Where water has flowed, there is life.
Even when it seems like the water has dried, left the landscape parched,
It’s traces are still there in the rocks and moss.
The burning bush. Was it supernatural vandalism? Or holy art?
The bush was green again in the end.
But once you’ve seen those flames,
Your attention cannot be un-grabbed.
It makes you wonder about the way things ought to be and look and feel.
You will keep looking for beauty in unexpected places.
And the unexpected in beautiful places.
Today, the Gospel reading was the parable of the lost sheep. Of course, it is also the parable of the 99 left behind. Poor sheep. Either lost of left.
Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?
Or maybe there is another way to see it.
Sheep are meant to be in flocks, not alone. When one goes wandering, it needs finding and a shepherd will go looking. But a lost sheep isn’t home until it is back with its flock. Back with the 99 who stayed. They weren’t left, they were being the flock so the lost one would know where home was.
I was with my flock today. My tribe, my peeps. I hope if I ever go wandering, I’ll know I am found when I am back with them again. And I also hope when anyone else wanders in, they will know they are home. No matter which sheep you are in this tale, you are essential to the whole, made to be with your flock, your tribe, your community. It’s not the same without you.
Some of the stones in this old cemetery have names and dates,
others are rendered anonymous by time.
Anonymous to me, but not to those who placed them
or to the oaks and vines that grow from the soil enriched by the stories buried there.
Walking along the weedy paths
we cast shadows on the stones and earth,
on the wood and grass.
Those buried here can tell just as much about us from our shadows
as we can tell about them from the life that springs from their graves.
Together, we make a full story of beginnings and endings, life and death
and all that connects us to each other.
This morning, my daughter and I went on a morning hike. It was glorious. Several women, a couple of girls, and the best dog in the world (sorry Max) walked on a portion of the greenbelt that snakes its way through the western side of our city. Water was coursing through what had been a dry creek bed last summer.
Those of us over…well, let’s say over 5 feet tall…reminded ourselves to breath deeply and be mindful. Halfway down the trail, we stopped for some meditation that helped us feel connected to the earth beneath our feet, to feel supported and grounded in nature, to let the air cleanse us. The lush green trees and flowing water called our attention away from cell phones and the sounds of traffic just a few feet away.
During the hike itself, my daughter was mostly engaged and excited, but she rolled her eyes each time one of us reminded the others to breathe. Our mid-hike, mountain-pose breathing meditations were too still for her. I started to get frustrated…
But you know what, my daughter didn’t need these reminders to connect with nature. She is literally closer to the earth than I – by about 12 inches. At the start of our adventure, she made friends with a millipede, put it on a stick and brought it along on the hike. She is the one who encouraged us to wade in the creek, to feel the cool water and the stones under our feet, to let the minnows tickle our toes.
We are made from earth, every cell and the space between them. At every age we have ways of remembering that connection. For those of us with busy, indoor lives and lots of lists, it takes a hike and a reminder to breathe. Some see nature as a place filled with friends like millipedes, others see it as a wonder of mathematical beauty or principles. Farmers and gardeners have a different relationship to the earth than pilots and sailors. We each help the others see a different facet of our earthiness. One day, my daughter will need a reminder to breathe, and a child will remind her to make friends with a millipede.
Brigid – known also as Brigit, Bridget, Brid, Bride – is a patroness of Ireland, along with Patrick and Columba. Her life mirrors a huge cultural shift during the 5th and 6th Centuries, when Christianity was introduced to the pagan clans of Medieval Ireland.
There is a tale in which Brigid is asked by friends to visit a dying pagan chieftain. He was delirious in his illness and they hoped she could calm him. As she sat by his bedside, she picked up some rushes from the floor (common in those days to keep the room warm and clean) and started weaving them together into the shape of a cross. As she wove, she explained the meaning of the cross to the sick man, who grew quiet and listened. Soon his fever broke. The story of love she told him, the Christian story, so captivated the chieftain, that he was baptized just before his death.
Brigid’s cross of rushes gently bent her natural surroundings into the shape of her faith – just as Brigid wove the people and culture of Ireland into a Christian people. Born to a pagan chieftain father and a Christian slave mother, Brigid’s family included the two communities that she bridged through her life and work, teaching pagan Ireland how to embrace a new faith, while keeping it’s unique cultural character.
Christianity came to Ireland, not through political power, but through individual acts of faith and storytelling by people on the underside of history. Born a slave, Brigid spent her life helping the poor. Many of the miracles attributed to her are tales of feeding the hungry, giving away worldly goods, and being mysteriously rewarded for her generosity. When, as a child, she gave away all her mother’s butter, it was replenished three-fold. She kept a secret store of clothes and food for the poor and in one story even gave her father’s treasured sword to a leper.
Brigid showed how her Christian faith incorporated elements that were valued among her pagan neighbors – respect for the natural world and strong bonds of kinship. She is most notable for forming religious communities that became centers of prayer, charity and learning for both women and men. It was from these tightknit communities that early Irish Christians reached out to the rest of Ireland.
This prayer is attributed to St. Brigid – and sums up the earthy, joyful, communal faith she shared:
I’d like to give a lake of beer to God.
I’d love the heavenly
Host to be tippling there
For all eternity.
I’d love the men of Heaven to live with me,
To dance and sing.
If they wanted, I’d put at their disposal
Vats of suffering.
White cups of love I’d give them
With a heart and a half;
Sweet pitchers of mercy I’d offer
To every man.
I’d make Heaven a cheerful spot
Because the happy heart is true.
I’d make the men contented for their own sake.
I’d like Jesus to love me too.
I’d like the people of heaven to gather
From all the parishes around.
I’d give a special welcome to the women,
The three Marys of great renown.
I’d sit with the men, the women and God
There by the lake of beer.
We’d be drinking good health forever
And every drop would be a prayer.
(From Journey Toward Home: Soul Travel from Advent through Epiphany)
Dia de los Muertos. Day of the Dead. It has a different ring to it than All Souls’ Day.
Growing up, I had never heard of Day of the Dead, but I remember praying for people who had died and not really knowing what that meant. Dying was something that happened away from real life, to other people. Remembering the departed was a matter of prayer in church, a list of names. They weren’t even dead, they were “departed.”
But there is something heartwarming and emotional about a colorful altar covered with mementos of an earthy, earthly life that was intimately connected to others. A friend of mine always leaves a beer bottle on the altar for his father, because that is something they enjoyed together. So, on my first Dia observance a few years ago I left a bottle of Tabasco for my dad. And chocolate for my grandmother. It was better than seeing their names on a list; I relived moments we had together and told those stories to the people who are around me today. And I heard other people’s stories.
Dia de los Muertos, with all its skeletons and sculls, reminds us that death really happens. It isn’t the sanitized, distant event we tend to shy away from in modern American life. In places where Dia de los Muertos (or similar observance) is observed around the world, death is much more present. And because it is more present, perhaps the victory over death we celebrate in Christianity takes on a different meaning as well. All that color says that we are not in mourning, we are celebrating those we love. Dia de los Muertos is like a family reunion that crosses ALL the generations.
One of the things I am learning is that you can never tell who wants to talk to a chaplain. Or why. When I started CPE, I assumed that most people who wanted to talk to me would have religious reasons (even if they were subtle). And although I was prepared and happy to talk to people with different faiths or no faith at all, I assumed they probably would not want to talk to me.
This is emphatically not the case! The reasons people want to talk to me are varied and I’d say that at least half the conversations I have are not only not about faith, they are with people who have no religious preference or no faith at all. What they do have is a need to talk and for someone to listen. When you are in the hospital, you will almost always be inundated with information and procedures that are stressful and worrying. Plenty of people will talk to you about the facts – but who will let you talk about what it all means? What if your best friends and closest family are also worried and don’t know how to help you process what is going on?
What I’ve done more than anything all summer long is listen. Almost no one asks me to come pray with them; if we pray it is an extension of the listening. I’ve heard the biography of an illness from beginning to end, as well as the names and stories of each and every child/grandchild. People have told me about their marriages, professions, food preferences, legal problems, and the absolute boredom of being stuck in bed. I’ve been included in discussions of everything from the sacred (helping families plan funerals) to the mundane (the history of the California gold rush). All of it is holy ground.
So now, I am no longer surprised at what people will bring to me. And you shouldn’t be either. You can tell me anything!
Starting this week, I will be spending every weekday in two areas of the hospital: antepartum and NICU. Those are my floors, my peeps, my rounds. Unlike some floors, the folks I see are likely to be around for a while, so I might get the chance to form some relationships – unlike, say, someone admitted for surgery who might leave in a day.
In preparation for this I have purchased a large vat of lotion. Because, as anyone who has spent time in NICU will tell you, there is a lot of very thorough hand washing involved. Very. Thorough. Not just soap and hot water (controlled by foot pedals so you don’t get your filthy hands on the handles) but special picks for cleaning under every fingernail. But you have to save the lotion for the end of the day – none of that is allowed in NICU. No jewelry either. Just bare, scrubbed hands. But also amazingly strong babies who don’t know any better than to keep trying.