Tonight, I walked past a butterfly, dead on the busy sidewalk.
I wanted to stop and draw chalk around it’s yellow and black wings spread open, tattered and dull. I wanted to bring out caution cones and crime scene tape to detour the distracted commuters. I wanted to stop the nearby busses, opening and closing doors, moving passengers between work and home. I wanted to question witnesses, find security footage, rewind the day to discover if the butterfly’s last moments were filled with dread as feet stepped closer and closer or if it died in a sudden flash of sun reflecting off the windshield of a nearby bus. What was the last flower it visited? Where was it headed? Are there friends waiting?
I didn’t do any of these things. I just kept walking, my arms full carrying groceries and my mind already racing ahead to what I would eat for dinner. Instead, I let it’s frail body disappear behind me without even a prayer.
If I had stopped would anyone pause with me?
Would we create a tiny gurney out of old business cards, perhaps folding in the edges to create a box? Maybe we would form a procession as we turned the corner to find a quiet side garden. Maybe we’d create a funeral pyre out of some twigs, sending the butterfly’s ashes to Valhalla.
I’d want to say a few words, but what could we say for something we didn’t even know existed five minutes ago.
So tonight was just the opening of a 1.5 day orientation for seminary. I’ve started my Master’s of Divinity at Wesley Seminary in Washington, DC. Associate Dean of community life Rev Dr Asa J. Lee, started by reading John 15:2
He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.
The dean then pointed out that if you bear fruit you will be noticed by the master pruner and you will be cut. The Dean posited that we had, along our individual paths, born fruit of the spirit and that is likely part of why we were starting seminary. He went on to warn that we will feel the pruning that happens in school as we grow and learn to focus our gifts, our prayers, and our studies. I instantly recalled a favorite quote I used to have on my wall by Kahlil Gibran:
Shall my heart become a tree heavy laden with fruit that I may gather and give unto them?
I hadn’t thought about how a garden works and how orchards work. There is a delicate balance of pruning a tree to increase the fruit without overburdening the tree. I hadn’t thought of the pruning I’ve had in life as part of the master gardener’s plan to cultivate a fruitful garden. Her hands knowing which branches to let go and which ones to shore up. Knowing what fruit will come even before the first blossoms appear. She knows there will be many seasons and that every tree will grow and fruit in their time.
Over the summer I visited a friends peach orchard and noticed large clumps of peaches and other peaches hanging along a branch like sweet garlands. I wandered like a little kid through the orchard giddy when I found a a group of peaches untouched by the eager birds. I would pluck the ripe fruit and immediately sink my teeth into the slightly warm fruit, filling my basket with what I couldn’t eat for the week ahead.
Here is the longer Gibran poem entitled Part 2 Johannesburg:
And he said to himself: Shall the day of parting be the day of gathering? And shall it be said that my eye was in truth my dawn? And what shall I give unto him who has left his plough in mid furrow, or to him who has stopped the wheel of his winepress?
Shall my heart become a tree heavy laden with fruit that I may gather and give unto them? And shall my desires flow like a fountain that I may fill their cups? Am I a harp that the hand of the mighty may touch me, or a flute that his breath may pass through me?
A seeker of silences am I, and what treasure have a found in silences that I may dispense with confidence?
How do you find a still point in the river? If you’re in the right spot you may see a stone or two jutting out of the water, cutting a path in the water’s flow, but if the water is running high even these stones may be covered.
Last week I went to Cummins Falls in Tennessee. It’s listed as one of the top swimming holes in the country. I hiked two miles to the base of the falls to join several hundred people for a refreshing swim. As I waded into the cool waters edging closer to the base of the falls some of the people around me were splashing and others were simply admiring the beauty of the scene. A small group of women in front of me were ducking in and out of the lowest part of the falls, disappearing behind the cascade. Of course I had to investigate. I swam over so the force of water was inches from my face, held my breath and ducked in.
When I opened my eyes I was underneath the falls protected by a long ledge covered in green moss and tiny ferns, perhaps 20 feet long, 4 feet deep, and 3 feet above the water line. From behind the water I could barely make out the women who had just left the space, who were only a few feet from me, otherwise I was completely alone with the sound of water crashing around me.
The scene was beautiful except I couldn’t catch my breath, my heart was racing and my breath was shallow. I couldn’t hear anything really. I tried to notice the moss and the ferns but after only a few minutes I had to leave ducking back through the cascade into the full light. Finally slowing my breath and heartbeat again.
The designers of Japanese Zen rock gardens knew what I had experienced under the falls, that nearness to flowing water has incredible impacts on the human body and mind. They knew that having a still mind is easier when your environment is also still. When you try to meditate next to crashing waves, or roaring falls the stillness comes not from within but from the roar of water. In Zen Buddhism a goal of meditation is to still the mind in all situations, to quiet or make friends with the monkey mind. Next to these sand pools the student can practice this stillness in anticipation of crashing waves. These gardens are a place to practice this befriending and stillness.
Just two days before the visit to the falls I reheard the story of Esther, a Biblical heroine everyone should know, who was caught in a rapidly rising river where her still points were disappearing. An orphan cared for by her uncle, Mordecai, who was taken from her Jewish community as a prize for the king and made queen because of her beauty. She was quickly confronted with news of impending genocide for her community. At first, it seems from the text, that having hidden her Jewishness from the king, she would escape death but her uncle quickly reminded her that no distance could protect her. Her uncle pleaded with her to approach the king and reverse the edict meant to eradicate the entire Jewish community.
Faced with death for approaching the king without invitation, Esther was staring at rapids rising over the riverbanks. She did what she had been taught:
Esther 4:15 Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: 16 “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”17 So Mordecai went away and carried out all of Esther’s instructions.
She did what she hoped would bring her inner stillness and guidance. Many prophets retreat for prayer in times of turmoil. She was seeking a still point, a quiet that would allow the voice of God to be heard. The small voice in the roaring. From this stillness and from her love, she found the strength, courage and wisdom to know how to navigate and negotiate her identities as a woman, a queen, and a religious minority. She did not back away or ignore her communities cries. She gathered her attendants and confidants in the royal court around her to find stillness, to find God’s voice.
This is just one small point that emerged from Esther’s story for me this week. I am learning from these stories and teachers how to find stillness, to find connection while finding courage and wisdom to act in just and courageous ways. Part of this practice is surrounding myself with a community willing to seek courage and love and act together. People who feel and know the urgency of action. People who feel transformative love coursing through their veins erasing fear of the unknown, without erasing the weight of the moment. We know death waits for all of us, how we chose to act in the face of deathly moments shapes our stories.
With the blessing of First United Methodist Church, Santa Rosa CA, my home for four years, I created this fabric panel which hung in the sanctuary for Pentecost.
So…this is the third iteration in a series of art pieces. It’s only the second piece made for semi public viewing. The first was painted on a paper bag at camp, the second is this fabric panel made for First UMC Santa Rosa, California.
Over the years I have been exploring the nature of the Holy Spirit. You can read about this exploration in this 2014 blog post on Pentecost and Pride. I have always been fascinated with its seemingly duel nature. Looking throughout the Hebrew Bible and the Christian scriptures, from the breath hovering over the waters in Genesis through the tongues of flame in Pentecost, in the silence and in the crowd.
This new art piece started forming as I wrote that post on the convergence of Pentecost and Pride Week. Well, I found an old canvas left in an alley and decided to go ahead and put paint to canvas. The piece has now become a great meditation piece. And of course, as I began to paint the image started to shift ever so slightly.
The swirling center is where the soul and the Holy Spirit converge and find fulfillment in each other. And while the colors still show a distinct two natures, the Holy Spirit has only one nature, to move through the world in a single healing force. Sometimes that nature takes on two distinct edges and as Pastor Ginger said in today’s sermon, sometimes making peace means disturbing the false peace we create to hide injustice, to hide pain. It brings a little temporary pain to move us forward into a more complete and peaceful world.
The Holy Spirit also catches on the crystal edges of our soul, cut and carved by a million moments of kisses and tears, of love and pain. Each facet was polished and cured to shine brilliantly through the unique design of our human experience. How brilliant each soul, each crystal, each design, each unique and the same, each finite and infinite.