He Speaks in Silence

Much of this spring has been scheduled, busy, on the move. All to the good, but jam packed with it. And so it has been the unscripted moments that stand out.

Tucked into our readings for an Old Testament class at Christ Church Easton, was this wisdom from 1 Kings 19:11-13:

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.

When Elijah hears the sheer silence, he knows God is about to speak to him. It strikes me as absolutely and beautifully profound that he lets the pyrotechnics of the wind, earthquake, and fire go by, but knows God in the silence. He speaks in silence.

It was this time last year that Jim Harrison died. He has been a literary and life hero/model of mine for 20 years or so, and I have been thoughtfully and randomly reading in his books, “The Shape of the Journey” and “Songs of Unreason” since. I came across this last week in the latter:

Don’t bother taking your watch to the river,
the moving water is a glorious second hand.
Properly understood the memory loses nothing
and we humans are never allowed to let our minds
sit on the still bank and have a simple picnic.

Sitting on the still river bank for a simple picnic. Again it’s the stillness and the silence that houses the profound moments. Where we let ourselves catch up.

Running has always been a listening time for me. Even with music playing into headphones, there is a stillness and silence in the motion and the head space that I crave. I have been on the shelf from running this winter, but managed to sneak in a couple five mile runs of late, unscripted, unscheduled, when time and weather have cooperated.

Tuesday was one of those days. After picking Anna up from lacrosse practice, I ran around Oxford, watching as the sun wound down, then grabbed the girls and Harper and hit the Oxford Park to catch the sunset. The clouds got the better of the horizon, but it didn’t matter. It was getting off script, taking advantage of an evening, making a few moments.

Life has its landmarks–those big, defining moments that we measure and remember. God is in the majestic, the heroic, the can’t miss pyrotechnics that leave us in awe.

But I’m trying to cultivate and make the most of the in-between times, unscripted, still. Those times when He speaks to us in silence.

Notes for Spring

The Eastern Shore is not known for cherry trees or Pablo Neruda, but with his line, “I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees,” watching, smelling, being outside in spring on the Shore, I think he was describing here as well. Blossoming, coming to life, opening into the fullness of what we can become.

Spring belongs to those who go out into it, who look for it.

Spring belongs to those who go on sea glass and treasure hunts on beaches at sunset.

Spring belongs to those who are mulching gardens and planting flowers.

Spring belongs to those who are paddleboarding in cold water, before it is sensible to be on the water.

When we were younger, spring belonged to the kid who got the nerve up to be the first to jump off the ferry dock on a warm day in April and re-open the river for the season.

Spring belongs to kids and coaches playing lacrosse and baseball on newly cut ball fields until the sun goes down.

Spring belongs to those who wake up camping on cool mornings.

Spring belongs to Jack Kerouac when he writes:

On soft Spring nights I’ll stand in the yard under
the stars
Something good will come out of all things yet
And it will be golden and eternal just like that
There’s no need to stay another word.

Spring belongs to those who walk outside on a clear, starry night in short sleeves and look up and wonder.

Spring belongs to William Wordsworth and his walks through the Lake District.

Spring belongs to those who plan epic trips for April birthdays.

Spring belongs to dogs running into rivers.

Spring belongs to those who look forward; those who get out and breathe in. Spring belongs to those who show up.

Seasons, Journeys, Treasure

I dig the seasons changing. There is something to that elemental shift that stirs my soul. These warm days of walking home for lunch and feeling the sun on my face; longboarding to work; thinking about sunrise or sunset paddleboarding on the horizon; putting tomatoes in and mulching gardens; seeing the return of green grass. I’m looking forward.

This is maybe the first time I have fully paid attention to the changing seasons of the church: from Advent to Christmas, from Epiphany now into Lent, looking to the Passion and Easter. Another new thing for me is leading a small group as we journey through Lent.

At the Ash Wednesday service last evening at Christ Church Easton, Father Bill Ortt gave out some information on what Lent is all about. Among other things, I like getting into the word itself:

The word Lent is derived from the old English word “lente” meaning “Springtime” or “lencten” referring to the lengthening of the daylight hours. In the agricultural sense, it is a time when fields are prepared to receive the seeds for the crops to be planted. On a spiritual basis, we might look at it the same way. There is much work to do to break the ground compacted by the weight of the winter period of “death” and there are weeds and obstacles to remove. And yet there is good to be found in the preparations, because it is preparation for new life. In other words, this is more than a good thing.

Lent is a preparation. Lent is also a journey. Lent is a journey over a period of time, 40 days, and it is also a journey over the terrain of the soul.

This morning, thinking about journeys, I went back to a book I pick up a lot for those kind of travels, Jim Harrison’s “The Shape of the Journey:”

It is not so much that I got
there from here, which is everyone’s
story: but the shape
of the voyage: how it pushed
onward in every direction
until it stopped

It’s not the destination, it’s the shape of the voyage that defines it. And can define us. In Walter Brueggemann’s “A Way Other Than Our Own: Devotions for Lent,” he offers this prayer for today:

Self-giving God, call us to walk the road of
newness–a new self, a new society, a new world,
one neighbor at a time. May we have traveling
mercies this Lenten season. Amen.

We are each on our own journey. Some are fortunate enough to help others in their travels, some people help us along. Where our paths intersect, and where we can travel together, those are great times. This kind of trip can be lonely and rough and we need help.

The Ash Wednesday reading from the Gospel of Matthew had some really key traveling advice. Something we may want to take to heart. Matthew quotes Jesus, who talks about not storing up treasures on earth–material things, money, fame, success–but storing up “treasures in heaven,” those things that light the soul, that put us in touch with something bigger, that connect us to God:

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

This Lent, this spring, as we set out on our journeys; may we find and store up the right kind of treasures and know our hearts; help our fellow travelers on their way; and all know traveling mercies, as Anne Lamott and Brueggemann call them, remembering it is the shape of the journey at least as much as the destination.

A Tale of Two Buildings

Let’s be up front: this isn’t really a tale of two buildings. It’s more what they represent. They are buildings, but also emblems. The cabin and the church.

The Cabin

It is so easy for me to be a hermit. An active, outdoor hermit, mind you–wrangling sunrises with coffee, running, paddleboarding, looking for birds. I like to hermit in the John Muir, Edward Abbey, Thoreau style.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to daydream about finding a cabin like this one from Cabin Folk and holing up for a good stretch with books, notebook, trail running shoes, binoculars, backpack, you get the idea. And I would enjoy that and likely recharge a bit.

Solitude is a necessary condition for me. But I’ve come to realize it’s not enough. It’s just a beginning point, albeit one to return to. If you are one to ask life’s biggest questions and take the walk to find answers, there is a good chance that you are going to struggle at times. You are going to suffer, you are going to come up short, and sooner or later, you are going to need help. That can be a humbling experience. For me, being humbled is also a necessary condition.

It’s being humbled and needing help that sets us up for needing other people. Needing a community of sorts. Needing people who we can relate to; who understand our struggles; and who we can in turn help with theirs. In my experience, helping someone–whether it is moving furniture, listening, laughing, accomplishing a goal, or just being there–creates a feeling in me that I can’t replicate on my own, cabin in the woods or not.

The Church

The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone who thinks and feels with us, and who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“Someone who thinks and feels with us,” Goethe is perhaps describing the beginning or foundation of community. In his sermon at Christ Church Easton on Sunday, Fr. Scott Albergate posited that “The reason to go to church is to be in the company of others,” and that while in a worship service, “Hopefully it will sink into your soul–through the sacraments, songs, Scripture–that life is beyond our control.”

If you spend time in nature, or if you are at all mindful of the passing of time, disease, death, the notion that life is beyond our control is almost self evident. And it can be a heavy truth to bear. As we try to carry that with us, it can weigh us down.

Fr. Scott also pointed out that the majority of what we know of Jesus through the Gospel, he is concerned with healing and transformation. Healing and transformation, through Christ, happen through love and grace. Love happens in the world, through people. We can’t experience it alone. And when we come together, a funny thing happens:

God brings his presence ‘into the house,’ and we are called to release it back out into the world. – Pete Greig, “Red Moon Rising”

Grace is only grace because God gives it to us, He shares it. We know it as a gift and show it by sharing it with each other and others. We know love and grace in the company of others.

Two Buildings

The cabin is the place to find ourselves in solitude. The church building is the place to come together with those “close to us in spirit.” We come together to know, to experience God’s grace through each other and to take it out into the world.

I need both buildings and what they represent. I think Thomas Merton gets it right when he says:

We do not exist for ourselves alone, and it only when we are fully convinced of this fact that we begin to love ourselves properly and thus also love others.

Space for Grace

Tohu wa-bohu. It’s fun to say. Like an incantation you would chant while waving a magic wand over a hat. Tohu wa-bohu. It’s a Hebrew phrase from the Book of Genesis, describing the state of the Universe before God created order. “Formless void,” and “primordial chaos” are two of the translations I enjoy the most.

It’s a phrase Fr. Bill Ortt has unpacked in a couple different small groups at Christ Church Easton of late. He used it to point out that the first things that God created, in addition to light, were time and space. These were the ordering principles of the Universe. To get rid of the chaos, it was light, time, and space.

The image above is William Blake’s “Ancient of Days,” in which God creates order out of chaos. Blake is depicting God putting his orderly stamp on the Tohu wa-bohu. It’s an image I am familiar with: it’s on my left shoulder, the first tattoo I ever got, when I was 25, after my first encounter with Blake in Dr. Gillin’s British Romanticism class at Washington College. Funny to come back to it in a new way, almost 20 years later.

There is something to that need for order. When we want to calm the chaos in our own lives, we need to shine a light on things and create time and space. When things get hectic, there is a blueprint that goes back to the beginning.

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s “Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.” I like Lamott for her honesty, humor, compassion; for her irreverent reverence; for her willingness and ability to shine the light on herself and laugh and make us laugh at what she finds; for her willingness to wrestle God and surrender; and for her unique and personal path and walk of faith.

Both in reading her and for some time before, I have had the notion of “grace” on my mind. Here is how Lamott looks at it:

It is unearned love–the love that goes before, that greets us on the way. It’s the help you receive when you have no bright ideas left, when you are empty and desperate and have discovered that your best thinking and most charming charm have failed you. Grace is the light or electricity or juice or breeze that takes you from that isolated place and puts you with others who are as startled and embarrassed and eventually grateful as you are to be there.

There is so much there that I like. Grace is what is left when we have nothing else. It’s what is there when we are on empty. It’s foundational. It’s also not something we have alone, or by ourselves. Grace connects us to God and to each other. Sometimes that is a tough lesson to learn for those of us who are hermits by nature.

Here is another way she puts it, “Man is broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue.” Let’s play that out to bricks and mortar. A single brick only gets you so far. With a bunch of bricks, you can have a sidewalk, patio, house, etc. But the key to putting bricks together is mortar. And you have to make space for the mortar to join them together and make them stronger.

You have to make space for grace. If we get so busy with our lives, or so self-absorbed that we can’t see or feel grace, we are the bricks without mortar. We are the ones deluding ourselves that we can do it on our own.

We are broken. We live by mending. The grace of God is glue. We need to make space for grace.

Scripture, Small Groups & Ephesians

This week at Christ Church Easton, we kick off a small group study of The Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians. The build up, the study, the reflection, and prayer has led me to think about the nature of Scripture and how we read it and relate to it. And why. I doubt it’s a coincidence that one of my go-to thinkers, Richard Rohr, is spending this week talking about Scripture:

Serious reading of Scripture will allow you to find an ever-new spiritual meaning for the liberation of history and your own soul as you discover that the text holds truth on many levels… Sacred texts will always maximize your possibilities for life, love, and inclusion, which is precisely why we call them sacred.

The liberation of our own soul and maximizing possibilities for life, love, and inclusion–not a bad way to spend our time. I also love Frederick Buechner’s thoughts on reading the Bible:

If you look AT a window, you see flyspecks, dust, the crack where Junior’s Frisbee hit it. If you look THROUGH a window, you see the world beyond. Something like this is the difference between those who see the Bible as a holy bore and those who see it as the Word of God, which speaks out of the depths of an almost unimaginable past and into the depths of ourselves. 

There is so much to be gained by a thoughtful, in depth reading and study of the Bible. But it’s not easy going it alone. It’s a communal document, passed down by multiple people, for multiple people. It’s a living document, a living Word, that can open us up to more when looked at and wrestled and reckoned with together.

At a worship service, we can hear the Word. We can listen and reflect on it. But we don’t have a chance to discuss it. That’s what small groups are for. In looking at the reason for small group study, Carolyn Taketa writes:

When we take the risk of being authentic with a small group of people, we can experience God’s grace and love coming through others, which leads to freedom and transformation

John Ortberg writes: “God uses people to form people. That is why what happens between you and another person is never merely human-to-human interaction–the Spirit longs to be powerfully at work in every encounter.” So the goal of small groups is to create the environments where Spirit-driven, life-giving experiences can flourish.

The need for these kind of life-giving experiences, that kind of interaction and helping foster that kind of community is part of what compelled me to follow a calling to lead small groups.

What better place to start than Ephesians?

Bob Deffinbaugh calls Ephesians “the Rolls Royce of the epistles.” And he cites William Hendricksen’s “Exposition of Ephesians,” which calls the letter:

“the divinest composition of man,” “the distilled essence of the Christian religion,” “the most authoritative and most consummate compendium of the Christian faith,” that is “full to the brim with thoughts and doctrines sublime and momentous.”

If someone had to write a movie trailer for Ephesians, I would sign Hendricksen up on the spot.

Life has a funny way of working itself out. Twenty years ago, I would have told you that the texts I would be wrestling with in my 40s would be Immanuel Kant, Edmund Husserl, and the heavy hitters of continental philosophy and phenomenology. Looking back, it is clear to me that that would have been an academic exercise. I have lived and watched over that time as my head and my heart have become synchronized and moved into alignment with one another. I want to put that same spirit of inquiry into not just words, but the Word, and not just for study, but for living.

And so maybe it comes back to Ephesians, which seems the perfect place to start, when it is time to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”

This is just the beginning.

Resolve: The Everyday and the Epic

What I need for 2017 is resolve, not resolutions. The resolve to continue some of the good things that got underway in 2016, and resolve to be better about getting to some of the things I left out. Resolve to continue to be grateful, to give back, to love, to follow God’s lead, and to smile.

I started 2017 with a five mile sunrise run and then church. The girls and I finished 2016, the stretch between Christmas and New Year’s with a Star Wars marathon–episodes one through seven, Anna’s request after seeing Rogue One–and will have to see if 2017 brings us some snow to get us outside.

As 2017 gets rolling, it’s worth looking back at some of the good from the past year, and some things to resolve to get after for the coming year. We’ll make the list go to 10, since top ten lists are the rage this time of year:

2016 (the year that was)

1. 2016 was a meat-free year for me, except for fish and seafood. Fancy people call that being a pescatarian. I call it trying to be less of a hypocrite. I’ve always been bothered by truckloads of chickens or pigs crammed into cages, driving by on the highway, and the whole notion of animals being raised for the sole purpose of being food. I don’t hunt, but I happily fish, and will clean and grill/cook, so trying to make my own diet more in line with how I operate in the world. It was a resolution I made at the beginning of the year to see how long I could stick to it. Year one is under the belt.

2. We welcomed Harper to our family. You can read more about that here.  At the beginning of June, we rescued a six-ish month “Australian shepherd mix” with the help of Operation Paws for Homes, and our family and our hearts grew exponentially. One of the year’s best decisions.

3. I started writing. I have been writing/blogging for a number of years, but wasn’t making a point of really doing something with and about writing. That changed in 2016, both in starting this site, in writing a monthly article for Tidewater Times and in making a commitment to write and keep writing.

4. I let God into my life. I’ve always been a spiritually-minded person, have always been a searcher, and have always tried to live life the best I can. But 2016 was a calling and answering of a different kind. It has led to looking deeply into my heart, at life, at love, at God, and listening. It has been uncovering and recognizing something in my soul, which is in each of us, allowing the Holy Spirit and Christ to move freely and try to follow. It is not easy, I still mess up wholly, frequently, and am fully human. But I am trying to take my life, what talents I can offer, and time, to ignite and follow the passion and path that God has put in me. If you’ve been reading here, you may have noticed that. During 2016 I also found Christ Church Easton, a home church community, and have just begun my work as Assistant for Small Groups and Christian Education. I have a long way to go, but am learning and trying to make the most of every step.

2017 (the year that is beginning)

5. More silliness – it’s easy to get pulled in to high seriousness: work, deadlines, bills, money, schedules. But so many of my favorite moments are so easy to look past if I don’t make time and have the mindset. Anna running around the yard laughing with Harper chasing her; Ava dancing in the new year; leaf pile shenanigans; beach exploring and sea glass hunting; snowman building; taking and making the time to find simple reasons to laugh and smile.

6. More road trips – I wasn’t very good at this in 2016. A great Harper’s Ferry trip in April, but that isn’t enough when there are so many cool places in easy driving distance. My schedule is busier for 2017, so putting things on the calendar and making time for bits of wanderlust, from day hikes, to car camping, to skateboarding, to visiting national and state parks and historic sites. I didn’t do a good job with this in 2016, so it’s on me this year.

7. Less stuff – Watching a documentary on Netflix the other night called “Minimalism,” was a reminder that I need to own my stuff, not let my stuff own me. There wasn’t anything particularly earth-shattering, I try to keep “stuff” in check as it is, but “The Minimalists,” do a solid job of making some points that I might already know, but don’t always keep at the forefront of my thinking: “It’s not so much about financial gain as it is about financial freedom, which is the ability to wake up in the morning and spend your day as you see fit.” And “Love people and use things, because the opposite never works.” I want to remember in 2017, to focus less on the care and feeding of “stuff,” and more on the care and feeding of the soul.

8. More trails – Over the past 10 years of my life, trail running has given me incredible scenery, accomplishments, camaraderie, solitude, friendships, and put me in nature. I spent less time on trails in 2016 than I have in a long time. Some of that is because Sunday morning was my trail running time and that has become church time. I am glad to have church as a time for worship, reflection, and community. I also need to make other time for trail running and hiking. We pushed our Appalachian Trail across Maryland challenge into 2017. That’s one part of more trails.

9. More prayer – I try to pray every day, make a quiet time to talk to God, to show gratitude, to listen, to be still. I have a lot to learn and I know this needs to be a focus.

10. Dig deep – I made some steps in the right direction in 2016. I want 2017 to be a year for follow through, for resolve, for next steps. It is time to dig deep and keep at it. Whether in writing, in study, in leading small groups, in playing, at work, I have reached a place in life where I have a pretty good idea of what I need to be doing, what my calling might be, what I need to do for the girls, the things that make me deeply happy. Now it’s a matter of staying after it, while being mindful that things have a way of going in directions we don’t expect.

In the documentary “180 South,” Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard says, “The word adventure has gotten overused. For me, when everything goes wrong, that’s when adventure starts.” There is likely something to that.

A life well-lived is one that appreciates, finds, and embraces both the epic and the everyday. And sees that each lives in the other. There is a bit of both throughout the above list. So that’s my resolve for 2017: make room for, appreciate, and embrace the everyday and the epic. That’s an outlook for a lifetime.

On Vocation: Five Golden Things

“It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure,” was an ad slogan the U.S. Navy used in the late 1970s and early 80s. It must be pretty good since it still sticks in my head. What if we could go through life like that? What if we felt that way about our jobs? Our lives?

Not all jobs feel that way. But for the life adventure attitude, we’ve got to dig deeper than just a job and look at vocation.

A man knows he has found his vocation when he stops thinking about how to live, and begins to live. – Thomas Merton

I don’t claim to be in that space Merton describes, but I am getting closer, and I am getting a pretty good lay of the land for what that looks like. For our purposes here, let’s think of vocation as a hand; as the work we do in the world with our lives. Our hand, like most hands, has five fingers. The fingers are all part of the hand, and the hand is made up of the interconnecting fingers. You can’t separate them from each other, they are all part of the same thing/work/life/vocation.

Disclaimer: I am a work in progress and things change and evolve over time. In describing these things, I am putting words towards things I have found in life to this point to be the things that seem to make up aspects of vocation/calling. Check back frequently.

1. Fatherhood. This is the one role in life I am least prepared for, it takes improvisation, winging it, frustration, questions, blood, sweat, and tears. And it’s the role that means the most, rewards the most, defines the most. Nothing else I do, or could ever do, compares to it.

2. Writing/Reading/Learning. This has been a part of me, a defining part for 30 years or more and counting. From the notebook in my back pocket, to grabbing a book with coffee in the morning, it is a part of me that never turns off. For the past six months, Tidewater Times has been a great outlet for me to write about everything from nature to history to incredible people and cool goings-on in our community. I hope to make this more and more a part of my life over time.

3. Being outside. I feel most alive outside, in nature. I can be running (preferably trails), walking the dog, hiking, paddleboarding, kayaking, bird watching, skateboarding, but being outside is where my soul feels both most alive and most at peace. Recognizing that and making sure to recharge that way and make the time for it is a daily practice.

4. Building/connecting community. It’s not a coincidence that when I was at a major crossroads in life and career, it was the Oxford Community Center that needed a director. When I think about my family being in the area since the 1600s; the evolution and changes in the town and the community; the players and personalities that have helped shape this place in the past and during my lifetime, it seems like a place I am supposed to be, involved in work that I am supposed to be a part of. I can look around and see and feel a connection to the town and the Eastern Shore in ways I have never seen or felt anywhere else. I’ll just leave it at that for now.

5. Spirituality. I saved this for last for a reason. This is where the change has been taking place and the reason for my reflection on vocation and for this post. I have been a lifelong spiritual seeker. My path has taken me in wonderful, rich, and unexpected directions at just about every step of the way. Over the past year and a half especially, that direction has revealed itself more through a deepening relationship with God, through Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the love that flows through the Trinity, through our hearts (my heart), and into the world. I’ve never felt anything like it, and how could I have?

It’s when I have let go and allowed God to work that I have felt most free, most driven, and the most connected. On an October Friday, I put a gameplan out into the Universe, which I have no other way to describe then that I just knew those things were what I was supposed to be doing. The three parts of the plan are: 1) writing/sharing, 2) learning and studying, and 3) helping to create a community of Christian small group study. That Sunday, Father Bill Ortt stood in front of the Christ Church Easton congregation and said that they were looking for someone to lead small groups. He said you don’t need any experience, he had more than 30 years worth and that he would look to help train/mentor the right person.

That began a conversation that has helped reveal a calling (of sorts) and that has turned into a part-time job as Assistant for Small Groups and Christian Education with Christ Church Easton.

Vocation is the big picture. It is doing the work that you feel called, charged, fulfilled to do. It isn’t necessarily connected to a job, but it can be, and when it is, then you know you are doing the work you should be doing.

As God has revealed life and vocation to me, and helped me see what those things are that charge me and that I can give back, I have Frederick Buechner’s words in my head a good bit, “The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I don’t know about the world, so I’ll start with myself, my family, our community. And we’ll see where it goes.

Stop, Look, Listen, Believe

“Perhaps it is time to look and listen without seeing and hearing.” This has been a common theme in Father Bill Ortt’s last two sermons. It’s a message I connect with; one that resonates. The idea is to look with fresh eyes and listen with new ears, to shut off what we expect to see or hear, and really take things in. Flaubert gets it:

I tried to discover, in the rumor of forests and waves, words that other men could not hear, and I pricked up my ears to listen to the revelation of their harmony. – Gustave Flaubert, November

But this isn’t a specialization, it’s not exclusive. Looking and listening are things any of us can do. But it is so easy not to. We are in a hurry to get to work. To get our Christmas shopping done. To get to the next meeting. To check off our to do lists. And we know people, we know what they are going to say. We have heard stories or we know their soapboxes. What can we learn?

Flaubert’s quote above is about making the time. It’s about being quiet. Looking and listening without expectation. Being alive to what is really there in front of us.

In many ways, those are the only times we are open to God–when we turn off our small minds and wants and open ourselves up to what is real and what is now.

The other morning I walked the dog along the shoreline. I could feel the cold in my bones. I dropped into a catcher’s crouch to pray at the edge of the river and took a few deep breaths. I can still feel that moment, those breaths, and the creak of my knees.

When we got back home, I picked up Mary Oliver’s “American Primitive” and read “Morning at Great Pond” for the first time.

It starts like this:
forks of light
slicking up
out of the east,
flying over you,
and what’s left of night–
its black waterfalls,
its craven doubt–
dissolves like gravel
as the sun appears
trailing clouds
of pink and green wool,
igniting the fields
turning the ponds
to plates of fire.

I know those mornings. I’ve felt them when running; I’ve seen the sun paint away the night. Great Blue Herons, ducks, geese, songbirds in motion. Looking and listening in the morning, but it opens up to more:

and you’re healed then
from the night, your heart
wants more, you’re ready
to rise and look!
to hurry anywhere!
to believe in everything.

Mary Oliver is clearly a morning person. So am I. That’s when my energy runs deepest. But looking and listening isn’t limited to the sunrise hours. God’s paintbrush reaches the west as well. In the evening, it’s just as easy to look, listen, and believe.

“Start Your Life Afresh”

A blind girl sees for the first time after getting her sight from cataract surgery. Annie Dillard describes the girl’s experience visiting a garden:

“She is greatly astonished and can scarcely be persuaded to answer, stands speechless in front of the tree, which she only names on taking hold of it,  and then as ‘the tree with the lights in it.'”

I don’t know how many times I have gone back to Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” but I’d forgotten that passage until coming across it again, afresh, while reading John Eldredge. I love the description of “the tree with the lights in it.”

Today is the first Sunday in Advent. In his sermon this morning. Father Scott Albergate invited us to look at Advent as a time to “pause and seek a fresh start in your life.” He described Advent as having a couple points, which resonated with me: 1) to live in hope, and 2) to live with a sense of a call to action and a purpose.

This has been a year of a lot of reflection for me, of trying to figure things, life out (nothing new there). It’s been a year where I have felt God and Christ in my life in ways I haven’t before, and I have tried to get out of the way, to surrender to these rolling waves that come over me, which I don’t have words to describe. They come in prayer, on walks, while running, while writing, raking leaves. All I can do is ride them as best I can.

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Advent is new for me in that way. I’ve been through 40-some Advent seasons, and yet T.S. Eliot could have been using my eyes to say:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

It’s not coincidence that I’ve written about Dillard and Eliot before, quoting some of the same passages, but now they circle back via Eldredge or others, and they are new, changed, even though the words are the same. I read them differently.

These waves of faith and feeling and newness aren’t constant. I misstep, get turned around, make mistakes on a regular and frequent basis. Life is still confusing and I still struggle.

But I hear Father Scott invite us to look back at “where we see God’s movement in our lives in the past year,” and I know He is at work in new ways; starting things this year that haven’t been there in the past.

There are times when I feel beat down by life. And there are times when I feel like the tree with the lights in it.

Light. Having new eyes, seeing things differently. Starting life afresh is choosing to be awake to what is going on around us; choosing to be awake to God at work around us and through us.

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I was pulled into this photograph today, and the photography of Pete Muller more broadly afterwards. There is something about the landscape, the river, the boys tending their cows, a beauty in the present moment. It takes me around the world to Kenya, a place I have never been, and connects me through the human experience, nature, caring for animals (it is Muller walking his dog that puts him there). I can’t say for sure why, but the scene gives me a deep sense of peace; if a scene can smile, this one does for me.

Glory be to God for dappled things–
For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced–fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
-Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Pied Beauty–”

 

Hopkins, Eliot, Dillard, each are awake to everything around them, each moment.

Advent is a time to pause and reflect and a call to action. It is both a looking forward with hope, and a being awake to life and what God is doing right now. Part of our job, going back to Father Scott’s sermon, is “to usher in the realm of God in the present moment.”

Amen.