Lenten Emptiness

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Emptiness fills my world

this harsh late-winter day;

cold seeps into my walls,

sits heavy in my rocking chair,

spreads icily around my yard, a shroud

wrapped tight around the color

that I ache for in my life.

*

The trees in my backyard, stark branches

spider-webbed across the sky, embrace

this leadenness so gracefully;

mystery of stillness,

patience of a waiting rest.

Could it be that angels curl

in those wintered trees, breathe

with them the bitter nights, caress

their icy bark, whisper poems that seep

a solace deep into their veins?

Beneath the brooding skies, I listen

for the rustle of their wings.

Winter Still Life with Red Shovel

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Not the Grand Canyon, 

not Niagara Falls;

merely the snowy deck and roof

of a neighbor’s house, a still life framed

by my dining room window,

sun-painted tree shadows lacing

the whole in intricate, abstract patterns;

steps inviting me to walk

into the picture, to sit a spell

at the empty table, to consider

that idle shovel in the corner,

bright red reminder that, though there is so much

work to be done, work to salvage justice,

work to honor truth, work to love the neighbor,

sometimes it is good to set aside our shovels

for a time, simply rest, renew, re-ground

our lives in simple still-life splendors

that abound in unexpected

corners of our lives.    

The Silence of God

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Engraving by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd.  After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.  When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land.  When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by.  But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded.

Mark 7:45-51

          Jesus intended to pass them by?!  The words leap out of Mark’s gospel story.  Words as frightening as the ferocious wind that was threatening the lives of his disciples.  And we can’t help but ask “why.”  Why did Jesus intend to pass by his disciples and leave them to the mercy of the Galilean storm?

          It’s clear from the previous sentence that Jesus had seen the trouble his disciples were facing and that he was coming to them.  We assume he was coming to help them in their “straining at the oars against an adverse wind.”  Why, then, would he intend to simply continue on his way and ignore them in their peril? Was he so eager to tend to the needs of people on the other side of the sea?  Had he become caught up, perhaps, in deep contemplation of the dark beauty of the terrifying wind and waves?  Was he annoyed with them for their reluctance to help feed that crowd of 5,000, and had decided that they needed to “pay” for that reluctance?  

          Or was Jesus, perhaps, intending to pass them by in order to teach them something more of the deep mystery of God?  Of the incomprehensibility of God’s ways?  Of the often silence of God?  Intending to help them learn, perhaps, something of God’s presence even when God might seem most absent?

          I recently read Shūsakū Endō’s Silence (the book upon which Scorcese’s movie is based).  In the book, Sebastian Rodrigues is a Portuguese Jesuit priest who traveled to Japan in the early 17th century to help Christians there during a time of intense persecution that had driven the church underground.  He is welcomed by numerous Japanese Christians who have struggled to keep their faith alive.  But he is not welcomed by the authorities who capture him, imprison him, and force him to watch the brutal deaths of peasants who refuse to denounce their faith in the Christian God.  He is also forced to watch the deaths of peasants who are killed because Rodrigues himself will not renounce his own faith.

          Over and over and over again, Rodrigues cries out to God for help and for an understanding of why God doesn’t act to stop the brutality.  Why Jesus seems to pass him by.  Why he hears only silence.  “Why are you silent?” he asks God.  “Why does this stillness continue?  This noonday stillness.  The sound of the flies—this crazy thing, this cruel business.  And you avert your face as though indifferent.   This—this I cannot bear.”

          His cry into the emptiness echoes what the disciples must have felt on that storm-tossed sea.  Echoes the fear of our own hearts when we experience turbulence in our lives or watch victims of violence around the world and hear only the silence of God in response to our cries for help.   Where are you, God?  Why the silence?  Have your forgotten us?  Why do you pass us by?

          Jesus himself experienced this silence of God as he hung on the cross surrounded by taunts and jeers.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Why have you passed me by?  Where are you?  Why am I so alone in my agony?  Silence, the only response. 

          Silence.  Stillness.  God passing him by. 

          Or so it seemed.  But somehow, somewhere, in the stark loneliness of those endless hours of his suffering, Jesus must have experienced something of God’s “thereness” with him.   For as he breathed his very last breath, he spoke these words, “Into your hand I commit my spirit.”  Words of profound trust that he was not alone in his dying.  Words of confidence that the Father was somehow, somewhere, with him in the silence of his suffering.

          A clear and decisive answer to the “why” of Jesus intentionally passing his disciples by we’ll never have.  To the why of Christian persecution in Japan in the 17th century.  To the why of our own suffering and difficulties.  To the why of brutal horrors through the centuries and around our troubled world today.  But, I do believe that if we listen to the silence long enough, if we listen hard enough, if we listen deeply enough, like Jesus himself, we will become aware that we are not alone.   We may not find an Answer.  But in the silence of the darkest of nights without stars, we will come to know that the stars really are still singing, and that the One who called them into being, the One who called us into being, continues to be ever with us and ever for us.  A holy Presence.

          A holy Presence working out God’s purpose in the vastness of time and space.  A holy Presence working out God’s purpose in each tiny moment of our everydays.  A holy Presence assuring us that we are enfolded in a Love that is ever “coming towards” us. 

 

 

Lest We Forget

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“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

(Mark 10:31)

“America First.”  A slogan much bandied about these days.  A slogan that makes me very uncomfortable.  Not because I don’t love my country.  I do, and I am grateful for all the good this country offers.  But I’m uncomfortable because this slogan

                     –flies in the face of Jesus’ warning that “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first;”

                     –permits us to feel entitled to neglect the  needs of others, especially the needs of millions of refugees who are fleeing from war, tyranny, and violence in their countries, in the hope of finding a safe place to live out their lives.

In response to this slogan, each month I want to post a picture of one of these refugees.  My hope is that as we look carefully at these pictures, we will remember those other words of Jesus who said that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the stranger, we are really feeding, clothing, and caring for him.  And when we turn away from the hungry, the naked, and the stranger, we are really turning away from him.

This month’s picture

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Omran Daqneesh, a 5-year old wounded in the fighting in Aleppo, Syria

His family lost their home.

August 17, 2016

Yes, we want our country to be safe, but aren’t we safer when we help others find safety as well?  Please join me in insisting that our leaders reject “America First” policies and lead our country instead with policies that are good for all people, no matter their race, nationality, ethnicity, or religion.

It’s Okay, Grandma

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One by one she lays them in my hands: her treasured

stones, her feathers, ribbons, grimy little balls,

her brightly colored beads; relics of her miniature

life, each opening to me the secret joy aglow

behind her child eyes; and with each sacred

piece she shares, our hearts knit tight,

tiny stitches of stones and feathers and beads,

a net to hold the shining of the stars

and of the moon.

*

A sudden bead slips through my fingers,

pings across the floor, rolls to that hidden

crack where all forever lost things hide,

my clumsiness unraveling our sweet,

sweet finely-knitted trust.

*

“It’s okay, Grandma,”

her hand upon my hand.

Her tiny heart, filled with treasure

far beyond her stones, her beads,

absolves, forgives; she shows me

yet another bead, and we go on. 

*

Beads and stones, feathers and names,

thoughts and words and lists of things to do;

it seems that in this later season of my life,

they all slip through my fingers now and then.

“It’s okay, Grandma.”  

Her whisper holds, embraces me;

and I go on, letting go the stitches I have lost;

smiling at the memories, the beads I still clutch

tightly…in my hands and in my heart.

Belovѐd

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In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Mark 1:9-11

The name bubbles up through the Jordan,

spills down from a dove-wingѐd shaft of the sun;

“belovѐd,” a centered inner sureness;

a strength to face temptations in the deserts

of his soul, as well, the coming rigors

of his life, the loneliness of death;

a power to exorcize demonic hauntings

crushing minds to powdered dust;

a love to heal, to mend, to touch,

to re-knit lives unraveled by the years,

forgive those who would spit

into his face, hammer his hands,

and steal his very life.

*

No thundering voice when water washed

me in the blessѐd triune name, no snow-white dove;

but gentle stirrings now and then; sometimes in silver

silence wonder-filled with snowflakes, stars,

and fir tree branches sighing in the winter wind;

sometimes in echo of Belovѐd’s laughter in the trilling

of the tiny wren who often visits on my deck;

sometimes, from quiet time to quiet time,

his footsteps stepping from the ancient tales

into the very pages of my ordinary life, his still,

small voice, “fear not, I christen you,

yes you,

I christen you belovѐd too.

Live strong, live every moment long, each soul bone

bathed in holy water of my Jordan love.” 

An Old Christmas Shepherd Remembers

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(Mathias Huesma)

          I’m an old man now.  Probably don’t have many more days to live on this good earth.  But a good earth it’s been, and a good life.  Simple.  Hard.  But good.  I wish I could tell you that I’ve resolved all the questions I’ve carried with me through my life, but that I cannot do.  I still have questions.  Many.  About life, about God, about the baby I was so privileged to be among the first to see. 

          Does that surprise you?  You know my story well.  How blessed I was, you no doubt think, to be the first, the very first(!) to visit the holy couple and the holy child lying in the manger.  And yes, blessed I was, to be sure.  But that doesn’t mean I haven’t had my questions down through the years.

          I was so young on that magical, mystical night.  Just a young man learning shepherd life from my father and uncle and a few others from our small village.  I didn’t expect much from my life.  We had always been poor, and life had always been harsh.  I just assumed it would be that way for me as well.  Scraping by.  Always looked down on by those better positioned in life.  Some even said that if one of us shepherds should fall into a pit, no one should feel obligated to rescue us because we were simply worthless. 

          But I didn’t let all that bother me—at least not most of the time.  I wasn’t unhappy.  I wasn’t particularly happy either.  I would live and die a shepherd, and that was that.  I did wonder about God sometimes out there under the stars.  Did God care about me?  Did God look at us shepherds as those around us looked at us?  Who knew?  I listened to my mother and my father tell the old, old stories about God and God’s people who had lived long before us.  About Abraham and Moses.  About King David who had started life as a shepherd and ended up the greatest of all kings.  About prophets who told of a wondrous day yet to come when a Son of David would be born, a Messiah who would bring peace and joy for all people on earth, even for shepherds.  “Oh yeah!  Tell me another one,” I used to mutter to myself, but of course I never said that aloud, as my parents would have been mortified and shocked.

          Anyway, I remember that on that special night on the hillside my uncle began to play a gentle melody on his reed pipe, and I was finding it hard to stay awake.  But suddenly our dark sky erupted.  Our night world became as bright as a sunny noonday.  No, considerably brighter.  And a strange and brilliant heavenly creature was singing to us about a baby born in nearby Bethlehem, a baby who was our Messiah, a Savior for us and for all people.  “Go and see for yourself,” the angelic being told us.  “You’ll find this Savior-baby lying in a manger in Bethlehem.”  Messiah in a manger?  Where we shepherds put our babies?  Was he serious?  

          But no chance to ask any questions, for just then a whole host of angels burst on the scene in a glorious hymn of praise:  “Glory to God in the highest Heaven!  Peace, goodwill among people.”*  We felt so honored!  A heavenly choir just for us.  And the heavenly being had addressed us shepherds as though we had some dignity.  Had invited us shepherds to be witnesses to this amazing event!   Needless to say, we quickly appointed one of us to stay with the sheep, and the rest of us went as fast as we could to Bethlehem to find this precious child. 

          A truly strange and wondrous night it was.  I re-lived it over and over again as that baby grew into manhood.  I began to hear exciting things.  Tales of blind people receiving their sight.  Of the deaf suddenly hearing again.  Yes! I thought.  This really is our Messiah, our King.  The One who will level the mountains of injustice and lift up those of us who are lowly and poor.  I made sure I was part of that jubilant crowd that welcomed him as he rode on that donkey into Jerusalem.  This was it!  Our time!  Our King!  Memories of that Bethlehem night resonated in every “Alleluia!” that I shouted with the others along the way. 

          But almost the next thing I knew, I found myself staring at our King hanging on a cross like a common criminal.  How could this be?!  What had gone so wrong?  Had that wondrous night, that angel visitation been just some cruel joke?  There on that cross hung all our dreams and all our hopes.  Dashed.  Gone.  I bowed in utter bewilderment and sorrow. 

          In the weeks and months after that God-forsaken day, it’s true, I did hear strange tales of an empty tomb and hints that the one crucified had been seen alive by a number of people.  But I never myself saw him again, so I didn’t really know just what to think.

          But in these later years, I have been pondering over and over again the passage from our sacred writings which has always perplexed and bothered me.  The passage about Messiah being “stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.”   About Messiah being “wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities.”   And I have begun to wonder.  Is it just possible that something profound was happening on that cross?  Had our God, in all the horror of that day, somehow been at work to bring about the promise the angels had sung to us shepherds?  

          It’s all a bit too deep for me, and I don’t know how to put it all together.  My shepherd’s hut is crammed with all my thoughts and all my questions, and sometimes there seems little room for faith and trust.  But I do continue to ponder and try to trust in my own simple way.  Trust that somehow God was at work on that cross.  Trust that God will someday, somehow, complete what I saw begun so long ago in that Bethlehem stable.  How, I do not know.  But every now and then, sometimes even in the darkest of nights, when trust can be so elusive, I do believe I hear a faint echo of that haunting angel song, and I find myself singing along with the angels, “Glory to God in the highest Heaven!  Peace, goodwill among people!”  

***

*alternative reading (NRSV)