If I do any reflection or contemplation of spiritual truth, I can best do it in a peaceful place like the one depicted in this watercolor art—soft light, peaceful color, a canopy of trees, nothing going on, just silence with a bit of birdsong. I can’t often go to such places so I paint them and imagine myself there. It works.
I have been writing a spiritual memoir to be released sometime in August. Just imagine—all the multitude of my stories from this blog together in one book! I sort of cringe when I think about it. I have been writing my memoir for months, and the process revealed many truths to me. The stories—I call them Spirit Stories—unfold from reflection, contemplation, and experiencing my life events all over again. Emotions arise in me as I remember, and tears cleanse my spirit. Experiencing past life in present time reveals so much insight and healing. I am learning a lot about “my truth” in the process. These are just a few of the things I have realized so far.
Even the smallest events in my life teach me big, important lessons.
People are not always what they seem, including me!
I think I may have been placed on the earth to be hurt by mean people.
When I fall—face-in-the-dirt fall—I always get back up. So far!
Sometimes I do not fall. Someone pushes me!
I found my truth while reflecting on and writing my memoir.
So that’s what I’ve been up to. That’s why you haven’t heard from me much here. But just wait for the book to be released. You will learn more about me than you ever wanted to know! Deciding to write my memoir was a long, confusing process for me. I ruminated about it for years. But I landed on the fact that speaking my truth (to all three people who want to hear it) is important. Saying it clearly and out loud is an important life thing, even if I’m the only person who hears.
Anne Lamott expresses the important life thing like this:
You are going to feel like hell if you never write the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your heart—your stories, visions, memories, songs: your truth, your version of things, in your voice. That is really all you have to offer us, and it’s why you were born.
I have always been drawn to honeybees, mesmerized by them and by the beekeepers who care for them. Once many years ago, I put on the beekeepers garb and that big, fashionable hat with the dark veil of netting. A friend who had several hives was teaching me how to handle the bees. I actually held them in my hands, rather hesitantly, while noticing how gently the beekeeper held them. From this uncomfortably close proximity, I was able to listen to the buzzing sound of the honeybees, buzzing that I did not hear as harsh, but rather hushed. The honeybees greeted him when he approached the hive. When he held them in his hands and they moved up his arms, it looked like a graceful dance of the beekeeper and his constantly moving honeybees totally in sync with one another. How could one not be enchanted by this wonder of creation?
Yesterday while reading a fascinating interview with Tom Blue Wolf, I was reminded of those breathtaking moments I spent with the honeybees. Tom is a descendant of the AniCoosa, which means “peaceful people,” who are also known as the Creek Tribe, which is a part of the Muscogee Nation. He is a Native American spiritual guide, a man in love with nature, and a keeper of honeybees. One of the questions he was asked in the interview was, “What is it like to be in the presence of the bees, to listen to them?” This is how Tom Blue Wolf responded.
Creator is always talking to us. Most of us are about seven echoes away from the true voice of the Creator. Try to get closer, try to get maybe three echoes away. If you get too close, it’s almost too intense for most people. Like a burning bush. Aaaaah!
His response to the follow-up question was just as intriguing . . .
“What do you and the bees do for each other on the spiritual journey?
How is your relationship to them a spiritual one?”
They give life, and we protect it. We keep the harm away from them; we protect them. I have been in love with honeybees all my life . . . We beekeepers are integral to the bees’ world. They know us; they are in our dreams. We tend to them barefoot, they crawl all over us, they kiss us, they tickle us. It’s hard to talk about. So, of course we think it’s spiritual. Absolutely. The bees love us and we love them.
That kind of spiritual relationship between a human being and one of God’s created inhabitants of the earth would place any of us in a sacred space. Tom Blue Wolf described a state of being as “three echoes away from the true voice of the Creator.” It’s the kind of space most of us never enter, and for so many reasons—we don’t have time; we’re busy with our jobs; we have children to care for, laundry to do, and a plethora of responsibilities listed on the to-do list we seldom complete. We simply get too busy to embrace the beauty of nature and draw closer to the Creator.
Tom Blue Wolf would summon us, if he could, to be “three echoes away” from God’s true voice. So he writes about the Creator, the creation and the importance of protecting it, and our role as caretakers. He urges humans to follow the guidelines of Saint Francis, who thought it critical to have a close and enduring relationship with nature.
From the years I spent as a postulant in the Order of Ecumenical Franciscans, I learned about the many ways Saint Frances was devoted to the best characteristics of what it means to be a human being on the planet: benevolent, loving, kind, gentle, merciful, reverent, respectful. He treated every life form with dignity.
Saint Francis helps us pull ourselves out of the trap of being completely focused on two-legged humans. An example of that shows how most people describe a destructive incident only be the impact it has on humans. They might report, for instance, that a plane crashed and “we lost 180 people.” Or “the fire killed four hundred people.” In contrast, Saint Francis would say, “Not only did we lose four hundred brothers and sisters, but we also lost three thousand acres of Mother Earth’s flesh. We lost sixty-four thousand winged ones. We lost untold amounts of water, and what’s left is toxic and the ones that swim are no longer with us.”
Like Saint Frances, perhaps we should focus more of our attention on the natural world, the magnificent creation given to us by the Creator God we worship. For one thing, attention to the creation and its Creator draws us into holy moments that we desperately need for our spiritual nurture. If we lean into those holy moments, and linger there for a time, the burdens we carry could become lighter. The cares that dishearten us might become uncommonly dim. And we just might find ourselves in a most sacred space—the one that places us “three echoes away” from God’s whisper. And as an added grace, perhaps we will also hear the gentle buzz of honeybees!
One thing pandemic isolation has done is to inspire me by images of places I cannot see in person. Now that I live in Georgia, it is difficult to travel back home to Arkansas. So if I am to once again see and enjoy the beautiful landscapes in Arkansas, I must see them in images like this stunning photograph by Gregory Ballos.
There are images to see everywhere one looks—in nature, in books, in National Geographic photographs and videos, in blogs like this one, in one’s imagination, everywhere we are willing to look. The Creator paints swashes of vibrant color across nature’s enormous canvas, and it is there for those who have eyes to see. The sky, the forest, the mountains and the valleys, the oceans, the streams and rivers, the lakes and the waterfalls—in greens and blues and grays streaked with every hue imaginable—all of it is there if we take a moment to look.
To all my pandemic brothers and sisters all over the world, I pray that you are in the places you want to be seeing the things you want to see. Yet I am very aware that many of you, like me, are not where you truly want to be. I long for my home, for Arkansas, where I can see my son and my grandchildren and where I can see the natural beauty I took for granted in the thirty-five years I lived there. The pandemic holds me fast, right where I am at this moment, and I cannot see my heart’s desire.
There is another kind of seeing. It is the seeing that involves both the eyes and the soul. You and I have some control over what I call soul-seeing. I have to admit that my problem with soul-seeing is that I rarely truly see when I look. It doesn’t matter really whether I am looking at nature or at a photographic image, I seldom look long enough to really see. I admit that I am the problem, because I feel compelled to be busy, all the time, with projects and writing and various endeavors that have the potential to consume me. Truthfully, I allow those endeavors to consume me. I admit it. I am far too busy to intentionally see. Soul-seeing is being able to see beauty with your eyes and your soul.
You may have seen the lovely books of the late Beatrix Potter, who was was an English writer, illustrator, natural scientist and conservationist. From her life’s work, one can assume that she is a keen observer. I imagine that she was a person who was able to truly see. She wrote, in fact, that she was grateful to have what she called ”the seeing eye.”
Thank God I have the seeing eye, that is to say, as I lie in bed I can walk step by step on the fells and rough land seeing every stone and flower and patch of bog and cotton pass where my old legs will never take me again. — Beatrix Potter
For Potter, seeing seemed natural in her ability to consider nature and conservation as well as prose and art. Seeing is natural. We see without thinking. Truth is, seeing seems easy, doesn’t it? Everyone with the gift of sight knows how to do it, and those who are unable to see physically figure out how to ”see” in myriads of ways.
I wonder about it, though. I wonder if I am too preoccupied to really see what’s around me. Is my busy-work more important to me than mindfulness? If seeing is so easy, how do we miss all of the magnificent beauty that surrounds us?
It’s a ponderable question
Why not take a few quiet, meditative moments to answer it? The video below is two minutes and eight seconds long. Can you spare that much time? If you can, I invite you to relax in those two minutes and eight seconds. I invite you to mindfulness, to be fully present in those few moments. I hope you will see, with your soul’s sight, nature’s beauty in this video.
If you know me at all, you know that I am a minister, an artist and a writer. Those three are not all of who I am, but they encompass a big chunk of my identity. You may also know that I find deep spiritual nurture from images like the Northern Lights image above. It’s breathtaking. I cannot fathom the sense of wonder of a person who is physically present, in person, looking up into this wondrous sky.
What sort of Creator gave us the ethereal experience of witnessing these Lights of the North? What grace we receive when we take even a moment to breathe it in, to see its splendor, even in a photograph! As spiritual beings who are on a pilgrimage on this earth, we know what it is like to experience darkness.
I imagine that we do everything we can to avoid the dark places of our journey. You know about those dark places—losing a loved one, living with illness, being suddenly injured, moving out of your home, dealing with a troubled child . . . We know about the dark places. We know about the pandemic that has upended our lives and left us in an unknowable, seemingly endless darkness.
We also know about struggling to get to light. We know about walking through the darkness for so long that we become almost desperate to see light again. The LIGHT—that amazing miracle that shatters the darkness and brightens our path.
Of course, we long for it! Sometimes we live through so much darkness—physical, emotional and spiritual darkness—that we almost need more than light. Sometimes we need release, room to breathe, freedom to experience. Sometimes we need an expanse above us, a newness we can fully experience and the inspiration to soar in the clouds until we sense something new and fresh. Sometimes we just need more than light.
So there is light, and then there are the Northern Lights. And we can at least see them in images. When we do see them, our souls might take a deep breath. These lights are different than the lights we usually count on. These Lights of the North are more than the lights that guide us along the journey and through the darkness. These lights are almost mystical—light and color and vastness. These are lights that come as if God is writing “hope” in the sky with an electric-neon crayon. Angela Abraham describes the Northern Lights in a unique way.
The Northern lights were a river of green in the midnight blue. They were what dreams could be if they were ever allowed to dance so free. The northern lights were green rivers in the black heavens, a congregation of stars, how they resonate with my soul.
— Angela Abraham
That’s it! Lights that resonate with the soul. For you, the light that feeds your soul could come from the light of brilliant stars, or moonlight, or sunrise, or even holiday lights. For me on this day, my soul awakened when I took the time to see the splendor of the Northern Lights. In a way I can’t really explain, I looked and I lingered, and then the dancing green light against the black sky caused my spirit to take flight, just for a few minutes. I realized that this was not just about light, it was also about indescribable beauty that can be seen best in God’s creation.
In the words of Angela Abraham, ”Nature’s beauty is an echo of creation’s song, it lives out there and within, as if we are spoken into being together.” I was transported to thoughts of a Creator who gave us not only life and breath, but also gave us extravagant beauty.
Maybe you need more than light right now. When circumstances are dark and bleak in my life, I often need more than light. In fact, like most strugglers and travelers on this journey of life, I have learned to get around in the dark. Most of the time, I can walk through darkness blindly and reach my destination. Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, ”Learning to Walk in the Dark,” is filled with bits of wisdom that I hang on to when I’m in a dark place.
Ihave learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light. There is a light that shines in the darkness, which is only visible there.
— Barbara Brown Taylor
It is true that sometimes I need more than light. Sometimes I need a grace-gift that reminds me that I am a small speck in a vast universe, and that the Creator that formed our immense, extravagant, beautiful world also created us, each of us tiny specks known by God. Sometimes I need more than light, but what I need is already mine to see—a world filled with beauty that takes my breath away.
Oh, just one more thing about me . . . when beauty really reaches the deep places of my soul, I often burst into song. For today, looking at the beauty of the Lights of the North, I am singing John Rutter’s, ”For the Beauty of the Earth.” Maybe you would like to sing it too, or at least listen to it. Find it below, turn up your volume and give praise to the Creator for giving us the beauty of the earth.
For the beauty of the earth, For the beauty of the skies, For the love which from our birth Over and around us lies, Lord of all, to thee we raise This our hymn of grateful praise.
For the beauty of each hour Of the day and of the night, Hill and vale, and tree and flow’r, Sun and moon, and stars of light, Lord of all, to thee we raise This our hymn of grateful praise.
For the joy of human love, Brother, sister, parent, child, Friends on earth, and friends above, For all gentle thoughts and mild, Lord of all, to thee we raise This our hymn of grateful praise.
Music by John Rutter (1980) Lyrics by Folliott S. Pierpoint, 1835-1917
“A soul in transit.” What does that phrase even mean? It sounds a bit ominous to me, like something bad couched in flowery language. Maybe like words of a poem that make little sense because they point to something otherworldly. Perhaps it means something related to a soul that lives, gets old, and dies — in transit from birth to death and beyond. Pondering!
I’m not up for those thoughts right now, because I am in the troubling place of feeling old sometimes. It’s something like aging anxiety, I think. Feeling old should not be so surprising to me since I really am kind of old. But sometimes I feel old in a bad way, the way that sends negative thoughts through my mind. Thoughts like . . .
I can’t do much anymore, I don’t feel well most of the time, my joints hurt, or even, I may die soon.
It is not helpful for my soul to entertain such thoughts, even though some of them are downright truth. Pondering! You have probably heard that “getting old is not for sissies.” It holds some truth, I imagine, for those of us who have come face to face with normal aging, aging that feels not so normal at all. But what about the great juxtaposition? What about the positive exercise that puts thoughts side by side so that we can see what is life-giving instead of what is troubling? For instance . . .
I am old. — I am wise.
I feel weak. — My spirit is strong and still vibrant.
My back aches when I exert myself. — I can still move.
So much for pondering juxtaposed thoughts. They may not be all that helpful, although re-imagining so that we recognize what is spirited and sparkling about ourselves can be very helpful. Still my words on this subject are pretty empty. I think I need assurance from someone else’s words, and I can’t help but turn to a very wise and insightful spiritual guide, Bishop Steven Charleston, whose thoughts are captivating, enlightening and filled with wisdom. And on top of that, the wise bishop is the one who offered up the phrase, “a soul in transit” in the first place.
We will not grow old, not in spirit. In mind and body, yes, we will age as all things age, all making the pilgrimage through time to find the place of sources. But in our spirit, no, we will not grow old. The child that was us will run forever through the fields. The dreams we spun from the fine wool of cloud watching will forever lead us to the next wonder that awaits us. The love we knew, so quiet, so life giving, will always be there to lift us up and hold us close. The spirit of life is eternal. It does not diminish. It does not forget. It does not alter. The spirit within us is the sum total of our sacred experience. It is what we were sent here to be and to do. Our spirit, a soul in transit, has a life outside of time. It will not grow old because it is on loan from a source more ancient than time itself.
Bishop Steven Charleston
Still pondering! I see more clearly that the “soul in transit” has “a life outside of time.” Eternal! That is what our faith has taught us for generations, for ages, always. But it is a truth that we can barely fathom, much less find comfort in. It’s not so easy to accept a truth that ultimately represents death, even if it includes that timeless and stunning place that is called eternity. The introductory words of 1 Peter give us a most glorious glimpse of eternity, a living hope.
May grace and peace be yours in abundance. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
— 1 Peter 1: 2-5 NRSV
Pondering still as I ask, “what does it all mean for me, the words, the images?” I feel much like the Psalmist who said, “my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.” (Psalm 131:1) And yet, I do search and struggle with the thought of aging, of what it means for me and of what comes next. I hear the words:
“. . . in our spirit, no, we will not grow old. The child that was us will run forever through the fields. The dreams we spun from the fine wool of cloud watching will forever lead us to the next wonder that awaits us. The love we knew, so quiet, so life giving, will always be there to lift us up and hold us close. The spirit of life is eternal. It does not diminish. It does not forget. It does not alter. The spirit within us is the sum total of our sacred experience.”
I hear the words, and the spirit of me understands, even if my mind does not. When I write, I ponder deeply. In my pondering this day, I am compelled to admit that I definitely feel the sting of aging. I am very human, after all! But I can usually move from anxiety to a good kind of awareness. That good awareness shows me that it is comforting to hold on tightly to the thought that the spirit is eternal, that my spirit is eternal. Dwelling on aging isolates me, but knowing in my heart that my spirit is eternal is a grace-gift that sets me free to really live.
I know from experience that pondering can be hurtful, leading me through all kinds of unpleasant scenarios. But sacred pondering, the kind that allows one’s faith to sit with a problem until it seems acceptable, can open the mind and heart to the eternal and empower us to see the plans for good that God has for us, “a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
So, after a time of sacred pondering, I am blessed with a fresh awareness. I can see more clearly God’s truth that my spirit will remain with my grandchildren, always. My spirit will hold on to the sweet love I have known. My spirit will immerse itself in the beauty of nature that has always been present. My spirit will run through the fields like a young person, and through the forests, it will love the trees I have always loved.
My body will do what bodies do, but my spirit will not die and will not grow old!
There are large scale, widespread forces that can trap thousands of people, even millions. Dachau, Katrina, earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, natural disasters all over the world and the Coronavirus of 2020. Enormous, catastrophic events can trap people. COVID19 has literally trapped me inside my home. I have to admit, the isolation has taken a toll on my spirit. No visitors! No visits with friends or family. No trips! No haircuts! I have been trapped at some level since my kidney transplant in November. Just at the March milestone that would have allowed me to break the isolation of the transplant, I was even more fully trapped by the infectiousness of this pervasive, unrelenting virus.
Being trapped for so many months has raised up in me feelings of loneliness, isolation, powerlessness, despair, anxiety, even abandonment. And yet, often there is something very good in the center of something very bad. It has been so for me. Yes, I feel trapped in the pervasive power of the coronavirus, but I also sense the arms of God and the embrace of Spirit hemming me in even further. Such a grace-gift it has been to me, as if God has said, “l am hemming you in, and in this space you will hear me clearer and sense me more fully.”
God’s words were truth. Hemmed in, my mind flourished, my heart leapt and my soul entered spaces of calm. I felt enhanced awareness! Even awakening. I saw nature in a different way and basked in the beauty of the rising sun. The sound of the hummingbirds’ trill and the rapid fluttering of their translucent wings were sounds meant just for me. I began to write and paint, to listen more carefully to God’s voice, to allow my spirit to overflow with Holy Spirit. To my hemmed-in call from God, I was compelled to answer, “Here I am, Lord!” When I finally answered God, my hemmed-in place became Holy Ground — a very good place to be that feels more like a holy mystery than a state of being.
Was this pandemic a good thing for me and for millions of people? Absolutely not! But trapped in its dark cloud, God hemmed me in further in ways I am just now beginning to understand. I can say with all honesty that being hemmed in by God has been grace to me.
If I could even begin to choose a favorite Psalm from among the many that inspire me, I would choose Psalm 139. In its weaving of words, there are many passages that are full of comfort. From childhood, I memorized a lot of Scripture and throughout Psalm 139 I memorized several snippets that I often call to mind. One verse that I did not memorize is verse 5: “You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.”
You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
— Psalm 139:1-5 NIV
I deplore the coronavirus and what it has done to so many people. I deplore the ways it was able to trap me, physically and emotionally. But the virus, with all its ominous, far-reaching force could not trap me spiritually. That was God’s work — hemming me in so that my spirit could rise to fresh, new heights of spiritual consciousness. Being hemmed in by our Creator has been grace for me in these days of isolation. It has become a transforming sacred pause. For in my hemmed-in space, the Creator helped me create — from my mind, from my heart, from my soul. Thanks be to God.
All the beauty of the world,
the beauty that calls our admiration, our gratitude,
our worthship at the earthly level,
is meant as a set of hints, of conspiratorial whispers,
of clues and suggestions and flickers of light,
all nudging us into believing that behind the beautiful world
is not random chance but the loving God.
— N.T. Wright, For All God’s Worth
These days I give over many of my thoughts to the millions of devastated lives that have been besieged by the coronavirus. I cannot stop the tears at times when I hear people tell their stories on news reports or when I see the ugliness of images around the world — people suffering, people in hunger, people grieving and languishing as the lives they once knew are snatched away from them. My one solace is a gift from a friend who is a lover of nature. She graces me every time we communicate with the many ways she has learned to find peace in the beauty of the world.
This morning, a cool wind was blowing as the sun warmed my face. I was warmed not only physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. All was quiet, except the wind, the flutter of hummingbird wings, the gentle tinkling of the wind chimes and the birdsong that I could hear all around me. I looked up into my favorite tree with its background of a perfect, cloudless bright blue sky. I could not help but notice the leaves in the tree, moving in the wind and presenting a shimmering display showing off hundreds of shades of green.
It carried me away, even if just for a few minutes, and I found myself embracing the beauty of the earth and the God who created it. I found a smidgen of comfort, peace and the kind of inner joy that is beyond any sorrow I might feel. Instead of being swallowed by the ugliness of the television news, I was blessed by delighting in the freshness and the beauty of the world around me.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. — Genesis 1:28-31
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible . . . all things were created through him and for him. — Collosians 1:16
In this present moment in time, I cannot help but see the finger of God in all of creation. I cannot help but offer praise to God through the words of the hymn we often sing, For the Beauty of the Earth.
For beauty of each hour
Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flower,
Sun and moon and stars of light:
Christ, our God, to Thee we raise
This our grateful hymn of praise.
Text: Folliott Sandford Pierpoint; Music: William Chatterton Dix (1864)
I invite you to listen to the video below. For just a few moments, pay attention to this lovely hymn of praise, perhaps as part of your meditation time.
Today, while minding my own business — and browsing the Better Homes & Gardens website — I stumbled across a stunning image of a tree. Those of you who know me, know that I have had a lifelong passion for trees. Trees, for me, are not only beautiful, they also take me often into a spiritual place. This morning while looking at the bark of the Rainbow Eucalyptus tree (Eucalyptus deglupta), my thought was, “This is almost magic! It can’t be real!”
Rainbow Eucalyptus trees look too beautiful to be real (but they are!) (BH&G)
These trees have an astounding multicolored bark that looks like it’s been decorated with a humongous paintbrush. They seem like something one might imagine, or see in a fantasy movie, or discover in a Dr. Seuss book. But they do grow naturally with a brilliantly colored bark. The Rainbow Eucalyptus, which grow 100 to 200 feet tall, are native to tropical regions like the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and even in the most southern parts of the U.S. “Though pictures of these trees are stunning, they don’t quite capture the awe of seeing them in person.
A real rainbow eucalyptus can stop you in your tracks, so if you have the chance to travel to see them, it’s well worth the journey. (BH&G)
As you would expect, I did some research to find places where I could see this magical tree in person. San Diego, California, is actually becoming a travel destination for seeing these trees. One can see them at Balboa Park, along Sports Arena Boulevard, at the San Diego Zoo, and in parts of Mission Bay. One can also see them in parts of Florida, Hawaii and Texas. So there really are a few places you can see a Rainbow Eucalyptus without needing a passport.
You might ask, “What’s so important about a tree that looks fake?” And that would be a good question. I’m not sure I have a coherent answer, but I’ll give it a shot. Sometimes we find ourselves in places that feel “blah.” We’ve lost our sense of direction and maybe even our will to move forward in life. Those times can come to us because of grief, illness, family challenges, concern for our children, stagnancy in our careers, waning spirituality or simply feeling out of sorts. Hundreds of life circumstances can bring us to a lethargic or depressed place in life. It’s not a very good place to be, and most of us wonder how we got to such a place.
In those times (and there have been many) when lethargy got the best of me, I tended to search for a bit of magic. No ordinary remedy seemed adequate. I just needed some magic and I have discovered over many years that magic can be found in a myriad of places, beginning with some very hope-filled passages of Scripture.
There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy . . .
— Ecclesiastes 2:24-26 (NRSV)
In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other . . .
— Ecclesiastes 7:14 (NRSV)
So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.
— Ecclesiastes 8:15 (NRSV)
For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
— Isaiah 55:12 (ESV)
Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength . . .” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing . . . — Nehemiah 8:9-12 (NRSV)
And always, words from the Psalmist:
You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
— Psalm 16:11 (NRSV)
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
— Psalm 27:13 (NRSV)
Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
— Psalm 37:4 (ESV)
These messages from the pages of the Bible bring me joy and a bit of relief from feeling down. Being lifted from depression, sadness, the doldrums and other similar difficult seasons of life can feel like magic, magic that can be found in lots of places — if we’re paying attention. The magic may be found in a forest with a verdant canopy of leaves we can see if we look up. It may be found in the laughter of a child or in listening to joyful songs, the rhythmic melody moving through the heart. Magic may be found in loving relationships, in a garden, in a place of prayer and contemplation. You and I might find magic in birdsong or in the cloud shapes we see in the morning sky. We can even find magic in the darkest of our nights — for 100 thousand million stars sparkle for us in the Milky Way — a gift from the Creator, shining out of the darkness.
Today, I found magic in the most unlikely place — in the bark of Rainbow Eucalyptus trees. At least it felt like almost magic! I happened upon this treasure of nature quite by accident, or perhaps it was by providence. Anyway, catching sight of this whimsical, majestic tree brought me the joy of remembering afresh the varied potpourri of the gifts of creation, coming from God, the Father/Mother of lights.
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness nor shadow of turning.
— James 1:17 (NKJV)
Thanks be to God for unspeakable gifts of grace. Amen.
My dear, long-time friend, former Little Rock Mayor Jim Daily, sent me this photo this afternoon. Mayor Jim is a hiker, a camper, a photographer and a naturalist. He loves the outdoors. He is a person of profound thought, and he spends a good amount of his time in thoughtful contemplation — on a lake or an Arkansas River, in a verdant valley or on a mountaintop. He frequently blogs on what he calls his “adventures,” and his blog is filled with thoughts about wherever he is and whatever beauty he has found. For Jim, every day is a new adventure, and his adventures hold sway over him. They change him in so many ways
One more thing — As a tribute to my friend, Mayor Jim, I want to introduce you to his Blog, which you may enjoy viewing at this link: Last Pair of Boots
His Blog, called “Last Pair of Boots,” tells a poignant story — of nature’s beauty, of God’s presence in it, of friendships, of Arkansas’ and America’s holy places, of worship and contemplation and prayer. Here’s what Jim says about naming his blog:
The name “Last Pair of Boots” came to me when my ten year old boots broke down and it occurred to me that at my age the new pair of boots might be my last pair. Metaphorically my boots represent the trails and travels of life.
This is such a thought-provoking description that fits Jim’s love of nature’s splendor. He also hints at endings, not in a melancholy way, but in words the reveal his life of contemplation and curiosity. Jim’s outings are hiking and wilderness camping, skiing, fishing, exploring, visiting every Arkansas State Park through his job as Arkansas Tourism Director, finding friendships in every small Arkansas hamlet, searching for Arkansas treasures,
finding God in all the places and faces.
I imagine he will hold all of these adventures in his heart now that he has finished his work as Arkansas Tourism Director this past December.
Congratulations, Jim, for your many years of service to the citizens of Little Rock and of Arkansas. Your wisdom, your love of nature, your unquenchable thirst for adventure and your unfailing commitment will remain as one of our enduring Arkansas’ treasures.
As I mused about Jim’s outings tonight, I asked myself about the places and times that created my contemplative times. They are few, too few.
For whatever lame reason, I do not take the contemplative times I need. I think that my kidney transplant on November 12th pushed me into a soul-need that beckons me to solitude, silence, contemplation, adventure — new things to examine in the stunning beauty of nature. It calls me out of the house and into the sunlight or under the stars of the night. It calls me to breathe in the fresh air of God’s creation and, with that breath, to take in the miracle of God’s presence.
Now that I’m retired and have time, I tend to fill my time with all manner of preoccupation. At times, I feel busy and frazzled and don’t really know why. Why am I unable to make enough time to spend in the mesmerizing beauty of nature, keeping silence in God’s creation? Why do I not spend time beside still waters, listening to the silence of a pond? What is wrong with my soul that it is rarely drawn to God’s quiet places, and my heart that does not often seek God’s presence in silent space?
I dare not answer those questions until I am prepared to make some life changes. But what I can do is to hold near these reminders of what God desires for me until I can change my life. These reminders might even inspire me to seek change:
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother. (Psalm 131:1-2)
For God alone my soul in silence waits. (Psalm 62:1)
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. (Psalm 23:1-3)
Let him sit alone in silence, for the Lord has laid it on him. (Lamentations 3:28)
To you, O God, silence is praise. (Psalm 65:1)
It is never a bad thing to offer God the praise of silence, to invite God into my contemplation and to allow God’s presence in my moments of prayer and meditation. The truth is that God has always been present with me. But my deepest desire is that I be present with God. As the Psalmist wrote, “My soul in silence waits.”
May those words become my words . . . and yours. Amen.
A Saturday of football — what a simple pleasure! I am a fan of certain teams (Roll Tide!), but I am definitely not a football fanatic. And yet, this morning while half-watching Sportscenter, I realized that watching with Fred, not having to focus that much, resting in the ordinary seemed like a simple pleasure.
There are many simple pleasures, of course, far more soulful than watching football — taking a walk in the splendor of nature, listening to birdsong, snuggling with your puppy, looking up at the night’s moon and stars, taking a walk on a labyrinth’s spiritual path . . . There are so many more simple pleasures in life, and most of them do not even require a trip to the grocery store. They cost us nothing, but their worth is priceless.
These are the simple moments that caress the soul, bring peace and calm to the heart and enliven a wounded spirit. These moments, and others like them, are the moments we desperately need, especially in times when we are burdened with the weight of the world, languishing in darkness.
I have learned some things about a wounded spirit: that woundedness happens to all of us; that “dark nights of the soul” happen to everyone at some time in life; that the wounded spirit does not always require sophisticated remedies; that a simple pleasure is sometimes all it takes to begin a healing journey.
The important factor is self-awareness, being mindful of the soul’s health, accepting the reality that healing will require us to self-intervene and that our intervention could begin with entering into a simple pleasure. One worthy New Year’s resolution is to intentionally identify the simple pleasures that feed our souls and then to allow a simple pleasure to enfold us in contemplation.
Normally, I would say “bah humbug” to New Year’s Resolutions that we make, break, and then feel guilty about for an entire year! But a resolution to discover the simple pleasures that give us life is one worthy resolution. So I challenge you to look and listen for the simple pleasures that are “you,” and to hold them near whenever you are experiencing a “dark night of the soul.”
“There comes a time when both body and soul enter into such a vast darkness that one loses light,” wrote Mechtild of Magdeburg. There comes a time when the soul “sinks down into the night.”
Her words are the words of one who knew spiritual journey and seasons of darkness. There is no doubt that at some time throughout your life, you will find yourself traveling the spiritual night. I do know this within my place of deep knowing: when I give myself to spiritual journeying, allowing myself the peace of a simple pleasure that calms my spirit, I realize that God always invites us beyond where we are.
God guides us on the spiritual journey that sometimes means winding through a dark wood. The darkness may frighten us, but it is a necessary part of the trip. When we panic in the darkness, we must try to understand that it’s a holy dark and that the idea is to surrender to it and journey through until we reach God’s light.
And then on to simple pleasures!
God will be present beside us —- in the light of simple pleasures and in the soul’s dark night.
That is the gift, the grace, that God has freely given to us, and for that we give thanks.