In the Ice

When freezing rain moved through in mid-January, it covered the trees and bushes with ice. The crabapple tree in my front yard still has a few fruits, not yet eaten by the birds, and they glistened through the ice like red jewels.

The ice-coated crabapples are like the soul that is frozen in grief or despair. Ice covers the fruit, stems, twigs, and branches, isolating them from the winter air, just as suffering isolates the spirit from joy and comfort. But the beauty of the soul is still visible. The fruit survives and will become food that sustains life. Within the fruit are the seeds that will grow into new life. The crabapple waits. Spring will come.

We are all connected to everything that is, even when we can’t feel it or even perceive it. We all have times of ice, times when we feel disconnected and paralyzed. But the Spirit of light and life is with us, even when we don’t believe it exists. The ice will melt.

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Evidence

Thunder at a distance,
And the light fading at the end of day.
The wind stirs in the trees, little new leaves rustling.
I open the door and walk out into cool rain,
The air clean and warm and the wind lively against my skin.
The scent of earth and new growth fills me with every breath. 

God, let those who don’t believe in resurrection or rebirth
Have one May evening of fresh rain and a soft wind!

 

Sin and Celebration

Some people think we don’t have a sufficiently strong sense of sin in our culture today.  I’d say we don’t have a strong enough sense of the presence of God.

It’s our awareness of God’s presence in our lives that makes it possible for us to live in joy and love rather than sin.  Yes, we are flawed and broken beings.  We make bad choices, deliberately or by accident.  We sin by choice, and we sin unknowingly, out of ignorance or lack of understanding.  Even when we try with all our strength to do what we know is right, we make mistakes.  We are flawed and incomplete, and we stumble and fall.  So yes, we are all sinners.  We all need repentance, and we all need forgiveness.

We are also creatures who belong to God, made in the image of God, made the way we are.  God chose to give us free will.  Even though we can use our free will to make bad choices, we can also use it to choose God, choose love.  So we are more than sinners.  We are lovers, dreamers, beings who hope.  There’s more to our relationship with God than sin and forgiveness.

There are several problems with our contemporary Christian views of sin.  First of all, we’ve focused our notion of sin too narrowly.  We’ve made sin personal and too often ignored our corporate failings.  And then we’ve narrowed our idea of sin almost entirely to issues of sexuality.  We act as if we think the most important thing about our humanity is our sexual behavior.  Do we really think God’s primary concern about us is our sexuality?  Is God really like that?

Our sexuality probably pleases God when it is an expression of love, commitment, and joyful celebration.  I believe God mourns our sexual activity when it debases or abuses others, or when it is based on self-gratification rather than love.  But I also believe that there are other aspects of our daily behavior that cause God as much or more pain, aspects that we too often don’t even think of as sin.

Isn’t it sin to strive so hard to improve the “bottom line” that we force people out of work or require them to work for wages that make life anxious and miserable?  Isn’t it sin to confine food animals so that they live in their own excrement, unable to move, until they’re slaughtered for our dinner tables?  Isn’t it sin to hate others who are different from ourselves?  Isn’t it sin to exaggerate differences and demonize other people?  Isn’t it sin to allow fear to so control our lives that we cannot behave generously, kindly, lovingly toward others?  We’ve defined morality far too narrowly.

Here are some things I think are important moral issues that deserve our concern.

  • Justice for everyone – equal and impartial justice.
  • Recognition that individuals and groups of people are oppressed, and that oppression is wrong.
  • Willingness to speak out against injustice and oppression.
  • Kindness toward those in need and those who are suffering.
  • Humility in the presence of God, and in the presence of other human beings.
  • Responsibility for those who cannot provide for themselves, for whatever reason.
  • Responsibility for the earth and everything on it.
  • Concern for the safety and health of all.
  • Acceptance and understanding of those who do not agree with us.
  • Respect for those who think and believe differently.
  • Readiness to cherish every individual life with which we are in contact.
  • Willingness to pay a price for all these things.

I think these things matter to God, too.

There’s yet another problem with our notions of sin.  When we focus on sin as the most  important element in our relationship with God, we can become lost in our own imperfection.  We can get caught in a vicious circle of sin, repentance, and forgiveness.  Once caught, it can be hard to get out of a devastating awareness of our own imperfections and begin to grow in our relationship with God.  We focus on ourselves, instead of God.  If I’m focused on my own sin, I can come to believe that God’s main function in my life is to take note of my sins, acknowledge my repentance, and forgive me – until I sin again, which I surely will, since I’m a flawed mortal being.  I forget that there’s a whole lot more for God to do in my life.

I believe that, for some amazing reason known only to Godself, God is more interested in growing us than in judging us.  The key to that growth is relationship.  God made us to be in relationship – with God, with one another, with everything in creation.  When my relationship with God is growing and strengthening, my decisions are less destructive, less self-centered.  When I’m aware of God’s presence in me and in everything around me, I sin less and love more.

It’s not though avoidance of sin that we enter into life with God – what some call the Kingdom of Heaven.  It’s through a relationship with God.  We can never completely avoid our own brokenness, but we can live out of our relationship with God rather than that brokenness.  When we allow our relationship with God to grow, we are living life eternal, here and now.  And in that life, our tendency to sin is diminished and even healed.

God made us to be joyful, to celebrate the goodness and beauty of existence.  We all suffer and sin.  But we all can also love, and out of that love comes celebration.  When we focus on our sin, we forget the importance of love and celebration.  Sin is important, but love trumps sin every time.  Jesus showed us that.

 

An Easter Journey

We are all creatures of suffering and joy.  Whether we recognize God or not, God is always with us in our suffering and our joy.The journey that Cleopas and his unnamed companion took to the village of Emmaus on the afternoon of the Resurrection was truly an Easter journey, moving through the mystery of the Cross to new life.  The revelation they encountered in Jesus is exactly where the cross was leading them – exactly where our journey to the cross leads us today.  Alleluia!

 

The Road To Emmaus

We wept as we walked, Cleopas and I,
Going along the dusty road to Emmaus,
Talking over the heavy news we carried to our friends there,
News of our Lord’s dying, nailed to the wooden cross,
Stripped and beaten and crowned with thorns,
The Romans jeering and the disciples scattered,
The sun darkened and the temple curtain torn in half.
We wept, and we remembered the last three days
Full of fear and the sound of weeping, stifled.
As we walked, a man came up with us
And asked us what sad thing we talked of.
So we told him of Jesus, and our hopes for redemption
From the trampling boot heels of the Romans,
And the death of all our hopes on the cross.
And we told him the strangest news of all,
The tomb empty in the morning light, the stone
Rolled away from the door, and the angel’s message.
Then he began to draw together strands of scripture,
Words of prophecy that, taken all together,
Laid forth the life and death of our Lord in a new light,
A clear message of salvation.
We ceased to weep, and our dead hopes, crushed beneath the heavy cross,
Stirred into the beginning of new life.
And then, when he broke bread with us that evening in the tiny village,
Children’s shouts still ringing at their dusty games in the gathering twilight,
We saw in the stranger’s face our risen Lord,
And suddenly the world was full of light,
And the beauty of the evening was piercingly intense,
More filled with hope than any hour had been before.
We were clean again, the marks of tears gone from our cheeks,
Fresh, the road’s dust and our sweat all gone.
Surrounded by light more brilliant than a thousand stars,
We moved back along the road to Jerusalem,
And our steps were as light as joy.

The End of Winter

In the last hour of winter,
(forty-seven degrees and cloudy),
I wait for the equinox.
Fifty minutes now to spring.
Snow lasted until ten days ago,
cold lingered longer.
The bulbs are only now showing a little green,
and the buds of the maples are tightly brown.
Will this bleak winter never end?

Of course spring will come, and summer after –
too hot, bleached, drought-defined.
But in the brief transition, longed-for,
awaited without patience,
there will be redbud hiding among the trees,
blazing forsythia and magnolias full of cream,
an Easter glory of dogwood and crabapples.

Tomorrow, the forecasters say,
will be sixty degrees and sunny.
How am I to wait?

Twilight

I
The sky is light,
But the frozen earth
Darkens into twilight.
Overhead, branches interlace
Against the deepening blue.
Winter lingers into March;
Snow lies in dirty heaps
At the edges of the road.

II
Between day and dark, between winter and spring,
We are beings in transition, moving from this dormant earth
Into whatever realms may be, or to oblivion.
D
oes it matter?
The day moves through crystalline shadow into night,
Signed by the elegant hieroglyphs of trees.
The dirty snow gives way to the buds of the maple.

III
God, if you are God, surely you live
In the transitions of our lives,
And we are your fingers in the earth.

 

A Spiral Journey

Some of the most beautiful things we encounter are spirals.  Think of a spiral staircase, a nautilus shell, a galaxy spinning in space.  Some of the most terrifying things we encounter are spirals.  Think of a tornado, a cyclone, a hurricane, a whirlpool.

The journey inward is a spiral, and it can be terrifying or beautiful.  If you’ve never practiced introspection, the very thought of looking inward can be frightening, like a dark passageway in an unknown neighborhood.  It’s hard not to think of what might be there.  If you’ve cultivated a habit of introspection, however, you know that you’re more likely to gain understanding, balance, and peace when you look within.  What you encounter on the journey may be painful, difficult, depressing, or frustrating.  But it will not destroy you; it will strengthen you and open you to God’s work in you.

There are certain questions that are useful in self-exploration.  Not surprisingly, they can be summed up in the journalist’s old list:  who, what, where, when, why, and how.  There are endless permutations on these six basic questions.  Here are a few to begin with.

Who am I?

What are the forces that have shaped me?

Where am I in the universe?

When am I in time?

Why do I exist?

How do I respond to my existence?

These questions and their many variations do not form a simple line or a straightforward melody.  They’re more like motifs in a fugue, or shapes in an abstract painting.  They turn back in on themselves, each leading to another and another and back again, in a complex spiral.  Exploring one leads us to all the others and back again to the first, but not at the same point where we began.  As we re-encounter each question, it presents itself in a more complex form, requiring further investigation and deeper understanding.  The journey never ends.  We spiral more and more deeply into self-awareness and self-understanding.  Along the way, we come to better know our world-self and our soul-self, and we find the sacred within us.