Category Archives: Spirituality

Three Kings Day 2013

20 + C + M + B + 13*

The three Wise Men,



and Balthasar,

followed the star of God’s Son,

who became human two thousand and thirteen years ago.

++ May Christ bless our home++
++ and remain with us throughout the new year. Amen.++

*It is traditional on the morning of Three Kings Day, Epiphany Sunday, to mark this on the lintel of the home, and pray blessing on the home for the coming year.


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Christmas continues! Days 9-12

(If you are catching up, please see the original post, and the first four days of Christmas, here.  See Days 5-8 here.)

Christmas, Day 12–““In front are the singers, after them the musicians; with them are the maidens playing tambourines (drums).” Psalm 68:25

Again, the distances between modern instrumentation, that of the carol writer, and biblical instrumentation (and translation) leave us with a bit of a disconnect.

According to the New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, the Hebrew word that gets translated as “tambourine” or “tabret” is toph, which was a frame drum–goatskin, typically–stretched over a wooden hoop, and jingle-less:

  • “The modern tambourine is a “jingle” percussion instrument, commonly without a skin, and often half circle or crescent shaped, (although the round, skinned types are used in Latin ensembles and for other more grass roots styled groups). It would appear that the tambourine we find in the Bible was not a tambourine (as we know it) at all.”  (via

As well, they were often played by women. (As an aside, with a bit of a harrrumph, why are the women counted separately from “the musicians”? But let’s not go down THAT road.)

So the usual image of the 12 (male) drummers drumming on snare drums in procession has it wrong on at least two counts, from a12drummers strictly scriptural perspective:  it coulda/woulda/shoulda been women in procession, drumming on small hand drums.  But perhaps for the carol writer and that time, it would have been more likely to see men drumming, as on the field of battle–and much less likely to be able to round up 12 women with no obligations and no qualms about being handed over to the True Love for Christmas!

All of this aside, I confess:  I love percussion.  I love hearing it, I love playing it.   I learned long ago that the English handbells I began ringing while in college were considered a percussion instrument.  I began ringing the small melodic treble bells at the high end of the scale, but over the years found myself (by preference) gradually moving down the scale to the large bass clef bells that provided the more percussive foundation for the rest of the ensemble.

Then, in the context of playing a handbell piece, I first heard the bodhran, the traditional Irish frame drum.  My ears perked up, and I fell in love with the instrument.  Eventually, my sweet baboo gave me one as a gift one Christmas, and I began working with an excellent teacher online.   I play whenever I can!

Here is a great little ensemble–with a female bodhran drummer, which I love:

Then came the djembe.  Enjoy this video of a local drum circle that plays in Frederick, Maryland.  This was an occasional gathering of community on lovely days in the local park:  the Baker Park Play Down.  I’m in there, playing both bodhran (1:22) and djembe (12:01, 12:50, 13:06)!

I don’t know what drives me to pick up all these weird things–handbells, kettlebells, bodhran, djembe–and either swing them, ring them, or bash them–but they’re all wonderful parts of my crazyplate life.  Each becomes, for me, an expression of joy, given as a gift by the One who came at Christmas, and returned as gift to Him. 

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might . . .  (Eccles. 9:10) On this final day of Christmas, celebrate the Gift-giver who came to give us joy.  Whatever gifts you have been given, use them with “all your might”.  In this way, too, we worship, returning our full-hearted  joy as gift to Him.  In the words of the great Rosetti poem and Christmas carol:

drummingWhat can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him–
Give my heart.

Merry Christmas, friends.  Go strong.

Christmas, Day 11–“And all the people came up after him, and the people piped with pipes, and rejoiced with great joy, so that the earth rent with the sound of them..” 1 Kings 1:40

eleven piper piping

Musical instrumentation in biblical times and lands was not a complicated affair; but making connection to modern instrumentation is.  The images for the 11th day of Christmas have various of kinds modern wind
instruments as the “pipe”–I see trumpets, flutes, piccolos, Highland bagpipes, fifes . . . it is not clear to me what kind of pipes the carol-writer had in mind, and even less clear what the pipes of 1 Kings 1:40 might have looked or sounded like!

But we know that, like dance, the music was a full part of the worship of the people.  I like that.

My sweet baboo and I went to a most excellent small liberal arts college affiliated with the Presbyterian church, Lyon College (or Arkansas College, when we were there).  As part of its recognition of the Scottish roots of that denomination, the college celebrates all things Scottish, including hosting annual Highland games and fielding an excellent pipe band, complete with drummers and dancers.

I had good friends in the pipe band, and learned to love that powerful, skirling sound, which was incorporated into all of the community and academic events of the campus, including worship!  Our annual Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans re-enacts (apocryphy alert!) the times under English rule–when England had banned as treasonous both the wearing of tartan and the playing of bagpipes–when the quietly rebellious Scots would bring swatches of their family tartans into their churches.  They were “kirkin” (churching) their tartans, embracing their traditions and asking God’s blessing on their families, even under an oppressive rule.

That annual commemoration includes the bagpipes, which are heard playing from far outside the Chapel, moving closer and closer, until finally the entire ensemble bursts inside–and the very walls vibrate! Even now, I can get a little weepy and homesick hearing and seeing a good pipe band in action, especially Lyon’s.  (Hearing a bad pipe band in action brings up a different kind of emotion.)

Enjoy this Youtube video of the Lyon College pipe band–and crank it up!

Can you hear the joy?  I can.  Be joyful today, friends, on this lovely 11th Day of Christmas.

Christmas, Day 10–“The voice of my beloved! behold, he comes leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills.” Song of Solomon 2:8


Another stretch? Not too much.  We celebrate the tenth day of welcoming the Lord of lords coming into this sad old world of ours–who would not leap for joy?

And see this?  Here’s what blows my mind–

what, in the words of the poet, is “the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart“–

Our Beloved has come to us, not just willingly but eagerly–

“leaping” and “skipping” toward us–

pursuing us with a fierce and determined love.

Why?  Why would this be so?  Why would He come leaping across a cosmos to live this ragged life with us?

“What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” 

Think on this question, this 10th day of Christmas, and see if your heart doesn’t engage in a little leaping of its own.


Christmas, Day 9–”Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.” Jeremiah 31:139-ladies-dancing

I love all the references to dancing that took place in the Old Testament! Dance was worship; worship was dance. Miriam and the women of Israel danced to honor the desert God on the shores of the Red Sea; David danced before the Lord in the temple.

I myself have been known to recuse myself from opportunities to engage in “body prayer” or liturgical dance–my decades-long lack of confidence in my own body holds me back. But it is hard to describe how deeply moved I am when I see dance, and particularly when offered as worship.

I have recently learned some very basic forms of qigong, a healing martial art related to tai chi. The movements are gentle and flowing, and have become part of my daily routine. One in particular–Looking for the Moon in the Sea–had me in tears as I was learning it.  For this form, I raise my cupped hands to the heavens, form a frame through which I look for the moon, then draw the circle of the moon with my hands.  I then follow my hands down into a deep bend, where I draw the same circle of the moon “in the Sea”.  I cup the image in my hands once more, raise them to the sky, and the form begins again.  This is a very slow, rhythmic motion, and has become for me a kind of devotional dance, a form of worship.

I am looking not for the moon, high and remote, but for One who is closer than a brother–who dances with me through the raging sea.  Was there one who danced before the holy Child, seeing in the manger God’s answer to the years of sackcloth and sorrow?

I like to think so.

On this 9th day of Christmas–as we return to work and school–don’t forget to dance a little.  Rejoice and be merry!


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12 Days of Christmas (a devotional, Days 5-8)

(If you are catching up, please see the original post, and the first four days of Christmas, here.  You can read Days 9-12 here.)

Christmas, Day 8–Happy New Year as well!–even on New Year’s Day, those eight maids must go a-milking. Because cows won’t wait.milkmaids

In the more agrarian society of the carol writers, it was often the case that the locations of churches were determined by how far they were in walking distance from the farms and barns where cows would need regular milking–even on the Sabbath.  It was not until a dairy herd was imported to the Jamestown Colony in the early 1700s that the colonists really began to thrive; in the words of the 19th century essayist William Cobbett: “When you have a cow, you have it all.” (Ron Schmid, Green Living Journal).

There are many biblical references to milk:  the Old Testament promise of a land flowing with milk and honey, for example; in the New Testament, Paul uses the image to describe how he provides instruction to those new in the faith:  giving them “milk to drink, not solid food, because you weren’t ready.” (1 Cor. 3:12)  Milk thus often signifies spiritual blessing and the nurturing care of God for his people.

On this New Year’s day, remember that God is nurturing and blessing you, even now.

Christmas, Day 7–oh dear. Here’s another one where there’s so little helpful mention in the Bible:  Leviticus and Deuteronomy both list the poor swan among the unclean birds of kashrut, or kosher laws.  No one could or should eat them. But that’s about it.  This explains why I won’t be asking my sweet baboo to pass the roast swan!

Merry Christmas.

More helpful, perhaps, are their long symbolic associations in mythology, which certainly would have been known to the carol writer:  prophecy (especially of death); royalty; music and poetry; fertility and fidelity (they mate for life); the bridging of the eternal and the mortal worlds.  Thus, “seven swans a-swimming” would focus into one beautiful image: seven-swans

  • the creative arts that flow from the celebration
  • the blessedly fertile womb of Mary
  • the fidelity of Joseph
  • the kingship of Jesus
  • the divinely perfect nature of the holy child
  • the perfectly human nature of the holy child (and that divide forever bridged)
  • and the prophecies that hover over both His birth–and His death.

Consider the swan.  Consider its gifts and its graces.

Merry Christmas, indeed.

Christmas, Day 6–“as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken, so I have gathered all the earth; and there was none that moved a wing or opened the mouth or chirped.” Isaiah 10:14

This one was a bit of a stretch, as there are not any mentions of geese themselves, and not too many of eggs! Eggs have a rich history of biblical symbolism–the womb, the tomb–but all is apocryphal and not really based in scripture.  In Jewish tradition, the closed shell of an intact egg becomes a symbol of mourning, as it signifies the mouth of the mourner, closed in grief. And of course, the roasted egg of the Seder plate serves as part of the ritual remembrance of the night of the Passover.

Wild_GeeseI am particularly intrigued, though–since we’re being all symbolic and apocryphal–by the Celtic church’s image of the wild goose as Holy Spirit.  Early Christians in the northern lands drew all kinds of spiritual lessons from these wild creatures, moving purposefully on paths in the air, paths only they could see.

Preachers love to preach on the lessons of the wild geese.  Communal, mutually supportive, watchful seekers of justice who pursue the unseen call home, wild geese are a lovely object lesson. They serve as the guiding image for the Wild Goose Festival, an annual gathering of  contemporary Christians seeking to find a new way for, a new conversation within the Church by evoking their characteristics of “unpredictability, beauty, and grace”.

I, however, am reminded of some traumatic times during my college years, when the walk between the dining hall and my first lecture was a gauntlet of terror: migratory geese had settled on campus for their nesting, with their favorite nursery spot right along the very route I needed to take to get to class.   For birds clearly out of their normal seasonal homes, they were fabulously, terrifying territorial, defensive giants with wings and beaks and a raging claxon honk . . .

Those were my sprinting years.

Let today’s image from the old carol remind you of the powerful movements of the Holy Spirit in your own experience–bringing new life, protecting and guiding you–calling you, always, towards home.

5RingsChristmas, Day 5–“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Luke 15:22

There are golden rings in the Bible that signal authority:  Pharaoh places his signet ring on Joseph as a sign both of royal favor and the extension of his power to the young dreamteller.  People will argue about the purpose and scriptural nature (or not) of wedding rings.
Always they represent wealth and status.  But this verse, part of the beloved and (when read closely) deeply troubling parable of the Prodigal Son, speaks to the conferral of sonship by a father.

The younger brother has demanded that his inheritance be given to him early.  In the social structure of the time, he has essentially declared openly his wish that his father were dead–you’re lingering too long, old man, fork it over now.  The father complies, and waits. Does he know from experience or the wisdom of long observation that his rebellious son’s new wealth will bring him no happiness?  We don’t know.  He watches the road, and waits.Prodigal

And after long months, he sees a familiar figure on the road–beaten down, haggard, broken–no longer proud–his son.  Though the young man has rejected the ties of family, separating himself in a way that violates them both, the older man has continued to regard him during this long absence as his son.

An embrace, a kiss; a robe, a ring.  And then the feast.

So may it be for us.


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Shortchanging Christmas?

I have written before about the disappearance of the season of holy waiting that is Advent.  In making it my intention to observe the Advent season, I cannot help but notice how quickly Christmas, once it comes, is unwrapped, cleared away, swept up, and put in storage for next year.twelvebanner

Whatever happened to the Twelve Days of Christmas?

Interestingly, many people employ that familiar old song as a countdown to Christmas, starting mid-December or so.  But really, it is intended to begin on Christmas Day, with each day of gifts becoming more and more extravagant, for twelve days until . . . oh, what’s this?  it ends on January 5, the day before Epiphany?  You’d think someone had planned it that way!

Ummmm,  yeah.

It’s not really anyone’s fault in particular:  many churches in America and around the world have detached themselves from the traditional liturgical calendar which marks seasons and days of remembrance within the life of the church itself.  And many people outside the church celebrate Christmas–if they celebrate it at all–merely as a secular holiday of Santas and tinsel and party clothes and food.  And stuff.  Lots and lots of stuff wrapped up in bright paper.  Credit card debt, five extra pounds, and a partridge in a pear treeEverybody sing!!

For me, though, a Christmas disconnected from its historical, liturgical roots is a diminished, sorry thing, something made frivolous and fleeting.  I don’t have time for that, me and my crazyplate life.  I’d pack it up quickly, too, if that were all Christmas was about.  Heck, I might not even bother with it to begin with!

But I do have time–will make time–for a central mystery of our faith. Mystery. Something hidden from view until God reveals it in its time. Like a beautifully-wrapped gift.  Like a babe in the womb.

Frankly, twelve days is not long enough to wrap my head, or my heart, around this one: how the One who shaped the universe, who with a word sprang light and oceans and the grandeur of the stars and the struggling-for-breath mud of my little life into being, would choose to enter that life himself, walk alongside me.

My heart is not big enough to contain it.  The days are too short and too few to speak of it. An eternity might suffice, but twelve days?

Well, we have to start somewhere.

So I’ve been writing a little each day, considering and reconnecting the gifts given in that much-loved carol to scripture, and to the extended observation of Christmas which the season–the mystery–deserves.  Will you walk with me through Christmastide?

Christmas, Day 1–this day stands on its own!–NOW you may begin singing The Twelve Days of Christmas. We’ve enjoyed the partridge-ey one; now for the rest, one by one. Christmas teaches both patience and extravagance in love, no?  Next up: two turtledoves!

Christmas, Day 2–“The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.” Song of Solomon 2:12

Lovely to think about spring approaching, especially today when all is snow and ice. Lovely to think about singing at any time, but especially lovely to think of a “time of singing”, when song becomes speech, worship, loving, connection. Lovely to listen for the Beloved’s voice over the chaos and monkeymind.


Christmas, Day 3– ” . . . how often I have longed to gather you together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings . . . ” Luke 13:34

My dad raised chickens on our little farm in Arkansas–endlessly entertaining birds, which was good, since we had only two or three TV channels coming in over our aerial antenna! I could watch them for hours, and laugh my head off at their squabbles, competition for bugs (and the rooster’s attention), and clumsy attempts at flight.

Things got deadly serious in the chicken coop, though, when the shadows of wings passed overhead. A few sharp clucks, and all the little ones knew to run to Momma. She would hunker down and spread out her wings, and her brood would run underneath. One steely eye to the heavens, and the message was clear: “Don’t mess with my babies!”

I love images of God that include the feminine experience: babes at breast, cradled tenderly in the palm of His hand, the mother in the stable–weeping at the foot of the cross. Today’s image, though, is more fierce than tender, a mother to be reckoned with: the hen gathering her chicks for protection against imminent danger.

As we continue to celebrate Christmas, and approach a new year either with dread or with hope, we can know that God as mother hen is watching over us, offering us a place of refuge.

Christmas, Day 4–“Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap, which have neither storehouse nor barn; and God feeds them.” Luke 12:24

This one takes a bit of explanation. The 4th Day of Christmas line that we commonly sing–“four calling birds”–is actually a bit of a muddling over the years of the actual line, “four colly birds”. A colly bird is the colloquial name for the European blackbird–perhaps four of the four-and-twenty who will later be baked into pies? (Did I lose you right there?)  There weren’t a whole lot of European blackbirds in Judea and points east back in the day, but there were many mentions of their larger cousins, the raven.

Ravens did not have a good reputation; because they are part of nature’s “clean-up crew” of carrion birds such as buzzards and vultures, they have often been considered omens of evil to come. So why would Jesus mention the raven at all?

Perhaps to emphasize that God is not just for the fortunate and lovely among us–the sparrows and the lilies, if you like. Each of us, no matter how commonplace or off-putting or unwelcome, has a purpose, and work to do. Even a baby born to nobodies, to common folk–an unwed teenage mother, a scared young carpenter in a barn. Even the raven was given holy purpose: Noah used one to seek out dry land, and God sent the raven to feed Elijah in exile.

God makes provision, makes a place at the table, for all. Should we not do the same, this 4th day of Christmastide?

To be continued . . .


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For the Turning of the Year

ImageThis Friday, December 28, will be the final full moon of the year:  the Full Cold Moon, or Long Night’s Moon, as named in native tradition. As has become tradition for me, I will be walking a labyrinth under the full moon: to reflect upon the good this year has brought, and to release what has been painful or unfulfilled.

Walking the labyrinth regularly and intentionally throughout the year has become an important part of my spiritual life, and never more important than at the turning of year.  The singular, circling path makes tangible the many cyclical ways our lives run:  the cycle of seasons, the round of months and moons that return regularly–always the same, always different. The path I will walk on Friday is the same path I have walked in months past–and yet because my heart is full of new questions and experiences, it will somehow be a brand new path.

A year ago, I returned home from the Full Cold Moon labyrinth with a poem circling in my head.  I had embarked the previous December on an ambitious and terrifying attempt at changing my health and life for the better–and indeed, the year had seen me through many, many changes.  I walked that path at the end of 2011 in absolute wonder and gratitude for the encouragement and love of my family, and for the strength to change that seemed to have come from somewhere–from some higher or deeper source than my puny, fearful spirit.

The changes have continued into 2012, and I look back upon the year with the same gratitude.

For those whose lives have changed dramatically–for those who yearn for but see no hope of change–for all those who face the turning of the year with dread, or with hope, I offer it here again.

Year’s End Moon

I saw the circle of this passing year reflected tonight,
bright-face, in the Long Night Moon–

saw its meandering steps traced in that sacred path, lined
in stone and light trembling through endless turnings, passages–

saw at each turning the choice–the fear–the dark corridor
where failure’s familiar chuckling voice waited in welcome.

But my feet know a different dance at the turning of this year.
Sister Moon witnessed my steps tonight: at first hesitant,

then stronger as memories carried me, surer as I moved
from strength to strength, smiling up into her brilliant light.

I am, and am not, she who stepped into the circle a year ago–
a new song sings me now into the dance, under the full cold moon.

tls-Dec 2011

Friends, where has this passing year taken you?  Where will the path in the turning of the year lead you?

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Silent Gift

“How Silently, How Silently the Wondrous Gift is Given . . .”

Isaac is getting anxious.  No tree, no lights, no wrapping paper, no presents . . . we haven’t yet begun to stir the dust on the boxes of Christmas stuff in our basement.  Last year around this time, part of me was explaining that we were waiting for our daughter Katy to make it home from her Americorps assignment out in Nevada—she’d want to be part of the preparation for Christmas, right?

(But she’s home this year, so that excuse won’t work again.)

Another part of me is saying simply:  it’s not yet Christmas.  It’s not time . . . . shhhhhhhh.

 What happened to Advent?

The sad truth is, there is very little room in our busy December schedules for an Advent quiet.  Marching bands, parades, an endless supply of commercials and sales and invitations to parties . . . all of it begins to trumpet CHRISTMAS, LOUD AND PROUD! right after Halloween, with barely a breath taken for Thanksgiving.  winter-silence

The truth is, what my heart yearns for most is to be quiet in December—to remember and observe the forgotten season of Advent, that season in the church when we prepare our hearts for the promised Messiah to be born there.

What was in Mary’s heart, all those quiet nights alone with her growing belly, feeling this unknown and unexpected child kicking inside her?  Did she feel the weight of the world?  Worry for the birth to come?  Holy wonder, holy confusion at the prospect of Yeshua Meshiach coming into the world through the most obscure (and messiest) means possible:  into human flesh, through the womb of an unknown peasant girl?  What work was being accomplished even then by the Creator of the Universe, curled in silence in the secret places of Mary’s body?

I want time to consider those questions—to find where they connect to my own heart.

Wasn’t it in the silence of my own messy heart that Jesus was born so many years ago? 

When was your heart last silent enough to hear the still small voice of the Holy Child . . . or the Savior?

In the midst of the overscheduled, overcooked, busy doings and goings of December, please remember to make room for silence.  To make room for the Christ Child.  To await His coming in your heart.

To prepare ye the way of the Lord.

(If you want to read another perspective on the overscheduled Christmas, please go to my good friend Karen Austin’s blogpost on Segullah.)

(Full disclosure:  an earlier version was written for the December 2011 newsletter of the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia Walk to Emmaus community:


Filed under Life in the Balance, Spirituality

The Space Between the Lines

I have a pair of pants–faded brown jeans, nothing special or big-name-brand or anything about them. My husband HATES them.

I love them.

He hates them for almost the same reason I love them: they are about three sizes too big. Baggy at the hips, rear, and thighs, slipping off the waist, riding dangerously low on my hips, they look like I’m wearing my dad’s pants. They would have made great hobo pants for the most popular poor-kid Halloween costume when I was a kid. He just rolls his eyes when I come out of the room wearing them. I get it. But I keep wearing them! I’m wearing them at this moment, in fact.

I remember when I bought these jeans.

I was on my way UP in sizes, and these jeans were my next step up the rack of sizes. I hated clothes shopping, because every trip to the store reminded me of how big I was, and getting bigger all the time. There were usually tears involved in these purchases, which had become inevitable as I continued to inch my way up the scale, making the last ‘biggest-ever’ skirt or blouse (or jeans, in this case) the next to go in the pile of ‘when I lose weight again’ clothes.

These jeans, mercifully for me, were made by a brand that employs generous sizing guidelines, so even though they were my next-step jeans, I reasoned, they would remain comfortable for a while (see how, long-ingrained in my thought process, was my sense of the inevitability of getting bigger?).

And for a while that was the case, until at the top of my weight gain , I found that I had popped an outside seam here on my left thigh. Climbing into my SUV eventually became a tortuous kind of guessing game: will the button hold? Will the rest of the seam give way? Will I be able to breathe?!

(Confession: it is embarrassing beyond measure to admit these things, but to do so as open-eyed and transparently as I can is part of my journey–part of owning and embracing it, understanding and feeling compassion for the person I was, and for those who are even now living this life.  You are not alone, and you are not without hope, or help!)

Which brings me to where I am: swimming, now, in these very same jeans. Why, when they serve as a reminder of the ugly place I was, do I not only hang onto them, but continue to wear them? In public?!

There has been grace, friends, in the space between the dark place where I was, and where I am now. The daylight in my pants reminds me of that grace. That’s even what I call them–my Daylight Pants!–because when I pull out the waistband, I can look all the way down my legs to my feet and the floor below.

Daylight. My feet are in a sure and solid place, and it is a new day.  The line where I was, the line where I am now, each a kind of starting line for a race, a leap–a journey. I am blessed to live in the free space in between.

An artist I heard this weekend at a bluegrass festival, Tim O’Brien, sang of a kind of quiet grace that finds and holds us “in the space between the lines“. (music begins around 1:22)

Enjoy this song, friends, and may you go strong today, in grace and light.

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The long and winding road

How is it possible I’ve let this blog sit for a month?!

A semester has begun, a daughter has come home to roost, and I feel I’ve been a world away.  Time to buckle down, get back to reality–certainly back to serious training, since I’m less than TWO WEEKS AWAY FROM HKC certification!!

But where have I been, you ask?  So glad you asked.

I’d mentioned, here and elsewhere, that August would be the time of the 4th Annual Pilgrimage of Peace, an occasional gathering of friends new and returning, seeking the monastic rhythms of silence, fellowship, shared work, and sung prayer in the beautiful Blue Ridge of West Virginia.  Held at Stillpoint Retreat Center, the annual event is led and shepherded by Br. Stefan Waligur, Benedictine oblate, composer, singer of chants and teller of stories.  Asker of stubborn and troubling questions.

This, in good measure, has been his life’s work–leading these retreats, gradually building this vagabond and scattered community across America and now in Ireland, where he currently lives and studies in a community of scholars known as All Hallow’s College in Dublin.  In recent years, his vocation–a word I love for its connection to the word “vocal” or “voice”–literally “a calling forth”–has come a bit clearer, during his time in Ireland:  ministering to a wounded Church.

The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has been badly damaged by the horror of priestly abuse of children.  People are broken and angry, and when they have chosen to leave the church, in good measure they have also chosen to leave God.  Br. Stefan–or Macushla, “the heartbeat of the Beloved”, a Celtic name given to him spontaneously by an elderly Irish woman–has been working to help them find a path back to God, through their own ancient songs and stories.

For centuries these grand heroic stories had been ignored or even forbidden by the church, blocking the people from a great source of their identity and strength.  In their place, the church offered the Roman Catholic identity–which, in the face of heartbreaking, unspeakable betrayal, has crumbled to dust.

Now, unable and unwilling to turn for identity and strength to a broken church, they are relearning their own story through the songs and ministry of an American expatriate, a vagabond monk:  he is telling their old tales to them, creating  and teaching them new songs crafted from the old melodies, connecting both to an essential and life-giving Gospel in a gentle teaching of simple, poetic questions and deep, holy listening.

It is a beautiful work, and for seventeen days in August, we had the opportunity to be part of it.  Through silence, Scripture, story; through chant, drumming, poetry; through shared work, meals, play–a community came together in reunion, welcomed new friends, grew together, learned and lived together.  We built a labyrinth together, blessed it, were the first to walk its rock-strewn, root-woven paths.  We laughed and swam and kayaked together; together sat in silence in the early light of dawn, the fading light of sunset, under starlight and moonlight.

And we said goodbye.  Each year is harder to leave, to return to the “reality” waiting outside and down the crazybeautiful mountain roads that lead to Stillpoint.  Each year we leave not knowing, truly, where or whether we will be able to gather again.  Stillpoint? Dayspring (an earlier and equally beloved site, in Maryland)?  Ireland itself, where this important work is happening?

We don’t know–but as in the labyrinth, we trust the path, and those who walk it, to God.

Now–back to work.

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You are not a blank.

There was this dream.

I entered a house–wood frame, a bit tumbledown–built halfway into the side of a hill.  People I did not know milled about the front room, then organized themselves to queue up in front of a desk with a large ledger.  I waited patiently in the line for my turn, then took up the pen.

(This is how registrars dream, I suppose.)

Write my name–that was my intention. Register my presence.  Simple enough–done it millions of times before.  In my family, I’m the designated form-filler-outer (another job-related weirdness–I love filling out forms), so this was just the necessary business of getting to whatever was in the house, right?

But what came out of the pen–over and over again, I watched my hand write it as though it belonged to someone else–was not my name.

I am a blank.

I am a blank.

I am a blank.

Oh, my counselor had a field day with this one.

10 years ago, I was in a year of deep mourning for our mother, who had just passed from her final battle with cancer.  In my grieving, I had struck out at people I loved, the acid splash of long-suppressed “issues” boiling up and burning all around me.  I began meeting with a pastoral counselor in northern Virginia once a week; as a result of that inward work, my dreams had become vivid, powerful, shake-you-awake monstrosities to which, I was ordered, I must pay careful attention.  These inward voices and images would speak truth.

And here, with perfect calm and clarity–in my own handwriting–was mine:

I am a blank.

I did not recognize until I spoke it out loud to my counselor, the full-force horror of what I wrote, what I was saying.  Children of alcoholics and PTSD sufferers will recognize the pattern:  so many years of walking on eggshells, trying to stay as small and still as possible–to become invisible.  To become a blank.  If I didn’t, I might be the target of whatever rage, or worse, was shaking the house at that moment.  In blankness was safety–but I had drawn the safe zone too wide, too deep.

I am a blank.

I am remembering this dream now, because 10 years later–40 years after that message came to be embedded in my soul–I still struggle with the fears that surround and feed this part of me.  In my career, my relationships, my hobbies–every part of my life–my pattern is to withdraw from potential conflict and failure, to find the safest, quietest path to walk.  To stay “under the radar”, in calm waters where I can control and extend my safe zone.  It’s how I kayak.  It’s how I train with kettlebells: know my safe limits, and stay there.  No danger. No pushing the edges. No possibility of failure.

And then Cruel Jamie shows up.  She’s not putting up with any of it.

In my training prep for the HKC workshop in Pittsburgh in September, Jamie has focused not just on technique, but on developing my strength as well–in particular to knock down those fears, one by one, that tell me I cannot, no way, never in a million years pick up that 16k kettlebell and snatch it over my head. Or deadlift 30 lbs more than my bodyweight? Are you crazy? Do you know how OLD I am?  I amazed that she has not lost patience with me, but that’s what makes her so good.

She doesn’t mince words, though:  “Oh shut up. You can do it.  Pick up the bell and get busy.” (I might be paraphrasing.)

So, this past weekend, I did.  Picked up these impossibly heavy weights, and just like she said–I did it, just like that.

Tangible evidence that this old voice, this old message–it’s beyond outdated.  It holds me back and shrinks me down so that I can see only my limitations, my safe edges.  We internalize those old messages, and we receive and nod assent to other messages–my faith, my family and their love, my various successes at work, when I have them.  But I needed to have that message embodied–incarnated, in my own flesh and blood.  

(Sounds like a thing some crazy desert god would do, doesn’t it–put into flesh, into the body the most important Message He could send us so that we would finally, finally, get it?  Because sometimes we don’t see the truth any other way.)

This is why this stuff has become so important to me.

I’m learning to get strong.  I’m learning to trust my strength.  I’m learning to listen to the voices that say, “You matter. You are sufficient to the task. You are not a blank.”

I’m learning.

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The Dogs Do Howl . . .

I don’t remember much of my first 10 years, spent in a little white house with black trim on the corner of the block in a little town in central Texas.  I remember helping to scrape the house every year when Dad mobilized his junior army of painters–my six siblings and I–to freshen the trim.  I remember all of us, at some point, being banished to the back yard to pull weeds as punishment for one transgression or another.  I remember hordes of scab-kneed, sunburned children massing in the street for hours-long games of dodgeball, scattering for the occasional car bringing its owner home from work.

I remember walking to and from school, waiting for the day that a pomegranate growing on the other side of some unknown neighbor’s fence got big enough and red enough and close enough . . . just a little closer . . . to snag it and break open the rough skin to get at the ruby sweet inside.

And I remember dogs.

Our “backdoor neighbor” had two big lanky dogs–they might have been greyhounds, for all I know or remember–that had run a barren, dusty track around the perimeter of the chainlink fence that enclosed their yard. For hours in Texas sun these dogs would race, stopping only to drink or eat or occasionally snap and wrestle each other to the ground.

And as they ran in circles . . . I remember that they barked and howled, almost as if it was hurting them. But they couldn’t seem to stop–they just kept running, and howling.  Even worse, their ruckus would get the neighbors’ dogs going on either side, and then they would upset the dogs next to them–and soon the entire block was in full roar. Worse, each new contingent of doggie madness would enter the fray at a higher volume, more shrill and frantic than the others.

For hours.

I also remember that Dad was always mad; but now that I think about it, I don’t blame him, if he had to listen to those damn dogs all day long.  I could block my ears and run inside the house to escape the maddening clamor when it got going, but Dad was a gardener and outdoorsman, and the back yard was his refuge. He couldn’t escape.

I’m remembering all this today, because lately I’m getting the same feeling that I remember from being a little kid: wanting to put my fingers in my ears and crawl away from all of it.

The ridiculous Chick-Fil-A posture-fest. The political games and one-ups-manship.  Faith, government, education, work, the environment–in every circle, it seems as though the best we can offer each other is an extended howl of outrage about the latest sound bite–which invites someone else’s bellow in return, ad infinitum, until we’re whirling around each other, snapping, surrounded by cloud of noise and dust and hate.

It’s not just the noise, then, that spiraling competition to out-bark the other dogs. It’s the bared teeth. The hate. The reduction of our brothers and sisters, neighbors and co-workers to ‘them’–whatever the group is currently under fire.  There’s a violence there–violence in and to the spirit– just as surely as in the streets of war half a world away.

I stopped watching broadcast news because I hated this growing tendency (and because of the atrocious grammar); and then had to give up reading online news because of the trolls frequenting the comment section.  Everywhere I turned I saw the worst of people, no matter the issue or which side, yammering away and not changing anyone’s mind–not even trying to change opinions, really.  Just get the skewer in. Reach for the throat.  Get the dig in.  Wrestle them down to the dirt.

I didn’t want to feed that particular dog anymore.

And I’m about to give up on Facebook, too.  One of my sisters already has, and I don’t blame her a darn bit. She reports being happier and having more time for real reading and other essentials–and who wouldn’t want those things?

So here’s my howl for the day:

I’m one of the last Timeline holdouts–shhhhh, FB hasn’t found me yet.  But when it does find me and slap that monstrosity on me–I’m outta there. It’s just one of the howling dog tracks, but it’s a way to start turning the volume down somewhere. Shut the dogs of war up already.

Pax vobiscum.


Filed under Life in the Balance, Spirituality, Writing