Monday, March 30, 2009

Sounds of Silence

I am spending two days at a contemplative retreat center in northern Tucson called Desert House of Prayer. It's a simple place, but comfortable, nestled into the mountain hills called Picture Rocks. From what I can tell it gets its name, not from the colors - which are shades of green and brown. Brown mountain dirt and rocks, varying shades from almost red to light gray, but still really brown. Green from the cacti - prickly pear, ocatillo, saguaro, and Palo Verdi trees. Here and there the monotone landscape is shattered by a burst of color from a flowering cacti - brilliant fuchsia, yellow, orange, red.

I think the name comes from the shape of the mountains. Odd, uneven, jagged, blips of mountains - the rising height of one is broken from the rising height of another - the result of ancient lava spills that burst through the earth and left piles of mountains here and there. Picture Rocks.

Along with the landscape, which is peaceful in spite of its prickliness, is a quietness that surrounds this place. True, there is the distant sound of cars making their way up the mountain not far from here. But mostly the sounds are subtle, like the color of brown and green that wash the land. But also like the color, its gentle monotone shattered now and then by bursts of color, the silence has texture.

In the midst of this incredible silence I hear the textures that weave in and out. The howling wind of yesterday has quieted to a gentle sway, the soft movement of the branches of a palo verdi or the rustle of the curtains in my room. Near by birds chatter, holding some sort of conversation. Far off birds call and sing back and forth. At night the coyotes, breaking an even quieter silence with their talk, an eerie yip and yap across the arroyo.

I can easily spend all day in this silence. I prefer to sit in it - walking on the gravel, the sound of my shoes shifting the stones and crunching the earth - is almost too jarring. But sometimes I walk to a place outside where I can sit. Then amidst the sound of the wind and birds, I add the sound of pencil as I try to capture the silence on paper.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Lent 5B

Br. Bede Thomas Mudge, OHC, Prior of the Benedictine Anglican Monastery called Holy Cross in West Park, NY shared this on his blog

I had a period of sabbatical and I went to live for half a year or so with the Sisters of the Love of God, who are an enclosed contemplative Order of nuns in England...

I lived in one of their smaller houses in a village called Hemel Hempstead, near St Alban's - north of London. The convent was called St Mary and the Angels and it housed a community of 5 or 6 nuns. It was an ordinary largish house in an ordinary suburban neighborhood, and it had a large yard ("garden" the English would say) that gave us some space to wander in…

One of the features of the life of that community was that the Office of Vigils each day was said at 2:00 a.m., and it was largely for that reason that I went to be with them. It seemed like one of the nicest things I could imagine - to have that night prayer be a part of my regular schedule.

I know - many of you think this is weird - or maybe just plain unimaginable. But I liked it - I loved it, actually. It seemed completely natural and I adjusted to the rhythm very quickly…

There is a special quality of silence and depth at that hour. It seems to me to be a time that is built for prayer…. Intercession flows naturally then. And it's all wrapped in a silence that seems alive. There's a Presence (with a capital P) to the silence in the middle of the night.

I never gave a lot of thought to what the neighbors thought about all this… I assumed that most of those around us simply ignored us and considered us irrelevant to their lives. Certainly there were few, if any, of them who showed much interest that I could see.

Then came a week when all of us had the flu. We had suffered… sore throats, joint pains, fevers and sniffles for a couple of days when Sister Rachel Mary, the sister in charge, said: "Ok - we're going to take five or six days off from the Night Office and get enough rest to get well. Then we'll go back to it." So we did - and I will have to admit that a whole night of sleep, every night, was quite delicious. It takes a lot of energy to do the Night Office on a regular basis.

So we had our time off and had been doing it for a couple of days, when the phone began to ring. It was the neighbors, and a lot of them, not just a few. "What's wrong?" they wanted to know. "Why aren't the sisters in the chapel at night? We're concerned." It had never occurred to me that the people around us even noticed what we did at night, much less that it was an important touch-stone in their lives. I didn't imagine that a practice as exotic as praying at 2 in the morning was part of the fabric of a normal suburban neighborhood of commuters. The fact that they depended on our night prayer at some level of their lives was something I was unprepared for. It was then that I realized that my sense of the importance of praying in the middle of the night was not something as exotic as I had assumed. It seemed to be shared by lots of people. At some level, these folks depended on us being in church while they slept, and it seemed important - even necessary - to them.

This season of Lent we have been focused on prayer. Prayer is one of the instructions given to us on Ash Wednesday on how to observe a Holy Lent, along with fasting, self examination, forgiveness and reading scripture. Many of you have participated in the Lenten program presentations on prayer and in the Sunday prayers for healing. Others of you have not. But regardless the prayers have gone on and I like to think that these prayers resonate within us and outside of us regardless of who is actually doing the praying.

The main idea is that prayer is a response to God who speaks to us first and calls us into relationship. God’s call to human beings has been one of the themes of our Old Testament readings this Lent; the idea of being in a sacred relationship is known as covenant. A sacred relationship with God who promises to bless us as God blessed Abraham and Sarah. God who promises to not cause us suffering as God promised Noah after the flood. God who through Moses promised relationship with God’s people in the 10 Commandments. God who, even when we break or strain our relationship with God, as the Israelites did when the complained in the wilderness, still calls us back into relationship with grace and love. And now today from the prophet Jeremiah we hear of a new covenant, of God who decides to no longer come to us from outside, but now chooses to rise up from within us, to dwell in our hearts.

As Christians we have come to understand this kind of covenantal relationship as the Incarnation, God choosing to act in and through human flesh. And, then as we hear in today’s Gospel, God not only chooses to act in and through human lives, but God desires for us a radical transformation. Because to be in relationship with God is sacred and it will change us in radical ways. We will become Christ like.

To be Christ like means that our anger will dissipate, our capacity for inner peace and compassion will increase, our selfishness will diminish and our love for self and others will increase. God will act within us. And then, like those night prayers of the nuns at the convent in England, God acting in us will impact the world around us. God will write on our hearts, and we will know God and God will know us, and through us others will come to know God as well.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Lent 4B

A reflection on Numbers 21:4-9

In my first quarter at seminary we were required to take a course in Early Church History. This class was taught by a renowned professor who was very erudite, whether preaching or teaching he always looked up toward the sky. He never looked you in the eye. The very first day of class, using slides and a slide projector, he took us, in one hour, through 50,000 years of religious history that occurred before the birth of Christ. Then he assigned our text book and told us that we would read it all and that our quizzes, which would be weekly, would include questions from the footnotes of the text book.

One of my tools for studying for that class was too make flash cards. I remember one night flipping through the cards trying to memorize the various early church theologians, who they were and what they did, and how they died. I did this out loud and Dan, sitting near me could hear, and when I got stuck on someone like St. Ignatius of Antioch, he’d provide the answer. It seems that 12 years of parochial school and done a fine job of teaching my husband what I was trying to learn in 12 weeks.

Around that same time in my formation for ordination I became interested in another Ignatius, St. Ignatius of Loyola. Born in Spain he lived in the 1500’s and is credited with authoring the spiritual discipline called the Ignatius Spiritual Exercises.

The Spiritual Exercises that Ignatius created were designed for use by the ordinary person as well as by persons entering into a vowed religious order. The exercises are lead by a Spiritual Director who guides the directee through them over a period of four weeks, or longer. Essentially the Exercises assume that God and Satan are active players in the world and in the human psyche. The main aim of the Exercises is to assist the individual in his or her ability to discern between good and evil aspects of life through a process of prayer, self examination, and discernment. There is a basic understanding that the human soul is continually drawn in two directions: both drawn towards Godliness, and at the same time drawn away from God by distractions that cause broken relationships in the world. A principle aspect of the Spiritual Exercises is the examination of conscience. This examination becomes a part of daily living, a method for one to prayerfully review what one has said and done over the course of a day. It is a process for us to consider the ways we have been selfish, angry, hurtful, judgmental, prejudiced, and then the exercises help us make decisions about where to make amends and how to live the next day in a manner that serves our higher purposes and God’s desire for us.

Our scripture reading this morning points us in this same direction, an examination of conscience. The Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness for some time now. They are tired and complain bitterly of the plain old manna, the food God has provided to satiate their hunger. They want real food, with seasonings and spices like they had in Egypt. All of Lent we have been hearing stories from the Old Testament about the covenant God makes with God’s people – a covenant of faithfulness, land, and children with Abraham and Sarah, a covenant with Noah to never destroy the people again with devastation, a covenant with Moses of how to be in relationship, God with God’s people through the 10 Commandments. But today we hear a story that strains those covenants that God has made. Despite the covenants God has grown weary of these complaining angry people who fail to see their blessings and only see what, in their estimation, is lacking. God reacts with anger and a poisonous snake. The people are forced to take some time to stop and think about how they have behaved, how they have been thankless and bitter. In essence they are forced to do an examination of conscience. As a result they want to change their ways, to focus more on gratitude and a sense of being thankful for what they have. God responds in a curious way. God asks Moses to make a bronze serpent which God blesses. The bronze serpent, inspired by God, is a human made construct, made by human hands and then blessed by God. As such it becomes a source of healing for the people.

Lent is a season in which the Church offers us human made constructs that are both inspired by and blessed by God with the intention of growing us in our relationship with God, with ourselves, and with one another. The season of Lent is designed to focus us carefully on the last days of Jesus and his journey to death and resurrection. Lent points us to spend time examining our consciences, to ponder the ways we are contributing to the brokenness in our lives and in our world and then taking the time to make amends. Making amends invites us into an opportunity for reconciliation and healing, of being made whole once again. That is one of the reasons we offer the anointing and prayers for healing in our Sunday services in Lent; this prayer time is an invitation to move from examining the ways we are broken and cause brokenness toward ways we can make amends and become whole. Becoming whole within ourselves we are then able to go out into the world, seeking and serving Christ, and being his hands and heart in the world.

Friday, March 06, 2009

She asks, "When Did You Learn to Fly?"

In the movie, Out of Africa Robert Redford's character arrives one day in an airplane to take Meryl Streep's character for a ride in an airplane. She, delighted, asks him, "When did you learn to fly?" And he says, "Yesterday." And then, off they go, one day of flying lessons propel them into the air, through some amazing and beautiful sky and above the most spectacular terrain.

A movie of adventure and risk, of life lived fully, and the struggle to live with integrity. But mostly its a human story of hope in the midst of tremendous challenge. We could talk about colonialism and its impact on Africa, for that is some of the story line of Out of Africa. But mostly it is a movie about the pursuit of love and the attempt to make a living growing coffee.The themes of this movie, taking place in the early 20th century, echo some of the same themes being played out in the early 21st century, right here in my own backyard.

Recently I was taking a walk through the neighborhood I live in. In between each block, or street of houses, our "backyards" so to speak, run washes, canyons, or as they are known here, arroyos. These are ancient pathways for melting snow and rain water that runs off the mountains during early spring and the summer rainy season. The arroyos are vital to our environment, providing greenery for food and shelter, supporting the lives of rabbits, lizards, quail families, ground squirrels, birds, bobcats, mountain lions, and javelina.

This time of year however there are no floods of water running through the arroyos. The "beds" are dry, sandy, rocky. On my walks, what I see in the arroyo sand, clearly imprinted in the dryness, are footprints. Lots of them. Some of the footprints are animal, particularly bobcat. But most of them are human. The footprints of people who are running from a life of desperation through great fear toward a potential for hope. Hope for a better life that includes a little bit of money to live on and send back home.

Lately there have been more helicopters in the air. Many days there are several helicopters. They fly low. The engines are loud, shaking houses in their wake. At night the helicopters have powerful headlights that shine into the desert ground picking up movement. In addition to helicopters there are more trucks. White ones, with Homeland Security or Border Patrol written on the side, or "DHS" on the license plate. There is a reported increase in "traffic" through this area, mostly because security has tightened in other areas. All along the border are high towers with powerful cameras that pick up on movement miles away. When the camera's detect movement they send out a warning and from there helicopters and trucks move in along the trajectory of movement. Many many people are caught and returned to the border. These people say that it is much more difficult to "get through" now than it was five years ago. Now, very few people make it and the cost for trying is high, thousands of dollars. Sometimes the cost is human life, people injured and left to die in desert harshness.

Human footprints in the sand leading where? Did these people make it safely? Or, were they caught and sent back? Many of these footprints are the result of people who have given up their hope to raise coffee and make a viable living. People who are underpaid or edged out or risk being caught up in the drug market or human trafficking. People who are desperate. And some who have become just plain evil. The footprints fill me with sorrow. The helicopters make me sad. Sad about the loss of hope and the certain return to desperation, that is the future for those being captured in the rugged desert and sent back across the border.

Lent is a season that calls me to think, more intentionally than otherwise, about the brokenness of humanity. Lent reminds me that we are all broken from something in life. More than that, Lent points us to examine how we all contribute to the brokenness of others in this global world. In many ways the average American is contributing to the violence and poverty that motivates most people to cross the border illegally. It's a simple as the cup of coffee we drink.

But an appropriate move toward reconciliation might be as simple as drinking and using Fair Trade Coffee. Fair Trade Coffee pays the grower a living wage. And making a living wage enables people to stay home with their families, on their land. Fair Trade Coffee saves lives, reduces desperation, brings hope.

In this season of Lent I did not give up any kind of food or drink. I am not learning to fly, and I'm not doing anything particularly risky. Instead I'm taking on a discipline of prayer. More intentional prayer that takes place during long walks. Prayer that gives thanks for the beauty of this land, for the blessings of life. Prayer for those seeking new life. And especially prayers of gratitude over a delicious cup of Fair Trade Coffee.

Imperfect....Listening

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