We, like sheep

One time, I wrote about thin places.  It was in my dreaming life, and the words spilled forth fluidly.  Celtic Christians explain thin places as places where the boundary between heaven and earth is so thin you can almost see to the other side, a place where God is so near, where transcendence is touchable, knowable.  In my sleep, it was easier to grasp and to express, because dreaming was, and often is for me, a thin place.

The evening before I wrote in my dreams, my daughter and I sat around my cousin, Jennifer’s, kitchen table looking at pictures.  My cousin had originally begun looking through her computer files to find a specific picture of her daughter, a photograph that captured so well the way her Abby-girl lived life–bounding and springing with a sparkle in her eyes, taking in information eagerly to get to the next event, paying attention to the details of people and things.  I guess it was on Jennifer’s mind to find the photo, because our afternoon had been spent at the Dallas Arboretum with Abby as our tour guide.  We all enjoyed being led from each point of discovery, always watching Abby skip ahead and calling over her shoulder which way to go.  Jennifer said she just really wanted to find the photo.

For two hours, we sat while she scrolled through their story in the icons of file folders.  We stopped frequently to laugh and remember, to listen to Jennifer or Abby or Aunt Betty recount the details beyond the captured frame.  Sequences of memories danced on the screen, drawing us into something sacred.  Our bellies tight with laughter, we danced in the mystery, living and breathing in the memories as if they were materializing all over again.  We hovered in a thin space where death was not allowed, where life is eternal, where time crossed lines and fused all together.  We tasted something holy, touched it with our fingers, felt it brush our cheeks.

Abby skipped through the pathways of the park, leading us like sheep.  She took us to a thin place.  I was still there when I drifted off to sleep, when I dreamed that it was possible to describe it.

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All Saints’ Day

We worked together to clean up the kitchen from supper.  My father-in-law and I put our hands to completing the task before us.  And while we worked, we talked.

I was 22 years old, fresh out of college and college ministry.  My feet were wet with the waters of the contemporary worship pool.  I had grown up in a congregation where I had learned hymns and the doxology, we sang 3 of the 4 verses in a well-loved green hymnal, and I knew glimpses of Jesus sprinkled throughout the Sundays and Sunday nights and Bible schools.  When I attended college, a new era of my faith journey began.  I don’t know that I had disdain for my church background, but somehow I had grown to believe that it wasn’t enough, that the college ministry and their more relevant means of worship and teaching was better and more.

My father-in-law was soaked to the marrow with deep-well waters of liturgical worship.  He was the professor of preaching and worship at Asbury Seminary.  Before that, he had been a pastor in the local church for nearly 25 years.  His experience as a pastor and his years of teaching provided him with a trove for instructing and challenging pastors-in-the-making in the ways of church.  He took very seriously matters of faith, of the pastorate, of searching things out and understanding them.  He was seasoned in life and in ministry.  He had been there and done that regarding multiple aspects of church life.  He had seen trends come and go, watched churches split apart, watch the Holy Spirit mend the hearts of people.  And he loved to discuss and turn topics over and over, hear different perspectives.

While we unloaded and reloaded the dishwasher, he casually invited me into a dialogue about contemporary versus traditional worship and church experience.  It was the first of many such talks, the entry level for my young soul to understand the grace and love of a gentle man who was a pilgrim along the road.  He simply had travelled more length of the way than I and was beckoning me to join him.  He wanted me to think, to use my mind to the love the Lord as well as I used my heart and my strength.  He offered grace and space enough to think out loud, to be challenged, to be encouraged, to agree and to disagree, to depart the scene with more to ponder.   He wanted me to know that we are always learning, that “we stand on the shoulders of the generation before us.”  We cleaned up the kitchen, and I decided not to run from him but to engage even if I had a differing opinion or experience.  I learned not to be afraid of questions–questions that I had answers to, that I thought I had answers to; questions that I had no business trying to answer without first being still and listening and living longer.

21 years away from that kitchen conversation with dear Dad Boyd, one year since his passing from this life into the next, I sit in my own kitchen and offer thanksgiving for him and for his life.  He was a father to my husband, and he became a father to me.


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A carol and a candle

We stood all in a row.  The four- and five-year old’s.  December and Christmas wrapped all of our imaginations with pretty bows, holly and hanging evergreen boughs and carols.  I wore a red dress with a slender, black velvety sash and a white collar, white tights and black patent leather shoes that clicked on hard floors when I walked.  Heat flowing from the huge black grates in the aisles warmed everyone.  Something rather magical about the stained glass windows reflecting the sun from outside set the sanctuary on fire with holy, and the congregation sat in the glow looking upon us expectantly.  We all waited for fingers to touch piano keys, for Aunt Betty to direct our grand choral performance.

Away in a Manger.  Just that simple song.  Three verses we committed to little memories, a story about a babe in straw and cattle lowing.  Thanks to an 8-track tape, I had sung that song many times.

Somewhere in the second verse, I mixed up the story.  I sang a line out of place.  Blood rushed to my face.  I fumbled to find the right words, to catch back up to everyone else who told the story without error.  The air felt different, the windows became just regular, the glow slipped out beneath the glass-paned doors.

As soon as the music stopped, several men throughout the congregation (and maybe a few bold women) offered “Amen!” as verbal applause.  I ran to the back row that my family always occupied.  Nestling in close to my mom, I buried my head in her lap.   Tears stung my eyes.  Humiliation washed over my small self.  Mom bent her head next to mine.  I messed up the whole song, I muttered into her wool-skirted legs.  She offered some words of affirmation and grace–which I didn’t know how to receive and wished like everything I could leave immediately–and she ran her hands over my hair.

I sat in church last night, nearly 40 whole years since the bumbled manger carol, and relived the event in my mind.

Before the start of service, I needed to get the microphone off of the stand by the communion table.  The cord stretched toward me with some difficulty, so I tugged gently to release the length of it.  I saw it trying to come toward me as it simultaneously, and in slow motion, slid across a narrow pedestal that held a lit candle.  The candle fell, and how it is in split seconds a person can imagine all manner of terrible-awful like the carpet catching fire, I do not know.  I squinted my eyes in anticipation of the impending burst of flames.  The glass candle holder lay by my feet on its side, flameless.  No fire engulfing anything.  Just one less candle illuminating the Table.

Back in my seat, I could easily see the two lit candles looking down upon the unlit one.  I was a little shaky, my heartbeat hard and visible as I looked downward.  Tears stung my eyes, because it took me too long to shake off a ridiculous pride worn by grown-up skin, because I was the wrong kind of small again.  I heard God whisper that grace was for me, that I could learn it, that it lived there by the Eucharist with all of the other candles and the one unlit one.

Performance and appearances hold me hostage often.  Knocking the candle off the wood in front of everyone just happened, could happen to anyone and quite frequently does, I’m sure.  When I wore the holiday dress and I mixed the chronology of the baby Jesus who was born in a smelly barn, no one minded.  No one cared in either event; most likely, no one even noticed.  Just me, who somehow learned from a very early age that getting it right was most important.  More important than knowing the Light of the world.  More important than seeing the holy and being wrapped up inside of its swaddling clothes.





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Healing Tinctures

We sat under the canopy of the pear tree.  Fall cool nipped at us.  A small flock of geese settled onto the lake with splashy landings.  We turned our attention to the geese and then to the cry of the northern flicker in the Aspen tree behind us.  Our yard bunny nibbled on something in the middle of the wildflowers.  All the while, we talked about goodness and herbs and health and wholeness and watched the rain clouds change the afternoon sky.

Earlier that day, I had stared at the mirror and felt a heaviness of spirit wash over me so plain and tangible it greyed the reflection.  Tears stung my eyes, but I quickly wiped away any trace.  Because company was coming, and I had things to do.  I went about my chores, unloading the dishwasher and choking down the fears, wiping the kitchen counters and pressing back sobs that crept up through my chest.  Stupid emotions.  The bane of my existence for as long as I could remember.  Always in the way of growth and soundness.

When my friend arrived, I hugged her and just told her straight away that I was weird that day, and I apologized for myself ahead of time.  She said she would be weird with me.  She told me that it was okay that she had come on a day when I wasn’t good company.  Without speaking, she whispered to the deep places that tried to hide, “Grace, mercy, and peace be with you.”  But I didn’t know how to receive these gifts, any of them.  Not from her or from myself, or from the Christ who extended them first.

We took our coffee outside and visited.  She told me how she was doing in light of some recent upheavals in her own story.  She said she was learning to give dignity to her emotions.  Her words worked into my systems like the herbal tinctures she knew how to make.  I pondered the idea of being kind to myself, of giving dignity to my own emotions, something I’d read about recently and have often encouraged others to do.  As I listened to her and saw the image of God in her, I wondered how long I had punished myself for not being holy enough or spiritually mature enough because my emotions were bad and wrong and difficult.  This woman, her red henna hair like autumn maple leaves, sat with me under the pear tree, and we were just people.  Broken, sad, learning, hopeful, doubtful, fearful, growing, lovely, thinking and feeling humans entering the narratives of one another.

I watched her becoming free–like the wildflowers and the geese, who don’t try to be wildflowers or geese, they just are.  Watery burning eyes at the thought, the mystery of a gift people ache for and yet so often refuse.  Grace, mercy, and peace.  She offered it, and I could receive it.  Even when I was messy and sad and needy and raw.  Would I toss her presence aside and be so proud?  I could learn as she learned, to stop pretending and stop saying the right things that make me look together and strong.  Because I wasn’t.  My emotions twisted around inside, conflicted over the yearning for a freedom I have known and the too much straining to achieve it on my own.

While the wind blew and the blue-grey and white mingled overhead, I fought with myself, wondering if I could internalize that which I profess to believe about the love of God–a lavish grace, a sustainable mercy, a knowable peace.  Words easily spoken and spilled.  It would be a terrible shame to waste them.


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The grace of starlings

My friend and I talked on the phone.  We were sharing life across states and time zones.  This day, we spoke about church.  It’s frustrating, we easily agreed, to know of so much divisive talk back and forth between denominational and doctrinal lines, so much sparring even within a congregation.  And I stopped talking for a bit.

The scene in my backyard distracted me.

“Hello? Are you there?” my friend asked.  “Did something happen?”

“Oh, no, nothing tragic.  I am watching these stupid starlings,”  I told her.  I proceeded to tell her how we had purchased a cute bird feeder from Target–spring green, ceramic, with a rope and a hook–and bird seed that would attract a great variety of birds.  I told her how we hung it and waited for the great variety to show up and grace our yard with beauty.  I told her how every day since the last of the snow melted dumb black birds swoop into our sanctuary space and rule the bird feeder.

A dozen or so starlings squawked at each other as I told my angry tale.  Two or three birds at a time took their turns devouring my great variety feast.  The stylish little feeder toppled back and forth with their clunky movements.  Big, boisterous lot.  I concluded my rant of frustration.

Half to my friend and half to myself, I said, “I wonder if I can find some food for the feeder that would un-attract the starlings.”

I recanted and back-peddled.  I felt guilty about trying to not include the starlings.  I told my friend as much.  Who was I to pick and choose which birds my feeder could feed, I asked.  I felt sorry for the starlings.

“Maybe churches attract starlings, and we just want pretty birds,” my friend offered.

Furrowing my brow, I watched the birds.  “Maybe so,” I said softly.

Those birds occupied my thoughts day after day.  They showed up in the yard so frequently, it was hard not to think about them.  I pondered how I didn’t like them.  They are ugly birds, after all.  Big-billed.  Noisy.  Bossy.  Crowding.  Some people call them dangerous.  I didn’t want dangerous birds hanging around.  No other bird really had a chance to partake of the great variety seed.  The congregation of starlings was just too large, too much.

It was true, what my friend had said.   I want church the way I want it.  No starlings.  No danger.  No boisterous noise.

But something dug deeper in me.  I found myself feeling sorry for the starlings, because I saw myself in their company, clunking around noisily, mimicking the songs of others.  I felt the sting of someone looking out their kitchen window and wanting to dissuade my presence.  No real grace.  Not for me.  I found myself searching for grace.

What do we do with the shitting things, the times that are just like that?  In the church?  In our families and homes?  In our own souls?

I don’t have a lot of answers.  Not really.  But I wrestled with those stupid birds.  In the end, I quit clanging my pots and pans to scare them away.  I let them stay.  They ate what was offered.  Eventually, it was time for them to move on, and they did.  When they left, I imagined that they carried away with them a measure of my gracelessness for them, my gracelessness for myself.


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