For the Beauty of the Earth

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This season marks my second spring in Oregon. I’m not sure why, but of all the things people told me when I moved here, no one thought to mention that Oregon has what is possibly the most beautiful spring of any place on earth. I’ve lived a lot of places, but I have never seen anything like the the trees that blossom here in waves of color week after week: puffs of cherry blossoms announce the start of the season, drifting to the ground like pink snow just as the dogwoods and apples and lilacs begin to bloom. As we have gathered online this season, I have been asking young and old alike what it is that  is nourishing your soul during this strangely lonely season. Invariably, people name this blossoming spring: the one that is daily showering us with sweetness and beauty even as we grieve for the sickness and suffering that have brought so much uncertainty and disruption to our days. This season, we are being stretched and challenged to simultaneously hold both of these realities in our hearts and in our minds: the extravagant beauty of this world, as well as its heartbreaking sorrow. 

Here in the midst of this particular spring, and on the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day observance, I have been thinking about the writer E.B. White who, in 1969, uttered these memorable words:  “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” 

Hard to plan the day, indeed! As we strive to observe Earth Day as best we can this year — in the midst of a pandemic; in the midst of ongoing deforestation, unprecedented wildfires, and ecosystem collapse — I’d like to claim E.B. White as a kindred spirit and wise teacher. I have heard that White himself was skeptical about organized religion. But I believe that he perfectly articulates our dilemma, and our call, as people of faith. On the one hand, we must always root our prayers and our daily spiritual practice in gratefulness. Throughout the ages, this has been the core discipline that opens our hearts to the gift of life while restoring us to intimate relationship with the Giver who is the very Source of life itself.

At the same time, we are called, always, to act on behalf of the earth itself, and on behalf of the earth’s most vulnerable. In particular, we are called to act on behalf of those creatures and places that have no vote and no voice.

It seems to me that we often draw upon our faith traditions when it comes time to savor and give thanks for the gifts of this world. But when it comes time to rush out the door and into action, into the saving side of the equation, it can be tempting to leave our faith practices behind as we join the secular efforts to save the earth and all her creatures. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the saving tools of the scientific and secular world. We absolutely need those gifts and tools for the work ahead. 

But I am pretty sure that as people of faith, we have an additional gift to offer in our collective effort to save this world that we so love. A gift that is particularly necessary now that the work ahead seems so overwhelming. As communities of faith, the gift we are called to offer is this: the conviction that we are not alone in this. We are not ever alone.  

No matter how dire the predictions of climate catastrophe, no matter how daunting the odds of success, we are called to walk into the world, and to work in the world, as channels for the divine presence. In our hearts, in our minds, in our bodies, we are called to be no less than open channels for the presence of God that is always offering to pour itself into the world through us.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Of course, it is absolutely possible to go out and care for the earth in all kinds of saving and beautiful ways without ever intentionally invoking the presence and power of God. Beautiful people are doing this every day! But I am pretty sure that this world needs everything we’ve got, every practice we have honed over millennia of spiritual inquiry. The world needs the sacred gift we have to offer: a treasure chest of spiritual practices that open us to the very source of life itself. Practices that open us to the divine source of strength, courage, discernment, and yes, even power — the very power of God that is always offering to work with us and through us on behalf of the world. 

I think that’s a pretty great tool we have in our collective tool box. But here’s the catch. (There’s always a small catch, right?) As far as I can tell, this divine presence and power is so gentle, so respectful, that God will not override our free will. For better or worse, God will not force God’s self on us even for our own good. Looking around at the world, it seems pretty clear that God will not override our human decisions, even the most terrible ones. Instead, God seems to stand ready, awaiting our invitation to co-create with us a more humane, more just, more sustainable life on this planet.

And if this is true, then our intentional spiritual practice makes all the difference. We can invite the presence and power of God to guide and strengthen us as we set out on behalf of the earth. When we choose to stand in the midst of our pain and fear, when we choose to stand in the midst of our collective global cry of lament and let our hearts break open to God — in that moment, we become the doorway through which the divine presence rushes in to guide and strengthen us. In this moment of openness, God rushes in to work through us in whatever conditions and in whatever broken places on all the earth we find ourselves. And I believe that our willingness to practice this — to practice inviting in the presence and power of God — just might give us the courage and the strength we need to act, together, in the face of overwhelming obstacles. 

So I want to offer you a practice for this season in which the earth itself is calling both for our attention and our care. I invite you to close your eyes and begin to notice your breathing. And as you return to your body, to your breath, see if you can invite God to be with you in this time of prayer. Whatever that divine presence looks like or feels like to you, welcome it now. Welcome the One who is always as near to you as your next breath. The One who knows the unique gifts that you alone have to offer the world.

And now, see if you can picture the earth itself, the earth that needs you. Maybe you can see the planet as it looks from outer space: so blue, so beautiful. And now, ask the Spirit to show you a particular part of the earth or a particular part of earth’s family that is in need of healing this day. It might be a place…or a creature…an ecosystem. Ask to be shown any being or any place that needs your particular attention and care. Trust that whatever comes first to your mind is the Spirit’s call to you today. 

As you hold this place or being in your heart, ask whether there is anything you are called to do to support God’s healing work in this situation. No need to force an answer; it is enough to be quietly receptive, just holding the question with openness and curiosity….knowing that you can come back anytime to listen again.

Now, take a moment to note anything you feel called to do in response to this situation.

Finally, take a moment to envision all the others, all around the world, who are working together to heal this place, this creature, this situation. You might envision a vast community of compassion and care encircling the whole earth, holding all beings in the healing light of God. And as you envision this circle of compassion and action, know that you are not alone. 

As you begin to release your meditation on the community of earth and return to your particular spot on earth,  I offer you this prayer…

As we set out together to savor and to save this world, may we remember to call with confidence upon the presence and the power of the One we call the Source of Life: the One who moment to moment creates, sustains, and blesses all life and every life…now and forever, world without end. Amen. 

Joy Comes in the Morning

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Portrait of Mary Magdalene from the icon of dancing saints at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Created by artist Mark Dukes with the people of St. Gregory’s

A reflection on John 20:11-18 for the Day of Resurrection

This past Thursday night, as the shadows deepened over the last hours of Jesus’ life, we read these familiar words from Psalm 30, often translated this way: Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. 

These are ancient words of comfort; beautiful words that we ourselves often remember in times of sorrow.  But I suspect that even the ancient psalmist would understand if we woke up today feeling a bit skeptical about that promise of morning joy. Skeptical because instead of exuberant celebration, we awakened this Easter morning to a somber and strangely silent world.

Surely Mary, the one known as the Magdalene, would understand our disappointment and confusion. Mary, who knows a thing or two about the kind of weeping, the kind of sorrow, that does not suddenly vanish with the first light of dawn.

I wonder if we can imagine the depth of the sorrow Mary must endure on that first Easter morning. She has seen her beloved friend despised and broken by the cruelty of the Roman police state. She has watched in agony as Jesus’ beloved body is destroyed by the very worst things we humans do to each other—the very worst things we still do to one another out of hatred and fear. When we meet Mary this morning, her sorrow is nearly more than she can bear.

But when we lose the ones we love most—the ones who are the love of our life, the soul of our souls—when those dearest ones die, the only thing left to do with all our love is to go and tend to the precious body of the one we have lost. 

And so, on the first day of the week, in the thick darkness of early morning, Mary goes with her friends back to the tomb to retrieve Jesus’ body. But when they arrive, they find that his body is gone. I wonder if we can even imagine Mary’s pain in this moment. The only thing she has left is the body of the one she loves, and now…even this has been taken from her. After everything they have been through together, who could stand to lose this one last precious thing? The pain and fear are enough to make anyone want to run away. Which is what everybody does…except Mary. Jesus’ beloved friend Mary, the Magdalene. Mary alone stays at the empty, gaping tomb. And there, she lets her own body do what any body would. She weeps. 

If you have ever grieved for a loss you thought was more than you could bear, then you know the kind of weeping Mary does this morning. The kind that overtakes your body with heaving sobs. The kind that drenches you, body and soul, in tears.

If you have been there, if you have ever found yourself crying into a bath towel instead of a tissue box, then you know that this is not the moment for a psalmist to appear, promising that “joy comes in the morning.”

Unless…unless that psalmist arrives this morning precisely to teach us what joy actually is, and what it is not.

Here in modern times, we tend to confuse joy with happiness or pleasure. Happiness and pleasure are what we feel when things are going our way, when we get what we want: the promotion; the concert tickets; two scoops of ice cream with hot fudge and a cherry on top. Of course, there is nothing wrong with these moments of happiness and pleasure; they are good gifts from a loving God. But happiness and pleasure are not what the psalmist means by joy.

Here’s the best definition of the word joy I’ve ever heard: Joy is the recognition of an almost unbearable beauty. (1) I’ll say that again. Joy is the recognition of an almost unbearable beauty. Unexpected, undeserved, unpurchased, almost unbearable beauty that suddenly appears to us, unbidden. The recognition of an almost unbearable beauty that can come upon us at any time, in any circumstances. Even in the midst of our deepest sorrow.

This is the beauty that Mary sees this morning right through her unspeakable pain. This is the beauty Mary sees this morning right through the curtain of her tears.

And I wonder if Mary has something to teach us as this strange Easter day dawns without trumpet fanfares or crowded churches or potted lilies cascading down the chancel steps. Mary, who of all the disciples has the courage and the spiritual tenacity to stay put in the midst of terror and confusion and unspeakable grief.  I believe that Mary is the teacher we need this morning. The one who comes to show us the real meaning of joy, and teaches us how to claim it.

Mary, Jesus whispers. And right there, through a river of tears, she sees Jesus standing before her, calling her name. Mary, he says. Mary.

And so Mary runs to him. What else would anyone do? And she holds him. I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear this story, I always wish Jesus would give Mary a little more time. Just another minute or two to hold him again. But Jesus says no. Don’t cling to me, he tells her. Don’t cling.

Friends, this is not happiness. This is not pleasure. Mary is going to have to let her beloved Jesus go. Again.

Even so, Mary whispers to us this morning. Even now, Mary says, as our own Easter day unfolds in silence. Even now, as the church doors remain closed and locked; even now, as millions are sick and suffering all over the world; even as we ourselves awaken on this strange Easter morning confused and afraid and grieving. Even so, Mary says. Joy is here.

No joy could be more surprising than the joy that comes to Mary and to us this Easter morning in the midst of our grief and our pain: the joy of the Risen One who will spend eternity trying to help us understand that God is alive in the very body of this world; that God and world are eternally joined, cell by cell, heart by heart, right here in the midst of the grit, and the brokenness, and the pain, and yes—the unbearable beauty of this world. 

Friends, joy does not wait for our pain to stop; it does not wait for our honest tears to stop. Joy arrives simply because this is the very nature of God: to continually pour the gift of God’s own self into the body of this world. So that even now, even through the curtain of our own tears, we may be surprised by the unbearable beauty of this fragile life we share. Beauty that even now—especially now—breaks our hearts open with joy. 

This is what it means to be an Easter people: to be willing to receive this joy, even now. To be willing this Easter morning to proclaim the living presence of the Christ who has gone through every suffering we can imagine or invent for ourselves; the one who has gone through hell itself, and who arrives now, whispering our names over the sound of our anguished weeping.

And maybe, just for a moment, in the sweet light of this spring morning or the chatter of nesting birds, we glimpse it. Maybe there are tears in our eyes we can’t explain because the whole, crazy story of resurrection and new life makes no sense at all because you know as well as I do that the hospitals are overflowing and there are hungry people in the streets and back in Washington all the old arguments are going around—about relief packages and taxes and the stock market and oil prices—and right in the middle of it all someone calls our name. Beloved, he whispers.

And in that moment, we catch a glimpse of this almost unbearable beauty: the beauty of God’s own presence, God’s unconditional healing love pouring into the body of this broken world, offering life, offering a new way, even through our tears. And our response to such a gift can only be a strange, tenacious joy.

This is the promise we claim this Easter day. I will be with you, says the Christ of God. I am right here with you in the body of this broken, desperate, always holy world that God so loves. Now and forever, world without end.

This is the joy that is ours to claim this day. The almost unspeakable joy that is ours to receive and to share this day and always.

Amen. And Alleluia.

 

 

(1)  This definition, with a slight change of wording, is borrowed from Zadie Smith in her article, “Some Notes on Attunement: A voyage around Joni Mitchell,” New Yorker, December 10, 2012.

 

Hosanna! Help Us, Please!

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A reflection for Palm Sunday, 2020


Hosanna! shout the people lining the road. Hosanna! Or, in Hebrew, Hoshiana, which means, Save us! Help us, please!

It’s not hard to hear this ancient cry of desperate hope echoing across the centuries this Palm Sunday. It’s the cry of a people calling out in their desperation. It’s the cry of the people of Israel, crushed by an occupying army, unable to claim authority over their own lives; a people whose meager income is paid out as taxes to fund the wars and the building projects of the Roman empire, leaving ordinary people to fend for themselves in poverty and hopelessness. And three times a year, when people from all over Israel make a holy pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, the emperor sends in the army—just to make sure those ordinary folk don’t get any big ideas about rising up in revolt.

This morning’s Palm Sunday reading marks the start of the Passover pilgrimage festival: the moment when all of Israel goes up to Jerusalem, singing songs and waving palms, to remember together the moment when, in the heart of their deepest despair, God raised a mighty hand on their behalf and brought them out of slavery in Egypt; sustained them in the wilderness; and led them into this holy land that has now been overrun by the empire of Rome.

And it’s at exactly this moment, when the Roman governor Pontius Pilate is arriving with the imperial army, that Jesus chooses to enter Jerusalem. The moment at which a desperate and crucified people is crying out for freedom. This world has become unbearable to us! they call to him. Tell us, please, that our suffering is going to end. Tell us that this broken world is going up in flames at last, because we are burning for justice. We are burning for dignity and hope. We’re burning for a way to end crucifixions forever.

Hosanna! they cry. Help us, please! Son of David, Save us!

In the Church, Palm Sunday is also known as Passion Sunday. Traditionally, this word “passion” refers to Jesus’ suffering—the suffering that he’s heading into at the end of this holy, terrible week.

But Jesus scholars Marcus Borg and John Crossan remind us that the word passion has another, much clearer meaning: Jesus’ entire ministry, and especially this Passion Sunday and the week ahead of us, show us exactly what Jesus is passionate about. Jesus is so singularly passionate about the Kingdom of God—the kingdom of justice and care for the weakest and most vulnerable—that he’s willing to stand in radical solidarity with the ones who have been excluded from that Kingdom, even if it costs him his life. 

And this fiery passion of Jesus, this burning love for the world, reveals to us God’s own passionate love—for the sick, for the outcast, for the earth itself and all her creatures—for whoever is currently being crucified by the powers that be.

Now, you and I and Jesus all know that it is not going to be possible for Jesus—a Jew, a peasant, a guy with no money or political clout or army—to take a stand against the injustice and cruelty of the Roman empire without being crucified himself.

And so I think it’s worth asking, now that we’ve been following Jesus closely all these weeks of Lent, now that we’ve been walking with Jesus for 40 days or more—whether it’s possible that he’s expecting us to be able to keep following him, to keep being as passionate as he is, even now, when the stakes are about to get very, very high.

What might it mean for us to keep following Jesus this week all the way into the passion of God and out the other side? There is never just one answer to this question. This is the heart of the mystery itself: the mystery of the cross and the mystery of God’s infinite love for a broken world. And yet, we are called to grapple with this question. Because here we are on the cusp of holy week, and before it’s over, we—just like the disciples—will have to decide whether we’re staying with Jesus, or not. 

Anne Lamott, in her book Operating Instructions, tells the story not only of her son’s first year of life, but also the story of her best friend Pammy, who is dying of cancer. One day, toward the end of Pammy’s life, Anne accompanies her to a doctor’s appointment. There, the doctor takes Anne aside and tells her to watch Pammy very carefully in the days ahead because as Pammy dies, the doctor says, “She’s showing you how to live.”

I think these might be our instructions, too, during these last days of Jesus’ life: “Watch him very carefully, now,” say the gospel writers. “Because he’s showing us how to live.” 

And so everyone watches. The soldiers. The peasants. Us. Watching the man who has lived all his days for the sake of bringing about the Kingdom of God—a kingdom of radical justice and blessing for all of creation.

And Jesus—all through his life and all through the terrible, holy week ahead—is showing us how to do the same. Jesus, as he makes his journey to the cross, is showing us how to live; how to be fully human: created in the image of God and called to love the world as passionately as God does. In your passion, Jesus says. Be as I am. In your passionate love for this burning world, come with me. Take up your own cross and follow me.

I don’t know about you, but I used to think Jesus was just exaggerating when he said that. Overstating overstating things for literary effect. I used to think it wasn’t really possible for an ordinary, everyday human being to love the world as the Christ of God loves the world. But not anymore. Not this season, as we stare at our televisions and laptop screens, watching as healthcare workers across the nation risk their lives every day to battle a pandemic that is spreading across the land. Covered head to toe in whatever protective gear they can find, the faces of these exhausted hospital workers are masked. But behind every one of those masks shines the face of the Christ: the face of God at work in the world; the love of God incarnated, enfleshed, in the bodies and souls of those who are daily risking their lives to save—to save—a people, a nation, and a world that they passionately love. A world that is crying out, Hosanna! Help us, please! 

You want to know how to live? Jesus asks. Do you want to be my disciples? Then take up your cross, he says. And follow me.

Standing unarmed to face the Roman army. Standing in a flimsy mask and a trash bag to face down a virus: these are not, thanks be to God, the ordinary circumstances of life for many of us. Most of us, right now, are not being called to risk our lives to save others.  In fact, we are called to take better care of our lives, and our health, in order to save medical care for those most in need.

And yet, there is a cross to face at the end of this week. A cross that says, It costs something—it always costs something—to live in passionate love for a world that is crying out to be saved. Jesus didn’t have money. He didn’t have political power or social standing. The only currency Jesus had to spend in radical solidarity with the world was his life.

But we have other gifts to give. And I believe that we are called to live—maybe not to die, but certainly to live—as Jesus did, willing to offer whatever we have to save the ones who are even now crying out: Hosanna! Save us! Help us, please!

Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor says of Jesus’ holy week journey, “He’s on his way to God, and he’s taking the whole world with him.” 

The whole world! This is what it means to become the Christ of God: to so fully embody the nature of God that he can answer the cry of the entire world—every fallen sparrow, every blade of grass, all at once and forever. That’s why he’s called the savior: he’s taking the whole world with him.

The rest of us? I’m not so sure. On my worst days, I’m convinced that I can, too. On my very craziest days, I seem driven by a largely unconscious notion that it’s my job to gather up the whole, broken world and carry it to safety. 

On my better days, I remember that I am not Jesus, and I am not God. On these days, I remember what it is that I actually do believe.  I believe that every single one of us is called to love some particular part of this world with the radical, extravagant love of God. I believe that there is one particular piece of this holy, burning, desperate world whose cry you are designed to hear above all the other cries—your ears and your heart were made to hear it. And that cry—the cry of that place, that people, that creature—is yours, with God’s help, to answer. 

I believe this is what Jesus means when he says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Take up your own cross and listen, as if it were a seashell, for the whisper of the one thing in all the world that you yourself are called to live for, and to save. 

A lot of people will try to tell you what that is. A lot of people will try to tell you what or  whom you should give your days and your power and your money to save. But I don’t believe anyone can tell you what that is, because God calls each of us to a unique work of love in this world.

But do I believe that we can help each other listen. And I wonder this morning if maybe you already know. Maybe you already know what it is you are called to save because all your life, there has been something that cracks your heart wide open with love every time you see or hear it. And I believe that once you can name this thing—this passion of your very own—then every power on earth and in heaven will come pouring in to help you save it. 

I think this is what we’ve been listening for all through this season of Lent, ever since we followed Jesus out into the desert to listen. What is it that he—and we—are called to live for? Who or what are we called to stand up for? What is the great, passionate love that will carry each one of us through all the days of our lives, and into the new life that God has planned for the world? 

I hope you’ll take up a branch of something this Sunday: palm or oak or douglas fir. Maybe wave it around this afternoon and hear it whisper to you about what being, what creature, what sacred place in all the earth might be calling out to you this Sunday of passion: Hosanna! Save us! Hosanna! Help us, please!

Amen.