Saturday, April 23, 2011

Alleluia! He is Risen! The Lord is risen, indeed!

I can't think of anything more appropriate to say about  tomorrow morning... too bad I'm not preachin'!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Sunday sightings # 2

I found myself overcome several times yesterday during our Palm Sunday service.  One of the really wonderful things we do on that day is we invite liturgical dancers to be part of the opening procession.  These dancers, beautiful young women, are under the direction of one of our parishioners, who is a professional dancer and instructor of dancers.  Their choreography, which tells the story of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, ends with three of these young women, lifting up the fourth – their whole bodies becoming the cross – it literally takes your breath away, coming as it does, without a warning, at the end of a long, beautiful, joyful, and pleasant dance of adoring fans.  The economy, simplicity and yet, profound message of this part of the dance solidifies the contrasts, the tensions always present in the story of Jesus’ last days.  What a gift.

I also found myself remembering the many years and countless times I have come to church and heard the Passion narrative – most certainly now, nearly 50 years without interruption …and yet, the story never fails to touch me, to move me or to surprise me in some way.  I had the same reaction yesterday as I had when visiting the Book of Kells in Ireland last fall – and in a quiet moment alone in the chapel space at the Massive Cathedral/Castle at the Rock of Cashel…home to more than that famous bleu cheese.

As I gazed at those ancient manuscripts, I was overcome with an awareness of the deep love of God and God’s Word that prompted those monks to begin their illumination project – that same love, that sustained them and kept them diligent, in the making of the paper, the ink, and in the painstaking task of copying, editing and finishing those pages …the work of their whole lives…

Likewise, as I stood alone in the chapel of that ancient fortress, given to the church by a grateful, newly converted pagan chieftain …I experienced what felt like a visitation… a sense of being with countless others who had come to this place to find something holy, something beyond this world, to sustain them.  I felt such a solidarity with all the faithful who had left their milking, plowing, washing, and, probably, warring, to climb the hill, hear the words of Holy Scripture – the same words I’ve been raised on – and to receive the sacrament.  In good times and in bad, the faithful have come to these sacred places and liminal spaces – to listen again to the ancient story, to ponder the meaning of all that is so much beyond us, yet so meaningful present to us ….to feel the mystery and love of God rendered, albeit imperfectly, through the symbols of bread, wine and story. 

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A note to Reynolds Price

Dear friend of many happy hours:
I have loved you for some years now, since the time by happenstance, I picked up your Good Priest’s Son at the makeshift bookstore at clergy conference.  Just about three hundred pages later, I knew I’d found a lifelong friend.  From then on, you were often, tangentially in my consciousness, as I spent time seeking your old novels in beach bookstores and on the tree-lined avenues in Savannah, where I thought they would most likely be.  I built up a pile of them, ladies in waiting, for stolen hours on my Monday days-off: first Kate Vaiden, then Blue Calhoun, and The Tongues Of Angels. Others languished on my Amazon wish list so that I would not forget the ones outstanding and  would remember to use Aunt Jody’s annual Christmas gift certificate to treat myself to another few days with you. 
It was not until news of your death reached me in early January, 2011 that I allowed myself to purchase the pricey hardback version of your most recent self-revelation, Ardent Spirits. …two years of waiting for the cheaper paperback version seemed enough.  Several pages into it, I knew I had to start somewhere else.  Several days after that, I opened the homemade package received by mail at a discount from some Mom and Pop mail-order bookshop, to begin the story of your greatest challenge and victory, A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing
It soon became clear why I had so often and instinctively felt a bond with you for so long: an older, gay, bachelor, “story man”, whose writing has inspired and discouraged me all at the same time.  “If only I could write like that…” I breathe with desperate longing to myself at every chapter ending.   Sixteen years ago, a tumor in my cervix announced itself in much a similar way as did your slimy spinal eel.  I, too, had known at some level, of its existence – clues veiled in the erratic, sporadic arrival of my no-longer monthly visits of blood and cramps, that strange sloughing off of tissue, almost also missed,  but occasionally found in the shower drain…
Words like malignant, hysterectomy, radiation, terminal, and oncology became personal rather than conceptualized.  By necessity, I, too, had to find a new incarnation… no longer could I know myself as a single, self-contained mistress of my own destiny, long resigned and capable of self-sufficiency; competent, complete in her independence.  I was now forced to recognize that stance for what it was … a delusion based on need for control. Now, the self-less care giver had to ask others for time and food and transportation – for an emergency trip to replace a catheter, for God’s sake…oh, the humanity!  But thanks be to God and to faithful family, co-workers and friends, those needs were met – pressed down and overflowing, again and again.  
I found you, a friend, again, in a deeper way, in your account of those first months after surgery, radiation, and of those terrifying predictions realized.  You lived for twenty-six years after the initial diagnosis. Oh, yes, those years lived in a wheel chair, but mind and heart somehow escaping the paralysis that captured your legs and feet.  If our stories continue to be so similar I, too, can count on at least ten more years. That’s the same prediction, I realized with eerie mindfulness, which the Church Pension Fund made about me, using their omniscient formula that claims to take into account all the things that limit or extend a human life and put them neatly into a mathematical calculation. .
I wept at the story of your mystical visit to the sea of Galilee, loving the Jesus who  bathed your gentian tattoo and placed his cooling hand on your hot wound and reassured you.  “Cured?” you asked.  “That, too, that, too”  He promised.  My visitation,  not half so clear or dramatic, came in the words and music of an old spiritual issued over the radio one desperate, lonely night  – I don’t remember where or when:  “His eye is on the sparrow, and … I know he watches me.” 
I walked with you into the cancer unit on the way to the radiation suite each day.  I saw those same people: flamboyant scarves hiding those same bald heads, dark glasses protecting those too familiar sunken black-rimmed  eyes.  My heart ached with yours at the sight of those tiny valiant children with their bandaged foreheads and the look of dull terror in the eyes of their parents.  I had my own heroes in that place, as did you in yours: caring nurses, a humorous and kind radiologist, and my favorite, the funny old man who had the appointment time right after mine. This was his third round with cancer, this time all through his “pelvic region.” (This man was too polite to say the word “groin” to a younger woman who was no kin or relation).  His impeccable manners allowed us only veiled references to our deep and abiding gratitude to the makers of Imodium and Pepto-Bismol, our deliverers from the side effects of being radiated in the abdominal area. I treasure the memory of one sweetly shared moment of intimacy, of complete and amused understanding, as we found a coupon for one of those wonder drugs  - buy one get one free – on the end table next to our chairs in the waiting room. “I’ll flip you for it” I said with a grin…and we both laughed until we cried.
I remember the day I understood what it truly meant to have a terminal illness.  I was back at work, at the large United Way where I was a senior staff person.  I was assigned some light duties for a time, in the near aftermath of my radical hysterectomy, five weeks of external radiation and three days of internal radiation (a live piece of radioactive plutonium inserted into the appropriate cavity). One of my jobs was to deal with folks who walked in with miscellaneous requests or information.  An older couple arrived. They appeared to be around the ages of my own parents, had my Dad lived beyond his 51 years.  Their only daughter, who had turned 40 the year before (just like me) had only recently died of cervical cancer. Their friends had taken up a collection at the funeral, and they wanted to share it with an organization that helped cancer patients.  “It’s not much” they demurred “but we hope it might help someone like us.”   I barely heard them, because as I stared into their faces, their eyes still swollen from 12 months of tears, I saw the faces of my own mother and father – and imagined them coming to give a contribution in memory of me.   For what seemed a life time, but I know only lasted a moment, I was plunged down the dark, desperate tunnel of what might have been.  And, as I feel again and again when I recall that moment, I was brought to a sensation of profound gratitude, of thankfulness for skillful doctors, incredible advances in medical science, and the providential care of a God who, does, I know for a fact, keep an eye on me and all the defenseless sparrows of this careworn and wondrous world.
You shared a lot about yourself and your new world after illness in that book, and I found much to delight and inspire me, once again.  The last lines are my favorite, though … as you describe the many ways life had become enriched, albeit different, in  the wake of your life-changing challenge.  “Even my handwriting looks very little like the script of the man I was in June ’84.  Cranky as it is, it’s taller, more legible, with more air and stride.  It comes down the arm of a grateful man.”  Thanks be to you, dear friend of many happy hours, and thanks be to the God who protects and preserves us both.

Entertaining angels unaware (Genesis 18, Hebrews 13)

His name was Tommy - later he told me he was over 65, but I'd already guessed he'd been retired for a while.  He was packing my bags at Publix - something about his open face and my clerical collar created a mutual attraction.  "Are you a minister?" he asked. "An Episcopal priest." Without missing a beat, we began chatting away and somehow discovered that we were both Pennsylvania Yankees transplanted into King Cotton's Court.

I never let those folks carry out my bags, but he insisted. "C'mon" he said. "This way we can talk."  Since I'd parked at the edge of the lot, the distance provided a nice space for conversation.  He was from Altoona, a city I have driven through countless times on my way to and from college, Harrisburg and Philadelphia.  We both remembered the huge diner at the turn on Route 22 - recalled their great milkshakes and our favorites from their "blue plate special" menu.  He drove a bread truck for years - ended up owning the company, in fact.  Then he moved to Florida to start another successful business.  All had gone well, until retirement - when he had lost all of his savings in the market downturn.  He and his wife had moved up to Atlanta to be with two of his four sons.  He rattled off their names, ages,and professions to me - proud as a peacock of them, two police officers, a lawyer and a businessman.  The two sons had moved back to Florida for work, and now he and his wife were alone in Decatur - unable to sell their home and follow their family.

We commiserated about our mutual dislike of Atlanta - whispering together like co-conspirators. He called me pastor, and told me stories of his childhood in a Polish Catholic family - replete with strict, demanding nuns, regular duties as an altar boy, and the life long practice of saying the rosary, which he added, takes him only seventeen minutes! 

We shared a belly laugh over the many similarities of our backgrounds - Irish and Polish Catholics are like peas in a pod.  He's the first person I've met in 40 years that also has a set of "glow in the dark" rosary beads!  He promised to give me a holy card and some handmade rosaries, next time we met. He left, cautioning me to not start drinking, like so many of the priests and nuns he had known in his life!

Men like Tommy make me homesick!  They make me remember and long for the people of the Steel Valleys of metropolitan Pittsburgh.  I loved living in that ethnic hodgepodge - so many people came from so many different places - eastern Europe, Italy, Germany, Ireland, and other parts of the British Isles.  They are the salt of the earth, who love life and persevere, endure like rocks, always rallying even when life gives them a good kick in the pants. These folks provided a rich context, a intricate tapestry, for my early upbringing.  With names like Scalercio, Russo, Brennan, Olsen, Entwhistle, Kmetyk, Cronin, Chirumbolo, McIntosh and Woytanowicz. Like Tommy, these folks were stocky and strong, no strangers to hard, physical work, not above taking a drink or two on a Saturday night.  These were lovers of baked ziti, kielbasa, homemade shortbread, blood pudding, stuffed cabbage, and a host of charming traditions and rituals brought from a variety of "old countries."  They lived in small houses clustered together on narrow, winding streets and sides of hilltops - not one driveway or two-car garage among them.  Their kids shared beds as well as bedrooms, had paper routes and full-time summer jobs in order to help out, or get enough to go to the nearby Community College when it was time. The ones of my generation were often the first to finish high school or to even consider a bachelors degree. But the unifying value, regardless of ethnic background, was that their kids would have it better, easier, richer, fuller, than they had.  Life there was hard, but always,somehow, joyous, as lived full out, with bravado, passion, but always laughter even amidst grim determination.

There was a level of instant intimacy between Tommy and me that I've experienced with other folks raised Catholic.  Episcopal priests are different, of course, but they trust us because we are similar enough to the men and women religious who lived among them, taught, pastored, counseled and danced with them at weddings and CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) mixers ..."just one time, now, leaving room for the Holy Spirit..."  I've been stopped in hospitals, doctor's offices, airports, gas stations and once leaving the ladies room at Arby's - and been asked for a word of advice, a prayer or a blessing by current and former Catholics.

The encounter with Tommy delighted me - exhilarated me, in fact.  I left pondering how soon I could return to the market on the chance we might meet and talk again.  The encounter had all the earmarks of a sign, though, of what, I am not yet clear.  But it sure felt in the brief interlude, like I'd been "entertaining angels unaware."

Friday, April 15, 2011

No Matter What

Yesterday a friend told me about meeting a man who had the words, “No matter what” tattooed on the inside of his left arm, wrist to elbow.  The situation was such that he did not feel comfortable asking the man for the details – the why's and wherefores of this cryptic message.

Then this morning, in the devotional booklet I'm reading for Lent, Albert Holtz, a Benedictine monk, entitled his meditation, “hoping no matter what.” He told a story of his visit to the building in Amsterdam where Anne Frank was hidden with her family during World War II.   He quoted that oft repeated segment of her diary: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart.  If I look up to the heavens, I think this will come out all right…”

I have learned to pay attention to such synchronicities.  There is something to be considered in that phrase, “no matter what.”

I wonder about the motivation of the tattooed man – why did he feel so strongly about those three words, that he had them permanently affixed to his body?  Were they reminders of something positive, inspirational, like Anne’s stirring words ... or perhaps, a grim promise of eventual revenge, of retribution, a cue to “stand against the world”, no matter what….

My first association to these words, of course, is the promise made by the Jewish people in regard to the Holocaust – the phrase “never forget.”  But I also thought immediately of the poetry of the Song of Solomon, 8:6 – “set me as a seal upon your heart, a seal upon your arm…”  And, also from Deuteronomy, Moses’ instruction to the people of Israel, to always remember the greatest and first commandment – You shall love your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. Keep these words in your heart, he tells them.  “Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise… bind them as a sign upon your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, write them on your doorposts and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:7-9)

It does not take much of a leap of imagination for me to picture those words tattooed on Jesus’ inside forearm, and to see him setting them as a seal upon his own heart, in light of what he sensed he would have to face in that last week of his life.

The words beg a question: what might they mean to me? to you?  What do we want to do or be, to remember to feel or act on, “no matter what?”  The list could be endless:  hope, love, serenity, wholeness, generosity, truthfulness, justice, strength, compassion, or on the other hand, vengeance, suspicion, self-protection, self-promotion, self-absorption, self-righteousness….

What is the most important, most significant, most essential thing to us…"no matter what"?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

“In the dew of little things, the heart finds its morning and is refreshed” Khalil Gibran

A few Sundays ago, my heart found its morning and was refreshed. 

In the ordination service of a priest, one of the first things that happens is that the Bishop reads the “charge” – that is, a summary of expectations of an ordained minister of God.  As you might expect, there are standards that include proclaiming the Gospel in both word and deed, as well as maintaining a certain standard of living, i.e., “fashioning one’s life in accordance with Gospel precepts.”  Both are difficult to do at times, and especially, on a regular basis. (Most of us can fashion our lives in a good way for a while, but every day – come on!)
     But the next obligation is even more difficult – yet, paradoxically, as easy as breathing: “You are to love and serve the people among whom you work.”  
So far, I’ve been given the role of priest in three different communities.  Even as a seminarian, I was given the authority and privileged place of a minister in the lives of the people.  Very soon after I began in each of these places, I had a similar experience – always in the midst of celebrating the Eucharist.  About three to four months into my tenure, I found myself looking out into the congregation, and being filled with a strong and deep sense of love for the people “among whom I worked.”
     This is always a mysterious and sacred experience – overwhelming in its intensity.  The way I understand it, I believe it is a kind of visitation from the Holy Spirit, which gives me, for just a moment (for that is all I can handle), a sense of the great love that God has for God’s people.  Just for a minute, I am given the mind and especially, the heart of Christ, the good shepherd, who loves these particular sheep so much.  I am grateful for the experience, and find that it enables me, inspires me, re-commits me, every time I remember it.  And often, as I share that sacrament of remembrance with these people who have been entrusted to me, I feel that love again and again.
     I am now in my fifth year at St. Luke’s – the longest I’ve served in any one place.  I feel that love more and more as time goes on.  Sunday was one of those especially tender days for me – getting to teach with a parishioner, who from the start of my time here, has been a good colleague, dear friend, and a  challenging fellow pilgrim on the journey.  We facilitated a class together, peopled with folks that almost to a person, I know well – have worked with, heard their stories and they mine.  These were people who take the notion of a spiritual life seriously – and how rich our time was that morning – how rich their time together was!
Sunday was also “baby day” for me, that is, full of special greetings, special moments received from children – some of whom I’ve known since their birth.  Ben, three years old, in a back pew, spontaneously, un-self-consciously raising his hand in salute as I passed him going down the aisle in procession; Annika, her face so full of life, hope, interest, joy – reaching up to me for the bread –then, impulsively (she felt that holy love, too, I think) – reaching out to give one of those that special, around the-knees- little- kid- kind of hug.  Griffin,  now at the “me do it” stage, climbing the front steps on his own – but getting a little overwhelmed half way up – and instinctively reaching for Mama’s hand – who blushed with pleasure, that her little boy still needed her.   Our eyes met, a shared moment of holy communion as we both realized how far he has come, against so many odds. 
     Not every day in priestly ministry is so rich and so good.  Many, many of them are.  But this work is also disheartening, frustrating, often thankless and usually humbling – and not always in a good way.  Lillian Daniel, a UCC minister who writes a lot about being in ordained ministry, commented on how important length of service is, in understanding and coming to truly love a people and their place.  She describes it as “the experience of hope that comes from the redemption of long term service.” She thanks God, as do I,  that we have had more than those early years of ministry in one place to sustain us  – and the grace to be called to shape, form and live among a group of people long enough to see change and growth and experience; to enjoy  a deeper kind of relationship that comes from shared experience – from times of both success and failure; times of deep joy as well as discomfort and conflict. 

Enough prayers for right now

Bad news tends to come in threes.  Two reports from old friends about cancer received via Face seems I might have to change my mind about that social networking media ...I was glad to get the news, although it is not good.  One tells about her daughter still in her thirties, the other, is about a friend from long ago when we were all involved in working in domestic violence programs in Michigan.  The daughter in question was a beautiful young woman in her teens back when I knew her  - who became a wonderful mother of three boys - the oldest now graduating from high school.  Mom's cervical cancer of some years ago has returned, but now in her lungs.  The other friend is in the middle of radiation treatment for throat cancer - and suspended from talking for the next six weeks or so....which for her seems more cruel than the original problem. The third report came quickly enough on the heels of those other two...another friend, who has a host of physical problems that will impact his ability to work and make a salary if they get too much worse.  Today felt surrounded by fear and loss and pain - their bleeding hearts like in the photo, never far from my consciousness.  The first two seem to be doing well - surrounded by friends and family, healing brought by loving proximity and care, even if the physical threat still remains.  The third is someone who is somewhat alone - also has lots of friends, and family, but far away in the frigid north...and he is always sure there is something dire on the horizon even when times are good.  I worry about his ability to handle whatever is happening ...even when the glass is half full, he worries that there might be a flood imminent.

I have always loved the bleeding heart plant.  You don't see many of them down south, but when I cleaned out a very messy front garden bed at a house I bought in Davenport, IA, I discovered a huge bush - over four feet across - which was loaded with blooms.  I didn't give Iowa even one backward glance when I left, but I mourn for the loss of that plant.  The name of the plant is a bit graphic - a bloody heart, but the blooms are lush, delicate, intricate, amazing - each branch loaded with these light, perfectly heart-shaped marvels.  The way they grow has always reminded me of rosary beads - one heart for each special intention, one blossom for each person needing some intercession, some healing light and prayer. The number of blooms on that "found" plant do not even begin to cover the prayer requests of even the people in my parish alone ... not to mention friends and family far away.  But perhaps there are just enough blossoms to enable me to pray for what I can right now, what is needed right now - what is within my ability to intercede for tonight, right now. 

Amen and amen.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

I will give you the treasures of darkness ( Isaiah 45:3)

When I lived in Kingsport, TN, I had a beautiful in-ground pool. One of my favorite things to do, late at night, despite my friend, Sarah’s insistent warnings that I should not swim alone, was to turn off all the lights in my house, and all the pool lights,  climb into the pool and float around, in the warm water,  on my back in the dark.   I imagined that I was actually floating in the sky – in the heavens – and looking down at the earth – and that the lights of the stars were the lights of the homes on the earth. I loved this sensation of being weightless in the dark, like an embryo, floating in her mother’s womb.
I loved this experience of disembodied, anonymous, one with the universe,  darkness.

Many people are afraid of the dark, not just the dark of wilderness, for example, but plain old every day (or every night, more correctly), dark...with good reason. Unlike some of God’s other creatures, we’ve lost our instinctive night vision. We are creatures very dependent on light, especially, in our modern world, on light made by our own hands, i.e., artificial light.

In the dark, we become disoriented, vulnerable. We lose the impression of control and clarity that we have when things are brightly illuminated. In our world, especially in Atlanta, thieves, muggers, and rapists, claim the darkness as their own: they require its cover for the element of surprise. The darkness and the fear that it engenders are essential to empower their sinister deeds.

Darkness and dark things suggest something negative, both in our culture and in our spiritual history.

Several years ago, the movie, the Lion King, was criticized as being racist – because it depicted evil only through characters of dark skin or countenance.  Perhaps this was the case.  But we understood, didn’t we – in American culture today for good or for ill, dark can often mean bad, evil, dangerous.

We often use metaphors of darkness to describe times of great trial, or times of intense suffering or confusion.  We languish in the dark, with chronic illness; we stumble in the dark, when we’re in trouble or have lost our way. When things are hopeless, it’s like whistling in the dark – we have no idea where or if the sound will carry.

The Scriptures often use the image of darkness in the same way,  to connote despair, loss, bewilderment, trouble and abandonment.

God’s first act is to dispel chaos and darkness with a word: “let there be light.”  The people who are waiting for the Messiah, are people who have sat in darkness for a very longtime.

We remember the famous story of Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus under cover of darkness –  a midnight caller, in secret.  He leaves, unfortunately, as much in the dark as he came.

And at the third hour, when Jesus dies on the cross, darkness covers the earth –a phenomenon in reality, but also a metaphorical statement that in that darkest hour,
creation has returned to that original state of being a lightless, chaotic void.

Mystics, like John of the Cross, reflect this tendency to see darkness as absence, emptiness, dryness: times of great spiritual trial, loneliness, anxiety or hopelessness
are called “dark nights of the soul.”  We see, says St. Paul, in our current, immature state of spirituality, as if we are looking through a glass, darkly.  When we become spiritually mature, when we are finally united with Christ, only then can we become what we aspire to live as: children of light.

But I want to suggest that the darkness can also be a gift; that darkness can present an opportunity… an opportunity for encounter, for a deepening of knowledge, understanding and love – for ourselves and for God.

Rev. Gene Paradise said once, in a sermon, something that has struck and remained with me: that Jesus, the light of the world, did not come to eliminate the darkness, but to illumine it, to elp us see what needs to be seen in the darkness. 

And what needs to be seen in the darkness is less frightening, I suggest, than good.

We begin our lives, after all, in the dark – in the warm, unlit cavern of our mothers’ wombs.  Many of us, most of us, maybe, I would guess, were actually conceived in the dark. The night, despite its terrors, is also a time for making love.

Our first moments of life are terribly disturbing – as we leave that dark, lovely, quiet and protected place, faced with that first blast of stark, cold, hospital room light.  If the doctor didn’t slap us, my guess is that we would cry out anyway in distress, in our newborn language:  “back to the warm, dark place, please!”  Now, in deference to the benefits of darkness, many birthing rooms are only half lit at the moment of arrival so that the newborn can gradually acclimate to the light of his or her new world.

Darkness can provide opportunity. 

The darkness brought blessed relief to the Israelites, wandering day by day in the crushing heat and light  of their desert wilderness.  It was around campfires in the dark coolness of the evening shade that they could find the breath and energy to tell and re-tell he great stories of God’s loving and steadfast kindness, the story of their and our salvation history.

Nicodemus had only enough courage to make his way to Jesus with the protection of nightfall – the darkness enabled him to find a place of encounter he could bear, with the living God.

The Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, describes that opportunity like this:

You, darkness of whom I am born—

I love you more than the flame
that limits the world
and excludes all the rest.

But the dark embraces everything:
shapes and shadows, creatures and me,
people, nations –  just as they are.

It lets me imagine
a great presence stirring beside me.

I believe in the night.
                            Rilke’s Book of Hours, I,II, p. 63  tr. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy

The darkness creates a space for something in its forgiving absence of the cold, hard light of day. After all, the darkness is the time when we can lay down and rest, “to sleep and perchance, to dream” as Shakespeare says.  Dreams, conveying God’s unspoken language, are spoken in the darkness of deepest sleep, and are pathways that open to God …when sleep enables us to set aside the defensive protectiveness of ego and the defensiveness of consciousness.

The darkness, without the intrusion of artificial light, forces us to slow our activity, and be quiet.  Is there a quieter time in this city or in our lives than when we have a power outage?

Perhaps the darkness enables us to see things that otherwise we might miss.  A paradox: darkness clarifies what can get obscured by the light of day.

When I was in Africa in 2008, I was coming home one night, after a lovely dinner with the dean of the theological school and his family. David, their oldest, age 13, accompanied me to my guest quarters on another part of the campus.  As we walked, we looked up at the sky – and saw a million stars.   I mentioned to David that in Atlanta, where I lived, sometimes you couldn’t see the stars, because of the intense and magnified lights of the city.  David was silent with the characteristics courtesy of Africans, especially, African children.  But I could tell what he was thinking: “why would anyone live in a place where you could not see the stars?”

Without the darkness, we would be unable to see either the moon or the stars.

Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story in her book the Altar of the World (p.53ff).

She and her husband, Ed, decided to take a walk in the dark one evening around a lake on a path well known to them.  They turned off their flashlights and attempted to find their way in the dark, relying only on their past knowledge, and each other.

Ed and Barbara discovered something important in the dark: the significance of paying close attention, of listening, of relying on each other; relying on their innate ability to align themselves in space, to each other and to the earth.  Using only their memory, intuition, insight, and their connectedness and love for each other, they found their way intuitively in the darkness.  They re-discovered what we all have, our close connection to the earth and our own created nature. In the dark, we can rediscover our fundamental goodness and creatureliness – our connection with everything created.

Perhaps that’s why the Spirit drove Jesus immediately into the actual and spiritual darkness of the desert wilderness after his baptism at the hands of John.  To remind him of who he was, of his dependence on his Creator, of his intimate oneness with all of created life – and of God’s great love for all that God created – despite the fact that God’s creation is fallen and broken, like things that go bump in the night.

Through the mouth of the prophet, Isaiah, the Lord says:

I will give you the treasures of darkness, and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name.

There are treasures in the darkness and riches hidden in secret places when the lights go out.  The darkness can be a place to look for, to find and to encounter the living God and hear, that even in dark places, God calls us by name.

Go into the dark!

To know the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
Wendell Berry, The Selected Poems, p. 68.

...and a little child shall lead them (Isaiah 11:6)

I am officially on record (in as many places as I can think of) as hating those thin, pre-fabricated
wafers called “hosts” that churches use for Holy Communion.  Those Styrofoam-like discs do not look like bread; they don’t smell like bread, they don’t taste like bread – because they are not bread.  It has often been said, that it's easier to believe that the bread and the wine contain the real presence of Jesus than to believe that those hosts are bread. 

I will admit that when I see that the volunteer bread bakers have not done their magic on a specific Sunday morning, my spirits droop and I dread taking and serving communion. 

But I gained some insight recently – through the testimony of a small child… a five year old in our parish, who is an amazing creature, with more insight than I have, in this case.  As she and her mother were making their way up the aisle to the communion rail several weeks ago, she said, “I wonder if God will be crunchy or soft today?”  Her mom was perplexed and asked her what she meant. “You’ll see” this tiny mystic cryptically replied. 

They knelt together at the rail and the priest gave the little girl one of those flat, crackly orbs.  “See” she said, whispering to her mom, “crunchy!”

What this darling child understands better than me is gratitude and taking delight in the real presence of her Lord – whatever form that Lord might appear in on a given Sunday.  She understands why that little wafer is called a “host” – because in whatever form Jesus comes to us, He is always extending the utmost hospitality… both the bread and the host accomplish what God intends   - they are just little reminders that Jesus will go to whatever lengths necessary to be with us and to be present to us…including suffering the disappointing outward sign of a tasteless, flat morsel to represent His gift of self-less love and sacrifice for us. 

Thanks be to God and thanks be to little girls.