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Fear of the Dark

Welcoming Darkness

Welcome darkness? Not really. I turn on as many lights as possible trying to keep darkness at bay. I add candles, spotlights, twinkling garlands and bright lighted trees to assure myselfthat the dark is not disturbing.

As a child I was more afraid. I called loudly for Mom or dad to come into the hall and turn on that light so I could walk quickly to the bathroom. I insisted on that light so passionately that my tense cry awakened a parent who got up to turn it on.

Yet as time passed as I was in my room alone, I began to watch the moon rise through the east-facing windows and branches of a tall Oregon Ash. My own tree. From branch to branch, it rose, and soon I was fast asleep. Somehow the darkness there became comfort. I listened to a program of poetry recited to “Ebbtide,” with ocean waves tumbling in and out in the background. That, too, calmed me.

I later began to realize that in a darkened room, or an old church, I felt cloistered and calm. I seek out churches to go inside, and just sit. I have walked the shadowy Grace Cathedral labyrinth when the spacious nave was lighted only by candles along the aisles. I found my way down ancient stone steps to the very dark undercroft at France’s Vezelay Abbey lighted only by tall thin orthodox candles affixed to ageless stones they had dripped over for centuries. I fell to my knees completely captivated by the summons to prayer.

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I fall into every prayer offered in worship hungrily, my yearning to be closer to God met in the deep quiet. Darkness can enrich our search, as can the bright sun of Easter morning striking into the heart of the tomb and touching all Jesus’ friends and followers.

Yet where did they go next? Afraid, into hiding. Back into the darkness.

When those we see all around us snared in the ugliness of racism, isolation, selfishness, power plays, poverty–the angry taking from others who already have less than many–I wonder why I am not tempted to hide. Maybe I am hiding in my own time-worn ways of escaping anguish. I wonder if, walking the journey of Advent, waiting and watching for the birth of Jesus, we have forgotten that he is already walking with us without our noticing?

We may spend too many hours wishing God would do something, when God already has. That news is good. Good news brings peace to everyone who believes, and even in darkness the candles shine, reminding us that light defeats the darkness. Darkness cannot overcome it.

Be the light in the darkness. Light up in the sure and certain hope of God’s presence among us. Gathering together with our lights held high brightens us all with light we need, and Light we receive.

Welcome darkness? Not really. I turn on as many lights as possible trying to keep darkness at bay. I add candles, spotlights, twinkling garlands and bright lighted trees to assure myselfthat the dark is not disturbing.

As a child I was more afraid. I called loudly for Mom or dad to come into the hall and turn on that light so I could walk quickly to the bathroom. I insisted on that light so passionately that my tense cry awakened a parent who got up to turn it on.

Yet as time passed as I was in my room alone, I began to watch the moon rise through the east-facing windows and branches of a tall Oregon Ash. My own tree. From branch to branch, it rose, and soon I was fast asleep. Somehow the darkness there became comfort. I listened to a program of poetry recited to “Ebbtide,” with ocean waves tumbling in and out in the background. That, too, calmed me.

I later began to realize that in a darkened room, or an old church, I felt cloistered and calm. I seek out churches to go inside, and just sit. I have walked the shadowy Grace Cathedral labyrinth when the spacious nave was lighted only by candles along the aisles. I found my way down ancient stone steps to the very dark undercroft at France’s Vezelay Abbey lighted only by tall thin orthodox candles affixed to ageless stones they had dripped over for centuries. I fell to my knees completely captivated by the summons to prayer.

 

Lavish loving

Learning to Love

How I love this world. An elegant variety in a multitude of growing things: flowers, shrubs, annuals, perennials, and tall dogwood next to tiny purple eruptions from ground I never planted. Could the abundance entice us to bloom as well? To bloom into love for ourselves and others?

Does the tree just tolerate the camellia? The crabapple the crocus? Or do they love their neighbors? The primordial and present forest trees are connected with nearly invisible fungal filigrees beneath the duff that help them send warning signals about environmental change, search for kin, and transfer their nutrients to neighboring plants before they die. The visible roots themselves crisscrossed unpredictably throughout the paths we just walked, or more honestly, climbed and stepped over and around only with occasional slippage.

Wouldn’t it be loverly if we had the same invisible links to humanity? Don’t we already? Isn’t it a relief to recognize a fellow human being (of any stripe) when we feel most exposed and vulnerable?

In my yard I mourn the decline of hosta and anticipate the hellebore. The red coral bark maple is a delight as it turns crimson in the winter. As much as I have to watch my step on damp, slippery leaves, I love how leaves seem strewn by an artist on the rich earth below. The splash of bright yellow beech or larch surprise me amid a stand of evergreen.

How I love the pebbled shore, too, and the sea’s chuckling laugh as it recedes into its vast deep. The steady slap at the pocked, worn bulkhead. The salty air where gulls sail in rising circles.

Im3RSKdFShmDXw0kSi9QAQWhat a blessing to live in the Northwest where temperate winds freshen the air and all we dare to fear is deep within the tectonic grinding below. This world is fragile–dependent on millions of intermixed elements, its inner furnace and molten center hissing out through fissures and shooting out geysers we gleefully cheer to see.

I wish I could embrace it whole. Despite its hazards, how sweet, how precious–more because it might not much longer remain our permanent safe home. Even now, so many of our neighbors across the globe suffer more than we with rising water, drought, hunger, typhoon and hurricane. I hold them in my heart and sing comfort prayers of peace and well-being.

What if our emergence here as infants is the inauguration of our education: learning how to love. Love is taught by a myriad people, peoples far away we’re only beginning to see as neighbors. Distance need not dictate fear more than love—why not neighborliness? What if the dream of earth is for all of us to share this fragile home, our island planet? To love, nurture it, and care for its tender and delicate balance.

I have had a tiny microchip planted near my heart ensuring that it beats methodically–always. It will no longer need to think so hard, after years of unpredictability. Now, will there be more room in it for love? More capacity than mechanics–love that I can teach, model, and offer lavishly without regret? I hope so.

Engaging the Stranger

A Small Clearing

It may be only among strangers in airports or waiting rooms, planes or elevators, that I manage to suspend my well-honed biases. Oh, I know, we must always receive the stranger as a guest, lest we miss entertaining angels unawares. But it is only when I have read everything in sight or played enough Solitaire on my iPhone I will look up wondering if there is a conversation worth having. 

Travelers have a destination in common. It’s a good place to start. In unfamiliar places, foreign locations, I am readier to engage someone who might know a little more or seems as lost as I. Company in misery. On tours participants share the interest that led to a common appreciation, cameras at the ready for long-envied sights. Proximity lends itself to familiarity that is mostly nonthreatening. Such an approach might be useful in other situations.

Such encounters may be what philosopher Anthony Appiah calls “sidling.” Rather than confront someone with religious or political views opposed to mine, he suggests “sidling up” to them. Sidling is a better way to construct a bridge across a chasm of differences–race, religion, gender, economics, politics–than to exchange opposing points like a ping pong ball. Instead of trading shots without hope of common ground, it might be more productive to describe where I was when I was six, then invite a conversation partner to share. Childhood, schools, and early work could fill a canvas with family experience, a list of callings, nuance that makes up a whole person. This brings the background to the foreground and might justify or just explain the values any of us holds when and if we get around to examining more divergent views. 

I have an email pal in North Carolina I’ve never met. A staunch Southern Baptist, she believes the Bible is inerrant and that “total truth” cannot only be discerned, but practiced. We have been corresponding for a number of months. We do not agree. But she, in particular, finds the correspondence heartening. I’m not sure I do. She knows I am a person of faith. She just can’t figure out why I don’t share her beliefs. She’s curious how I manage it. How I preach the Word without her Truth.  She has sent two books to convince me. 

I am trying to glance off the obvious differences between us. To make myself a little vulnerable with a few personal experiences, tangents and questions. I spend a great deal of time thinking how to do this, a lot more work than firing off a volley to squelch her last assertion. I grew up exchanging volleys with my dad, a competition rather than dialogue. I’m used to it, used to hearing it everyday.

It may be that humankind has come to a place where our ping pong habit can get us nowhere. There is no return: unless we learn to listen to one another, we won’t be able to go on together at all. Sidling up to each other may create a small clearing before the great divides. I am convinced that dialogue will not open into its rich wealth of gifts unless one of us dares say more–or less–than a trite closed statement. I hope what I am practicing will lead me to entertain more angels unawares. 

Saving Wilderness

Regreening Earth

When I was a kid, my dad took our family out camping in a trailer he built out of plywood with a double bunk bed–the top for us three siblings, the bottom for my parents. Next was a “five-man” dark green umbrella tent. Campgrounds were full of treasures: silence under tall fir as cooking pots clinked on Coleman stoves, we hiked to and from the baths carrying towel and soap, sat by bonfires flaming, snapping, then dying with sighs and growing darkness.

We visited a number of dams, so impressed Dad was with the feats of engineering, and no doubt the promise of irrigation inland in Washington State. I still have a granite core taken from the Grand Coulee. On our way there I remember stopping in the middle of nowhere for him to show us shale and explain how it formed. And he often told tales of old fires that blackened the forests we drove through. 

He studied forestry in college, but never did work with those skills. Rather, he worked for a pulp mill, then paper mill that stewed wood chips to make paper. If he love the woods, how did he ever reconcile destroying them to make something else? If a forest fire was a disaster, weren’t log trucks dieseling through the forest with cut trees just as much a tragedy? 

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My partner and I spent a few days last week near Port Angeles to view the Elwha River, free to flow wherever its heart pleases. Pure joy. Five years since it was liberated, it has flooded the river road that partnered it, and built up shoals at its mouth to invite  perch and smelt, clams and oysters to thrive. Will we ever return to natural sources of energy, rather than sealing off canyons to force water to meet our needs or ruin the environment with mines, slag and polluted air?

I am a fan of progress, but I lament the loss of natural habitat–concrete that seals earth over. I rejoice at the grass that–not so slowly–begins to break through the cracks, and can break down walls.

I stand on Queen Anne or First Hill in Seattle trying to imagine our hills covered in fir, cedar, and hemlock, such ancient forests that little undergrowth thrived. One could walk through the trees on moss and duff for miles, or near ancient native middens, seeing our snow-capped mountains only in rare clearings or above the tree line. IMG_0294

Must we continue to destroy this fragile earth, our home? Earth will win in the end. Civilizations rarely continue to stand once we’re gone and vegetation regrows. We nurture huge cedar in our backyard just to maintain a sense of the wilderness.

 

 

Ordinary Miracles

Momentary Miracles

…how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?

Mary Oliver knows what more of us must learn. Whatever we are doing, is what we are doing. Why worry that we ought to be doing something else? I putter about for this or that scrap to piece together…a word for the day, the week, a frame on which to stretch a canvas. A peg to hang ideas on.

Should we be doing or being? What, in you, is being today? Being is tough. Doing is easier. Being is suspect. People wonder what we’re doing! 

What do I show for what I’m doing? for who I am being? What frame for my canvas, what design for the quilt? No matter theory, the big picture, or a meaning I lay on diverse events, life keeps coming down to chapter and verse. This specific event, this word with that person, these hours spent flipping through books, notes, and remembering to water the hanging begonias.

We each are only one person who can do mostly only one thing at a time. Each choice we make in a day like today eliminates other choices, or limits what else will suit. Every plunge into the pool is a risk of an habitual order.

And would it have been worth it after all? Would it have been worthwhile? [Prufrock, Eliot]

I labor always over the BIG risks: the yawning abyss into vulnerability, deep relationship, substantial change, or speaking truth in the face of enemies. But every day, every moment requires a commitment of its own, large, small, or immeasurable.

Just these moments add up to a way of life. My puttering over this book and that, this view or that, sorting through scraps of papers long ago filed away, give me away. I seek meaning in everything. The moment I have, the now that is mine, the truth of myself. Every day presents an empty canvas. Every day the cat must be fed, caressed. The apple cut, the water poured, the garden tended. The word laid down.

Miracles are made of ordinary stuff.

 

 

Grace Happens

Grace Happens

Beneath this parable is a bedrock assumption of abundance that we too rarely trust.

There is seed enough to lose, and the God who makes the sun to shine and rain

 to fall upon the righteous and unrighteous (Matt 5:45) is indiscriminate

about sharing. Grace is flung and wasted everywhere.

Brian Hiortdahl, The Christian Century06.29.2011

 

Grace Happens        Rev. Catherine Fransson       Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23   July 10, 2011     

 

Did you, as I, vacation with friends at Spirit Lake at the foot of Mt. St. Helens before the blast? Did you row on the lake, take pictures of her round snowy dome and, seeking shade, hike through venerable old pine, fir and cedar forests? Then perhaps those images haunted us both when St. Helens stirred to life in 1980 in an earthquake, blew a 250 foot hole through her pristine peak, then spewed her whole north side over 200 square miles of grand landscape.

Fifty seven people died. Seven thousand large animals, deer, elk and bears, were killed, and thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of small animals died. In one of the nation’s show places, there was devastation of the largest order.

But not so fast. Unknown to us then, vegetation began to recover immediately from the plants that survived the blast and the dispersal of seeds from beyond the blast zone. Scientists were surprised survivors would be so diverse and widespread. They continue to discover many factors that aid the ongoing recovery, beginning with the season the blast occurred, May, when there was enough snow on the ground to provide water to the tiny animals living underground. Yes, the pocket gopher survived. Deaths of cousin animals provided nutrients to the others. Even the wind-blown spiders floating in on the breeze who died provided organic material that supported the life of other organisms and plants. “With what seems like excruciating patience and persistence, nature transform[ed] a desolate landscape into one capable of supporting life.”

 

Life persists, right? Look at your yard! As silent, mysterious, and hidden is the germination of a seed in the soil, a plant will surely follow. As silent and hidden is the germination of the realm of God, for which the disciples prayed and for which we continue to pray, the kindom will certainly come.  Even if the sower, as in today’s case, casts seed upon hard-baked earth, into the thorns and on the rocks, seed will settle, send down roots and thrive. Life persists against the greatest odds.

Missing something? Did you not hear what you often hear in this parable? Whenever I’ve heard it before a small knot in my stomach tells me I am being weighed in the balance and found wanting. Even Jesus explains this parable to show it is the quality of the soil on which the seed is thrown that determines whether the seed takes root and thrives. The point is: is your soil plowed, prepared and ready for the seeds of God? Oh oh.

The image is of Christ casting the seeds of grace, offering life with abandon. Seed falls on the rocks, the path, places it’s never likely to grow. Thorns grow up and choke it. Only part of the seed falls on ground good enough to nurture it thirty, sixty or a hundred fold. If we are the ground, it’s a pretty poor prognosis.

But what of this farmer?! How careless he is! In any other context the point of the story would be his foolishness. Nobody sows seed on a path or rocks and expects it to take root. Even I, only a sometime gardener, know that.

Jesus has to explain this parable, the first in Matthew’s gospel, to the disciples. I speak like this because you are my friends, he tells them, and those others are not. You are blessed to be here with me, and blessed because your eyes see, and your ears hear. We speak the same language. I will tell you what I mean because you have already heard my voice and responded. You have risked everything to follow me.

The disciples may be insiders in Galilee, immediately near Capernaum where Jesus’ ministry is, but even they are not sure they get it. And the gospel writer’s interpretation is but one of many that can be made on this illustration. As we try to understand the open-ended meanings of scripture today, it is unwise for us to settle on any one truth. There are many truths here.

So what about this farmer’s carelessness? Flagrantly ineffective, he sows with abandon, appearing not to notice. Seed is a precious commodity. Those of us who plant, do so carefully, working the ground, preparing it, adding nutrients, water, ensuring the seed will find a home where it can settle in to grow. And yet look what happened at Spirit Lake. Destruction everywhere. The land laid waste. The forest felled over acres of ground. The lake full of trees, rocks, ash; polluted with dead marine life. The area was virtually dead.

There is only so much we can do about ensuring a good crop, protecting the environment from natural cataclysm, but paradoxically, that doesn’t matter. A few verses ahead of these, Jesus explains, the sower sows each day and then goes to bed, gets up and does it again. “Through it all the seed sprouts and grows without the sower knowing how it happens.” (4.27) Paul voices a similar truth in his letter to the Corinthians: I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God gave the growth. (1 Cor 3:6) Is the seed is so potent it takes care of itself? Is God so potent we don’t have to worry?

Admit it, we have little control over the ground. We think we have some over the weather, but that is in great dispute and much of the time, we have little control of ourselves. Even the great missionary Paul confessed he could not control himself. He tried to do what he knew was right, and failed. All he could do was recognize his mistakes and begin again. God has no such trouble. God never gives up. In communities like ours we encourage each other to have our hard places plowed, turned over and loosened up, our rocky places named and removed, our shallowness deepened and enriched…in short, we ready each other to begin again.

Since God is sowing the seed and seeing to the growth, then even on hostile, indifferent and unreceptive ground, the seed will not return to God empty. This is a God who spreads love and life recklessly. As silent and mysterious and invisible is the germination of a seed, so is the growth of the kindom for which we pray. Grace simply happens!

Now, I do believe all things work together for good. But I have as much trouble as anyone discerning whatgood will come of whichthings. And when. Anne Lamott comes immediately to mind…”Grace,” she says, “eventually.” Grace…yes. But not exactly when we want it, and sometimes not exactly what we want.

I need help to live this kind of life: friends, wise mentors, a pit crew. I need time, coaching, practice, and forgiveness. Paul Loeb’s collection of essays, The Impossible Will Take a Little While, details people working small projects against great odds, only occasionally successfully. But Vaclav Havel, for example, believed hope “the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.” Every effort does not have to turn out. Some of what we try to do in our lives, at this church, in our city and our nation, are simply worth doing not because they turn out, but because they make sense, because they are embodiments of who we are and what we believe. “People are often unreasonable and self-centered,” wrote Mother Teresa. “Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are honest, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway. If you find happiness, people may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway. For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.” We do what we think reveals grace because it honors our God. And it casts seed on all sorts of unlikely places. Especially on unlikely places and people.

Rachel Naomi Remen, founder of the mind/body holistic health movement, tells of her father who believed his family always had bad luck. Two things: he went bankrupt and she, his only daughter, had chronic illness, so that seemed true. She tells this story: in 1971 her dad won a prize in the New York State lottery…”more money than my dad had ever seen in his life in one place.” He won it when he was in the hospital recovering from the removal of a–benign–tumor. (luck, yes?) He taped the ticket to his chest and declared no one could be trusted to redeem it for him, not any of his friends or family, not even his wife. For a long time he couldn’t even be persuaded to turn it in. As its deadline approached, he convinced Rachel and her mother not to tell anyone, lest they try to take advantage of them if they knew. Eventually he redeemed the ticket, but he never spent the money because he was afraid others would then know he had it.

Remen said she learned more from what he did than what she so often heard him say. Her father created his luck. But even that didn’t prevent her from growing into the intuitive, healing person that she is.

At Mt. St. Helens some plants survived the blast. Some root remnants were watered by the snowmelt. Prairie Lupine was the first to return, taking nitrogen from the air. The northern pocket gopher survived in her dens and tunnels, pulling down the roots of the lupine for nourishment, pushing rich old forest soil up through the ash to create mounds that caught plant spores lofting in from out of the blast zone. Some thrived there. Some died. Others adapted. Today that unbelievable devastation is slowly healing. Earth healing itself. In time earth will heal itself even of nuclear accident…even if humanity as we know it is severely compromised. Earth does not need us. Indeed, it is we who threaten it. If, instead, we plant, and share the watering, God will give the growth.

Grace happens. In spite of volcanoes, typhoons, tsunamis, and wildfire, life persists. In spite of death life persists. God continues to scatter life and love and growth, health and wisdom and patience day after day after day, year after year. Because of that abundance, we know that life begets life.

“If God exists,” writes Sara Maitland, “she exists as a God who wishes to reveal herself; who labours constantly and complexly in her relationships with the creation, both individual and communal, tossing down clues and invitations and introductory notes here, there and everywhere like an ambitious hostess; a God who yearns to be loved and known and engaged with.”

 

How can we possibly lose?!

 

 

Grace Happens

Surprise

Soaring with purpose over my roof, a crow carried food in his beak. I walked to the back window to see him poised in the back yard over a deep patch of moss. He dropped his peanut and then poked it three or four times with his beak, pushing it deeper. He looked, then found and reached for a nearby frond to drop on the cache to cover it.

One of the neighbors leaves peanuts out for all the critters. Some peanuts end up in the bird bath, soaked beyond recognition, putting off the birds. Squirrels dig in the flower pots routinely to hide or retrieve their treasures, leaving roots awry, dirt spilled.

I’d never seen a crow hide a nut before. But they’re notoriously inventive, wise and wily. Surprising, too, like the one who shook snow on Robert Frost. Surprise, in our overbooked lives, jars perspective, lifts mood, lightens darkness.

pexels-photo-914854.jpegGrace is like that.

Do you have hope for the future?

Someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.

Yes, and even for the past, he replied,

that it will turn out to have been all right

for what it was, something we can accept,

mistakes made by the selves we had to be….

When least expected, grace weaves rainbows through storm clouds. Leaves promises we can trust. Assures us that Creation is always, always inventing, surprising glimpses of riches where we least expect.

Why not, then, that some good comes out of what we remember when we were too young, too inexperienced, even too unwise, to know…mistakes made by who we were.

Then wouldn’t it have been worth it after all?