Esther and a Rising River

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.

Pentecost and Baptism

Pentecost

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.

IMG_4431The 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.

Chaos and Disconnection

Missed Connections Communion Table

 

 

When I first completed this art piece, heck when I first envisioned the piece, the message behind the work was amorphous at best.

A few weeks before Lent Pastor Ginger, senior pastor at Foundry UMC in Washington D.C. approached  me with an idea. Her sermon series for Lent would explore the missed connections in life.

We are primarily a technology dependent society. People are more connected than ever before. Fast paced technologies allow us to communicate and be available to others 24/7. Yet, loneliness is “on the rise.” During the 2015 Lenten journey, we will explore issues that strain and threaten truly life-sustaining human connections – connections with others, ourselves, and God.

Ginger spoke to me about ribbons that would appear suspended in mid air, disconnected from the whole, as a way to visually represent all the missed moments.

I was drawn to the theme, but how to bring her message with the ribbons together was not clicking for me.

In my doodling I started drawing broken ribbons. Then, probably because I watched The Imitation Game over Christmas, I began to see morse code in the broken lines. A language that can seem chaotic and broken, unknown, with no idea of how to make sense of it all. And yet, the language can be deciphered and can begin to tell a story.Missed Connections

This is life to me. So many missed connections between each of us, a missed opportunity to share some light. And yet, God exists within the silence and the chaos.

My idea evolved into banners with ribbon woven in morse code (dot-dash) to spell out a message. The message, a verse chosen by Ginger Psalm 139: 13, “You knit me in my mother’s womb.”

At first, as the image emerged I envisioned the morse code revealing a pattern in life, a pattern connecting all the missed connections. But, how do we make sense of all the chaos, the broken relationships, the lost souls?

The first weekend of lent I attended the Foundry Women’s retreat where Denise Dombkowski Hopkins, professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, spoke about the Psalms and the laments. So often when someone yells out, “God, why?” we believe the person is requesting our answer. With this in mind we attempt, in a desire to connect and heal, to answer the questions or worse we chastise the questioner’s lack of faith. Denise’s suggestion was to think of the lament, “Why God?” not so much as a cry for information as a cry for companionship, for a shoulder, a mutual tear as you both wonder aloud about the chaos.

All this came together so that even as the banners hung in the sanctuary for three weeks a new message jumped out at me.

The ribbon in each banner is morse code. Morse code can seem chaotic and un decipherable, especially to us lay people. Just dots and dashes haphazardly placed in the universe. Life can often seem haphazard, a bunch of disconnected moments, people and events without any connecting thread. And yet, while we may not know why there’s chaos and disconnection in our world God weeps with us, and is in pain with us. God knit each of us, every single one. 

Even as life can seem clouded, what is clear is the miracle of creation happened in every single person. In these moments of chaos, our call is to remember this and connect with this miracle in each other. The call in the chaos, the pattern in the disconnection does not attempt to decipher why, it simply calls us to remember who, who we are, who we are called to be, and who God made us to be. 

Note: Many thanks to executive pastor Dawn Hand for helping make this a reality. A last minute drive on a snow day to Joann’s and some on the fly fabric and ribbon choices, along with finding a sewing machine, made this happen. 

Beyond the lights

Sunlight MazeI have been reading a lot about the spiritual/emotional experience of the dark night of the soul. I know I’ve written about it before, mostly because I have been experiencing one. Mother Teresa spoke of it and Saint John of the Cross from the 16th century famously put words to his experience. It can often be a blend of depression and searching. Its a moment when what used to give you happiness just doesn’t, usually you try harder and harder and still nothing. Your source of light is gone.

I recently watched Beyond the Lights. I knew it was only going to be a mildly good movie. The acting was mostly mediocre. Ok, I mostly went to check out the beautiful leading man and hear some great singing from the star. It was the story that mostly redeemed the movie for me. The story was about her life beyond the lights, and her search for light.

Noni is about to release her first solo album and just won a Grammy for a track she created with a popular rapper. At the hotel, after the Grammy’s ceremony, her mom (who works as Noni’s manager) finds Noni perched on the balcony ledge about to jump. The police officer assigned to guard her room for the night, comes and saves her, not only by catching her as she jumps but by reassuring her that he sees her.

The movie continues through her struggle with depression, to finding real friendship and love with the police officer. Finally she finds her true self and releases herself from the popstar persona she had created.

So why am I explaining the plot of this movie?

I’ve started thinking about this idea of night and its end. We see people emerge out of these moments and think well the sun must have come up again, and while that is true, from my experience where the light is centered has shifted. While Noni’s energy used to come from the crowds of adoring fans, friends and Mom, she realizes they don’t know who she is, they love her persona.

The crisis happens when she doesn’t love the persona anymore. As she comes to terms with her suicide attempt she admits that the persona did jump off that ledge, and it took the glimpse of her valuable true self to bring her back up, even if it took time for her to gain strength and to nurture herself again. In the closing scene, after breaking off her relationship with her mom and police officer boyfriend, she is now rebuilding the Noni that first loved to sing. As she is preparing to take the stage her mom calls to ask how she’s doing. Noni, first brushes off the request, then catches herself and says, “tell her I’m scared.”

A casual observer might ask why. She survived, is receiving great praise for her renewed self and is about to take the stage in her home town in front of 1,000’s of fans. She is realizing just how terrifying it is to be your authentic self. She was taking the stage without the carefully crafted persona.

So where was Noni’s new strength and light coming from, what was supporting her on this new venture. It was coming from within. The light that she once relied upon, the light from her 1,000’s of fans now emerged from within her, from the memory of her first song. And that light doesn’t mean a life without fear.

At the end of the dark night it’s not that the sun finally rises, it’s that the light, your strength, is coming from within you and the realization each day that whts terrifying won’t in fact kill you, it’s your own ability to walk into the unknowing, into the dark.

As I continue on this journey I realized my whole understanding of certainty, of light, of when everything would become clear again has now vanished. This is because I realized our certainty in life is an illusion. It’s partly a necessary illusion, to keep us moving forward, but really we have no idea what twists and turns life will take.

In Barbara Brown Taylors book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, she speaks about a blind man, who lost his sight in childhood. His parents invited him to share his experience as he learned to walk and live in his new world. What he discovered is that he could still see light though it wasn’t light that penetrated his blindness. It was a light that literally helped guide him through his day. He realized on the days when he was depressed, stressed out, or otherwise disturbed he would knock into many more objects versus when he felt serene and joy emanating from within him.

Recently, staring up into the cold clear night sky, spotting the few stars bright enough to penetrate the city light, I had a thought. What if the stars aren’t looking down on us? What if we are all looking into the darkness wondering what our future holds, where our strength lies. What if we’re all just stars staring into the darkness and its our own, and our friends/families, own brilliant light that obstructs this darkness mapping out our meaning, our love and friendships. As we move out of the city light we find the sky filled with so many stars we have to work to find the darkness. It no longer matters that we don’t know what is in the darkness, we have found the eternal light within us and flowing through us, guiding ourselves and each other.