The Falling

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Some savor taste of light as they drift

slowly through the evening of their lives;

others whoosh in a frenzied dance

of joy, of madness, or, perhaps of fear,

attuned, it seems, to secret, wild rhythms

in the gusty autumn winds.

*

I wonder, are these leaves content

with their brief shining? weary of the weakness

creeping through their shriveled veins and ready

to let go? or reluctant? sad to leave behind

the chatter of their wind-blown friends,

the playful hide-and-seeking sun,

the stillness of the stars? 

*

I love to watch these golden, scarlet fallings,

each so alone, so, so alone; each carries

emptiness, a fullness too; each seems to hum

a lovely, ancient, tumble of a poem, hymn

to brightly colored life, to dignity of death,

a muted melancholy joy.

Autumn Pentecost

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(a few bright red leaves amidst the more subdued mauves of our red maple)

Soon the quiet mauves that dangle on my lovely

tree will glow a brilliant red, fling out

their solemn joy across the plummeting

of brown and yellow leaves; for now the brightness

flickers only here and there, a kind of autumn

Pentecost, fiery tongues a-blaze amidst

the winding down of days, crimson

weight of glory, blush of hovering

presence in all the fadings, all the fallings

of the leaves and of our lives.

 

Ulfila–Heretical Saint

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Ulfila  311-383 C.E.

          There’s a new man in my life!  My husband probably doesn’t need to worry too much about him, though, as this “new” man is really a very “old” man.  In fact, he’s been dead for over 1600 years, and I’m not even sure of his correct name.  Ulfila?  Ulfilas?  Ulphilas?  Wulphila? 

          Whatever.  I met Ulfila when I was reading a church history book some time ago.  He was given only one brief paragraph, but his story intrigued me, so I did a little further digging.  Born about 311 in Dacia, a northern province of the Roman Empire that was primarily inhabited by not-so-Christian Goths, Ulfila was, nevertheless, raised as a Christian by some of the few Christians scattered throughout Dacia.  The faith he was taught, however, was a “heretical” faith, for the Christians of the region were followers of Arius, and Arius had taught that Jesus was a lesser god created by God the Father, and that he did not share the same substance as the Father.

          Nevertheless, Ulfila was a devout believer in Jesus, and after traveling south to Constantinople to train under an Arian bishop for a life of ministry in the church, Ulfila was in due course consecrated as Bishop to the Goths.  When he returned to his home in Dacia, Ulfila served his people and taught them in the Arian way.  Jesus was only “like” the Father.  Jesus was “lower” than the Father.  Jesus was not really God. 

          But Arian though he was, this little known heretical saint is well worth knowing about, as there is so much of value and worth in Ulfila’s life.  After spending about 8-10 years as a missionary in Dacia among the Goths, Ulfila was forced to flee south because of Gothic persecution of Christians.  While in virtual exile, he decided to translate the entire Bible into the Gothic language.  One big problem.  There was no Gothic alphabet.  That, however, did not deter Ulfila.  He simply invented an alphabet for the Goths and then proceeded to translate the entire Bible into their language.  Almost.  Ulfila decided not to include the Books of 1 and 2 Kings in his translation of the Bible.  The Goths, he reasoned, didn’t need any encouragement to exercise their often violent tendencies. 

          All this and only one short paragraph in a book of church history?  Probably due to his heretical Arianism.  In another church history book, I could not even find his name listed in the index!  But quite honestly, I rather like having a “heretic” among the great cloud of witnesses watching us as we “feebly struggle” while they “in glory shine.”  It makes me a little more humble about what I know and what I don’t know.   I grew up in a very fundamentalist church, and we were so sure, so very sure that we had all of God’s truth neatly tucked into our little God box.  But the older I get, the more I realize how incomplete, how inadequate my understanding of the faith really is.  And while, to be sure, I’m grateful for the creeds that emerged from all the wrangling in the church’s early years, I’m more and more aware that while these creeds point to the truth, they don’t fully define the truth.  So I’m quite happy to envision Ulfila as a part of that great cloud of witnesses worshiping and praising our Lord and at the same time cheering us on as we wend our way through life.

          A final note about Ulfila’s life and witness.  Sometime around 381, Ulfila was summoned to Constantinople for a discussion among the various factions of the faith regarding the person of Christ.  He did go, demonstrating an openness to talk with those who differed from him.  His participation in this discussion provides, I believe, a good example for our own time, and I suspect that Ulfila, who died at some point during these discussions, smiles down on all the attempts at dialogue within and beyond the church today on so many different issues.  I suspect he also smiles at all the attempts in our personal lives to keep open to new insights and to ever enrich and expand our personal understanding of the faith that shapes and guides our lives. 

          So on All Saints’ Day this year, I will be remembering, not only those near and dear to me who have gone on before.  I will also be remembering Ulfila, even as I recite the Nicene Creed with its clear denunciation of his Arian teaching.  I will remember him.  I will thank God for his life and for his witness.  And I will continue to picture him cheering us on in all our efforts to live out the challenges of our faith.      

Watching for the Morning: an autumn lament

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Psalm 130, selected verses

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice!

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.

Watching for the morning

in the drab of weakened

hours stretching endless

through my days;

watching for the morning

in the muck and grime

of ugly accusations, gutter

politics, that lurch us

towards an un-triumphant day

of choice and reckoning;

watching for the morning

in the rubble of Aleppo,

bombs raining grief

upon a people drenched

in sorrows of a past

and future lost;

watching for the morning

in the wake of hurricanes

that rip apart foundations,

obliterate whole families, and scar the

earth with puddles of despair;

watching, watching, watching,

hands reaching out to hold

each other up, to touch the

palms nail-spikѐd on that

crossbeam of so long ago,

those fingers reaching out

to grasp our tattered hands

and draw us to a near, if distant,

morning, light perpetual.

Tiny Red Autumn Berry

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(I discovered this tiny berry growing in the hedges surrounding our deck)

How many pigments crushed to

paint this bright red berry almost

swallowed whole by all the spiky

needles preening in their glossy green?

How long to shape this perfect

roundness, stroke to satin smooth

this tiny lucent skin?  And why such care for

one so small, unseen by almost

all the world?  This berry spells a

mystery, a wonderment of all things

small—my tiny life, and yours, and

tiny lives that shine around the

world in quiet dignity, blotted out

almost amidst the greens of overblown

celebrities or by the browns of sweat and

toil or by the harsh and sooted hands that,

seeking gain and theirs alone, so careless

smudge the careful-crafted images of One who

joys in every berry small, in every little life, in every

speck of the divine encased in fragile dust.

 

Black Beauty

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So noiselessly he came,

this blue-black swallowtail, to sip

lantana on my deck, his stillness

echoing for me the tender silence

of eternity amidst the noise of inner

fears, against the din of ugly tweets,

of cries to build a wall, to slam our doors

against the tide of people orphaned

from their homes, their loved ones, tossed

into the chaos of a coarse and raucous world.

*

His soundless beauty whispers me

a blue-black grace that flutters silent

in the anxious corners of my mind;

his quiet presence reassures;

grace wings its way into our lives,

at times so unexpectedly.

Who Am I? And Who Are You?

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my sofa nook

          Who am I?  And who are you?  As I sit or lie in my sofa nook with a chronic illness which limits my activities and cuts me off from a busy world, I often ponder what it’s all about.  What is the meaning, the purpose of a life such as mine?  In a busy world that judges us all by what we achieve, that counts the number of trophies we can place on the shelves of our minds at the end of each day, my sense of self-identity can so easily slip away.

          It’s very tempting for those of us with chronic health issues to compare our lives with the healthy lives of those around us.  Unfortunately, when we do this, we all too often come away with the feeling that we are “lessened,” that our stories are curtailed, incomplete, deficient.  With so little to show for our lives, it’s easy to wonder who we really are.  

          After his resurrection, Jesus warns his disciple Peter that a time will come when he will no longer be in control of his life. Peter’s response is immediate.  He points to another disciple and asks, “and what about him?”  Jesus tells him rather sharply that that is really none of his business.  Don’t compare your life and your destiny with his, Jesus tells him.  Just “follow me.”  Just live out your own story, and let him live out his.  A challenging directive.  To Peter…to me…and to all of us. 

          Henri Nouwen in his little book Discernment tells of a friend who discovered in his 50’s that he had cancer.  He had been a very active man, and he had always defined himself by all the good things that he was able to accomplish.  Who was he now with his body crippled with cancer and exhausted from all the treatments?  Nouwen and his cancer-ridden friend puzzled together over this. 

          As we might expect from Nouwen, he offered his friend some profound insights.  He suggested that he should see that his vocation as a human was to be fulfilled not in his activities and accomplishments but rather in his ACCEPTANCE of his situation.  In his WAITING to discover what God was about in his life.  In his deep AWARENESS that God, not his activity, was the center of his life, and that God is always the one at work to define our lives and to help us determine just who we are.

          To live out such a vocation is truly a challenge.  I would so much rather define myself by what I accomplish.  I want my activities to be the center and focus of my tiny universe.  I want to control my possibilities.  I want to see who I am in the row of daily trophies sitting on my mind’s shelf.  

          A character in Anthony Doerr’s short story “Mkondo” tells a lost soul who’s searching for his life, “the only way to find something is to lose it first.”  Along with countless others who live with a chronic illness, I have lost many of the trimmings that I once relied upon to define my life.  But I do believe that in my losing I have also been finding.  It’s a slow finding, to be sure, and it’s a finding filled with many questions and many doubts.  But it’s a finding, nonetheless.  The finding of a growing stillness within.  The finding of a deepened attentiveness to the layers of life around me and within me.  The finding more of God’s life burning within my own, even in those moments when I feel so unsure of who I am.

          A challenge, yes.  But when all is said and done, perhaps this is the challenge not just for those of us who live with “chronic.”  Perhaps this is the challenge for the healthy as well as the not-so-healthy.  To let go of old self-definitions.  To learn the way of acceptance, the way of waiting, the way of awareness.

          Who am I?  And who are you?  And what’s it really all about?  We’ll probably never, in this lifetime, know the full answer to all the mysteries of our lives, but perhaps we may come closer to knowing who we really are as we lose more of our “trophy” selves and find ways to live into patterns of a quiet openness to our innermost selves and to the God who lives and breathes through all our doings.  Through all our not-doings as well.