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.

 

 

 

 

Come Now, Spirit of Power!

 

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Come now Spirit of power.
Come now quickly and seize this moment.
Come Spirit from all four sacred directions,
from every color and culture,
come and use this sorrowful moment for good.

Very often, the prayers of Bishop Steven Charleston become a part of my meditation time. His prayers have a way of calming my heart, comforting my spirit and inspiring me to greater works. His words are expressive and full of energy. He paints pictures of things as they are and things as they should be.

In response to the tragedies in El Paso and Dayton, Bishop Charleston speaks of the deep divisions in our nation and the old wounds that have been opened. Indeed. He is right. But then he calls us to better things, to a time for love that has the power to heal.

So let us pray this prayer today, in this moment, as we long for healing.

Come now Spirit of power, come now quickly and seize this moment. The conscience of our nation teeters on the edge of change. Old wounds between us have opened. Deep divisions have been revealed. We are stunned by the cost of our own behavior. 

Now is the time. Now is an historic opportunity for love. 

Pull prejudice from us like a poison. 

Draw out the fear that breeds our racism. 

Open our eyes to behold our common humanity. 

Silence the justifications and the denials before they begin and keep our eyes fixed firmly on the prize, not on the politics. 

Come Spirit from all four sacred directions, from every color and culture, come and use this sorrowful moment for good. Heal our racism now.

May God make it so.  Amen.

 

Art: “Four Sacred Directions” by Drea Jensen, 2002

Faith and Friends

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In this frenetic and fractured world, we can use all the comfort and assurance we can get. We want to know that everything’s going to be alright. We want to know that we will be alright. And we want to know that the people we love will be alright. Yet, these are things we cannot know, not really.

While we cannot have knowledge, we can have faith. Scripture offers us so many promises of care and protection:

“We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”
(2 Corinthians 4:9)

“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; she will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)

“The Lord will keep you from all harm; she will watch over your life; The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.” (Psalm 121:7-8)

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” (Isaiah 43:2)

“You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle.
You have recorded each one in your book.” ( Psalm 56:8)

What a gift that we have faith and friends! I never minimize the care and comfort I receive from my friends, the many ways they offer blessings on my life. Sometimes a kind word from a friend far away brings me deep comfort just when I need it most. Sometimes a phone call from a friend, just to check on me, feels like the warmth of the sun. Sometimes one of my doctors will know exactly what to say to ease my concerns. And so often one of my dialysis nurses hones in on a worry that’s just underneath the surface and helps me bring it to the light that begins a healing process. Caring friends — and family — are most definitely grace gifts from God.

The truth is that we do not have to bear our burdens alone. Faith gives us the awareness of a God who cares and comforts. The promises of Scripture are not merely words on a page. They are messages of hope that we can hold onto when  nights are long and frightening.

So faith brings us hope and comfort from a caring God who knows what is in our hearts. And life’s journey brings us friends willing to walk with us. It is not unusual for a friend to know intuitively when I really need to hear a comforting word. When that happens, our conversation often results in tears, probably tears that I had held back in an effort to “be strong.” My friends show me, in so many ways, that I don’t have to be strong and that I can just “be.” When we talk, I feel that lump in my throat that is both an awareness of a hurt I’ve been holding onto and a response of gratitude for a friend who truly cares.

Thanks be to God for faith and friends.

Brooding

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My friend and sister blogger, Maren, never fails to inspire, convict or challenge me. I look forward to her blog posts, knowing that by the end, I will find myself in a gasp, or at least a sigh. She is gifted at helping her readers stay in touch with the current angst of the times, the events and realities of our world. This is her latest post:

My little hand holds (and not the great world)
the small shining of shook foil

and there is no beauty that I see,
only the blankets on children detained —
alone and frightened, cold,

and without care,
without — O you grand and broken God,
toothpaste and soap,

and parents,

without justice, compassion,
but not without hope,
because that alone, hope

is never spent, but lights the western sky
as night falls
on the long walk from the south,
even if dimly, touches
with fingers a rim of east
every morning, every detention center.

Hope brought them here
to the terrible inhospitality
that smears
all this country ever thought to be.

And it is left to us and the Holy Spirit
to brood
over those who are lost,
and bend the world
so that the living children
might someday be found
by bright wings.

And here is where it grabbed my heart . . .

What does it mean for me to join with the Holy Breath of Life “to brood over those who are lost, and bend the world?” What would that look like? How do I do it? Does it mean to “brood” over the lostness of our world and call forth life?

What a need that is! How desperately we need to bend the world toward mercy and justice. To lift up the children who sleep on cold concrete floors. To lift them high above the world’s cruelty to the place of “bright wings!”

May God help us to comprehend the brooding Spirit and her open arms. And may she reach down to grab us and hold us up inside the wind that heals.

 

Maren C. Tirabassi served as local church pastor in the United Church of Christ for thirty-seven years in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.  She is the author or editor of twenty books. Visit her blog at:
https://giftsinopenhands.wordpress.com/2019/06/26/prayer-for-the-immigration-crisis-an-homage-to-gerard-manley-hopkins-gods-grandeur/

On to a New “New Normal”

7519DB43-1B31-43A9-9528-84655345CC44I’m getting to know myself. Again! Moving through life takes one through changes large and small. We slip past the small ones pretty much unscathed. But oh, those large ones! The large changes are another story altogether. Sometimes they cause us to miss a step or two. Sometimes they stop us right where we stand. Sometimes they throw us all the way to the ground. But they always get our attention.

Chronic illness is one of those ‘knock-you-to-the-ground” changes, especially when an illness happens suddenly. In a recent New York Times article, Tessa Miller shares how sudden illness changes one’s life and how chronic illness changes life forever. 

“Seven Thanksgiving ago, I got sick and I never got better,” Miller writes. She goes on to describe the conundrum of chronic illness. 

When I was diagnosed, I didn’t know how much my life would change. There’s no conversation about that foggy space between the common cold and terminal cancer, where illness won’t go away but won’t kill you, so none of us know what “chronic illness” means until we’re thrown into being sick forever.

I can identify with the changes Tessa Miller describes. The onset of my chronic illness five years ago was sudden, unexpected and permanent. My kidneys failed — simple as that. And I entered into the unfamiliar world of daily dialysis, a world I never expected to be in. And, yes, it was life-changing.

Tessa Miller makes another very insightful point. She explains how, once you find yourself in the fog of the changes you’re facing because of a chronic illness, one change presents the biggest challenge – the change in your relationship with yourself.

There is no debate: when chronic illness disturbs the equilibrium of your life, your relationship with yourself changes. You grieve a version of yourself that doesn’t exist anymore, and a future version that looks different than what you had ever imagined.

Chronic illness can shatter career goals and life plans. You learn learn a “new normal” in their place. But the acceptance of a “new normal” comes after the trauma. And trauma does happen, trauma that necessarily calls for therapy, either formal or informal.

Emotional work definitely needs to be done, and emotional work around chronic illness can look a lot like grief therapy for a passing loved one. You lose your self, at least temporarily. Your self changes.

So make sure to spend some time looking for YOU. Intentionally. Being open to whatever you find in yourself. Practice seeing yourself as the person you are instead of the person you were. Looking in the proverbial mirror gives you an image of the new version of yourself. Get to know her. Celebrate her resilience. Above all, be patient as you get to know her. You may be surprised at how much you like and admire her.

 

 

All Saints

05314FDF-2986-4602-8EF9-B1839FE693CEWe all need a glimpse of hope and comfort in these troubling days. Our thoughts and prayers are with our brothers and sisters of the Tree of Life Synagogue, and we are shocked at this and other recent acts of violence and evil. So today, I share with you the writing of Jemma Allen* in hopes that you will find her words as compelling and comforting as I have.

This week in many liturgical traditions we observe All Saints Day, and perhaps All Souls. In some places there is an opportunity to say the names, to light candles for, to ring the bell for those we love but see no longer, parted from us by death.  

All Saints and All Souls compel us to look death squarely in the face,
to acknowledge our mortality, and the mortality of those we love,
and still to make our song: Alleluia!

This is a season where we boldly proclaim
that death is not the last word.
Death, and fear of death, does not hold the power
to determine how we will live.

We are the dearly beloved children of the living God,
we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection,
we are looking to a future where justice and mercy kiss,
where nations will not learn war anymore,
where the lion lies down with the lamb,
where all things are reconciled to God.

This is our hope.
It is a hope that no power can destroy, tarnish or mar:
not white supremacy,
not anti-Semitism,
not any kind of hatred,
not any system of domination,
not any disease,
not any heartbreak. 

And when we cannot hold that hope for ourselves,
let us lean into the hope we can hold together
as communities of life, as communities of resistance,
as hope-bearers and pilgrims on the Way. 

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Give rest, O Christ, to your servants, with your saints,
where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.
You only are immortal, our Creator and Maker;
and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth we shall return.
All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

 – Russian Orthodox Kontakion of the Departed, Jim Cotter’s translation.  

 

*Jemma Allen is a priest in the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia and a counsellor and spiritual director in private practice.  She serves on the Board of RevGalBlogPals and counts the RevGal community as one of her communities of life and resistance.

Holy Ground

470DF6B9-F261-497E-8A59-58EABE4E7898My friend, Buddy Shurden, shared an experience he had while serving his first pastorate near Ethel. Mississippi. He tells of his frequent habit of calling on Early Steed to pray. He wrote that Mr. Early Steed always began his prayer the same way, every time. 

“Lord, we come to you one more time from this low ground of sin, shame and sorrow.”

Buddy Shurden reflects on the term Mr. Early used, “low ground,” and adds, “Oh! If Early could see us now.”

Indeed. Low ground.

We are standing in the wake of waves of violence . . .

Fifteen pipe bombs mailed to two former presidents, a former secretary of state, a news outlet, and others;

Eleven worshippers killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, in Mr. Rogers’ real-life neighborhood;

Maurice Stallard, 69, and Vickie Jones, 67, killed in a Kroger in Jeffersontown, Kentucky.

We are standing on pretty low ground these days. There’s no doubt about that. Yet, even in grief, with memorial vigils going on around the nation, we can still hear the faint voice of Mr. Rogers singing, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

And that resonates with us as we watch neighbors grieving alongside neighbors, Muslim neighbors reaching out to help their Jewish neighbors at Tree of Life, and the news outlet that was targeted with multiple pipe bombs speaking the names of the victims and telling bits of their life stories.

Maybe it feels like low ground we’re standing on these days. But if we look around, and listen, and watch while genuine love is being shared between grieving brothers and sisters, and friends who are grieving with them, we have to admit that this ground we’re now standing on might just feel more like holy ground.

Weep with Those Who Weep

AD620082-4B5E-47C6-B2B0-0D553454614BWhat a caring and compassionate ministry it is to sit beside someone who is grieving and remind them of God’s grace. In recent days, I have wept for and with so many friends who are grieving for what they have lost because of the Florida hurricane. To be sure, there were losses in Georgia and in the Carolinas, but the devastation in and around Panama City was catastrophic.

Hordes of compassionate people traveled to Florida to help. They will clean up debris, repair or rebuild homes that sustained damage, do electrical work, provide help in the shelters, share their hearts and God’s heart, and stand beside families as they pick up the shattered pieces of their lives. Mostly, they will weep with people, and that’s what will help more than anything else.

Author Ann Weems paints a sparkling vision with her words that speak of the “godforsaken obscene quicksand of life.” But then she tells of a deafening alleluia arising from the souls of those who weep and from the souls of those who weep with them. From that weeping, Ann Weems tells us what will happen next. “If you watch,” she writes, you will see the hand of God putting the stars back in their skies one by one.”

I like to think that the caregivers who traveled to Florida did a lot of weeping with those who needed it and that they stayed near them long enough for them to “see the hand of God putting the stars back in their skies one by one.” When all is lost — when you learn that your loved one has died or you stand in a pile of rubble on the ground that used to be your home — seeing the hand of God putting the stars back in their skies would be for you a manifestation of pure and holy hope.

Without a doubt, Florida is experiencing “the godforsaken obscene quicksand of life.” Their memories of this devastating time will be cruel and long-lasting. They will remember better days, neighborhoods that once thrived, schools that were destroyed and friends who are trying their best to recover. But what grieving people will remember most is the care someone gave them and the loving compassion of strangers who became forever friends. I am reminded of the words of poet Khalil Gibran:

You may forget with whom you laughed, but you will never forget with whom you wept.

― Kahlil Gibran, Sand and Foam

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.    Romans 12:15

Troubled Waters and Miracles

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I love the words and the melody of the spiritual, “Wade in the Water.”

Wade in the water.
Wade in the water, children.
Wade in the water.
God’s gonna’ trouble the water.

There is just something about it that is moving to me. It digs down into my spirit and stops me in my tracks. I don’t know why I react so deeply to that simple bit of music. It could be that what draws me to it is its strong reference to healing as it recalls the miracle story recorded in the Gospel of John.

After a feast of the Jews, Jesus went to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda. It has five porches, and lying in these porches are many sick people who are blind, lame, paralyzed, each waiting for the moving of the water.

For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and troubled the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the troubling of the water, was made well of whatever disease she had. 

Now a certain man was there who suffered from an infirmity for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”

The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is troubled. Before I can get into the water, someone else gets in before me.”

Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked.

— John 5:1-8 NKJV (paraphrased)

Or what inspires me about the song could be the stories that surround it. Some folk claim that “Wade in the Water” contained secret coded instructions to fugitive slaves on how to avoid capture as they followed the route to take them to freedom. The website Pathways to Freedom: Maryland & the Underground Railroad explains how Harriet Tubman used the song to tell escaping slaves to get off the trail and into the water to make sure that the dogs employed by the slavers lost their scent. “Wade in the Water” was one of their most inspiring freedom songs.

Those moving stories remind me of the many ways music touches my life with inspiration, courage, and hope, how it reaches the depths of my soul during the times when nothing else can reach me, how it lifts me up when I have fallen into despair, how it fills my heart with just the melody I need to give voice to my sorrow and then gives me a way to express my moments of greatest joy.

Most of us can recall times in our lives when we needed a dose of Divine healing. We can remember times of sorrow and despair and fear when only an encounter with God could move us toward peace, times when we needed to be made whole again, times when we hoped beyond hope that God would trouble the water. Read it again.

 . . . An angel went down at a certain time into the pool and troubled the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the troubling of the water, was made well of whatever disease she had. 

So in John’s Gospel story, a man who had been sick for thirty-eight years was healed. He was too ill to make it into the troubled waters of the pool no matter how many times he tried. But Jesus was there and asked him, “Do you want to be made well?”

The sick man answered that there was no one to put him into the pool when the water was troubled. “Before I can get into the water,” he said, “someone else gets in before me.”

But Jesus said those extraordinary words to him: “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” 

Immediately it happened. The man was healed, and he picked up his bed and walked. Maybe the man rushed off to tell friends about the wonderful thing that had happened to him. Or maybe could only stand there in awe, not moving at all because the moment was just too overwhelming.

It was a miracle. Actually, the story tells of at least two miracles: that Jesus healed the suffering man and that an angel descended from above and troubled the water in that otherwise ordinary pool.

I don’t know about you, but when I encounter a pool of healing water, troubled and swirling, I want to get in. I want my faith to be big enough to expect a miracle from ordinary water, in an ordinary pool, on an ordinary day.

 

Please visit this link to hear a stunning arrangement of “Wade in the Water” featuring an excellent soloist and choir from the A Cappella Academy from Los Angeles.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=uiqQKZZo-Uc