Ball moss isn’t really moss. It is an air plant that lives off of humidity and dust, water and soil – the same stuff of which I am made. These botanical spheres seem self-sufficient, they don’t really need any other plants for their survival. Yet, they usually live in trees. Maybe they do it for the company. That little ball of thin leaves is really a community of plants holding tightly to each other, and also shooting out long-stemmed flowers to share themselves with the wider world. Island plants that are really not islands at all.
I’ve been using a different lens lately to consider human nature. One view I’m seeing is the nature of our physical selves – humans are both corporal and corporate. We are separate bodies and connected communities – at the same time. You and I can’t be truly human without being both. Our nourishment comes not only from water and soil, but also from holding tightly together and sending our blossoms out to the wider world. It’s how we are made and what we are made for.
My daughter is a feather finder. She loves feathers and finds them wherever she goes. Some are fancy enough to bring home, but most are pretty common and stay where they’ve landed on the grass or in bushes or along sidewalks. Whether she keeps them or not, she looks at them closely, because she loves them. And if you love something, it is worth some examination.
Over the weekend, she held my hand as we walked our dog around the block. It is a walk I’ve taken a thousand times before and I feel like I know it pretty well – the pavement, the neighbors’ houses, the pitch of the hills. On every walk, I compile a to-do list in my head and usually miss the nature and the neighbors. On my own, I know what lies along the route, but I don’t see it.
It is a different walk with my daughter, because she is a feather finder. We can talk about anything in the world, but because she cares about feathers, she will notice them. They are actually right there in plain sight for anyone to see – anyone who seeks them, anyone who cares about them. She finds feathers even when she isn’t looking for them because she is attuned to feathers. They find her.
What am I missing on these walks? While my mind is wandering far away, what is my heart missing? If I hold my daughter’s hand a little more often, will she tether me to the moment and help me see beauty and meaning there?
All this week I am in orientation for seminary, but as our Academic Dean observed today, it feels more like disorientation. Life is being turned upside-down as I go from my old life-rhythm to a new one. I am taking in so much new information it is overwhelming – I know I won’t remember it all. There is excitement and grief in all these changes. I love being a student and being on this beautiful campus, but am getting teary thinking about the time I will lose with my kids when I am all the way across town as they get off the school bus in the afternoons. By the end of September, we will all have a new normal, but for now things still feel out of balance. Unsettled.
I was thinking about all of this today in the first of three chapel services. (That right there is a big change.) The chapel is an architectural metaphor for our life here at seminary. There is a firm floor and a strong stone wall on one side. But the cross, instead of hanging on a wall behind the altar, is on the other side of a large window, not inside the chapel but pulling our eyes to the world outside it. It is a visual reminder that all of us here are preparing to leaving this place from the moment we enter, we are being called into other roles, other lives.
As you sit in the chapel, you can’t help but notice that across from the stone wall is a wall of windows. So, in this quiet space while you sing or pray or check your phone for email, you can’t help but notice squirrels playing in the trees or butterflies checking out the flowers in the garden or other people walking by. The busy world is out there with the cross, calling for your attention.
At times it seems like all the activity on the other side of the window is a distraction. But at other times, it feels like a reminder, “Oh yeah, that is why I am here.” None of us is here to remain in a permanent blissful, contemplative state, we are here to get information and hone skills that we will practice out there on the other side of the window.
So, in fact, my new friends and I are being oriented to a new environment and disoriented because everything is new and unsettling. But we are also being reoriented, turned to face a new direction, learning to pay attention to the same old things in a new way and from a new perspective.
Of course, it occurred to me as the day was ending that when I leave this place next spring, I’ll have to do this dis- re- orienting all over again.
Another overnight on-call is coming up. Now that I am more than halfway thru my CPE internship, I am starting to wonder about myself the same things I wonder about patients:
- what is giving your life meaning now?
- gosh, you’re going thru a lot, what coping strategies do you have?
- do you ever consider a good metaphor for what you are going thru?
Okay, I don’t really ever wonder that last one about patients. But for myself…I’ve been wondering what my three-legged stool is for surviving this summer. You know, the three-legged (because that is how many it takes to hold something up) stool used to talk about investing, leadership, or even Anglican theology? A timeless metaphor.
What are the three essential things keeping Mary from falling over?
Those might sound a little snarky to you. How about something more serious:
But really, what it boils down to is this:
Tonight, Sister Moon is casting off her shadows
revealing her whole face, scars and all.
Always, her pull causes sea changes,
yet when she shines so bright we feel the tug more,
perhaps because she is lighting up our landscape
so we can see the tides rise and fall.
The other day, I posted a photo on Facebook of a sage bush that is blooming in my front yard. These shrubs are usually pale green, but when it rains a lot (as it has in Texas this Spring and Summer) they blossom with purple flowers. A friend saw the photo and commented that sages are a true resurrection plant. It made me see them in a new way.
In truth, the sages here don’t ever seem to die. They are hearty and drought-resistant. But when it rains, they take on a whole new look and liveliness. Those purple flowers seem to have been waiting for the right circumstances to bring them out. As Summer progresses, the flowers will drop, but the sage will flower again. That is what they do.
In my faith tradition, resurrection is a central belief, yet even those who don’t believe the dead literally come back to life find hope in the theme of resurrection. It isn’t the passing of one soul through many lives – that is reincarnation – but the renewal of one single life or even of a community. In a way, resurrection can be seen as a person or community becoming most fully themselves. That’s why the symbols of resurrection are things like butterflies and eggs and sage bushes – living beings that undergo a transformation but retain the same essence; they stay what they have always been, only better. For some of us, the theme of resurrection is what gives us hope when we face all kinds of small “deaths,” like church attendance going down or changes in leadership. Or bigger “deaths” like racism or the daily indignities of poverty.
As I work with patients and families at the hospital this summer, the image of my “resurrection” sage is a helpful one. People, too, blossom when the circumstances allow. Many times, those circumstances might be a death or a difficult transition. Sometimes, as I sit with people experiencing grief and pain, they begin to flower with stories, memories, plans, and gratitude. I’ve experienced it at similar times in my own family. In the midst of grief, we’ve recalled old family jokes, planned favorite meals, reached out to disconnected loved ones. And so it is with the families I companion this summer. Thanks to my friend’s comment, I’ll be looking for these resurrection moments every chance I get.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
Every Sunday, I light two candles: one for people on my prayer list and one for peace. The prayers are always specific, but some days they are lifted up from more places than just my heart. This was one of those days – the events of this week seemed to rise up before many of us at once, begging for light.
Like most people I know, this week has been one of grief and anger as we learned about the murder of nine African American women and men in their church. As we learned that they were murdered in an act of racist domestic terrorism. As we realized that, although this slaughter was unimaginably horrible, it was not surprising. Because we’ve seen so much of it lately – literally seen it captured on video and widely broadcast.
There is a lot I could say about what happened in Charleston – but there are other people saying it so well whose words I’ve been sharing on social media. (And I highly recommend you check them out.) What I can add is how this event was framed for me this morning. Because after I lit my candles and hoped those flames were bringing a tiny bit of light to the darkness in the world, we had a baptism in my congregation. After reflecting on the hatred we confront in the world and how faith calls us to respond, a joyful, dancing girl took vows to join in the work of helping light overcome darkness and love overcome hate. Together, a community vowed with her to resist evil, love our neighbors as ourselves, strive for justice and peace, respect the dignity of every human being.
As dismal as this week (and this year and this decade) has been, it is nice to be reminded that we have reason for hope. Dismantling racism – or any kind of evil – takes a team and today a very young girl joined that team. I am betting she was joined by many others as people gathered in congregations around the country to remember the victims in Charleston. In fact, I am betting the team to confront evil got bigger where people gathered in homes and community centers and on street corners to find their roles in peace and justice-making.
On days when hope seems distant and optimism feels false, it might be a candle or a splash of water or a young child reminding us that evil has not won. It might be an unexpected ally, shared bread, or the words of a song. Look for them, these reminders of hope all around us. Darkness cannot drive out darkness and hatred cannot drive out hatred. Only light and love can do that.
Tonight there is more rain in our city and it has been beating down on the windows of the hospital where I am chaplain for the night. Families are waiting for loved ones to die. Or for emergency surgery. Or they are relieved to hear a baby will survive. While the sky weeps, these families shed tears – of grief, of worry, of joy.
In a parched land, water is longed for. Once the ground is soaked, water begins to rush across earth and stone, reshaping the landscape and making us wish it would stop. And yet, when the water recedes we are left with something new. Tears are the same – they can be necessary and unwelcome, allowing us to feel both relieved and exposed, connected and vulnerable. Like flood waters, tears can form us. They carve rivulets across our souls to remind us that love was there.
A cloud can cover the beautiful blue, or bring much-needed rain. Is that one blocking the sun, or letting a ray through? It can be hard to tell – or maybe it all depends on what the soil of your heart needs that day. Sun or rain. Light or shade. We all need a little of both – one helps us feel the blessing of the other.