourselves for the miracle of a personal incarnation which brings peace, freedom, forgiveness and joy. But as anyone who has cleaned house knows, the process is not always pleasant. To get deep into corners may require opening up some boxes tucked away in hopes of being forgotten, or scrubbing grimy layers formed by neglect. God, in his desire to fill us more and more with his love, gently nudges us to open up each room, each closet, each cupboard so that it may be refurbished and infused with new life. 

When I think about the courage that it takes to be open to God's Spirit in our lives, I am inspired by my daughter, Aletheia. About two years ago she took up ink and yupo and began to create art that came straight from her soul. We were all caught off-guard by the intensity, color and movement that jumped off the page. Soon her apartment was stacked with art supplies, canvases, and frames. I've pulled a few of her pieces into a slide show above.

Aletheia, whose name is Greek for truth, talks about her art this way: Art has become the agent for freedom in my life. I was bound by perfectionism, control, and inadequacy; painting has allowed me to get messy with my hands and be ok with messiness in my heart.

It's this same willingness to embrace the messy that I think Rumi is getting at in his poem The Guest House. Rumi, the Persian poet and Sufi mysic, knew the wisdom of what we might call the spiritual exercise of reflection, sitting quietly with our experiences. In this state, our thoughts and emotions are to be welcomed, invited to a cup of tea while we listen to what they tell us of our past hurts or present joys. By welcoming these unexpected visitors with grace we will be led to new freedom; allowing the violent sweeping will only clear us out for a new delight.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all! 
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Note: Aletheia's art can also be found here.
The Communion by Stefan Mierz
Note: This essay was guest posted yesterday at Better Living Through Beowulf, a blog hosted by my friend Robin Bates. Robin, who teaches at St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland, takes his depth of knowledge as a literature prof and interweaves it with contemporary issues, encouraging us along with his students to ponder how great literature can help us grow and flourish.

Today many Christian churches celebrate World Communion Sunday. Communion, or the Eucharist, has its roots in the Jewish Passover feast, which Jesus celebrated with his disciples on the night before the betrayal that led to his death. In a rented room, surrounded by the twelve, Jesus broke bread and passed around the second cup of wine, reforming a familiar ritual by offering a fresh midrash to his actions. The bread was now representative of his body, which would be sacrificed for them. The wine was his blood, signifying a new arrangement with God. From now on, his followers were to remember not the exodus from Egypt – Israel’s meta-narrative– but Jesus’ upcoming death, which would enable their own exodus from lives dominated by separation and powerlessness.

In Holy Communion, George Herbert, the 17th century priest and religious poet reflects on his experience of taking the bread and wine.

Not in rich furniture, or fine array
Nor in a wedge of gold,
Thou, who for me wast sold,
To me does now thy self convey,
For so thou should’st without me still have been,
Leaving within me sin.

But by the way of nourishment and strength
Thou creep’st into my breast,
Making thy way my rest,
And thy small quantities my length,
Which spread their forces into every part,
Meeting sin’s force and art.

Christ could have conveyed himself to us as a King, Herbert imagines, seated on rich furniture, dressed in royal robes, crowned with a golden diadem. But if it were to kingship Jesus had aspired when he came to earth two thousand years ago, he would have stayed distant, powerful and yet “without.” This regal other would have had no impact upon Herbert’s inner life, “leaving within [him] sin.” But through his death, Christ comes to him by “the way of nourishment and strength” - bread and wine, which are his body and blood. These small quantities are able to act as antibiotics, spreading their way into the length of his body and diminishing sin’s “force and art.” 

Still, Herbert wonders if this is enough.

Yet can these not get over to my soul,
Leaping the wall that parts
Our souls and fleshy hearts;
But as th’outworks, they may control 
My rebel flesh, and carrying thy Name
Affright both sin and shame.

Only thy grace, which with these elements comes,
Knoweth the ready way,
And hath the privy key,
Op’ning the soul’s most subtle rooms;
While those to spirits refin’d, at door attend
Dispatches from their friend.

It seems as if Herbert is after more than healing, more than pardon from his religion. Even if he has been forgiven from past wrongs and been given power to live in ways that are honorable, the heart still yearns for more. The soul’s subtle rooms are waiting to be unlocked. Will grace come and offer a divine friendship, filled with intimate communication? 

As Fiona Sampson asks in her poem Communion

If I’m you, or you me-
Interpenetrating God-
Enlarge our intimacy.

Becoming one with God infers intimacy. Just as the wine and bread become a part of the person who eats them, so God, interpenetrating the self, becomes part of me, as I am part of God. This is what Jesus is at when he tells his disciples upon leaving the last supper that, after his death and resurrection they will “know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” 
This coming together, engaging in communion, has a third element, however. Not only are we made whole within ourselves, not only joined with the Divine, but as we take communion we connect with a community that stretches across the globe, and moves freely through thousands of years. The spiritual nature of this community makes it seem in some ways virtual, but that doesn’t mean it is not real.

I was reminded of the possibility of unity across cultures and continents as I listened to a TED talk by Eric Whitacre this week. Whitacre, a choral composer and conductor received a youtube clip from a young musician who wanted him to hear her singing the soprano line of a piece he’d written. Touched, and a bit intrigued, he sent out an open invitation to any musician to upload a video of themself singing their part in the song Sleep. He also put up clips of himself directing, as well as a piano accompaniment, so the singers could keep time.

Several months later, he had over 500 respondents and a volunteer to mix the piece. The result was a collaboration resulting in a choir who had never met each other. One conductor, one piece, one technician (a nod here to the Holy Spirit, I think) and the result was a unified whole, different parts and harmonies from around the world blended into one.

Communion – the many becoming one. It seems impossible, but it’s not. It’s the goal of a God who is offering an open invitation to join the Godhead. There is one caveat, however. The only way this all works is if those who respond, who take communion, remember. Remember that Jesus came to earth because of Divine Love, loving us enough to give his own body and blood. Remember that it is this love that heals and empowers and then connects us not only with God but also the others who live in love. We need to remember, and then live from that love, nourished by what “creepest into my breast, making thy way my rest.”  
Sound sculpture by Linden Gledhill

Be like a fox who makes more tracks
than necessary, some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.
(Wendell Berry)

With the celebration of Trinity Sunday yesterday, the church officially moves firmly into Ordinary Time, those months in the liturgical calendar where the truth of the Birth, Death and Resurrection of Christ (celebrated during Advent, Lent and Easter) are lived out in our every day lives. Like a fox who makes more tracks than necessary, living in the Spirit has a bit of trial and error built in. We know that we are meant to live in the power of love, but what that looks like requires attention to the present.

Several weeks ago I ran across this poem on Better Living Through Beowulf, a site I often mention, hosted by my friend Robin Bates. It was quoted during an end of the year address to students, and I was intrigued especially by one of the recurring lines which are necessary for the villanelle style of the poem. In this poem, entitled The Waking, the lines that are repeated are: I wake to sleep and take my waking slow and I learn by going where I have to go. It is this second line that I see shifting during the poem so that we begin by "having to go" somewhere for the learning to happen, and end by embracing that learning only happens "by going."

I'm not sure what the impetus for this poem was for Roethke, famous for his deep introspection, but it speaks to me about the process of practicing resurrection. First, the poem, and then some comments.

The Waking
By Theodore Roethke

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. 
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go. 

We think by feeling. What is there to know? 
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. 

Of those so close beside me, which are you? 
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go. 

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how? 
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. 

Great Nature has another thing to do 
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go. 

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know. 
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I  learn by going where I have to go.

The waking which this poem explores is the experiencing of one's own death or mortality. Here, rather than waking from a dream into life, the poet wakes from life into death. What has happened? Befuddled, there is nevertheless the commitment to going slowly through this process, paying close attention to what is going on. The fear of death is now irrelevant; since he has been forced to go into this realm, he may as well learn.

First, what is it that he feels, since feeling is a means, perhaps the most accurate means for the poet, of knowledge? He feels his being dance from ear to ear. Death does not mean the end of life. No, his whole being is not only alive, but dancing. Death is also not the end of community. There are others in the ground with him who are in the same state. The ground is sacred, holding the souls of his companions.

In the next stanza the poet ponders the unpredictability of death. Lightning (light) comes from nowhere and takes down a giant tree. One can't know how or why a particular place is struck, yet instantly a great entity is toppled. Equally puzzling is the fact that a lowly worm can ascend to highest heights. These insights come slowly, and yet are profound.

Still, no matter if we are worm or tree, Nature will eventually bring death to each of us. We must take the light and lovely air and live our lives with a sense of openness. Since we do not know what will befall us, we must learn as we go, how to live our lives with meaning. It is this awareness of death, which though it shakes the poet, paradoxically brings true steadfastness. Death is to be expected, but not feared. This awareness frees us from a false sense of timelessness, today can only be lived in the present.

To live into the resurrection one must first be brought face to face with one's death. Jesus lives into and through his death as a way of helping us understand that death is no longer to be feared. "Grave, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?" writes the Apostle Paul. Once we have grasped this great truth, we can live our lives in the moment, no longer in fear of what may happen next. But we must also commit to live life in the moment, for there is no map, only a guide. As we live in the spirit, we "learn by going" where is it that we need to go next. Our freedom opens the door into a life of discovery, where we are invited to breath the lively and lovely air, while anticipating the final dance of being.

Note on art: The above photograph was created using paint droplets reacting to sound waves. Article here.
Apple Trees in Blossom, in Lyme by Childe Hassam

Happy are they who have not walked
 in the counsel of the wicked,
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful! 

Their delight is in the law of the LORD,
and they meditate on his law day and night. 

They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season,
with leaves that do not wither;
everything they do shall prosper.

Psalm 1:1-3

The word of God came to Moses on a mountaintop, full of fire and smoke and thunder. With the coming of Jesus, the "word" made flesh, we see God as one of us, only more so. Not only are we are given a model to follow, we are introduced to an elder brother who understands and offers encouragement and strength . And with the advent of the Spirit, we are allowed the privilege of moving even deeper into the heart of God - no longer even beside us, but now residing in our very souls.

Each movement of divine love, each reaching out to us, God's cherished children, comes with a desire for our flourishing, our fruitfulness. We come to realize that the streams of love continuously flow, bringing us all we need for life. Believing this truth, pondering how this love can be drawn up into our lives, and then acting upon it - these pasttimes become our delight and allow our souls to prosper in whatever they do.
The Risen Christ by He, Qi

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete."
(John 15:9-11) 

Last night I sat around a table with my three daughters, sharing Mother's Day dinner in a bustling Macaroni Grill. I couldn't be happier when I spend time with these amazingly wonderful young women - reflective, kind, creative, loving, silly, profound. I love them, I love what they do, I love supporting what they do and learning from them. I'm happy we're connected, that love flows freely between us. I know I'm blessed with these relationships and they fill me with joy.

When Jesus talks about staying connected to him, "abiding in him" as a branch stays connected to a vine, it's not about moral imperatives. We don't "please God" so that he won't be angry with us. Far from it. As Julian of Norwich is surprised to discover in her visions of God, never can she even catch a hint of God being angry with us. Rather, it's that living in love allows us to fully inhabit the sphere of God. and participate in the joy that comes from deep relationships bound together by a common purpose.

All through Eastertide, I've been captivated by the Henry Dyke hymn, Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee, set to Beethoven's Ode to Joy. Dyke picks up on John's twin themes of connectedness (in 1 John he'll refer to it as fellowship) and joy. It's the phrase from the third stanza that's been running around in my mind: "All who live in love are thine." But as I consider Jesus' words in John 15, I can imagine him saying, "All who live in love are mine, and living, working, loving together with you brings me more joy than you will ever know."

Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee
Henry Dyke

Joyful, joyful, we adore thee,
God of glory, Lord of love;
hearts unfold like flowers before thee,
opening to the sun above. 
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;
drive the dark of doubt away.  
Giver of immortal gladness,
fill us with the light of day!

All thy works with joy surround thee,
earth and heaven reflect thy rays,
stars and angels sing around thee,
center of unbroken praise. 
Field and forest, vale and mountain,
flowery meadow, flashing sea,
chanting bird and flowing fountain,
call us to rejoice in thee.

Thou art giving and forgiving,
ever blessing, ever blest,
well-spring of the joy of living,
ocean depth of happy rest! 
Thou our Father, Christ our brother,
all who live in love are thine;
teach us how to love each other,
lift us to the joy divine.

Mortals, join the mighty chorus
which the morning stars began;
love divine is reigning o'er us,
binding all within its span. 
Ever singing, march we onward,
victors in the midst of strife;
joyful music leads us sunward,
in the triumph song of life.

Harp by Vered Fishman

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. (1John 4:7,8)

 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear  much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)

The season of Easter (which in liturgical churches lasts until Pentecost) has us reading through portions of John's writings. As I read John, I can't help but feel like he understands, perhaps in a mystical way, the true heart of God. In John's Gospel, he refers to himself as "the disciple whom Jesus loved," as if the wonder of this reality is never far from his mind. In his Epistles, he, like Jesus, will cut to the core of the truth of God: God is love, and all who love are in fellowship with God.

Like branches on a vine, sharing the same life-giving sap, our continued connection to God allows love to flow through us, uniting us all with the very source of love, and allowing us to bring forth all the fruit of love. Those who don't love are disconnected, not only from God, but also from their neighbor, and just as importantly, from themselves.

How is it that love is able to connect us? This is the work of the Holy Spirit, which flows continuously from God, bringing all the power and wisdom and grace that we need to flourish. The celebration of Pentecost, still several weeks away, reminds us that this was a new phenomenon, a gift of the Christ; the ability to be a channel for the Spirit of God is now available to all people, not just a select few.

Mechthild of Magdeburg, a medieval mystic, lived in the 13th century. Her visions of God were written down in a book called The Flowing Light of Divinity. In this poem, she captures the essence of love, which is to flow "effortlessly" from the lover toward the beloved. Like the hawk, or eagle, who stay afloat without flapping a wing, riding the currents of air, so Mechthild sees that to love is not a chore for God. As Julian of Norwich is shown, for God to love is a joy, and the very nature of God's being.

What makes this poem compelling is the action that the love of God takes. The Holy Spirit, like a heavenly harpist, sweeps across the varied strings of humanity, desiring to play on and with us. It seems that it is not our responsibility to make the music, rather our effort comes in choosing to be open to the Spirit, open to the love that is endlessly being poured into us. Then, like the branch connected to the healthy vine which cannot help but bear fruit, we, feeling ourselves "touched in love," will have no choice but to respond in kind.

Love Flows
Mechthild of Magdeburg

Love flows from God into man,
Like a bird
Who rivers the air
Without moving her wings.
Thus we move in His world
One in body and soul,
Though outwardly separate in form.
As the Source strikes the note,
Humanity sings--
The Holy Spirit is our harpist,
And all strings touched in Love
Must sound.

In the Nursery by Helen Allingham

Yesterday I sent a guest post on Psalm 23 and D. H. Lawrence's poem, Pax to my friend Robin Bate's blog, Better Living Through Beowulf. The Shpherd/King David compares himself to a sheep, the Lord as shepherd. The poet Lawrence imagines himself a cat, and the Living Lord the master/mistress who sits at the "board," (dining table) overseeing the house of the living. In both cases, the invitation is to be at peace, cared for by a powerful and loving God.

I also mention another psalm, to which the picture above alludes. For the entire post, click here.
Reflection of Clouds on the Water Lily Pond by Claude Monet

Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
(1 John 3:2,3)

What do you want to be when you grow up? That's a familiar question to ask a kindergartner, or someone about to head to middle school, maybe even a high school graduate. At some point, though, we stop asking and assume we've arrived. We've become "grown ups."

The Gospel reading puts us once again in those pre-adult years. "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are!" John exclaims as he begins this chapter. In God's eyes, we are divine offspring, loved and cherished. All the privileges of the family connection belong to us. And still there's more. Because, although we are now dearly loved youngsters, we are still in the process of growing up.

The evolution of human beings is not over. We are on our way to becoming truly like God, a brand new species of men and women. And although what this looks like is still a mystery, John reminds us that we can participate in this trajectory of hope while we wait. By choosing to bathe ourselves in the water of God's love, more and more of who Jesus is floods into us. Until one day, like Jesus, we will be fully glorified - transformed into the reflection of ourselves that for now only God can see.
Christ shows himself to Thomas by M.Hildreth Meiere, National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." 
John 20:27-29

One thing I love about Jesus is his willingness to meet us where we are at. Without blame. In yesterday's scripture we heard the story of Thomas, who doubts the witness of the other disciples and insists upon seeing the risen Lord for himself. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe,” Thomas tells the other apostles.

When Jesus appears for a second time, Thomas is present. Jesus turns to him and offers to provide what Thomas says is necessary for belief. "Put your finger here and see my hands," he says. "Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Surprisingly enough, Thomas does not seem to take Jesus up on his offer; there is something about this encounter which immediately satisfies his desire to experience the truth of the Resurrection. "My Lord and my God!" he exclaims.

Jesus doesn't judge Thomas for his doubt. After all, the other disciples believe because they have seen. Instead, he gently offers the proof that Thomas needs. Which makes me wonder a couple of things.

First, what do we need to believe? Are we as honest with God as Thomas was with the other disciples? His request may sound a bit blatant, even belligerent to our ears, but this disciple is not shy about asking for what he wants. And God doesn't belittle, but honors that request.

Second, what does Jesus want us to believe? When I was growing up I connected the phrase "believe in Jesus" to giving assent that He was God, and that His death had in some way brought me forgiveness and adoption into God's family. And I still believe that's true. But there is more. To believe in Jesus also means to respond to an invitation to commit to the way of life that Jesus is living. To believe in the teachings and actions of Jesus, that they are good and true and life-giving.

And recently I've been encouraged to read this phrase in still another way. To not only have belief "in" Jesus, but also to have the belief (or faith) "of" Jesus. To think of and emulate the faith that Jesus had in the goodness of his Father, faith strong enough to follow the path laid out for him. That path led through the countryside of Israel, healing, feeding, taching and preaching the reality of the Kingdom of God. Eventually Jesus' belief in the ways of God would take him to the cross, anchoring a knowledge beyond a doubt that God would not only sustain him, but would vindicate him, raising him from the dead as Lord and King.

There is a blessing for those of us who have never have the experience of "seeing" Jesus in the flesh, who nevertheless believe in him. To expect that this belief will come without an authenticating experience is perfectly reasonable, after all, Jesus does not condemn Thomas for this desire. But once we find ourselves experiencing the love and power of God, where does our belief take us? Jesus wants us to step into his shoes, and carry on his desires, wherever that may take us, and however that may look, filled with his blessing.
Make All Things New by James P. Janknegt
Note: This is the last in the lenten series on hope.

If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.
(1 Corinthians 15:19)

When Christ returned from the grave, his body had gone through a transformation. Paul tells us that what was "sown perishable, was raised imperishable", of a substance which made it compatible with a different world, the world to come. The hope of the resurrection is that this life is not the only life that there is. That another life, another reality exists beyond the threshold of death. And that one day it will burst through the barrier of death and be the only world we know, a new heaven and a new earth.
This belief in a future life, sometimes dismissingly referred to as “pie in the sky by and by” has often come under criticism by those who attack Christianity. It has been cited as a cause for a lack of concern with the world in which we live in now, a reason to ignore the environment, or the poor, or unjust laws, or the care of our bodies. But this critique is unfounded, as Christ's teachings lead us to be loving stewards of creation, involved in feeding and clothing the poor, committed to just societies and acknowledging our bodies as temples for the Holy Spirit.

A hope for a future world doesn’t negate our actions and  involvement in our present day to day life, an interest in civic duty, charitable giving, environmental responsibility or health care. Instead, it offers a reality check to the amount we are able to do. Despite the best efforts of a reformer, a Peace Corps volunteer, a social worker, at the end of the day there are failures for every success, tears for each burst of joy, regret for each celebration.

Like "all the king's soldiers and all the king's men" who look despairingly at Humpty Dumpty, shattered at the base of his wall, we can't put back together the pieces from the fall of mankind. And that is why Paul says, “if it is only for this life that we believe in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.” For the Christian, this life, although extremely significant, awaits a future life, where God "shall wipe away all tears from our eyes and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Revelation 21:4)

It is easy to put  a God of love and power on trial in this world. Like Julian of Norwich, we agonize over the existence of sin and the sufferings that come from evil all around us. We wonder how a universe which is full of pain and distress could come from a truly loving and omnipotent God. Couldn't there have been a better way? we ask. "Sin is necessary," God replies to Julian in The Revelation of Love. But "all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

The truth that we celebrate on Easter Sunday is that there is something more, something beyond the grave, that will not only balance the scales, not only restore what has been broken, lost and defiled, but will result in our becoming even more whole than we thought possible. In her visions, Julian is shown that God is indeed loving and powerful, and that he is also holding onto a mystery, one in which all the wrongs of the world shall be put to right in a way that will satisfy all of our questions. We cannot and will not know how it will happen now, but God does not want us to be in distress. He wants us to rest in the hope that the ending is happier than we can imagine.

Our hope is not only for ourselves, for we are only one of the many on this planet, but for every person who has ever lived, for each child that has ever suffered, each wife that has ever been betrayed, each man that has ever been despised. We even hope for those who have been our enemies and caused indescribable harm. We hope that this mystery of God shall make possible what to us seems utterly impossible. That in the life to come the loving power of the resurrection will put make all things well.