Thin Places

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I am thinking today about thin places, those moments when the veil between heaven and earth seems very thin, sacred moments that emerge from a spiritual practice or a deep conversation that pierces the soul. A thin place can be sharednwith another seeker, and, in fact, finding a thin place might be even more meaningful in the presence of a friend.

It seems that “thin place” is a term that was used for millennia to describe a place in time where the space between heaven and earth grows thin, a moment in time where the sacred and the secular seem to meet. In thin places, the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent, or the Infinite.

“Heaven and earth,” the Celtic saying goes, “are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.”

John Pavlovitz describes it like this:

Religious people have often talked about the thin places; those moments when the wall between humanity and divinity is like onion-skin. 

It seems that a thin place is a holy moment. It is a sacred moment, even without a hymn or a prayer or a pew or a minister. It a place of “God with us.”

Thin places can transform us or unmask us. Thin places are often sacred sites or buildings — like a temple or a mosque, like a shrine or a monastery, like a cathedral or an old country church. But thin places do not have to be sacred buildings or holy sites. A forest or a flowing stream can be a thin place. A thin place might be found on a mountaintop or in a verdant valley or even in your back yard.

Thin places don’t always have to be special places or “holy” times. We can experience thin places anywhere and every day.

And that’s what we need to do. In a world so filled with threatening events and people that frighten us, we need to rest in thin places where we might just find that we are in a place where the space between humanity and divinity is ever so delicate, thin enough to envelop us in the comfort of God’s grace.

Let’s stop “life” for a moment and rest in a thin place. Meet me there.

A Safe and Gentle Presence

D10C41D6-4875-479D-B4BC-40762C72FD3CIf you know me well, you will know that I have a love affair with trees. I always have, ever since I was a little girl playing among the protruding, gnarly roots of the enormous, beautiful magnolia tree in our yard. I would stay there for hours sometimes, finding under the tree’s canopy my own personal and private hiding place. Though it was ill advised, the tree endured carvings in its trunk without complaining even once. That tree had multiple carved hearts, each with an arrow and the names of boyfriends that came and went.

Today I was reminded how much I love trees when I received a mailing from the Arbor Day Foundation asking me to complete a survey, which I promptly did. As a token of appreciation for completing the survey, the Arbor Day Foundation will send me a calendar, a tree book and ten free trees.

It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, dreaming of having ten new trees in my yard, but of course, knowing that the free trees they send me will be five inches tall. No matter. I’ll plant them and nurse them and hope for the best.

I was also prompted by the Arbor Day Foundation to wonder about state trees. Fred and I tried to guess a few, but eventually resorted to Wikipedia for a list. Interesting list, ranging from common trees like the ubiquitous pine all the way to more exotic-sounding trees like Utah’s Quaking Aspen, Pennsylvania’s Eastern Hemlock and Arizona’s Blue Palo Verde.

23E0BDA9-6047-4A1B-AE2A-131CC85D8385Now that you’ve had a lesson on state trees that you did not ask for, I will tell you what’s up with me and trees. The lifelong connection happened when I was just a little girl. I lived with an abusive father who made my home a very unsafe place. Other forms of violence were prevalent as well: shouting and abusive language, threats of physical harm and a violent uncle that came with a gun and broke into our house by smashing the glass in our front door.

I was a child of fear, constant fear, and so I found hiding places under our trees, two huge magnolias, an even taller pecan tree, and even under the branches of Miss Martha Tebshereny’s plum tree. An occasional plum was a bonus!

Here’s the best truth: that it is incredibly powerful that out of a troubled childhood, I brought happy memories. I brought with me into my adult years images of safety; moments of playfulness; an appreciation of nature’s beauty; the taste of fresh figs, plums and pecans; a lovely collection of magnolia cones; the treasure of memories and an abiding love of trees.

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She wept a river of tears
holy water, sent to soften the sharp edges of sorrow
a gentle hollowing out, carving new chambers in her heart
a hallowed vessel . . . 
Kate Mullane Robertson

There was healing under the weeping branches of those trees. There was hope. I think it was Holy Ground.

That’s something for which I am very grateful. I am grateful to a loving and compassionate God, who, I am quite sure, met me a few times under one of those childhood trees. God, who knows how important it is to protect children,  and graced me with a safe and gentle presence. Because of that, I made it out of a home filled with violence to a better, safer world.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

The Great Silence

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I struggle with the life of contemplation I most desire. I long to stand on the Holy Ground of God’s presence. And yet, I often fail in my attempts to enter that spiritual space. My mind is filled with thoughts, words, concerns, plans, worries. And with so active a mind, I am hard pressed to meditate on the divine presence of God. I simple cannot seem to find a way to enter the great silence that enables me to hear the whisper of God I so desperately need to hear.

In a recent meditation, Richard Rohr spoke of “the great silence” as he described the prayer of the contemplative. This is his thought:

The prayer of the contemplative is, essentially, an attention to the omnipresence of God. God is omnipresent not as a theological doctrine, but as the great silence that is present in every moment—but from which we are usually distracted by an overactive mind that refuses to wait in a humble unknowing for a pure wisdom from above.

As always, he nailed it, describing the kind of waiting in silence we must do if we are to encounter an omnipresent God. Certain ways of being can move us more fully into the great silence. 

The beauty of nature, the sound of a gentle breeze, the patter of a soft rain can lead us on the contemplative path. Intentional prayer, journaling, experiencing the healing of music, walking the sacred path on a labyrinth — all of these can encourage us into a more contemplative life.

Most of all, we need the longing, our deepest soul desire, to encounter God. The Psalmist expressed such a longing.

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God . . .

— Psalm 42:1-2 (NRSV)

God is Nowhere and Everywhere!

Life seems to be a marathon search for God, a search that never ends, but rather continues unrelenting in the soul. It is no secret to realize that the soul has need of God. Or perhaps it’s better that I speak for myself: My soul has need of God.

But the God I need is not the “God of our Fathers.” That God is not big enough, complete enough, for me. I long for another presence of God in my soul. I long for a God that I can experience as both father and mother.

In my defense, there are hints throughout early Christianity and in Holy Scripture that God transcends “male” and “female.” 

In Genesis, for example, women and men are created in the “Imago Dei,” image of God, which suggests that God transcends socially constructed notions of gender. 

In the oracles of the eighth century prophet Isaiah, God is described as a woman in labor and a mother comforting her children.

And the Book of Proverbs maintains that the feminine figure of Holy Wisdom, Sophia, assisted God during the creation of the world.

Clearly, limiting God to masculine pronouns and imagery limits the countless religious experiences of billions of Christians throughout the world.It is probably best that we heed the words and warning of bishop Augustine, who once said, “si comprehendis non est Deus.” 

If you have understood, then what you have understood is not God.

But getting back to my own search for God . . . In the over-used saying about “searching in all the wrong places,” we might find more truth than we expect. God as male; God as female; God as Spirit. Does it really matter so much? Regardless of our God image, we all search.

Some people search the heavens to find God, studying the constellations for a glimpse of the Divine. Others are certain that they find God in nature. Others scour the Scripture for God. Others are convinced that their own devout meditation and prayer will reveal God. Still others count on the religious rites and sacraments of their faith traditions.

The reality is that God seems to be nowhere and everywhere, waiting for me to find my own unique way of connecting. In the end, it is likely that I will not find God through my search, but rather come to the deep conviction that God was never lost to me in the first place. Saint Teresa of Avila may well have said the truest, purest words on this idea of searching for God.

We need no wings to go in search of God, but have only to look upon God present within us.

— Saint Teresa of Avila

 

Falling Down!

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I really do hate falling down. Yesterday I fell in the kitchen. There was no banana peel on the floor to make me slip. Not a grape or a kalamata olive. I fell through no fault of any squishy piece of fruit on the floor. And I fell through no fault of my own, although I have to say that every time I fall or hurt myself in any way, Fred gently scolds me for being careless.

Well, yesterday I was not careless. I just fell in the kitchen with potholders in both hands. Good thing I had those grimy old potholders. My right hand potholder won the day because it broke my fall when I grabbed for the oven handle. So I only fell halfway, not all the way to the floor. A gracious gift!

Isn’t this a picture of life, all this falling? Over and over again, we nearly fall. And in between times of nearly falling, we really fall.

We fall hard sometimes. We fall all the way to hard ground sometimes. Sometimes we fall just part of the way to the ground. Sometimes we get hurt badly, and sometimes we can brush it off and move on as if it never happened.

Falling is not all bad. We learn a few things by falling:

  • We learn that people are often nearby to help us get up.
    or that no one is around to help us get up.
  • We learn that we can get up all by ourselves most of the time.
  • We learn that moving or twisting a certain way is a fall waiting to happen.
  • We learn not to be so careless.
  • We learn how not to do it again.

And we learn that there is someone always near us who can keep us from falling, someone who is mentioned in the tiny New Testament epistle we know as Jude. In one of the most beautiful benedictions in all of the Bible, Jude gives praise to this One who keeps us from falling, “the only God our Savior.”

Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24-25 NRSV)

And amen.

It’s one thing to be protected from falling. It’s quite another to “stand without blemish in the presence of God’s glory.”

That place where we stand without blemish is a sacred place, holy because of the presence of God, safe because of the protection of God. It is a good place to stand.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

I Can Face Tomorrow

Enlight272Yesterday was not my best day. All day long challenges got the best of me — health challenges, schedule challenges, even bad haircut challenges. My sister of the heart, Donna, said I was cranky. My husband, Fred, said I should chalk it up to Ash Wednesday. Martie, my dear Little Rock friend, said that yesterday was the first day of Mercury in retrograde and that I should do my best to survive until it’s over on March 28th.

I’m not so convinced of any of those explanations, but I’ll let it be for now. Today is a new day, a day in which I have chosen peace for the beginning of my Lenten journey. Typically, the way I find peace is through music. So Pandora is on my sacred music station today. It would be an understatement to say that the music has lifted me today and has almost made yesterday’s fiascoes a dim memory.

As I listened, a song from my past brought sweet memories. Years ago, before I learned to renounce masculine pronouns to refer to God, I was inspired greatly by these words: “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.” We sang this Gospel song often to remind us of hope, of perseverance, of God’s faithfulness and of Christ’s resurrection. Today, those words and that melody on Pandora reminded me of those exact things. In spite of masculine pronoun referring to God, the music moved me as it has always done. The message has not changed. God has not changed. My faith in Christ has not changed. Thanks be to God!

Here’s my truth as I follow my Lenten path, the abiding truth: “Tomorrow” for me seems murky, with the path ahead unknown and somewhat disconcerting. I do not know if I will receive a kidney transplant or live on daily dialysis for the rest of my life. I do not know what tomorrow promises.

But this is as it has always been — before illness and after. I never knew what tomorrow would bring, even in those days when I thought I was fearlessly and fully in control of my life. So it feels like a Lenten testimony of my faith to say that I do not know what tomorrow looks like for me. Leaning into the reality of the unknown future, I feel embraced in the consoling truth that “because He lives, I can face tomorrow.”

Of this, I am confident. Resting on this promise, I can move onto the Lenten path before me with refreshed hope and renewed faith. Amen.

A Horribly Wonderful Year

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Art in foreground: “Horribly Wonderful” from The Land of Froud by Brian Froud, 1976.

Celebrating a five-year anniversary can be a fine excuse for a party! Definitely a five-year milestone can offer a chance to revisit and recall memories. My five-year anniversary is tonight, the night a phone call from my doctor ordered me to get to the ER. It was the night we learned that my kidneys had failed, just like that, out of nowhere, no notice. It was the night that end stage kidney disease turned my world upside down. It was the night that was the advent of a full year of hospital stays, biopsies, surgeries, physical and occupational therapy, loads of questions, very few answers and most of all, a very concerned and fatigued husband.

Fred was my rock, as he has always been. He slept next to me in that horrible excuse for a family bed. He kept vigil at the hospital day and night. When I was able to persuade him to go home to get some rest, he answered my phone calls in the middle of the night when I was sleepless, frightened or lonely.

“Are you up?” I would ask.

“I am now!” 

I don’t really think this anniversary calls for a party, but it does call for some reminiscing and remembering. So last night, Fred and I recalled the year I was so ill, that horribly wonderful year. Interestingly, we have two separate and differing sets of memories. He tells me that, most of that year, I was not aware of much, to the point of not even recognizing him. He tells me that I almost died during three separate critical events.

On my end, I remember none of that. I did lose time in that year, with confusion about losing days, even weeks, when I was unresponsive. I endured hundreds of needle sticks, maybe thousands since I am told my veins had collapsed. I received a port for hemodialysis that promptly caused me to nearly die of sepsis. I had a kidney biopsy that developed a painful bleed. I ate terrible food most of the time. I spent a lot of time in therapy learning to walk, write, identify colors and place square blocks in round holes.

Together we remember the love and care of my church, the family that constantly clamored for updates, the handful of good friends that were present, the food that the church brought to us every single week, and the nurses, angels in disguise.

I must say that, even to this day, I miss the sweet nurses that cared for me with great compassion. They were ever-present when I needed help and, during those long nights, they would often come in with a popsicle, sugar-free of course!

A final memory for today’s blog is the soft, fluffy afghan that my dear friend, Rev. Donna Rountree, brought me from her church. The Disciples of Christ church where my friend served as pastor barely knew me. I had preached there once. The congregation prayed for me, over the afghan, during a church service. Then Donna brought the afghan to the hospital, placed it on me, and told me that it was covered with the prayers of the people. What a special gift! What a special grace!

07CC221A-DFBC-4372-8E66-854CA41B0296When I think of that year, my description of it is “horribly wonderful.” Wonderful because, in the worst of times, God breaks in through the grace of a devoted husband, a caring family, an attentive nurse, a gentle phlebotomist, a close friend, a skilled physical therapist, a loving church family. 

So, yes, I took from that horrible year some wonderful memories, and that is what I can celebrate at this five-year milestone. And what’s more, I am here, still on this side of heaven and grateful for better health and life-saving dialysis. Pure grace!

Thanks be to God.

 

 

Forgiveness

3904e2f4-b048-4bf3-83f1-bccdd2592165I have long pondered forgiveness, for years! It’s something that confuses me. Like forgiving my abuser. Like parents standing at their child’s graveside and considering how to forgive the shooter. Like a little girl forgiving the people that snatched her from her mother’s arms at the border.

Forgiveness can be confounding and elusive. It is not a merely a thing, or a conviction, or an emotion, or a firmly held belief. It is an act of the heart that can seem all but impossible. But the Bible seems very clear about forgiveness. When you have been wronged or betrayed by another person and you are in a tug of war with yourself about forgiveness, the words of Scripture face off with you as a challenge, perhaps even a rebuke.

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:31-32)

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Collosians 3:13)

And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. (Mark 11:25)

For so many years, these and other Biblical admonitions troubled me. I felt as though the words stood in judgement before me. I would pray to be able to forgive. I would pray for light that could shatter the darkness around me. I would pray again, and again. Waiting. Hoping.

Eventually, I shared my inability to forgive with my spiritual director, hoping for guidance and wise counsel. We talked about it at length. I bared my most vulnerable places and revealed the unresolved anger that lived inside of those places. I mined the depths of my spirit and unearthed long-standing wounds of the soul. Our conversations were gently pushing me to a better place and shedding light on the reality that my inability to forgive was not disobedience, but unresolved pain. And then my spiritual director shared this quote with me.

Forgiveness isn’t telling someone it was okay to hurt you. 
It’s telling yourself  it’s okay to stop hurting. 

It doesn’t mean you have to trust them again. 
It means you can learn to trust yourself again. 

It doesn’t mean you have to give them a free pass back into your life. 
It means you are free to take your life back again. 

Forgiveness is simply emptying your past of its power to empty your present of its peace. 

― L.R. Knost

That experience was many years ago, but to this day, I live in the peace I found then. There is no doubt that my past did indeed have the power to empty my “present of its peace.” Reclaiming my peace made forgiveness possible, though it did not happen instantly. It’s not so easy to forgive a person who was never sorry.

Still, it was a process — a journey really — that I had to travel with God, praying all along the way that I would have the strength I needed. The journey was long and sometimes arduous. God was ever-present — patient and persistent. At journey’s end, there really was light, shining brightly where darkness had been. 

Was I healed of my sin of being an unforgiving person? After this journey, do I now forgive every person who hurts me? Sometimes!

Thank you, God, for your patient persistence. Amen.

Icons of God’s Presence

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Photography by Sister Macrina Wiederkher

“Sunrises anoint my soul. They are quiet prayers, icons of God’s presence.”

These are words written by my friend, Sister Macrina Wiederkher. Her words resonate with our times as we hold in the light our brothers and sisters in Florida. Their loss is immeasurable, and although we know that loss of home is not as tragic as loss of life, it is a deeply felt emptiness to lose your home and all its contents.

So many are in that heartbreaking place today, and when the night falls on this night, they will not know the safe security of home. We have only a small awareness of their heartache, but God is fully aware of all they have lost. God knows their grief and their fear, their uncertainty of the future. Sometimes all we can count on is that God knows our deepest sorrow and anoints our souls when we need it most. 

Our comfort is this: that after every storm, there is a calm. When ominous, dark clouds of destruction fill the skies, we can know with certainty that the sunrise will come.

B2904AA9-02C4-480E-B061-D174E9810346I believe my friend who tells us that sunrises anoint our souls . . . like icons of God’s presence.

And I believe it for all of the Florida folk who have lost so much.

God Images

B33BBCE1-46BB-404E-8429-32535C46106FHow do you see God? What images of God do you see? How do you find God? Where do you find God?

Most of us have at least one image of God. It may be a vague image, but still, we have an image in our minds of a higher power. There are as many images of God as there are people. People have images of a “god” they may or may not know as a part of their spiritual journey. Some imagine God as a benevolent spirit, others as an omnipotent ruler. Some imagine God as as a father, others as a mother. Some imagine God as a protector, others as a punisher.

I remember a sermon I heard many years ago proclaimed by a passionate, animated African American preacher. “Tell me brother,” he preached with a lyrical chant. “Tell me brother, how do you find God? Tell me sister, how do you find God?”

And he repeated the questions again and again, building into a spirited crescendo, after which he said, “You find God when you get little enough that God can get big in you!”

And all the congregation responded with exuberant “Amens” and “Hallelujahs.”

I would surmise that the image of God held by that congregation, at least in that moment, was the image of an all-powerful, mighty Spirit just waiting to hear their praises and then responding with little miracles of answered prayer.

God images fill the world: there is the Creator God, the gentle shepherd, the God of vengeance, the God Most High, and from sacred music, the Mighty God, Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.*

But we must acknowledge a significant exception. Some people simply say that they do not believe in God at all, any God. No images. No spiritual need for God. Nothing. They call themselves atheists.

I have known people who profess to be atheists. By no means am I an authority on this, but in my years as a hospital chaplain, I have never known a dying patient — whether believer or atheist — fail to cry out to God. In my years as a trauma specialist, pastor and pastoral counselor, I have never known an atheist who is in the depths of trouble fail to cry out to God.

I do not say that every person who does not believe in God always reaches for God in times of trouble. I am simply saying that in my experience, people in the midst of pain, grief, fear or other kinds of chaos search for a God who, by the way, is always there.

I recently read an intriguing quote by Marcus J. Borg:

When somebody says to me, “I don’t believe in God,” my first response is, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.”

― Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary

What a wonderful response, to affirm a person’s choice of unbelief while opening the door for meaningful conversation. That response is so much more respectful than a response that 1) forces a person to listen to a treatise on the existence of God; and 2) insists that the person must immediately become a believer by following a series of simple steps.

In the last analysis, a person does not find God on our timetable or through our methods. A person will find God in his or her own way and, on the spiritual journey, will see very personal images of God. They will discover the timeless grace offered to us all: a presence of God that is is constant and never-ending.

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?

If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.

If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.

— Psalm 139:7-10 (NKJV)

As for me, I hold on to the image of a constant and ever-present God. Of all the images I have of God, the God I find “on the wings of the morning” most comforts me. I see God in many ways and in many places . . .  in Scripture, in nature, in my spirit. How do you see God?

For all who have eyes to see, let them see . . . images of a God strong and true, powerful and gentle, loving and accepting. God images are most assuredly there for us, for those of us who believe in God and for those who do not.

 

* “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah