Friday, April 12, 2019

SPRING’S MESSAGE

            I admit it.  I love Spring!  It literally awakens my soul.  There have been decades in my life when I lived in areas that did not have four seasons. Since I began my life in western Pennsylvania I found myself missing that visual palate of change.

            I did learn to appreciate the subtle differences in those areas for which the classic definition of  “winter, spring, summer, fall” were not descriptive.  While we lived in Arizona, we were fortunate enough to see the desert in bloom.  It was wonderful.  In Panama the tropical lushness was enhanced during a brief couple of months of dry season, when there were even more exquisite blooming plants.  In California there is a time of the year when the brown hills turn bright green and mustard and poppies cover the hillsides in yellow and orange.  In Florida the differences seem more subtle in my memory although year around there is much beauty to be seen.

            I once again live in a region that displays four seasons.  The delicate beauty of cherry blossoms, dogwoods, redbud, daffodils, and so much more refresh my spirit and renew my soul.  I see new birth and new life all around me. I breathe deeply the warming breezes. I begin to envision new possibilities.

            For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, this is when Earth Day is observed. The fragility of the spring blossoms is a visual reminder of the fragility of our planet.  Although the blossoms give way to the heartier leaves and plants of summertime, our earth is increasingly not in a similar trajectory.  For our planet the fragility of spring is rapidly progressing to the end of autumn and the barrenness of winter.  

            This spring, this April, let us listen to Spring’s message of beauty and possibilities.  Just as the blossoms have within their structure the ability to bear fruit, so can our imagination and commitment to our earth produce new possibilities.  We can reorder our way of doing things in order to protect this fragile planet.  We can treat the earth gently so that she can thrive.  Spring is a reminder of new birth.  

            I love the hymn “Touch the Earth Lightly”.  The lyrics were written by Shirley Erena Murray (1931-  ).

            Touch the earth lightly, use the earth gently, 
            nourish the life of the world in our care:
            gift of great wonder, ours to surrender, 
            trust for the children tomorrow will be.

            Happy springtime!

Grace and Peace,
Rev. Clara

Monday, March 4, 2019

Wilderness Walking in Lent


          The season of Lent traditionally begins with reading the story of Jesus entering the wilderness after his baptism and facing three temptations.  The practices of Lent are designed to engage us in introspection of our own failings and a recognition of our reliance on God’s Grace.

          The wilderness imagery is helpful as we begin this journey to the cross.  Recently I read a book by Scott Stillman titled, Wilderness The Gateway to the Soul.  Some of his reflections as a wilderness trekker are instructive for our 2019 wilderness walk.

          Scott Stillman is a lot more prepared for spending time in the remote wilderness of our country than was Jesus.  He goes into these experiences equipped with water and excellent food choices to give him the energy needed for such an adventure.  The gospel of Luke records that Jesus ate nothing during the forty days in the remote region of what is now Jordan.

          The author of Wilderness recounts one backpacking trip when his planning did not work out quite as well as he envisioned.  He was on a five-day solo journey through Sycamore Canyon Wilderness in Arizona.  The canyon was not providing the expected sources of water.  His four liters of water went down to one and then less and less.  His story gives depth to Jesus’ experience.  When you are hungry or thirsty the mind focuses on these needs.  As well it should. These are life threatening issues.  The human body needs water and food to survive.  It is no wonder that Jesus heard the lure of twisting his mission in the world to that of self-centered miracle worker – command the stone to provide for your physical needs.  Do anything to make the desperation go away.

          Our Lenten Journey may not be fraught with hunger and thirst.  Most people only give up one thing for their Lenten Fast.  The human body can subsist without chocolate or meat.  We may be uncomfortable, but we are nowhere near the crisis of decision brought on by no water, or no food.  That means we need to engage our minds and spirits this Lent to become aware of the pain and anguish brought on people for whom this deprivation is a stark reality. 

          Scott Stillman found water in the canyon walls as he slowly continued his trek.

          Jesus rebuffed the temptation when he said: One does not live by bread alone.

          Can we hear the cries of the families in Flint, Michigan who continue to be without safe drinking water?  Can we see that people are starving in Venezuela while relief is withheld on the other side of the border?  Can we give more to Food Pantries as part of our Lenten Discipline so that people in our county can eat nutritious food?

          The second Temptation connects with a very human desire, prosperity.  In the midst of the Great Depression, people wanted relief from the destitution around them.  After the WWII there was a period of “success”.  The machinery of war was transformed into the machinery of acquisition.  As a people, we bought a lot of things.
This impulse continued in the decades to follow.  We are a consumerist society.  We look from our own “mountaintops” and see all the things we want.  And we give celebrity status and deference to those who acquire the most.  And some of us want to be one of those with the “most toys” because “those with the most toys, win”.

          As a backpacker in the wilderness, Scott Stillman’s relationship with the environment and his experience of ecstasy over the beauty of creation has had the opposite effect on him.  For him, less is best because it allows him to experience the abundance that is right before each of us.  He writes about Dark Canyon Wilderness in Utah:

          Like dancers in sequins, the cottonwoods dazzle and sparkle against an illuminated backdrop of glowing red sandstone.  Such a glory to witness!  What’s so comforting, so reassuring, so gratifying, is the fact that this happens every day, whether I’m here or not.  The beauty remains.  Perfection exists!  Unfathomable.  Unconditional.  Long before we ever existed, long after we are gone.  This place exists.

          There are no roads, no motors, no scenic roped off viewpoints, no paved walkways.  No improvements. There’s only one thing to improve here.  Our respect.  Our empathy.  For the Earth.  The very soil beneath our feet.  This place we all come from, and will all return to, as does everything that nourishes our bodies to survive.
         
          Jesus responds to the Temptation of power and riches with the words:  It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’
         
          Scott Stillman does wilderness backpacking to appreciate the very essence of life on this earth and the sacredness of that life.
         
          On Ash Wednesday we are reminded:  Dust you are and to dust you will return. 

          The third Temptation Jesus endured was an invitation to invulnerability – power in the extreme.  “You can do no wrong”.  “God is on your side, so you have absolute license.”  Sadly authoritarian figures fall prey to this tempting idea.  We see this “protected absolutism” in homes, businesses and governments.  We also see some spectacular falls with no angels handy to help out!

          Scott Stillman does not recount anything that shows this hubris.  However his narrative introducing his walk into the wilderness of the desert between Moab and Hanksville, Utah, does show us the healthy self-awareness we can find in our own wilderness places.  He writes:

          It’s a time for gratitude and healing, both spiritual and physical.  And it’s a time to walk, simply walk, one foot in front of the other, and breathe in deep blissful silence.  It will take a few days for my busy mind to slow its chatter, but it always does.  So long as I’m patient, trust the process, and submit completely to a power much greater than myself.

          Solo trips are where I remember who I am.  Beneath this body, this face, this name.  In the end, I know too well that these details will fall away, and all that will remain is this pure silence, this pure light.  The same light I see in the eyes of a lizard, the eyes of a child, and the rocks, the plants, the lakes, the streams, the sun, the moon, the clouds, and the stars.  As divided as we may seem, we’re in this together.  In the end there is no separateness.  No lines drawn between you, me, rock and tree.  All of this I forget.  Over and over I forget.  Fortunately the desert is patient, reminding me again each time about the beauty, the silence, the light, and the miracle of all existence.

          Many of us have had similar revelations.  Perhaps in a church or monastery, high on a mountaintop, or gazing into the eyes of a newborn baby.  That experience when we stop thinking, even if just for a moment, and suddenly know – absolutely know – some overwhelming truth that we cannot put to words.  But these moments are fleeting, for as soon as we try to put them to words, label them in some way, we lose grasp.  We are back to thinking again and the moment is lost.  The truth is enough.  Just knowing that it exists.  So long as we don’t try to turn it into something.  Some thing, which it is not.

          Let’s go on a walk into Mystery.

Grace and Peace
Rev. Clara

Wilderness, The Gateway to the Soul, Scott Stillman, Wild Soul Press, Boulder, CO, 2018.

Thursday, January 10, 2019


Meeting God in a Winter Landscape

          As I write this, the sun is shining, the winds are up, but no snow has yet to change the landscape of my yard.  According to the weather forecasters, that is about to change.  Snow may well affect Sunday morning worship.  If it doesn’t, snow will surely affect some schedules in the mid-Atlantic region before spring blossoms arrive.  This meditation is designed to be a reflective piece for when the snow falls.

          The Bible doesn’t reference “snow” very much.  Not surprisingly considering the geographic area that gave birth to our sacred scriptures.  Snow is possible but uncommon in Israel.  It is primarily confined to certain parts of the country.  The 1950 snowfall was memorable.  That said, snow would not be a common metaphor in biblical literature.  In fact only six references make the “most memorable” lists. 

          Come now, and let’s settle this, says the Lord.  Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow.  If they are red as crimson they will become like wool.   Isaiah 1:18 (Common English Bible)

          And yes, you want truth in the most hidden places; you teach me wisdom in the most secret space.  Purify me with hyssop and I will be clean, wash me and I will be whiter than snow.  Psalms 51:6-7 (Common English Bible)

          I am fortunate to live in a house that has a bit of a rural feel.  All the properties on our block are 1-1 ½ acres.  Many of the houses, including mine, are small Cape Cod style housing built in the early 1940s.  Others, on our adjourning block are houses built in the style of the 1950s.  It is only recently that some of our properties have been transformed into the popular large house with the manicured lawns.

          That means that even though I live a block away from the busy Beltway surrounding Washington DC, the view out my window includes trees and lawn and bushes along with deer and foxes.  When winter comes the lush verdant nature of the forest is replaced by barrenness.  There is  starkness in a winter landscape.
          That barrenness can be a reminder to us that we too are exposed in various seasons in our lives.  Sometimes we just know, whether we want to or not, that we can’t hide behind anything.  Just as the winter deciduous trees, we are robbed of our masks and our public coverings.  Our inner self and our inner attitudes are exposed.

          Let’s call them the 3 P’s – Prejudices, Presumptions, and Pride.
Oh, we keep the 3 P’s carefully hidden. 

          We say publically that we haven’t a prejudice bone in our bodies.  We love everyone, unless of course we decide they are a threat to us.  We don’t mine “diversity”, as long as “they” don’t get too close to us.  We have our prejudices, but we try very hard not to advertise them.  However our decision-making and opinions often betray us and we are stripped of pretensions. 

          We make our presumptions about how things should be based on our own life experiences.  That’s imminently logical.  Yet it is also self-defeating because we often find it difficult to hear and understand how someone else’s life experience is so different from ours.  We often quote “walk a mile in another’s shoes”.  Yet when it comes down to it, we don’t trade footwear.

          We say we are not prideful, yet we are adamant we have the right to prioritize our own self-interest.  What “I” want or think I need is a much stronger motivator than what “we” can do together or how “we” can share in the earth’s resources.

          Our winter selves stand barren against the world.  Our winter selves need to be reclothed in  God’s righteousness. 

          Into our winter world, (at least in some parts of our world) comes snow.  Quietly and silently falling, snow transforms the landscape.  Those barren trees are outlined in white.  Weeds are covered by a blanket of snow.  For just a moment, before the frenzy of shoveling, the noise of the snow blower, the sound of children playing, the world is made new. 

          In our spiritual lives we can look out at that winter landscape and see the work of God on our barren lives.  We too are covered by God’s Grace – coming silently and peaceably, settling on us and washing us free of the those three P’s that distort our relationship with God and with the world.

          Should the snow not come this weekend, or any weekend, take some time to look at some winter landscapes.  Get lost in the possibilities of that winter scene and allow it to draw you to God’s Grace. 

          Come now, and let’s settle this, says the Lord.  Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow.  If they are red as crimson they will become like wool.   Isaiah 1:18 (Common English Bible)

Grace and Peace
Rev. Clara

Thursday, December 20, 2018


Love  

“One is loved because one is loved. No reason is needed for loving.”
 Paulo CoelhoThe Alchemist


            Paulo Coehlo is a contemporary lyricist and novelist.  He is best known for his novel The Alchemist released in 2014.  That novel is a fable centered in following one’s dream. 

            At this holy time of year we are following the star – following the dream – that will lead us to the manger in Bethlehem.  There we meet Love Incarnate – Love Embodied.  There we are enfolded in that love – not because of anything we have done.  We are loved because we are loved.  That is the nature of the Good News.

            George Herbert (1593-1632) penned the poem “Love”.  The words speak to  us on our Advent journey:

Love
LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

'A guest,' I answer'd, 'worthy to be here:'
Love said, 'You shall be he.'
'I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.'
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
'Who made the eyes but I?'

'Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.'
'And know you not,' says Love, 'Who bore the blame?
'My dear, then I will serve.'
'You must sit down,' says Love, 'and taste my meat.
So I did sit and eat.


            We stand at the stable door, tired and weary and looking for the wonder of the promise that drew us to this place and time.  Yet dare we cross the threshold?  We know we are unworthy.  We are hesitant to enter such a sacred place.  Who are we to experience this wondrous thing?  Maybe we should wait a day or two.  Maybe we should bring something to give to the baby and the family.  Maybe we should go to the Temple to pray about this whole thing.  We come up with all kinds of excuses to avoid making that commitment to walk into the presence of Love.

            Yet LOVE bids us welcome.  LOVE brings us across the threshold.  LOVE has no need for our excuses because we are already held in HOLY LOVE.

            Simone Weil writes of the power of this particular poem in her life:

            I used to think I was reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my becoming aware of it, reciting it had the nature of a prayer.  During one of those recitations, … Christ himself came down and took possession of me. ….
            In this sudden possession of me by Christ, neither my senses nor my imagination played any role; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love – like that which one can read in the smile of a beloved face.

            This wondrous season unfolds before us, drawing us more closely to the Christ Child.  The story is more than a nice holiday tale.  It is a witness through the ages of Christ coming to us and taking possession of us.  We are welcomed by LOVE.  Our sufferings, our questions, our busy lives are transformed by this presence of love.  We are no longer what we were.  We are ourselves born again into God’s everlasting Love. 

Grace and Peace
Rev. Clara