Category Archives: Church Year

Do your work. Then let go.

SunflowerWell, it was a rather cynical morning at Trinity Episcopal Church in Bend, Oregon, at least as far as the readings are concerned.

The writer of Ecclesiastes concludes, when pondering “all the deeds that are done under the sun,” that “all is vanity and a chasing after wind.” He describes the futility of working with “wisdom and knowledge and skill” only to have everything he’s created “be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it.” As a result, he says, “I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun.”

The psalmist strikes a similar note: “For we see that the wise die also; like the dull and stupid they perish and leave their wealth to those who come after them.”

And in Luke, we have Jesus telling the story of the rich man whose land “produced abundantly,” so he had the problem of storing all that abundance. The rich man’s solution was to build bigger barns. He’d have sustenance to last the rest of his life, giving him the freedom to “relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” Problem solved.  And then God comes with these words: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

What to make of these musings on human futility?

I think this morning’s readings from Ecclesiastes, Psalm 49, and Luke’s gospel are asking us to examine just how attached we are to having things beyond our control turn out a certain way.

All three readings are telling us that our job as God’s children is to create what is ours to create, and then to set our creations free.

The readings are calling us to a human version of photosynthesis.

Like plants, our call is simply and purely to offer the gifts we have – our qualities and skills combined with our environment – to make what is uniquely ours to make. And then let go.

Trying to control what happens to the products of our labors is as silly as an oak tree saying “Oh, Hell no,” and then refusing to let go of its leaves and acorns.

Being attached to outcomes is as ludicrous as a sunflower saying “I won’t make sugar and oxygen from sunlight and air and water and soil unless I can get a guarantee that they will only be eaten by some deserving animal.”

Our job is to do our best with what we’ve been given. And then let go.

Our job is to humbly and diligently co-create with God. And then let go.

Our job is to be who we are and do what we can in this incredible world. And then let go.

Any other course of action is, indeed “vanity and a chasing after wind.”

Groundhogs and Goddesses: Reclaiming Lent

Groundhog!

Groundhog!

Groundhog Day

Celebrate this unlikely oracle,     this ball of fat and fur,              whom we so mysteriously endow with the power to predict spring.                                        Let’s hear it for the improbable heroes who,                      frightened at their own shadows,  nonetheless unwittingly work miracles.

Why shouldn’t we believe
this peculiar rodent holds power
over sun and seasons in his stubby paw?
Who says that God is all grandeur and glory?

Unnoticed in the earth, worms
are busily, brainlessly, tilling the soil.
Field mice, all unthinking, have scattered
seeds that will take root and grow.
Grape hyacinths, against all reason,
have been holding up green shoots beneath the snow.
How do you think spring arrives?
There is nothing quieter, nothing
more secret, miraculous, mundane.
Do you want to play your part
in bringing it to birth? Nothing simpler.
Find a spot not too far from the ground
and wait.

~Lynn Ungar

Happy Groundhog Day! Today is also the Feast of the Presentation and Candlemas. Yesterday was both Imbolc and Brigid’s Day. February 1st and 2nd are thin places in the year’s cycle, rich with ancient energy. The Celtic Goddess Brigid comes together with a pesty rodent, Jesus’s presentation in the temple, and candle blessings at a party that celebrates lambing and other signs of Spring. Rock on!

Imbolc is one of the Celtic “cross-quarter days.” Cross-quarter days occur halfway between the sun’s solstices and equinoxes, and Imbolc is the halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. The ancient festival’s name probably comes from the Old Irish for “in the belly.” Imbolc celebrates lambing time, so it’s a party focused on gestation and birth, on literal and figurative new life.

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, February 10th this year. The word “Lent” comes from the Old English word for Spring and shares a root with “lengthen.”

Many of us who grew up in a Christian tradition, if we celebrated Lent at all, focused on it as a time for giving something up. “What are you giving up for Lent?” was the question heard on the playground and in the lunchrooms of my childhood. If we were told why we gave something up for Lent, the reason was usually tied to our sinful nature. Lent was a time to try to rein in our sinfulness before Easter, to prove ourselves worthy of God’s gift of salvation in Jesus.

(This idea of human sin is an outgrowth of a troubling and pervasive idea about Jesus called “penal substitutionary atonement” or “sacrificial atonement” that’s become the primary way we’ve understood Jesus and God for the last few centuries. The short form of this idea is that God sent Jesus to die for my sins on the cross, and if I believe in Him I get to go to Heaven instead of Hell. Ugh. There are other valid and more helpful, healthy ways to understand God and Jesus.)

What if we approached Lent through the door of Imbolc and Groundhog Day?

What if we asked, “What’s in my belly?”

“What’s asking to be born?”

“How can I nurture whatever this is and prepare for its birth during the 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter?”

We don’t have to be churchy or penitential to find value in the ancient practices of a holy Lent. We have bodies and we live in them on an Earth that cycles, under a moon and stars that cycle. That means we naturally cycle – we have times of ebb and flow, times of rest and activity, times of retreat and going forth, times of dying and rising again.

We can reclaim the wisdom of earlier times that celebrated discernible lengthening of days, returning fecundity of Earth, softening and burgeoning forth of bodies and dreams.

We can ask ourselves what wants to be born, and then act to nurture emerging new life.

We can reclaim Lent.

Next week: a mini-retreat for going deeper into these questions.

Necessary Darkness

Milky Way (www.goldpaintphotography.com)

Milky Way 

The darkest night I ever spent was on top of Steens Mountain in the southeastern corner of Oregon, far from artificial light sources, hundreds of miles from any population center. The moon rose very late that night and the stars were absolutely breathtaking. I saw more night sky than I had ever seen — parts of the Milky Way I didn’t know existed, multitudes of meteors, and so many stars.

Many Western Christian churches celebrate Advent in the four weeks preceding Christmas. Most Episcopal churches carve out a solemn and simple space during this time, a sanctuary from the surrounding Christmas craziness. Typically you won’t hear Christmas Carols or see Poinsettias. Not yet. Most Episcopal churches are peaceful havens where the focus is on holy waiting – both for the return of the light and for the birth of a baby.

Many Advent prayers and hymns focus on the light, so much so that it seems to me we’re afraid of the dark. The collect (prayer) for the first Sunday of Advent contains this phrase: “… give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light …” I protest: “There’s grace and healing in darkness! Mary’s womb was dark! Darkness is necessary!!”

It’s also worth noting that many spiritual feminists and people of color hear the church’s plea for light as misogynist and racist, as women and non-White people have historically been denigrated, marginalized, and exploited precisely because of their perceived association with dirt and darkness in all its forms.

David Owen writes, in a 2007 New Yorker article about light pollution, that we actually make ourselves less safe when we artificially illuminate the darkness. “Diminishing the level of nighttime lighting can actually increase visibility,” he says. Among many other examples of situations where illumination creates blindness, he cites “criminal-friendly” lighting that’s so bright it turns everything around it into an “impenetrable void.” Much “security” lighting is anything but secure.

Owen, in the same article, reports that lighting our interior spaces disrupts our circadian rhythms, which affects obesity, sleep, and perhaps some forms of cancer. And lighting the outdoors harms our fellow creatures, especially migrating birds, insects, and sea turtles.

We used to watch our world get dark. We used to look at the night sky. Stars and the night sky have been an important part of becoming and being human. We’re wired for star-gazing. Darkness is necessary, and we avoid it to our detriment. Gestation and germination require darkness – the warm nurturing darkness of wombs, and the holy soil of Earth. Darkness is necessary for birth and renewal.

My family used to live in a suburb of Chicago, where only a smattering of bright, brave stars penetrated the “sky glow” of that city. Every summer we’d head north to Lake Superior on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. And every summer, at least once, we’d see the Northern Lights. Our Aurora wasn’t the full-blown psychedelic light show of polar regions. Our Aurora was a shimmering and flickering magic dance of white light, arcing above the dark vastness of water, sporadic and ephemeral and enchanting. We only saw these Northern Lights because we were in a very dark place, sitting on the beach of that immense lake, paying attention.

My husband and I took in last fall’s lunar eclipse out among the sage and juniper of Oregon’s high desert. We perched ourselves on a ridge formed of lava. We watched the full moon slowly rise and then disappear as Earth moved between the sun and the moon. As the moon was eclipsed, more and more stars appeared. As the moon slowly reappeared, the dimmer stars began to wink out, one by one. Oh, holy night indeed.

Sometime in the next few weeks, the longest nights of the year here in the Northern Hemisphere, let’s go out to a dark place. Let’s dress warmly and take a thermos of hot chocolate and maybe a companion if they can be quiet. Let’s sit. Let’s settle into the darkness and just let it be dark. Let’s welcome the gifts darkness has to offer us. She’s waiting.

Acorns and Easter

Acorns

“How do we become that tree?”

Ash Wednesday was seven long weeks ago. Lent is almost over. Western Christians are teetering on the cusp of the Triduum (pronounced trih-joo-um), a fancy church word for The Three Days. The events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter are at the crux of our faith: Jesus dies and rises again.

I don’t know how this works. I don’t understand it at all. I doubt Jesus did either. But somehow “the human embodiment of the boundary-bursting, limit-shattering, death-defying power of God”* dies and is reborn. Jesus loves to the point of death, and beyond. And the power of his love somehow mysteriously continues to live in me.

Cynthia Borgeault’s The Wisdom Way of Knowing includes this story:

Once upon a time, in a not-so-faraway land, there was a kingdom of acorns, nestled at the foot of a grand old oak tree. Since the citizens of this kingdom were modern, fully Westernized acorns, they went about their business with purposeful energy; and since they were mid-life baby boomer acorns, they engaged in a lot of self-help courses. There were seminars called “Getting All You Can out of Your Shell.” There were woundedness and recovery groups for acorns who had been bruised in their fall from the tree. There were spas for oiling and polishing those shells and various acornopathic therapies to enhance longevity and well-being.

One day in the midst of this kingdom there suddenly appeared a knotty little stranger, apparently dropped “out of the blue” by a passing bird. He was capless and dirty, making an immediate negative impression on his fellow acorns. And crouched beneath the oak tree, he stammered out a wild tale. Pointing upward at the tree, he said, “We … are … that!”

Delusional thinking, obviously, the other acorns concluded, but one of them continued to engage him in conversation: “So tell us, how would we become that tree?” “Well,” said he, pointing downward, “it has something to do with going into the ground … and cracking open the shell.” “Insane,” they responded. “Totally morbid! Why, then we wouldn’t be acorns anymore.”

Jesus tells us over and over we must be buried. We must be broken open to become more fully who we are. The grain of wheat must die in order to yield a rich harvest. The caterpillar must completely dissolve to become a butterfly. The patterns are all around us, especially in springtime.

Unlike caterpillars, grains of wheat, and real acorns, we have a choice. We can resist the necessary dying and dissolving that is a prerequisite for new life. I don’t think I’m very good at this dying and dissolving. I resist. I cling to the old, the known, the static.

I want to stop resisting and clinging. I want to follow Jesus through these three holy days. I want to trust his promise that Love and I won’t die — that after each dying I will be reborn as a fuller truer embodiment of the real me who finds her Self in God.

I don’t understand Good Friday. I really don’t understand Easter. I don’t believe understanding matters at all. Jesus doesn’t say we must understand. He only asks us to follow — to walk our way with faith and love and kindness, dying and dissolving and being reborn on a regular basis.

*From a sermon by the Rev. Tom Murphy preached on April 6. Link here.