By night…

This is the homily I offered up today for Red Door Healing Service at Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.  It is all about proximity, though (as everything seems to be this Lent…my intention is doing what it was intended to do!).  So, I offer it up today as my daily reflection….

John 3:1-17 

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

 

Sometimes, the stories that pull us in are about the characters: rich description of those who are heroes or villains where we love to love them, or love to see them get their just rewards. Sometimes, the stories that pull us in are about the plot, the adventures, the interesting twists and turns that happen along the way. But sometimes, the stories that pull us in are because we have stood in the very same place in which the story takes place. The reason why the story of Nicodemus and Jesus sticks with me is because I have stood in the same place as Nicodemus,…well, at least metaphorically speaking…searching for truth in the night. Maybe it’s a familiar place for you, too.

I think what might help us really hear the words that the Holy Spirit speaks to us through this Gospel today is to try to stand in the same place as this story begins, standing in the shoes of Nicodemus.

Now, Nicodemus is a good guy, respected among his peers. He’s been elevated to a position of authority as a Temple leader among the Jewish community. That means he has been educated, and that he has talked the talk, and walked the walk. The Pharisees were a group who intentionally lived out the teachings of the temple in the world in which they lived and worked. By day, Nicodemus was doing everything that was asked of him to live into his calling and vocation. I respect that in a person, and clearly the other temple leaders respected him, too.

But what we read between the lines is that something else was gnawing at Nicodemus’ heart and soul. He was moved by the teachings of Jesus, and in spite of his understandable doubts about what it might mean for his life and work he wanted to know more. So, Nicodemus did what many of us do. He decided to follow the lead of his questioning, searching soul and sought out proximity to Jesus. But (also like many of us), he did so in the most stealthy way possible, by night. This had to do with his real soul-searching, and his real fears. I imagine Nicodemus thinking: I want to know more; I want to know this person Jesus. But I do not want to rock the boat. I have to be cautious. Maybe, I can go at night when no one else can see me…

Like I said, I understand exactly what it feels like to be Nicodemus.  I also can imagine how eager he was to have his fears assuaged, to be told that yes he could follow in deep discipleship and still remain safe and certain of his day job. That would be great, wouldn’t it?! But, Jesus offers up language that is challenging and mysterious. He uses the analogy of birth, of the entry into the openness of new beginnings in order to teach Nicodemus about the power of living openly and authentically into where his soul was leading him. Jesus doesn’t tell him that the way will be easy, or that he will be safe and secure. Jesus invites him to an experience of new life in spirit, fraught with all of the potential for growth and all of the potential for pain. This life, from above, is the life of spirit.

We often hear the end of this story quoted without its context: John 3:16

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

But it takes on the life of the spirit, as Jesus invites Nicodemus…and us…to embrace, when we hear it in the footsteps of this story of Nicodemus and in the lovingly imparted gift of God echoing in the next passage:

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

In our cloak of darkness where we try to protect our own safety even though our heart is longing to be transformed by God, Jesus meets us. Jesus reminds us that the whole reason that we are drawn to Christ isn’t because we are being condemned or convicted, but because we are drawn to the light of salvation, of new life in this world in which we are living. Like every kind of growth and development, it requires something of us. What is required, as we hear Jesus speak to Nicodemus, is for us to receive open-heartedly and know that we will begin to change, to transform, to be a part of God’s movement in the world. We can’t do that sneaking around in the cloak of darkness. We do that by living in the transformed light of Christ.

The Gospel of John is the only one of the four Gospels with this story of Nicodemus. Although we don’t know exactly what Nicodemus does after this encounter with Jesus, it isn’t the last time we will hear of him in the Gospel according to John. He will resurface, along with Joseph of Arimethea, to take the body of the crucified Jesus to the freshly-hewn tomb. Nicodemus will bring a wealth of myrrh and spices to the tomb, befitting a king.  The poetry and images of John often speak of the light in the darkness, the Word made flesh, dwelling with us. We are invited, through this story of Nicodemus, to share in a journey where we don’t start out powerful and safe. We begin small, new, in an infancy of potential becoming where the light of God’s love invites us to move step by step into our full stature. That is what it means to be born of the Spirit, to follow Christ deeply in the open light of possibility. I wonder what thoughts of light and darkness, of safety and spirit remained with Nicodemus after that late-night conversation. I wonder how those thoughts formed in his mind when he laid Jesus in the tomb. I wonder what his response was when that night of crucifixion and death was broken by the eternal light of resurrection.

Like Nicodemus, we are invited to follow our hearts that have brought us to this place of proximity with Christ so that we can learn to become fully who we are, living in the light as we grow together more fully into our eternal life in Christ.

 

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Proximity to Nature

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Today, on the pier, I made friends with some fish.
They felt my presence, the pier buoyant with each step,
I worried I would let them down because I had no bread to toss,
But for some reason, they stayed.

The turtles were sunning themselves,
Basking in the sudden springtime which may change any day.
But on this day, there was warmth on the rocks,
A fleeting solar charge at unhurried pace.

Trumpeting jonquils announced an early spring,
Stray tulips bloomed brightly before their time.
Cherry blossoms bursting forth, streaming down.
Nature cannot hear that a freeze may be coming.

I am drawn to these late winter days masquerading as spring.
Fish, turtles, and flowers have no ulterior motive;
Their facade is accidental, responding to nature’s cues
Rather than the empirical predictions of meteorology.

Today, I wanted to eschew the science, and be with the turtles.
I wanted to simply be present, without worry
and without regard for the work piling up while I strolled.
I managed to be present for an hour; even that was noteworthy.

Nature gives me a lesson today; she schools my soul in stillness.
She offers me companions in fish, and turtles, and blossoms.
She gives me shade and sunshine, water to drink and air to breathe.
In the middle of this Lenten fast, nature offers a feast.

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To my Sisters

Tonight, I close up International Women’s Day thinking about my sisters of this world.  There are ways and issues around which we are so proximal, and other ways in which we are so very different from each other.  I love our resonance, and our diversity.  It makes the world a richer place to know the experiences of the other, both where they are shared and where each of us experiences personal and/or social challenges to being the fullness of ourselves.  For women, the fullness of who we are hits up against social expectations (and yes, limitations) of who we are supposed to be, by society’s standards.  Today, listening and taking in the conversations among my sisters all around me has made me reflect on the ways we are (or are not) in proximity.

Intersectionality is a phrase originated by my womanist and black feminist sisters to remind us that all women are uniquely situated in their identities: to be a black woman is very different than a white, queer-defining woman, for example.  We may share a common trait, but we cannot fully appreciate the humanness of our sisters without seeing complexity in all her varied forms and fabulousness.  But with that fabulousness comes identities which are less socially valued, or more easily overlooked.  The notion of identity is varied , shifting, multi-faceted.  I can dig deeply into my own identity, but I do my sister a disservice if I think I can lay claim to defining her own identity.

Knowing the other requires a commitment to relationship.  Relationship emerges from proximity, and proximity stems from trust.  Being proximal means we listen, even if we don’t like what we hear.  Being proximal doesn’t mean we agree with everything that we hear, but that we take time to understand it and challenge it if needed.  We can do so with grace and openness, or with bitterness and judgment.  The two approaches have very different outcomes.

Today, some women boycotted work; some wore red and served the public; some didn’t find the message of the Women’s March appealing to them.  Some showed up to necessary work but found their minds elsewhere; some showed up and lived it as any other day.  Each one of my sisters lived into the depth of the intersections of identity in her life, some harmonizing and some dissonant.  We are made in the image and likeness of God, each phenomenal one of us.  So to all my sisters, proximity  with each one of you as I close this day with the words of Maya Angelou:

Phenomenal Woman 

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Holy One, you made us all phenomenally.  May we look to each other, and see You.

 

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Proximal Artistry

Today was a well-deserved day away from work and school.  My daughter and I are both on Spring Break this week, something that doesn’t always coincide on our academic schedules.  But, this year our days off overlap, so we have planned a series of day trips and outings to local favorite places.  Today, it was the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

As we walked in, my daughter said, “Do you want to visit your favorite paintings?”

I laughed, because I do have a series of artworks that I visit as if a favorite friend or relation.  We often visit the VMFA for special exhibits, too.  But, proximity to inspirational works of art feeds my soul, and I needed that nourishment today.  Art speaks to me in a way that words cannot.

In that spirit, I offer a virtual tour of just a few of my favorite Lenten themed, soul-nourishing works of art from the VMFA’s permanent collection, freshly visited today.  Enjoy the virtual proximity:

Edward M. Bannister, Moonlight Marine (1885)

Bannister

 

Luis Berrueco, Virgin of Guadalupe (mid 18th Century)

guadalupe

 

Frederick Childe Hassam, Moonlight, New England Coast (1907)

Hassam

 

Crucifixion, ca. 1500 (stained glass with leading)

Crucifixion

 

 

 

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Thoughts on Bridges

Today has been an exercise in bridging the gap and feeling the strain.  Sometimes in this public writing forum, I can’t authentically convey the stories of what comes my way while living into my Lenten intention  of proximity without oversharing around issues impacting others.  So, instead, I want to reflect for a few minutes on this idea of bridging the gap in a very real and vulnerable way…the lesson is here, not the stories.

I sometimes think that the role of the bridge builder is diminished by being socially elevated as a never-ending supply of giving, as though those of us who span the distance between people have the capacity to stretch without breaking.  It isn’t true.  We actually sometimes snap and give way.  We realize that in our attempts to build proximity, we are not fortified enough, or the distance is too great.  The realization comes that even if a bridge is needed and desired, we can’t actually keep being the bridge without the right kind of supports: internal, external, existential.

I find myself having burned some bridges today, and built others.  I also find myself reflecting tonight that both are necessary parts of the same whole.  Some bridges are well intended, but not structurally sound; they need to come down before someone gets hurt.  Some bridges will be stronger for what I can offer of myself in extending from one side to the other with the support and suspension from above and below.  In my attempts at bridging, I have been prayerful.  In these attempts, I have gained wholeness and awareness of both limits and capacity.

I found this poem speaking loudly and clearly to me tonight.  Kate Rushin, poet and black feminist comes through for me on this day.  So, I share her poem, with gratitude for her vulnerable authenticity and spoken truth on which I continue to reflect:

The Bridge Poem

I’ve had enough
I’m sick of seeing and touching
Both sides of things
Sick of being the damn bridge for everybody

Nobody
Can talk to anybody
Without me Right?

I explain my mother to my father my father to my little sister
My little sister to my brother my brother to the white feminists
The white feminists to the Black church folks the Black church folks
To the Ex-hippies the ex-hippies to the Black separatists the
Black separatists to the artists the artists to my friends’ parents…

Then
I’ve got the explain myself
To everybody

I do more translating
Than the Gawdamn U.N.

Forget it
I’m sick of it

I’m sick of filling in your gaps

Sick of being your insurance against
The isolation of your self-imposed limitations
Sick of being the crazy at your holiday dinners
Sick of being the odd one at your Sunday Brunches
Sick of being the sole Black friend to 34 individual white people

Find another connection to the rest of the world
Find something else to make you legitimate
Find some other way to be political and hip

I will not be the bridge to your womanhood
Your manhood
Your human-ness

I’m sick of reminding you not to
Close off too tight for too long

I’m sick of mediating with your worst self
On behalf you your better selves

I am sick
Of having to remind you
To breathe
Before you suffocate
Your own fool self

Forget it
Stretch or drown
Evolve or die

The bridge I must be
Is the bridge to my own power
I must translate
My own fears
Mediate
My own weaknesses

I must be the bridge to nowhere
But my true self
And then
I will be useful

-Kate Rushin from This Bridge Called My Back (1981)
edited by: Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua

Or listen, read by the author, here: Kate Rushin reads The Bridge Poem

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Tasting Proximity

I just came back from grocery shopping, my usual Saturday morning routine.  This was my first shopping expedition during Lent, and I note that having an intention of “proximity” combined with some Orthodox vegetarian eating habits is proving a bit of a challenge in East Coast early March.  My intention did make me pause and think, though, about what I usually just grab and buy without much thought as to where, when, why, and how it was grown.  As I always learn: that is really the point of Lent.  It isn’t really about what we give up or take on, but the intention that it creates in us.

Suffice it to say, it was a much longer trip than usual.  I’m also really happy with the interesting and creative combinations that I’m planning to prepare this week.  Whether my family is or not remains to be seen.  But, I digress.

I have to admit one big, huge, realization that occurred to me while shopping, though: proximity isn’t just where your body finds itself.  Proximity is a state of presence.

In a very real way, what I wanted to eat for breakfast all week was avocado toast.  That is definitely not local to Virginia.  But, I paused to think about it deeply instead of superficially.  Avocado toast is basically what I eat every morning that I’m in California for my seminary intensives, possibly with some berries and yogurt to alternate. I’ve never lived on the West Coast until these multi-week intensives, so I am part amazed tourist and part local partaker when it comes to what is grown locally in that shorter…but very real…bicoastal part of my life right now.  Local avocados (and Meyer lemons, when I’m there in winter) are like a culinary communion to this part of the country in which I am learning and forming for ministry.  While shopping today on the East Coast, I came across some lovely avocados from my West Coast second-home and it was practically a sacramental experience.  So, I bought two (at about four times the price I will pay for one in June), and some local-to-me sprouts, whole grain bread and an (admittedly, local hot-house grown) hydroponic tomato.

So, I am writing and eating my lenten brunch…and feeling richly connected, proximally, thinking about my friends who are living on the West Coast right now and those who, like me, live all around the country and will gather together a few months from now for our intensive studies together.  Eventually, our twice yearly mutual communion in chapel worship, during classes, and over shared meals…featuring local lemons and avocado and loquats and more…will live out its days.  It is a season, and a beautiful one that I cherish and celebrate.  Our proximity to each other after that season will need to be either carefully constructed or virtually supported, but it will still be there if we are intentional about creating and maintaining it.  But it will require that intention, just as our lives of faith are intentionally nurtured as well.

Proximity isn’t accidental.  It requires effort  and intention.  It is an act lived into through heart and soul, not only body.

Today, I taste proximity.  And it is a good, and holy thing.

Holy One, draw us close in thought, in heart, and in spirit to each other, and to you.

For further reflection: Psalm 34: 1-10

Psalm 34

I will bless the Lord at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.

My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
let the humble hear and be glad.

O magnify the Lord with me,
and let us exalt his name together.

I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
and delivered me from all my fears.

Look to him, and be radiant;
so your[a] faces shall never be ashamed.

This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord,
and was saved from every trouble.

The angel of the Lord encamps
around those who fear him, and delivers them.

O taste and see that the Lord is good;
happy are those who take refuge in him.

O fear the Lord, you his holy ones,
for those who fear him have no want.

The young lions suffer want and hunger,
but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

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Proximity: Interfaith Intention

A visitor to today’s Red Door lunch ministry pulled me aside and related to me an incident that happened a few moments earlier.  Rather than concern, he was relating to me with wonder and appreciation how the situation he observed quickly resolved.  One of the student volunteers had been assigned to the table to hand out fruit: oranges, apples, bananas.  As he handed someone an orange, the meal guest threw it back at him.  The student just smiled and said, “would you rather have an apple?” and when the person walked back angrily, he just shrugged it off and helped the next person.  When the visitor said to him, “Why didn’t you react?” the student volunteer said, “I know he probably didn’t want to take it from me, because I’m Muslim.  He had said that before.  But, I’m used to it.”

I sighed.  This was very distressing for me to hear.  I value the fact that this faith-based food ministry in the parish hall of an Episcopal Church attracts student and community volunteers from all walks of life, all faith backgrounds, and we serve and work together in deep peace.  In fact, it gives me hope for the future to have such a beautiful, caring spirit breathing life to us all in the midst of diversity.

The students behind the table seemed fine.  I was tempted to brush it off.  But, proximity is my intention this Lenten season, so I drew near.  I asked the students at the fruit table how things were going, making small talk.  The incident didn’t come up.  So, I said: “One of the visitors suggested that you might have had been on the receiving end of an orange in flight?” The student volunteer, a young and gregarious student, just laughed and said, “yeah, I can duck quick…no harm done.”  I said, “well, it hurt me to hear that you may have been targeted by anyone.  We love that you are here and I apologize if you felt anything differently.”  The young student and his friend smiled.  “Like I said, I am used to it.  People aren’t always kind.  But I know that it is people’s fear that usually is in the way of kindness.  And this man, he is confused and I can see that, so there was no harm.  Everyone has been grateful and we are grateful to be here; we each have our own path and we are walking it.”

I smiled and grabbed an apple, offering the students one, too.  I noted that there wasn’t a lot else we were serving I could eat that day.  The other student at the table said, “are you fasting?  It is Christian fasting season, Lent, right?”

“Yes, actually it is, and I am,” I said, “I’m still getting used to this one.  I’m keeping a Lenten fast from the Orthodox tradition this year, so there is a lot that I usually eat that I’m not eating right now.  It’s fine, though…I’m learning a lot about that branch of our Christian tradition and praying a lot, and thinking of one of my friends who is keeping the same fast, too.” The two students and I began a conversation about fasting: the Ramadan fast, the Lenten fast, the various histories and contemporary versions of how and why we fast.  I shared my own challenge, how I had kept a fast in solidarity for one day last Ramadan when I had been invited to Iftar and how much after that I realized I appreciated water, more than anything.  I listened to the stories of their family traditions, their prayer traditions, and they asked me about customs of Lent they had heard about and how it all fit together in my own life.  We all learned things about what we assumed, what we experienced, and what was important to us.  After a few minutes of this engaged dialogue, the student said, “You know, it really is all about intention, isn’t it?  Prayer and intention.”

Yes, it is.  I stopped at that moment and said a silent prayer of gratitude.

We are more alike than different, people of faith who live prayerfully into a life in awareness of others.  Intentional living, choosing, relating, forgiving, seeking out where the threads of our live intersect.  We grow closer because of our diversity, our deep listening, and our prayerful intentions.

My prayer for us all is that we live into an intention of reaching across boundaries, loving and listening to our neighbors.  Drawing near reveals not only more about our neighbors, but about ourselves.

Holy One, your intention for us all is mercy, love, and grace.  Help us to see you in all who we encounter.

heart-art

Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/qthomasbower/3470650293

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Proximity of Place

I’ve come to realize that some places are deeply imprinted on my soul.  Like a bird drawn to patterns of seasonal migration, there is a sort of homing beacon that prompts me to go, just go to particular places at particular times.  At another point in my life…and I admit that at times, even now…I wonder if there is something great and mighty destined to happen when I arrive, as if that inner beckoning foretells a moment where all I am capable of being will be actualized by some major event.  I don’t actually believe it works that way, but the temptation exists get pulled into that fantastical movie script.  The reality is, when I listen and I am present to draw near to those proximal places that call me, something is always there to greet me.  But, usually, it is not at all what I am expecting.

Yesterday, the pull in my soul was put myself in proximity with one of my favorite local places, Richmond Hill.  This former convent, now ecumenical retreat center sits on a hill, at the very top point of the City of Richmond.  It is the place of my discernment, the space where I am met exactly as I am and aligned with where I am meant to be.  I had no logical reason to be there yesterday…I was unable to make the times of scheduled morning, noon or evening prayer as I sometimes do.  I didn’t have an appointment to meet with someone, and there were no special events scheduled.  I was almost deterred from going when there was a posted thunderstorm warning (the kind that comes to my email inbox with red exclamation points) that didn’t bode well for the afternoon.  But, the homing beacon was activated, and so I went.

The wind was already gusting when I arrived.  After being buzzed in, I asked if I could walk the labyrinth and was met with a loving, “of course, just don’t get blown away!”  I laughed a little, although realizing that it was probably part of the reason to be in that particular space, on this particular day.  There is something powerfully redemptive about being wind blown. I made my way to the labyrinth, stepping through the garden paths amid the just-post-winter, not-yet-fully-spring piles of brown leaves and made my way down stone stairs.  No one was there that day, and the sense of solitude was palpable.  The wind was blowing wildly at this point, and I was caught up in the imagery and experience of the Winds of Spirit as I walked each step in prayer.  Whether my imagination or the timing of serendipity, I felt as if the strength of the wind in the center of that labyrinth walk might actually carry me off this earth.

Winding back through the labyrinth, my feet planted me on earth step by step.  I circled back through the paths of the garden, carrying with me a calm stability which lingered in spite of winds and looming storms. My walk back was an entirely new experience.  I now saw every emerging bud on every tree, colors beginning to form under winter’s brown, frost-bitten foliage.  How much had I failed to notice in my journey to get where I thought I was going?  Mid-way through the garden, I stopped in my tracks at the sight of a flower that grew and bloomed in the midst of the stone steps I had walked down without a glance earlier.  One small, white flower was growing through a gap in the stone, seemingly oblivious that all around was rocky and barren.  She had found her place.  She had put down her roots.  She bloomed in a simple yet magnificent beauty.

Now I am left ponder the gifts of drawing near, and being present.  Not for the emergence of the grand, but just so that flower and I could meet, and exchange the silent knowledge that we each had come to know about finding our place, in proximity with each other.

Holy One, with gratitude we find our place in You.

 

For further reflection: The Place I Want To Get Back To by Mary Oliver

The place I want to get back to
is where
in the pinewoods
in the moments between
the darkness
and first light
two deer
came walking down the hill
and when they saw me
they said to each other, okay,
this one is okay,
let’s see who she is
and why she is sitting
on the ground like that,
so quiet, as if
asleep, or in a dream,
but, anyway, harmless;
and so they came
on their slender legs
and gazed upon me
not unlike the way
I go out to the dunes and look
and look and look
into the faces of the flowers;
and then one of them leaned forward
and nuzzled my hand, and what can my life
bring to me that could exceed
that brief moment?
For twenty years
I have gone every day to the same woods,
not waiting, exactly, just lingering.
Such gifts, bestowed,
can’t be repeated.
If you want to talk about this
come to visit. I live in the house
near the corner, which I have named
Gratitude.

–Mary Oliver
Thirst (Beacon Press, 2006)

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I Am Your Privacy

As someone who craves the luxury of time and space that can only be found in solitude, I find it incredibly exhausting when I’ve been “on” for long periods of time in my rather gregarious and relational life.  As I like to put it, “I need time to think with my own brain.” It was one of those times when my whole day had been filled with people, busy schedules, meetings, students, family…and I admit, I was lingering in the quiet of my upstairs bathroom longer than usual, and far longer than my (then preschool) daughter cared for.  Suddenly, she burst through the bathroom door, excited to tell me something amazing that she had just encountered.  My first response was to draw the line, “Honey…wait outside.  I need my privacy.”

Her big eyes looked up at me, puzzled and confused.  “But Mom” she said, “I am your privacy!”

We’ve laughed about that story for years as one of our classic mother-daughter moments.  But, I think about it a lot, actually.  The child, still not totally differentiated from her nurturing parent, cannot fathom that there could be any possible need or desire for separation or even what that would look like: I am you, and you are me.  Eventually, I am me and you are you, and we relate to each other as individuals. It’s a very (admittedly Western) well-established pattern in developmental psychology.  Individuation is a classic lesson we each learn as we mature, develop and find ourselves becoming the objects and agents of our own lives instead of a fused part of our caregiving system.  Eventually, when it all goes well, we learn how to reconnect deeply with others without having to be fused.  That requires trust, vulnerability, and the hard work of relationship building.  But, it is a goal most of us strive to attain.

But, on this first morning of Lent, that story came to my mind and made me reflect differently on the lesson within, and to ponder a bit more over this idea of proximity around which I am reflecting and writing during this holy season.

I wondered: when was I that small child in my relationship with God?

At some point, psychologically and perhaps theologically, I didn’t have to contend with the socially promulgated idea of a distant and separate God way out there, with whom I was somehow trying to figure out how to be in relationship.  That social message came much later, filled with our human traps of judgment, rules, and obedience to authority.  But, I hold out the possibility that in the depth of my own creation and development, there was and is a depth of unity with the divine in which I came to know that I am so fully known and so fully loved that the idea of “privacy” is, actually, ridiculous.

Later, when my spiritual and intellectual development formed as it does for all of us, I realized I was an independent human being full of agency and free will.  I could differentiate.  I could understand what this “privacy” thing meant, and seek it out, and crave it.  I could use it as a shield, hide behind it, keeping at arm’s length whatever it was that I didn’t want others to see, or what I didn’t want to see myself.  I could say: You can come this close.  But not here.

It occurs to me today, that God’s desire for God’s people…and very specifically, God’s desire for me…is to build comfort with that deep proximity to divine love and grace. It is that return that God seeks, even when we have spent a long time developing ourselves as the individuals that we are capable of being. Proximity involves the intentional, deep giving up of my own privacy, the unlatching of the boxes of stuff in which I pack what I don’t like into, the laying bare of who I am with transparency.  It’s terrifying, and liberating.

How can I be proximal with anyone else, if I cannot be proximal with God, in whose image I am formed and so wonderfully made?

So, on this Ash Wednesday I draw near to God and in so doing, I must necessarily draw near to myself and unpack some of what I have stashed away in the safe-keeping of my thoughts, my fears, my anger, my hurt, my humanness.  All that stuff I like to hide behind…it’s time to drag it out.  I feel reluctant, but there is also an urgency.  I want to set it on fire, to have it burn away and disappear like wafts of smoke drifting off in the wind.  It becomes like ashes, a reminder of all that separation and individuality that we so desire.  Until, that is, we catch a glimpse of just how powerful the oneness of divine love and grace can be.  This is the urgency to return.

Back to that story of my daughter: I remember giving her a hug and telling her: I love you. I didn’t care nearly as much about my privacy as I did about her.

Love is the receiving end of our return to proximity.

Holy One, you are my privacy.  In proximity, I return to you.

 

For meditation and reflection:  Psalm 139:1-18

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.

privacy

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Lent 2017: Proximity

In his book, Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson extends a powerful quote:

“Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

I’ve had occasion to live into that phrase often during the past several weeks.  When something gnaws at my heart and my soul, I’ve learned that its for a reason.

For the next 40 days, during the holy season of Lent, my life in action and contemplation will live into this theme.  Being proximal…close, engaged, relational…means that in our drawing near to the other, we draw near to the divine spark that rests within each of us and we begin to see the movement of God in our midst.

Like every year, I don’t know at this step where the journey will take me during this foray of relating and writing.  But, feel free to join me in my daily thoughts, inspirations, and challenges.  If you’re fasting from social media and still want to follow me, there is a “follow by email” link below.  Feel free to join me, in prayer or in reading.

Peace,

Sarah

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