Light at Christmas

The reasons to grow jaded about Christmas are all around. The world seems as troubled as ever for these two thousand years, and the demands of the holiday season itself can feel more like pressure and stress than comfort and joy.

Fontanini Nativity

Yet we keep telling this story of a birth in a stable, the angels and shepherds, a star in the heavens and wise men bearing gifts from afar. We know the story from childhood, but it’s more than a children’s tale. This familiar scene pulls at us because it holds something we need to remember.

Heaven and earth meet in the Christmas story. They come together in the physicality of childbirth and the visitation of angels, the earthiness of the stable and the portent of the star.

A young mother bears a child and God is born into the world. In wisdom we recognize the sign set in the heavens, and in wonder we heed the message that comes to us in the fields. Human life is infused with the divine. The dark world is visited by angels of light. There is more to this life than we can sometimes see.

Nativity Angels

Our celebrations hold the desire to echo that story, to make love and good will manifest in the world. We look to our traditions for embodying that spirit, sometimes to the point of serving the traditions themselves more than the spirit they are meant to convey. But being with people we love and enjoying the things that make life good are at the heart of our preparations.

Christmas Story Nativity

When the night is longest and we need it most, the Christmas story draws the curtain aside. It reminds us that heaven and earth are closer together than we think. During Advent we light candles for Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love, which banish the dark.

May that light shine out from the heart of all our celebrations.

 

Hand-Lettered Inheritance

 

Gospel of Matthew St. John's Bible

Handwriting is more of an archaic art all the time—we even have apps for keeping our grocery lists. But as a calligrapher and as someone who loves books, I remain inspired by those monks of centuries past. They lit a candle in the dark ages, toiling away in their scriptoriums to copy manuscripts by hand. Their work was their answer to the question of what must be preserved, and what deserves to endure.

Today we are long past relying on scribes to copy out manuscripts, which makes the St. John’s University commission of a hand-lettered edition of the Bible all the more remarkable. Commissioned in 1998 and completed in 2011, it is a new work of calligraphy on a scale not seen for centuries. Even more exciting is that the volume containing the gospels is on display at the Berea College library during this academic year. The book is under glass, but five days a week it is turned to a new page.

 

2014-10-11 St. John's Bible at Berea

From the design of the book to the life in every line of the handwritten text and the artistic rendering of beloved passages, the work is beautiful. It brings together art, design, calligraphy, history, language, religion, and spirituality, yielding a result that elevates each of these realms. Donald Jackson, the Artistic Director of the project, said, “The continuous process of remaining open and accepting of what may reveal itself through hand and heart on a crafted page is the closest I have ever come to God.”

 

Matt 22.37-40 St. John's Bible

There is something about the willingness to undertake such a massive project that is beautiful, as well. Enormous coordination of effort and the resources required might be expected for the construction of a building or the making of a major film, but such largess is like breaking open the alabaster jar when lavished on rendering the written word. This project affirms both the unique value of these long-preserved scriptures and the power of words on paper.

Seeing this beautiful manuscript is a reminder of the ability of the written word to preserve and connect. Writing has long been a conduit for energy and inspiration to flow from one era to another, from one person to another, across vast expanses of time, geography, and culture.

 

Detail of St John's Bible - Matthew

Life was breathed into these words when they were first spoken, and into their recounting by those who recited them later. Life was poured into the lines by the writer’s hand and with each scribe’s individual pen strokes. Each step of the way, the energy of an individual person, expended in a singular place and time, created the link between the past and present. The technology that allows us to easily disseminate words and images is a wonderful tool, but technology also makes it easy to forget the individual people behind all our communication.

Words matter. Ideas matter. What we say, what we remember, what we write matters. As we live out our lives, linking the past to the future, we serve in the same role as those ancient scribes. We don’t use quill and ink, perhaps not even paper, but we play our part in preserving and communicating those things worth passing on. We have new tools, but the same task.

 

Detail St. John's Bible

 

What text shall we hand down?

 

An Invitation, and the Urgency of October

I’d like to invite you to a reading celebrating the 75th issue of The Louisville Review. It’s tonight at 7:00 at the Carnegie Center in Lexington. I’ll be reading along with some literary lights of Kentucky: Sena Jeter Naslund, Frank X Walker, Bill Goodman, and Karen Mann. You can find more information about the reading and the readers here.

Also, I have a post over at the KaBooM Writers Notebook this week, about the beauty and the urgency of October. It’s called “October Inspiration.”

 

Fall foliage 002

 

I hope this beautiful autumn finds you well.

 

Story and Spirit

Lately I’ve revisited stories from the Bible in a new way, serving as a storyteller for children’s worship at church. Following the “Children, Worship, and Wonder” program we rely on, I’ve learned to present the stories in a ritualized way.

 

Worship & Wonder Beside the Sea of Galilee

 

During Worship and Wonder, children experience sacred space created especially for them. Influenced by Montessori practices, each story has its own materials, stored neatly on a wicker tray and placed in its particular spot on a low shelf. Once the story has been told, it is available for the children to work with on their own for the rest of the year.

As in the Bible, these stories are told using relatively few words. They are acted out with simple but beautiful materials crafted from wood and sanded to a natural finish. There are quiet pauses to allow the parts of the story to sink in.

 

Worship & Wonder 002

 

The action of the story might be played out on an expanse of felt representing the Sea of Galilee or in the sand of the desert box. The characters move, they make decisions, they speak, they react to what happens, things change.

 

Worship & Wonder Jesus and Levi

 

In telling stories this way—mindful of the setting, allowing pauses between lines, showing a character’s response through action—I’ve become aware of the spaces within the story. There are moments when the action might have played out differently, where a person might have responded in another way, or where other conversations might have occurred. The drama grows, the questions multiply, the possibilities increase.

It’s a contemplative way of entering the story, leaving room for something new to appear. It brings an element of Ignatian spirituality, a practice established by Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. In Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, a practitioner places himself in a scene from the Bible, brought to life through the imagination. She imagines taking part in an episode from the life of Jesus, watching to see what happens and listening for what might be spoken to her.

 

Worship & Wonder Jesus Eating with Tax Collectors and Sinners

 

Children easily and naturally use their imaginations to enter a story, offering ideas of what people might have said, how they might have felt, or what they might have done next. This way of dwelling in a story creates a sacred space where the spirit can work. Seeing this happen is a reminder of the power of story for all of us.

At the end of the hour, the storyteller gives each child a blessing before they leave. It’s a quiet moment, one-on-one. On a recent Sunday I knelt at the door to speak to a child at her eye level. I told her I was glad she was there at Worship and Wonder today. “I’m glad you were, too,” she whispered.

I hadn’t expected to be the one blessed.

 

Room for the Spirit

Last week, workmen installed a new hardwood floor at our house. Preparing for that work looked a lot like moving—books packed away into boxes and furniture carried out. When the room was empty the old carpet looked even worse; this project was long overdue.

Two and a half days of noisy work followed: an electric saw wailing on the front walk, hammers pounding the planks into place, sporadic shots of a nail gun driven by a compressor that reverberated through the entire house. But in the midst of it all was the encouraging scent of fresh lumber and the satisfaction of seeing good work in progress.

Bare Wood Floor

After the oak was stained, the guys brushed the finishing coat over the wood, working their way toward the front door. They stepped backwards onto the porch, leaned in to close the door, and wished us well.

It was quiet. And beautiful.

An empty room with a glowing oak floor has a Zen-like tranquility. Waiting for the finish to dry meant it had to remain bare, and I enjoyed seeing this kind of space in the house. Later, even as I missed the comfort of the room’s furnishings, I was reluctant to move everything back in. The openness invites a sense of expansiveness, of possibility, that I didn’t want to give up.

Not allowing everything to return means making some decisions. It means sorting through shelves and baskets deciding on what’s worth keeping. And it means not letting things pile up once that paring down is done.

But I’ve been here before. And before that. It’s a cycle that continues. But in this case the change started at the foundation, and the decision is not what to carry out but what to bring in. Maybe that will make a difference. I keep having to learn over and over again that changing your space and changing your life seem to go together.

That expanse of uncluttered space, anchored by the warmth of natural wood, made me think of meditation. Maybe it seemed a perfect room for meditation because the open space, both restful and expansive, is like the mental and spiritual uncluttering that happens through meditation and prayer.

It’s also a physical embodiment of what the Sabbath is meant to be—an opening of time for what we value most, a space that allows some perspective on what’s most important. Sacred space and sacred time seem to be two sides of the same coin, and both help make room for the Spirit.

There’s a sense of renewal in transforming this room, just as meditation and prayer renew mind and spirit, as Sabbath renews the week. Creating it gives rise to the question of what is worth allowing into our space, and offers a reminder of how much choice we have in making that decision. It’s a practice worth repeating every week, or even every day.

 

Prayer-Filled Air

At the edge of the parking lot at Third Street Coffee is a section of tall chain link fence. It might serve as a divider between lots, but its primary role is that of connection, just as the coffee shop serves to foster community. The chain link canvas is a place for statements to be made without words, a place that emanates prayers.

 

Love Locks for Lexington at Third Street Coffee

Love Locks for Lexington at Third Street Coffee

 

Mostly it holds small padlocks, an echo of the love locks attached to bridges around the world. The practice apparently arose from a poem called “Prayer for Love” by Serbian poet Desanka Maksimovic.  The result has been bridges where so many couples have attached locks as a symbol of their love and devotion that the cumulative weight threatens the structure of the entire bridge. The locks, meaningful as they are individually, become more than the bridge can bear and have to be removed. The fence at Third Street invites Love Locks for Lexington, a sign of commitment to this city.

The image of all those locks, the public statement that the love they represent matters, has power. The symbol of commitment, locked together in love, has power as well. An outward manifestation of an inward grace—that’s the definition of a sacrament. Perhaps that’s the best way to think of this expanse of chain link. It’s a structure that supports something sacramental, an organically arising symbol of devotion. The practice hasn’t been handed down through the ages, but is something rising up, like blades of grass.

Prayer Flags at Third Street Coffee

Prayer Flags at Third Street Coffee

Also on the fence is a line of brightly colored squares of cloth, embellished with simple designs. What can they be but prayer flags, sending prayers and blessings into the world with every passing breeze, through every fleeting glance.

Some devout Buddhists turn small cylinders they carry with the words of a prayer tucked inside, or spin larger wheels built into the walls of a monastery or placed in the river and powered by water. Each spin of the prayer wheel sends the words into the universe, an act of merit for the one who offers the prayer. Prayer flags work the same way, releasing blessings into the air as they flutter in the wind, the air filled with prayer, thick with blessing, a palpable presence, the people changed by breathing power and grace, day and night.

Appropriately enough, there are coffee mugs on the fence at Third Street, too. There are more, of course, inside the café where it’s noisy with talk and laughter and music. The air is filled with the aroma of coffee, and bustles with the delivery of fresh Peruvian beans in a cardboard box, the opening of doors and scraping of chairs, the sounds of connection, conversation, the exchanges that change a day, change a life, change everything.

 

 

A Sense of Order and Sacred Space

Lately I’ve been learning about creating sacred space and leading worship for young children. Familiar rituals, an unhurried presence and clear focus, quiet voices, a space arranged in an orderly way, and a tranquil and consistent way of doing things—all of these are part of infusing the space with a sense of sacredness. The insight of thoughtful people who understand both children and worship has me thinking about the connection between a sense of order and sacred space, not only for children but for adults as well.

 

Sanctuary

 

Our world is messy and the days bring disorder of various kinds. Interactions between people go awry; the systems that should facilitate our lives often put up roadblocks instead. Our bodies, our plans, and the myriad details we juggle are all subject to breaking down. In ways both large and small, we are continually reminded that life is out of our control.

Especially when life feels chaotic, we need to find a sense of order somewhere. Within ourselves, if nowhere else, we need a sense of stillness and peace to move through the day with any grace at all. Nature can be a refuge, but we also need beautiful and tranquil spaces indoors, sheltered from the elements. From the most exalted to the most humble, the sanctuaries we create offer a place apart from the disordered world. We hope they will be infused with meaning, order, and beauty. When done well they embody sacredness beyond any particular beliefs associated with them.

A sanctuary with meaningful rituals offers a place and time for finding order in the midst of confusion. It creates a clearing where we can regain perspective, remember our priorities, and pull ourselves together to face whatever comes next. Sometimes we encounter the divine, other times the reassurance of a familiar practice is enough.

But in either case our impulse to seek order and ritual, and to find in it a connection to a higher order, puts us in touch with the holy. Our instinct to create sacred space is itself a divine gift. Whether or not we feel we’ve encountered God, the sense of finding order and tranquility is restorative. It helps us to act more effectively, live more compassionately, and appreciate life more fully.

Of course order alone doesn’t make a space sacred. A shallow kind of order can be imposed on all kinds of spaces, and preoccupation with order can crowd out vitality and creativity. There’s nothing sacred about oppression or stagnation. Faith communities and their places of worship can be a rich source of ordering one’s life and clearing the way for growth, or they can impose world views that are stifling and limiting.

Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light,” but so many oppressive claims are made in the name of Christian religion that many folks have given up on Christianity and on religion in general. That’s unfortunate, not only because many Christian communities are loving and inclusive, but because few other places are prepared to offer the sacred spaces and rituals that human beings need. People at all stages of life need somewhere to find order and tranquility. Are there places outside of religious communities to offer it?

Where do you find sacred space? What helps you to sort things out and find a sense of order and peace?

The Stories that Feed Us

I’ve been thinking lately about what faith is, as practiced in community. And about the tension in religious life between nurturing faith and acting for social justice. Not that they’re opposed—they are yin and yang, a union of opposites. The truth, the full picture, transcends each and holds them together. Each at its fullest point gives way to the other, requires the other to continue, loses meaning without the other, whether in the life of an individual or a community.

Herbs on Serving Platter

But where do we put our energy? Feeding the hungry matters, but it matters both physically and spiritually. Soup kitchens and food boxes meet basic needs, but the spirit’s needs are essential as well. The world is hungry in a thousand ways. People must have food, but they are starved for meaning, for hope, for beauty and peace. We cannot live by bread alone.

This week’s radio show, On Being, is an interview with Avivah Zornberg, who explores biblical stories through the Jewish tradition of midrash. She makes the insightful observation that faith is about asking better and better questions.

During the seder meal in the Jewish celebration of Passover, the practice of asking and answering questions is part of the sacred ritual. Children at the table see unusual and interesting foods, placed before them in part to invite questions. Why is this night different from other nights? Why are we eating these herbs tonight? A child’s simple question echoes through layers of experience in the minds of the adults. We need more than simple answers as life goes on, but we continue to ask why.

In the Seder ritual, the answer to the child and to the adults as well, comes through story. There is richness in that kind of teaching. Open spaces with room for exploration are made present in the world of a story. There is wisdom in demonstrating to the young that when people gather around the things that matter, we create a place and a time for questions.

Those early questions usually have answers. Children need information; stories are literal. But when the information comes in the form of stories, the answers invite more wondering, more questions, as time goes on.

The true teachings may be less about what can be known than about the stories that shape our lives, and the questions we’re invited into. A story changes as we inhabit it, and we are changed, too. I wish I had understood this better when my children were young, but we’re all still learning. Still asking questions.

The Challenge to Become Wise

“Where shall wisdom be found?” is an ancient question that remains as relevant as this week’s New York Times. An interesting article in Sunday’s paper provides a glimpse of how some researchers in our time understand wisdom. The attributes they discuss bolster quality of life in any circumstance. But in particular this article looks at how traits of wisdom foster positive, meaningful lives as people get older, and help in coping with serious physical decline.

Job 28 12

One aspect of wisdom has to do with the ability to accept change, including changes in ourselves. Psychotherapist Isabella S. Bick points out that if we reject our current selves for not remaining the same as we were in the past, we cut off our ability to grow wise. Yet in different ways, and at different levels, this is exactly what we do. We spend a lot of energy trying to argue with what is.

One inevitable change, of course, is aging. In a culture that reveres youth as much as ours does, it’s hard not to feel diminished by age. But deep change happens in many ways, pushing us out of our comfortable places. Activities and relationships that gave life meaning go away. Involvements and priorities that once mattered no longer seem important. We are dealt new challenges.

Theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965)* calls this “the shaken and devastated surface of [our] former lives and thoughts,” and says that facing it is how we grow. We are meant for a life of greater depth, and greater joy, but “the road runs contrary to the way we formerly lived and thought.” It’s a dismaying thought—all those miles in one direction just to turn around and go the other way.  And who wants to disrupt a life, or a world view, when we’ve worked so hard to get where we are?

Tillich answers by reminding us that too much of the time “we talk and talk and never listen to the voices speaking to our depth and from our depth. We accept ourselves as we appear to ourselves, and do not care what we really are. . . We miss, therefore, our depth and our true life.”

People who have looked beneath the surface and “found that they were not what they believed themselves to be” know something of the depth of things. No one wants to endure a painful disruption, but it moves us toward wisdom, something most of us do hope to have in some measure at the end of our lives.

Tillich clarifies what we’re looking for. He says, “the name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, or what you take seriously without any reservation.”

The heart of things lies beneath the potholed surface of our lives. But life’s challenges are real, and we need more than social research to help meet them. We need insight from beyond our current time and culture to help us become wise. Interpreting the spiritual wisdom of the ages is part of what we need from religion, and we stand in great need of theologians like Tillich who could bring a rich intellectual and spiritual life to his ministry.

He challenged his flock from all walks of life to deepen their existence. He told them, “the mark of real depth is its simplicity. If you should say, ‘This is too profound for me; I cannot grasp it’, you are self-deceptive. For you ought to know that nothing of real importance is too profound for anyone. It is not because it is too profound, but rather because it is too uncomfortable, that you shy away from the truth.”

The quality of our existence, individually and collectively, depends on meeting that challenge.

 

*The quotes from Paul Tillich are from “The Depth of Existence,” in his book entitled The Shaking of the Foundations.

Meditation in Lent

At meetings of my writing group, we often undertake a freewrite exercise together. Using prompts of various kinds, we spend twenty minutes or so writing without editing, simply letting the conversation and the shared energy around the table work with the prompt to elicit new work. This post is from today’s group meeting, where I drew the the words “decision,” “demand,” and “would  you pay” from an Altoid tin full of provocative words. My writing friends found meaning in this writing and urged me to post it. Going with their judgment, here it is. 

Sand Dunes

 

I’m thinking about the feather in Forrest Gump, swirling on currents of air, the lovely way it’s lifted and carried from here to there, rising and falling but always remaining aloft and traveling on to a new place, in harmony with the prevailing winds, peacefully moving through the world. When the movie came out I lived next door to a preacher who said to his flock: Don’t be like that feather, don’t just be blown by the breeze—make your life count for something.

I didn’t like his message, its hostility to the flow of things. I didn’t want the bulldoggedness of his theology or to be someone who operated that way. I didn’t want to reject the organic movement of the world, of life with others, to plow forward as if my own motives mattered most.

Maybe I wanted to picture the Holy Spirit as the air lifting that feather and sending it where it needed to be. How else could a feather know where to go? And how much more about where to go do I know?

But in this world decisions are required. Moving forward demands a decision, necessitates action. We come equipped with our own vision; I think we’re supposed to use it. Even if it’s limited. Even if it’s inadequate. Maybe filling out that vision is where the Holy Spirit comes in.

What would you pay is a question that drives this world. We have to pay. And we need to be paid. What would you pay for what I have to offer? That’s how we measure so much of our worth. Too much, but that’s the world we live in.

What would you pay to have what you want? And with what currency? With money? with time? with attention? with training? with dogged effort? with constant tending? with scraping for hope? with gathering the necessary vitality for one more try, one more day? Would you pay with sacrifice? with humility? with impoverishment? with pleading? with force? with violence? with insistence? with demands? with exile? with rejection? with woundedness? with letting go? with love? What is the price of what matters most? Is it anything short of a cross?