Monday, December 21, 2009

JOSEPH'S STORY, Part II

It was in those days that the powerful Roman ruler across the seas, Caesar Augustus, issued his taxation decree that a census should be taken and we must record our names at the town of our family of origin. Any Caesar was no friend of my people the Jews. The Roman occupation of our homeland had troubled our people for generations. We resented their presence, for they forced the people of Israel into submission through heavy taxes and strict laws governing our movements.

As an example, with this decree sent from Caesar, for me, this meant a long journey south into the hill country of Judea, to the town of Bethlehem, the ancestral city of David’s birth. It took four days to make the journey, in your terms, think of walking 80 miles, perhaps from here into the big city to the east. Mary was well along in her pregnancy and we knew the journey to Bethlehem would be difficult. I tell you the truth though, it was good to leave Nazareth. People had begun to talk about this pregnancy which came so quickly during an engagement. Even though we knew we were in the full blessing of the Lord, people’s words can still hurt. Our child was given as a gift. People’s words were given as thoughtless babble.

Bethlehem seemed to be just the place to step away into a quiet place where people did not know us by name, where we could have our baby in peace and quiet. We packed many belongings for the trip, thinking we would be away for weeks, even perhaps a few months, preparing to live in Bethlehem for a while after the baby was born, until Mary was strong enough to make the return journey. Little did we realize what the Lord was preparing for us ahead as fulfillment of many prophecies from of old. Mary rode upon our old donkey and I walked alongside.

We traveled southeast from Nazareth, along the great plain of Esdraelon, into the valley of Jezreel, and down into the Jordan river valley. The name “Jordan” in our language means “that which goes down and down”. This river valley drops and drops and then drops some more. From the heights of Mt. Hermon in the north where you can find the headwaters of the Jordan river, down through the Sea of Galilee, down and further down runs this rift valley into the lowest place in our corner of the world, at the Sea of the Arabah, what you know as the Dead Sea. Following the verdant Jordan River valley south for a few days, with the heights of the Hill Country of Ephraim to our right, we finally came to Jericho.

Then the road turned to the west, traveling up and up, through steep ravines and rocky valleys leading up into the Hill Country of Judea and into the city of Jerusalem, which was built upon the uneven rocky plateau we call Mount Zion. The way was familiar to us because of our regular trips to Jerusalem for annual holy festivals to the Lord. Still, to travel this way while full-term pregnant, we went slowly, with every bump and stone an additional weight and pain for my beloved wife Mary. Our arrival in Jerusalem was of course a great joy, to return to the House of the Lord where all the world gathered to worship the Holy One of Israel. After resting for two days in Jerusalem, we had a short travel day south to arrive in Bethlehem, the ancestral city of our forefather David, hoping to find a room for rent. Bethlehem was overloaded with many other travelers responding to the Roman decree. Though small in size, Bethlehem is great in influence.

All those who are descendents from the lineage of David of Bethlehem, and we are many, take great pride in our heritage and association with the house of David and the city of Bethlehem. Now, we had all returned within the same month to register our names for the Roman census. The place was overflowing with people, including all the places of lodging. Private homes, guest houses and public inns were all filled, no vacancies.

After searching throughout the city, I came back to Mary with no lodging. There was no empty bed in the whole town. I was tired, weary and afraid for my Mary. I told Mary all my heart. She calmed me with her great faith, simply saying the Lord would provide. Yes, the good Lord above provided alright. But what a strange Provider he is sometimes! We were offered shelter in a storage cave where the people kept their animals. Just as the city was crowded, so this stable cave was crowded with all the people’s animals. We use our animals for transport, perhaps as you use cars and trucks and such. So there we made preparations for the birth of the Messiah, the Christ, our firstborn son, there in a crowded place used to keep animals, perhaps for you something like preparing to deliver a baby in a messy garage.

The good Lord did provide abundantly for us in that place, and Mary gave birth to a healthy baby boy, our little Yeshua, Jesus, the One sent to save us from our sins. The birth was without any complications, though we did not have the assistance of our well-loved village midwife! With newborn Jesus in her arms, Mary’s eyes filled with tears of joy. She treasured the gift of the Lord, a gift given not only to us, but to the whole world, to all who will receive Him, making room for Him in their hearts.

When I first saw this child, my heart was moved with joy. I counted his little fingers and then his toes. Perhaps it was the beauty of that little boy; perhaps it was the amazement at knowing we held in our care the long awaited Messiah, the bright Morning Star whom God had sent to shine upon all those who are living in the shadow of death to guide our feet into the path of peace. I am not known as an emotional man, but that night, I wept sweet tears of joy. Here am I. A working man. A carpenter. A modest man of modest means. What do I have to offer? What do I know about raising a child, about raising the Son of God sent from heaven? Yet, at the time of the birth of the Christ child, our firstborn, Jesus, such a great peace of God came upon us. To know in our heart of hearts the Shalom peace of the Most High God, for he himself is our peace! All this took place in that humble place, in that little town of Bethlehem. “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray, cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today!” Amen!

Note: Based upon Luke 2:1-7; Matthew 2:6; Micah 5:2-5

Monday, December 14, 2009

JOSEPH'S STORY, Part I


I am Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Matthan, son of Eleazar. In the Gospel of Matthew and Luke, you’ll read about my life, yet not one word I spoke has been recorded. I was never a man of many words, but still, I’m grateful after all these years for this opportunity to tell you the story of the birth of Jesus, the Christ. Perhaps you already know something about my life, but there may be more to my story than you had thought of before. I was given a great gift, the greatest gift in the world: to witness the birth of the Messiah, God coming into this world as one of us. God with us!

Mary and I had known each other since childhood, though I was a number of years older than Mary. It was quite common in my day for a man to be promised to a younger woman, and I had my eye on Mary for several years. When it came time to consider marriage, I asked my father to arrange a marriage with Mary, daughter of Heli, son of Matthat. That was the way it was always done in my day. There was no courtship. Everything was arranged by our parents. I knew in my heart that Mary would be a great gift from the Lord, and took delight in the day I would become her husband.


In our tradition, the engagement, or period of betrothal lasted nearly a year. The announcement of the engagement was a public ceremony which was as binding as a marriage, though during this time the engaged husband and wife did not live together. Still, I was known as Mary’s husband and she was known as my wife. Once the marriage agreement was entered into at the time of engagement, it could not be ended without formal divorce proceedings. Any infidelity during the engagement period was considered adultery.


Shortly after our engagement, Mary traveled to the south, to the hill country of Judea, to visit her relative Elizabeth who was found to be six months pregnant. What made this pregnancy so remarkable was that Elizabeth was well past child-bearing years when she became pregnant. Elizabeth was the same age of great-grandmothers by the time her first child was born! At the time, I remembered the story of our forefather Abraham and his wife Sarah, who also gave birth to a child at an advanced aged, well after the years of childbearing. The Lord was unfolding His good plan, though I didn’t know it would involve my life at the time.


Mary was gone several months. During this time, I devoted my energies to my work. I work with my hands. I am a builder. A craftsman. In my heart, I was missing Mary everyday, yearning for the day she come back to Nazareth. When she returned, Mary came to visit me, taking me aside with important news, singing a new song she had learned while away. She explained that she was pregnant and confided in me that this news was beautiful, good news. Honestly, it did not seem such good news to my ears I can tell you. I couldn’t listen to another word. I couldn’t hear what Mary was telling me but felt a heavy weight upon my soul. Mary left me, with tears in her eyes, that day, her soul filled with hurt. Her betrothed husband had not listened to her, had not welcomed her, and I had not understood her. I hardly even noticed she had left the house, as I struggled inside with many different feelings.


Late that night, I still couldn’t sleep. My mind and heart were racing. I am a God-fearing Jewish man. I could not marry a woman who was already pregnant. Had she been unfaithful, involved with another man? It seemed impossible. Had she been used wrongfully by someone along the road? I was full of confusion, torn between my love for Mary and my desire to make it all go away. In Nazareth, there would be a scandal. Mary would be branded as an unclean woman, never able to marry again. Her family would face the shame of the entire community.

I greatly loved Mary. Yet, there was no going back. Mary was truly pregnant. I would ask to divorce her, in accordance with the law of my people. But I would have it done privately, quietly, not publicly. It would be a quiet, legal procedure, before two witnesses. I would declare that I didn’t approve of Mary as my future wife, and give her a written declaration of divorce stating that we were both free from the bond of marriage. And then, I would help Mary relocate to another town, perhaps with her kinswoman Elizabeth. Mary would still face the shame of her pregnancy out of wedlock, but our plans for our future together would be over. This course of action seemed to be the only way forward. I could think of nothing else, though my soul shook with fear at the thought of losing Mary.


Finally, having come to a difficult decision, in the depth of night, exhausted, I fell into a deep sleep. That night, the angel of the Lord appeared to me in a vision. The Lord spoke to me saying: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid! Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. Mary has never been unfaithful to you. The child which is now within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Mary will bear a son and you, Joseph, are to call him Yeshua, “Jesus”, because he will rescue his people from their sins.” In our language, the word to save, deliver or rescue forms a common name, the name Joshua, Yeshua, or Jesus. Our names have meanings, and sometimes these meanings are the special gift from God for which that child has come into the world. “Jesus”, the one God has sent to save us from our sins, rescue us from darkness, and deliver us from evil. Thanks be to God! As the prophet Isaiah declared long ago, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the shadow of death, a light has dawned. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. He will be pierced for our transgressions, he will be crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace will be upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” “Yes, Joseph, you are to call his name, Jesus, the one who comes to save us from our sins.”


The angel told me this was all to fulfill what the Isaiah had spoken of long ago, predicting the coming of the Messiah: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and they will call him Immanuel—God with us.” God with us. Think of these words. God with us. That God would choose to come be with us is quite a thought, something that filled my night-time soul with such radiance and hope!


When I awoke, I was not sure if I had dreamed a strange dream that would vanish like morning mist, or if I had heard the very voice of the Lord. What good news to hear! Then a sense of my shortcomings slowly crept over me. I had not asked Mary about the details of her pregnancy. I never let her explain. I simply assumed I knew the whole story. In my heart, I regretted that I had assumed the worst of my bride. That morning, I went to Mary and confessed to her my heart asking her to forgive my foolish, thoughtless ways.


As we sat together, her eyes welled up with tears of joy as she told me of the visitation from the angel of the Lord. Just as the Lord came to me, God had sent the angel Gabriel to Mary, telling her, “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God. Mary, you will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. I will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” I discovered that Mary’s story was the same as the one which came to me in the vision from the angel of the Lord. We were both uncertain what it all meant. They were strange words. But we knew what God wanted us to do.


Mary and I went ahead with our plans to be married. I took her to be my wife, and she moved from her family home into my home as was our custom. As a sign of our trust in the Lord our Provider, we slept in separate rooms and did not consummate our marriage until after the birth of our son. At the time, only Mary and I knew the secret of the gift God had given to Mary. As so Mary gave birth to a firstborn son, and according to the heavenly message given to us from God, we called our son Jesus. But where and how he was born, well now, that is a story all of its own.


At the time of his birth, I was honored as legal father of this child, to pronounce his name at the naming ceremony, the name given to us by the Angel of the Lord, the holy name of Jesus, the One come to save us from our sins, rescue us from darkness, deliver us from evil, bringing all God’s sons and daughters back Home into the Lords’ everlasting kingdom in heaven! At this name, as recorded in the Holy book, every knee shall bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father, who is to be praised forever and ever. Amen.


1. Adapted from a dramatic monologue by Bruce Goettsche, based upon Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-56

2. Painting by Fra Angelico, "Annunciatory Angel

Monday, November 30, 2009

REDISCOVERING A SENSE OF WONDER



I wonder as I wander out under the sky

How Jesus the Savior did come for to die

For poor on'ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
~John Jacob Niles

Perhaps the greatest loss we experience as we move from childhood into adult is losing our sense of wonder. Children are full of wonder. As children, our lives are naturally alert to the surprises, pleasures and beauty of life pulsating all around us. Children are quick to take delight in little things, like shiny stones along a river bank or the winter thrill of snowflakes.

Every year, our family returns to Olympic National Park in the summer for a week of hiking in the backcountry, usually journeying fifty miles on foot. That single week has done more to nourish my soul with a profound sense of wonder than any other week of the year. A few years ago, as we came off the trail, I picked up a copy of the Olympic National Park newspaper, “The Bugler”. There I found a quote from Socrates the Wise, who claimed, “The beginning of wisdom is wonder.” Months after returning from the high-country of the Olympics, I’ve feasted richly upon the sounds and sights of that week of wonder.

Wonder most often comes as a surprise. We wander into it unknowing. We gaze and gaze attempting to take in the sight of glory. Our words fall short; yet, our hearts well up with an inner sense of wonder. Thus, wonder is a twice blessed gift, giving delight in our first encounter with such fullness; and once again as we look with that inward eye, as Wordsworth wrote, ‘which is the bliss of solitude’. As we take time to reflect upon the vision of wonder, our hearts fill once again with pleasure and we discover ourselves dancing ‘with the daffodils’.

Besides summer hikes in the Olympics, the other time of the year that seem as charged with a sense of wonder is the month of December, during the season of Advent. As we celebrate the coming of Christ, our home begins to fill with those delights which come out only once a year. We cut snowflakes to put up on every window. We bring a fresh cut fir tree inside the home, decorating it with traditional ornaments, including Danish flags in honor of my wife’s cultural heritage. The air is filled with smells and sounds of the season, including spiced wine, Christmas cookies. Bedrooms become places full of delightful wonders, hiding gifts that will be wrapped and placed under the tree.

During Christmas, we expect the unexpected. We become children once again. We take time to wonder. In our return to childhood, we share together the delight of wonder. We look up into the clear December sky and think of that Bethlehem star that once led wise men to the place of wonder. There, they laid down their gifts before the Christ child, kneeling to worship and honor the child who would be King.

When Mary birthed Jesus 'twas in a cow's stall
With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all
But high from God's heaven, a star's light did fall
And the promise of ages it then did recall.

On Christmas eve, we gather together, joined by a common sense of wonder at God’s generosity. We sing carols celebrating the coming of God into our darkened world to save ‘poor on’ry people, like you and like I’. We are all in need of saving grace. Instead of gratitude and wonder, we rush through our lives, taking little time to fall on our knees and hear the angels singing. We surround ourselves with layers upon layers of technology insulating our senses from the glory of creation, buffering our lives from being surprised by wonder. We’ve given up our innocence, trading in our childhood wonder for an office cubicle crammed with machines and worry.

How can we return? How can we find our way back to that five year old age of innocence where we might once again take delight in rain drops falling on our faces? Every year, I take a few teenage kids around our village, home to home, on a dark night in December to sing carols to widows. This event has helped recall for me the way back into wonder. We can travel together to that place of wonder. The way is illuminated by poetry and song. Sing together those lovely Christmas carols, even in July as you wander through a natural cathedral of ancient trees and allow your heart to wonder as you wander out under the sky.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Dosewallips River


THE GIFT OF SLEEP


For several years, I traveled two hours from my home once a month to spend the day at a Trappist Abbey, located in Yamhill County, southwest of Portland. My plan was to arrive in mid-morning, spend the day in silence and solitude, and head home after Compline. Set in the heart of farmlands, "Our Lady" nestles against an oak-forested hillside, looking out over expansive fields and vineyards. A mile-long cloister drive greets you as you turn off Abbey Road.

As I stepped out of the car on one of my visits, dozens of birds welcomed me in song from the trees about the cloister. A flowering white dogwood seemed caught up in joyful contemplation of her Creator. I can’t explain it. Life looks different from the other side of that driveway. Even the air seems to breathe slower, as if in prayer.

The first time I retreated to Our Lady, I was wakened by the bells. The cloister courtyard hung heavy with an October mist. That same mist hung about my spirit as I entered the Chapel and heard the brothers chants their Psalms to begin the day’s holy work. Much of my spiritual life with God seems to be in a fog. My monthly retreats to the monastery have helped to melt away this fog and gift me with greater spiritual vision.

Later in the day on that first retreat to Our Lady, after several naps, time in prayer and Vespers, I strolled down the driveway with one of the brothers, caught up in a delightful conversation about the spiritual life. The mist was gone, the warmth of the evening sun upon our faces. The Lord bless you and keep you and make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you (Numbers 6:24-26).These ancient words came to me at Compline that evening.

After Compline, monks enter the great silence of the cloister, resting their lives in the peace of God, hearing the closing words of Psalm 4 ringing in the ear of their hearts. In peace will I both lie down and sleep, for you alone O Lord make me to dwell in safety. Every time I stay overnight at the monastery, there is a deep sense of peace resting upon the place, and I enjoy the gift of peaceful sleep. These same words keep returning to me as I turn for home along monastic driveways, renewed in my soul as a spiritual friend of God.

-

Friday, November 13, 2009

WHILE WE SLEEP

My soul finds rest in God alone, my salvation comes from him. ~Psalm 62:1

Halfway up a hillside across several fields from the monastic buildings, the brothers of Gethsemane have placed life-sized bronze statues of the sleeping disciples, Peter, James and John. Continue up to the top of the forested hill and you’ll find the praying Jesus in agony. The monks call that hillside “The garden of Gethsemane”. Something in the quality of that statue of Jesus in prayer awoke my prayer life unlike any sermon I’ve ever heard on the subject of prayer. While we lie asleep, having given in to the various temptations, mostly ineffective in our spiritual life with God, Jesus continues to pray for us. Could you not keep watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.[i] This singular activity is what lies at the heart of the spiritual life, including a monk’s vocational calling.

High above the entrance into the retreat house at Gethsemane Abbey, carved in granite, you find the words in capital letters, GOD ALONE. These words are drawn from Psalm 62:1 which reads, My soul finds rest in God alone. This spiritual reminder has traveled with me long after my departure from my various retreat weekends at Gethsemane.

After one of my visits to Gethsemane Abbey, I stopped through Bardstown, to fill up with gas before heading home. After a week of silence and solitude in such a place as Gethsemane Abbey, I was slapped in the face with the crass, hurried pace of civilization. Words seemed cheap, advertisements banal, and people bored or misdirected.

Strange though. After time in the cloister, I found my spirit full of compassion towards people. Spiritual journeys are to be shared. People are genuinely hungry for spiritual food and drink, including pastors.

What Gethsemane has to offer at the end of their mile long driveway most people yearn for but seldom seek, ask or find. Benedict had a clear vision of hospitality, carried out to this day in every Benedictine monastery: All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’.[ii] This same Christ works the night shift, staying awake through the watches of the night to pray for our souls to find rest in God alone while we sleep.

[i] Matthew 26:40-41

[ii] RB53:1

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Monday, November 2, 2009

STOPPING AT MIDDAY

Perched on a hilltop overlooking the Pacific, Prince of Peace Abbey offered me a quiet midday reprieve from people and busyness. I had spent the previous day in Long Beach, at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.. I’ve never enjoyed church politics or ecclesiastical business. After observing the machinery of the Presbyterian Church for a day, I was looking for a quiet place to reflect and pray. Prince of Peace Abbey welcomed me into God’s quiet circle of grace, a place to read, pray and renew my spirit.

A neighbor to Camp Pendleton, the Prince of Peace Abbey stands as a counter-culture witness to our national defense industry. The driveway meanders up “S” curves, past acres of wrecked cars. The sounds of cars being crushed at the junkyard below can be heard in the arroyo below from the ridge top where I walked and prayed through the fourteen “Stations of the Cross”, a meditation on the crucifixion of Christ. The punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).

Benedict thought it wise for monks to meditate upon death. Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die (RB 4). This kind of spiritual insight doesn’t go over real well on Wall Street or Main Street. The twin worlds of business and leisure groan with the pressure to produce something bigger, better, more exciting. Monks have taught me to learn how to die from those who are living life to the fullest in the face of death.The best time to learn this hard lesson is in the middle of a busy day.

During the midday prayer service known as Day Hour, I marveled at the sunlight beaming through a vast stained glass mosaic window of depicting the glory of Creation. Far out on the horizon, we also could see the glimmering blue of the Pacific Ocean.

After prayer, the Abbot took me on a tour of Prince of Peace Abbey, including some quiet time for meditation in the tropical cloister flower garden. In typical Benedictine fashion, we then gathered as family in the monastic dining room to enjoy lunch together, eaten in silence. Stopping at midday, with both body and soul taking time to rest, we gather our lives together to once again find the gift of shalom, that spiritual restoration and well being which is our heart’s true gift from the Prince of peace.

Monday, October 26, 2009

I DREAMED A DREAM


One of the most haunting and beautiful songs in a Broadway musical comes from "Les Miserables", Fantine's tragic solo, "I dreamed a dream". The lyrics by librettist, Alain Boublil are as follow:

I DREAMED A DREAM
There was a time when men were kind

When their voices were soft
And their words inviting
There was a time when love was blind
And the world was a song

And the song was exciting

There was a time
Then it all went wrong

I dreamed a dream in time gone by

When hope was high
And life worth living

I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving
Then I was young and unafraid
And dreams were made and used and wasted

There was no ransom to be paid
No song unsung, no wine untasted

But the tigers come at night

With their voices soft as thunder
As they tear your hope apart
And they turn your dream to shame
He slept a summer by my side

He filled my days with endless wonder
He took my childhood in his stride

But he was gone when autumn came

And still I dream he'll come to me

That we will live the years together
But there are dreams that cannot be
And there are storms we cannot weather

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I'm living

So different now from what it seemed

Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.


Of what do you dream? What are your dreams? There certainly will be storms that come to sweep away our dreams, yet we still dream dreams, for as humans, we all dream dreams and our lives are the better for dreaming. So what are your dreams? What causes you to waken in the night with an intense longing and yearning for a better world, a better life, a better way? Write them down, etch them upon your heart, let no one take them from you. Your dreams are a gift from God. There still can be a time "when hope is high and life is worth living".

Have you dreamed a dream recently? Have you shared this vision with anyone? Of what have you been dreaming of at night in the past month? Sometimes, our night-visions confirm our heart's dreams and deepest longings. Yet so often, we are too busy, anxious and unattentive to listen and remember our dreams. I awoke today with an image in my mind: our night-dreams are like wild birds in our yard. Awaken quickly to alarms, get up suddenly, and you will startle those wild birds and they will fly away and you'll find in the morning that all your dreams in the night have fled and you will not be able to recall one. The garden seems empty. But awaken quietly, slowly and look around you as emerge from sleep. There you will see wild birds perched on many branches, and you will begin to recognize and remember your dreams. Our dreams, like wild birds, will quicken our heart to the beauty and joy and wildness which fills our soul.

Multimedia: Fingerprints of God

Saturday, October 24, 2009

JOY COMES IN THE MORNING

By the tender mercies of our God, the rising Sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. Luke 1:78-79

Sacred art radiates God’s glory high above the altar in the sanctuary at Monastery of the Holy Spirit.
The glass artwork, a twenty-foot round window facing East, was designed with Lauds in mind. Mary, with open arms, offers the most radical form of hospitality any human has ever given, welcoming the Son of God into her mortal flesh. Within her womb the Christ Child offers the same open armed radiant blessing to the world. Above them both hovers the dove of the Holy Spirit and the hand of God. During Lauds, the morning service of the monastic day, God’s glory fills the sanctuary with radiance streaming through Mary and her Holy Child.

According to The Rule of St. Benedict, the morning service at dawn, also known as Lauds, begins with the blessing from Psalm 67, “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us.” I have often traveled the freeways, highways and country roads on my way to this abbey, in need of such a blessing. Weary of people, thread-bare of spirit, cynical and nearing burn-out, I’ve discovered God’s gift of spiritual renewal, simply by turning off the country road and heading down the mile long cloister drive lined with Magnolias.

Take the left fork at the end of the drive to arrive at the Abbey Guesthouse if you’re planning to stay overnight. If you’re just coming for Lauds, take the right fork which leads to the Porter’s lodge and the entrance to the Sanctuary. Step into the predawn Sanctuary and spend some time slowing down and gathering your soul together after that long drive. As Lauds begins, let the Psalms wash over your soul as the rising sunlight washes over your face, radiating through the colored glass artwork of Mary and Child. Joy comes in the morning!

After Lauds, stroll out to the gift shop to leisurely browse through an excellent collection of contemplative books. Monks support themselves like everyone else. A monk once told me that monasteries employ monks in a 24-hour workweek. This monastery included cottage industries of gift shop, bread baking, book-binding, stained-glass shop, farming and a Bonsai garden nursery.

I am often in need of the restoring help of monastic silence and solitude. That mile long row of Magnolias offered me this grace every retreat I’ve taken to Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. Though I could still hear the cars buzzing by along the country road, the noise seemed far off, like it belonged in another world. The fragrance of Magnolia blossoms in springtime, just after the dawning of the new day offered my weary soul heaven’s benediction.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Big Dipper over Port Townsend

IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong. Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty with your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.(Eccl.5:1-2)

The sky swims with stars in the high desert at four in the morning. After a thirty-minute trek off the state highway along a rutted gravel road I breathed in the sage and juniper desert air as I stepped out of the car. Located in the northwest corner of New Mexico, at the end of fourteen miles of forest service gravel-road, tucked away in a desert canyon surrounded by mesas and sage, Christ in the Desert Benedictine Monastery is what you would call remote. People warned me to avoid traveling the forest service road in the rain as it turns to slippery muck in summer flash storms. Some stretches of the road sneak precariously along cliffs above the Chama river.

Four in the morning is not my favorite time of day. Part of the monastic vow of poverty is giving up sleep in order to pray before dawn. Benedictine monks regard prayer as more important than sleep. The true "work of God", the “opus Dei”, begins at 4:15AM, a time which seems to me the absolute middle of the night, and one of most difficult hours of the 24 hour cycle of a day to pray. Benedict calls monks to begin the new day with Psalm 51:15, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.” Most people require divine assistance to jump start their spiritual life in the middle of the night. Benedictine monks begin their work day at 4:15 in the morning, chanting the Psalms. Leaving the canopy of stars behind us, we quietly stepped into the darkened Sanctuary awaiting the beginning of the new day.

Entry into the contemplative life is like trying to catch a cat. Go directly after a “contemplative experience” and it will coyly dart away. Sit still before dawn, waiting for the sun to rise, and the contemplative life will quietly climb into your lap, lie down and begin to purr. But sitting still in silence doesn’t come naturally or easily.

A fourteen-mile driveway helps. Something about driving mile after mile of a one lane gravel road through sage fields beside ancient mesas gives you a feeling of withdrawal from society into that inner space of the soul where the river of our lives have their headwaters. Guests are invited to leave the highways of civilization, and enter by the narrow road that leads to life (Matthew 7:14).

A monk once told me the road to the monastery is seven years long. That’s the preparation period before taking final vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Along a cloister drive, you have a topographical reminder to let go of the busy world, and truly enter the quiet of the spiritual life. It takes a willing heart to get away from the busyness of our ordinary life, head down a cloister drive and step into sacred space of Vigils before we can slow down and truly welcome the gift of silence.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Yosemite Valley

FOR THE LOVE OF IT


We are amateurs. At the root of amateur is ama, the Latin word for love. An amateur is someone who does what they do “for the love of it”. Love is at the root of all amateurism, whether in sports, parenting or photography. At the heart of most of what we do daily is an ordinary, everyday, aw-shucks, no-nonsense love for what we do.


Good feelings come and go. How many of us get excited as we load up onto our PC what we think is our best photo ever taken. The following day, we look again and a little voice keeps repeating, "You’re no good, you’re no good, you’re no good, baby you’re no good." Just keep repeating that fateful mantra until you slowly kill off love, your love for beauty, for excellence and adventure, for every God-given inner longing for life. Or laugh out loud as you reload your memory card to head out on the next shoot. Life awaits. Love invites us out beyond ourselves, into the world around us, into the lives of others.


We all know it. There’s a place within our heart of hearts, a place where love bubbles up like a wellspring, waking us up way too early to go out in the cold predawn morning. We’re off once again, attempting to capture in our hearts, our mind’s eye or through our camera lens what is just out of our reach, the radiance and wonder of a new day dawning.


This same love puts technology into our hands, brings us home to upload our catch of the day to ooh and aah over the wonders we’ve seen, helps us develop the craft of photography, challenging us to read and reread the manuals, the technical books, the tutorials, in hopes of finding better ways of tapping the source through these clumsy external machines we use.


Love keeps little record of the score, looking beyond the statistics into the heart of life. Love sees the passion among the pixels. Love sees the truth behind the overly-edited photo. Love keeps submitting and resubmitting in hopes of finding a better way to express the inexpressible.


For us amateur photographers, love keeps reloading our camera bag, heading us out on yet another face to face encounter with life. Love beckons us to seek a face to face encounter with beauty as total amateurs who do what we do just for the love of it.

Monday, September 21, 2009

HOLY POTS AND PANS


The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament. ~Brother Lawrence [i]

I’ve worked a fair share of kitchen odd jobs. My first paid employment as a teenager was in a kitchen at Grace and Eddy’s CafĂ© along Highway 18, on the way up to Mount Rainier National Park. Grace the waitress wore her hair on top of her head in a beehive. Eddy the cook was a chain smoker. I refilled mustard and ketchup squeeze bottles, restocked the freezer when deliveries arrived, broke apart boxes and cans for recycling, and washed pots and pans.

I worked several college summers as a dishwasher at a Steak & Ale restaurant. During those summers I discovered the joy of abandonment to an unpleasant task as God gave me the attitude of delight in doing small things well, including washing dishes. My final two years of undergraduate studies, I lived and worked as a house boy at a sorority house at the University of Washington in Seattle. Once again, I was a dishwasher and kitchen helper. During those years, I first began to learn the lessons of everyday spirituality with mop in hand. How can a person pray while at work? Is it possible to transform our work into a way of prayer?

One Sunday night after a full day of prayer and fasting, I was going through the motions of mopping the kitchen, not really caring how well the work was being done. An inner voice, that true voice of conviction, asked me who I was working for. The cook, of course, I replied, who did you think? Think again. Peeved at this voice, I confessed aloud that I was doing a sloppy job of my kitchen duties and would attempt to improve for the sake of Christ, my true Boss. A Bible verse rang in my mind as I set down the mop, picked up a broom to first sweep the kitchen floor, making sure the job was excellently:

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. [ii]

It was during those same college years that I first read a small paperback book titled “The Practice of the Presence of God”, by Brother Lawrence, the patron saint of the kitchen. This humble lay brother of a monastery in Paris taught that prayer is simply practicing the presence of God, especially within the everyday world.

Brother Lawrence, named Nicholas Herman at birth in 1611 in Lorraine, France, came from humble origins and had little if any formal education. He served in the French army during the Hundred Years War, until, in his thirties, he was wounded in battle. After his recovery, he was discharge from the army and decided to work in a monastery in Paris, serving the next forty years of his life as a lay brother, working mostly in the kitchen, washing pots and pans. Once in this monastery he took up the name by which we know him today, Brother Lawrence. Though he never wrote any books and left behind no great deeds, he is widely regarded today as one of the greatest voices of the Christian spiritual life, largely by the widespread popularity of the little volume published after his death, “The Practice of the Presence of God”. This thin book offers a collection of conversations and letters, inviting us into the kitchen of the soul where we can discover the secret of the spiritual life,

What is Brother Lawrence’s secret? Do everything you do, especially the little things, for the love of God. Expect to encounter God everyday, in the midst of daily chores such as washing pots and pans in the kitchen. Practice the presence of God daily, delighting in God’s presence throughout the day.

As Lawrence put it, “Lift up your heart to Him even at your meals, or when you are in company, the least little remembrance will always be acceptable to Him. You need not cry very loud: He is nearer to us than we think. To be with God there is no need to be continually in church. Of our heart we may make a prayer chapel, wherein to retire from time to time and with Him hold meek, humble loving converse. Everyone can converse closely with God, some more, others less: He knows what we can do. Let us begin then”.[iii]

The next time the dishes pile up in the sink and begin to overflow onto the counters, return to that prayer chapel of the heart right there in the kitchen. As you scrub pots and pans, soak in the presence of God, enjoying ‘meek, humble converse’ with God, as Brother Lawrence reminds us, the God whose ‘treasure is like an infinite ocean’.


[i] Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, (Nashville, TN: The Upper Room, 1950), 24.

[ii] Colossians 3:23-24.

[iii] Brother Lawrence, 32.

Monday, September 14, 2009

THE COMING OF THE DAWN

The Present is the point at which time touches eternity. The Future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time--for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays. ~C.S.Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

We are heliotropic. We were made for the light and naturally turn our lives into the path of the sun to receive the kiss of the first rays of dawn. Several years ago, I watched the marvel of sunrise as the rays of the sun broke across the 12,000 foot eastern rim of the Swiss Alps. A maiden, a monk and an ogre, known as Jungfrau, Monch and Eiger, stand guard over a wonderland of beauty in the Bernase-Oberland region of Switzerland.

From my vantage on the balcony of a Swiss chalet in Gimmelwald, at elevation of 4600 feet, dawn broke over the icy tips of the highest peaks. I turned that early morning from making coffee and enjoying morning mediation within the chalet to witness the return of the light into the valley. Heliotropism: our soul’s turning and returning toward the sun.

On our alpine hikes later that day above Gimmelwald, we noticed a wide variety of wildflowers with faces turned sunward. Paradise Lilies, Alpenroses, Anemones, Silver Thistle, Eidelweiss, Wild Raspberry, all welcoming the light, opening their petals to the life-giving radiance of the morning sun. One of the most democratic of movements on plant earth, the sunrise splashes warmth and new life on the grateful an ungrateful. As Jesus was known to say, [God] causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45).

The slight movement towards the light of day, heliotropism, opens our lives to receive a gift, the gift of radiance. I seldom arise before dawn. Every time that miracle takes place I am filled with a sense of wonder and delight at the awakening of a new day. Every year, I carry with me a single sentence of the Bible, mulling over this verse for a whole year. A few years ago, I spent a whole year reflecting upon a Scripture passage in Luke describing the coming of Christ, as “the Dawn from on high”, shining upon a darkened world. By the tender mercy of our God, by which the Dawn will come to us from heaven, to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace (Luke 1:78-79).

Every year, early on Easter morning, I awaken in the night, an hour or two before dawn, and head up Ecola Park Road to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ at our annual Community Sunrise Service at 6:30 in the morning. This service takes place on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, at the time when the sun breaks over the eastern rim of the coastal range. A hundred or more of us of us gather to welcome the new day and to celebrate the new hope found in the "Dawn come to us from heaven to shine upon us living in darkness". Normally, we awaken the dawn in April on the Oregon coast with grey skies, slanting rain and stiff wind. One Easter morning, at the end of Easter sunrise service, as we shouted Easter praise to the Risen Lord, the dawning sunlight broke over the eastern rim of the coastal range and splashed Haystack Rock with sunlight. A great gift for the soul to see such wonders together on an Easter morning!

Our main soul work is simply to turn to receive a gift. We become like yellow mountain daisies, with faces turned toward the radiance, allowing our lives to be filled and renewed by the light at dawn. With the ancient Psalmist, we too awaken the dawn to sing of this sacred turning toward the Light, the Light of the risen Christ, bringing new life and hope to the world at Easter or at any other time of the year.

We feast on the abundance of your house, You give us drink from your river of delights; for with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light (Psalm 36:8-9).

Friday, September 4, 2009

AT THE EDGE OF A CONTINENT

People love to stroll along the edge of the North American continent, lazily beachcombing among the driftwood for treasures washed in by the latest high tide. As we walk, our eyes gaze long and far out across the silver-blue Pacific. With pink and orange cirrus clouds flying high overhead, we stand as statutes at sunset, looking for the ever elusive green flash, gazing as if we were expecting the arrival of some flotilla, or some sea-farer coming to make land before nightfall.

As Jonah once looked westward, considering his options, so we stand at the shore to ponder our life’s direction. Do we head east into the heat of the desert to confront our fears in the face of enemies? Or do we head west into the heart of the sea to face the fierce gale force power of God’s breath upon the open sea? Our choice. By God’s grace, Jonah got a second chance, allowed to taste both saltwater and the stinging taste of Assyrian sand. Neither tasted as sweet as the ‘grace upon grace’ Jonah received from the deep, compassionate heart of God.

In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. from the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry. You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas. [1]

Jonah’s deliverance offers what I consider one of the funniest and most profound sentences in the entire Bible: “And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.”[2] By God’s grace, Jonah himself became piece of driftwood, an event Jesus describes as “the sign of Jonah”, the only heavenly sign his generation would receive. What exactly is the ‘sign of Jonah’? Nothing less than God’s grace revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, prefigured in Jonah being swallowed and spit out three days later.

Daily, the sea spits out new treasures, unveiling wonders to the human eye and human heart. Whenever I walk the beach, my eye looks for these gifts from the sea. It’s what I’ve come to call ‘grace-hunting’, or looking for tangible signs of God’s gifts in the ordinary places of daily life. Beachcombing spirituality. And sweetest of all, we don’t need our toes in the sand to discover the gifts from God’s ocean of generosity. We need only have the eyes to see the gift of life lying all around us. It is what Gerard Manley Hopkins described in his ‘kingfisher’ sonnet:

For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his,
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.[3]

1. Jonah 2:2-3
2. Jonah 2:10
3. Gerard Manley Hopkins, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, from Poems and Prose, (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1963), 51. In Eugene Peterson’s book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Peterson explores the spirituality of attentive wonder before the grace of Christ, drawing upon the poetry of Hopkins, including the poem quoted here.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Peter Iredale

A GIFT FROM THE SEA


Oh ye! Who have your eyeballs vex’d and tir’d
feast them upon the wideness of the sea.[i]

Walking the two miles northward along the Oregon coast on a rainy morning, I spotted a large round object sitting at low tide. Though it was still before dawn and the rain was coming in at an angle, I went to the water’s edge to discover what had washed up during the night. Nestled between two large yellow plastic coverings, a three-foot in diameter glass ball was staring back at me. I struggled to carry the over-sized globe up the dune to where I work. Later that day, I removed the plastic shell to more thoroughly acquaint myself with the ‘gift from the sea’. According to a sticker inside the glass, this orb was manufactured by an ocean research lab in Massachusetts, sold to the Florida State University, attached to an unmanned research lab, and sunk four miles deep into the heart of the Pacific Ocean. Over time, the metal bolts holding the float to the lab corroded and broke, freeing the giant jewel to rise the surface and wash ashore near my home on a low tide dawn in November.

We’ve found a few Japanese floating glass balls in our beachcombing treks. The hand-blown Japanese glass floats travel tens of thousands of miles in the whirlpool of the North Pacific, before a severe storm breaks a few loose to castaway and wash up onto the sand. Anne Morrow Lindberg’s classic book, “Gift from the Sea, offers a beautiful way of looking at our life on planet earth. Every period of our life is like another tide, bringing in new gifts for any and all who are willing to go a little out of their way to discover these treasures. Life is a beachcombing adventure. Speaking of her beach return, Lindberg writes,

At first, the tired body takes over completely…. One is forced against one’s mind, against all tidy resolutions, back into the primeval rhythms of the sea-shore…. And then, some morning in the second week, the mind wakes, comes to life again. Not in a city sense—no—but beach-wise. It begins to drift, to play, to turn over in gentle careless rolls like those lazy waves on the beach. One never knows what chance treasures these easy unconscious rollers may toss up, on the smooth white sand of the conscious mind, what perfectly rounded stone, what rare shell from the ocean floor…. But it must not be sought for or—heaven forbid!—dug for…. Patience… is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach—waiting for a gift from the sea.[ii]


[i] John Keats, Sonnet on the Sea, from The Penguin Book of English Romantic Verse, (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1968), 288.

[ii] Anne Morrow Lindberg, Gift from the Sea (New York, NY: Random House, 1955), 10-11.