Today is Ascension Day.
Yup! Another church calendar high holy day that passes mostly unnoticed, save for an icon or Celtic art posted on my Facebook feed.
My dad was the organist and choirmaster at the Church of the Ascension in Oakland, (that’s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). Twenty-six years on the corner of Ellsworth and Neville. I can recite the phone number out loud to this day. My formative years.
He began his work there when I started into the 3rdgrade. Who knew the inklings of liturgical delight begun in that place would blow wide open and run amuck and land me in the Episcopal priesthood by the time I was 35?!
The pic is of my dad on the bench at Ascension, somewhere round about the early-mid 70's.
A city church.
Gothic style, stacked stone blackened with historical fiction. Soot from the steel mills, for a city beautiful with the residue of a livelihood. Lovely and more ancient with its rugged face than its mere 130 years belies.
A gothic beaut! The Church of the Ascension.
Somewhere along the way, artisans decided it was time to clean and restore the gargantuan mural above the High Altar, painted for its namesake: The Ascension.
So up went the scaffolding and cramped the worship experience for so long you hardly noticed it anymore and wondered at all the fuss, for a silly old mural of Jesus floating upwards in the clouds. Yes, Jesus leaving. Who want’s that in front of your face all the time, anyways?
I had no idea. I had grown up with the clouds clouded over from smoking stacks.
I had no idea. I was transfixed. Breathless. Overcome, by beauty. Revealed. When the scaffolding came down.
How could it be that paint carries the light? And that a painter could bring it, and mow me down with Glory?
More years later, many years later, after I was long gone and would rarely but occasionally return to smell the smells and hear the creaks of a life I loved there, I heard the rumor. They built an addition.
I didn’t want to see it. I wanted my church to be just like it always was. But I went. And I slipped out of the service to use the restroom and saw the ramp that goes down into the new wing, just a wretched glimpse of chrome and glass from the top of the ramp, shuddering to think that now they’ve gone and done it, they’ve ruined it! Modernized what was already perfect.
I took a few steps in just to be brave.
To see the truth and reality of this defamation.
To grow up, and let go, and leave behind my soulful attachment to this place.
To look and see what wicked fiction they’ve made up, about ‘who do they think they are?’
And much to my surprise, who’s brilliant idea was this?!
The ramp was flanked by a glass wall the full distance of the room, so that the view looked out onto none other than the old blackened exterior of the church itself, the stone with a story of life making and a lifetime of storytelling. They’ve kept it!
The glass keeping the vision of who they were and are still, in order to become who they will be. Brilliant move and brave!
Allowing themselves to be shaped by the unknown.
To be shaped by a view of rugged beauty that holds our DNA ~ our DNA ~ our Lindberg family, my father’s life, his music, my falling in love with the church. My story is part of their story though they don’t know it, because no, they don’t know me, anymore. But I am in it, with them. In their church, in their story, and they in mine. They can feel their story and live it, still, because they can see it. And touch it. And hear it. The stone stories. And they can stand with it. In it. In its exquisite landscape. Still. All the beautiful fiction and non-fiction with which we make the holy story our own story.
That’s how we say ‘Steel’ in Pittsburgh. Still Mill. I just love oxymorons.
My bishop died this week. Another father-esque kind of image. The one who blessed me, with hands pressing down, and oil on my forehead, twice.
What to do with these images? These people who hold truth, and make fiction, to help us tell the stories of our lives.
Jesus, present, then absent, then present again, in just that same way. Holding truth, blessing me, making up stories to be fanciful with me. Fiction. Non-fiction. Still, all made-up stories.
Sorting them is exhausting and much money spent in therapy.
My father, my bishop, my Jesus. These.
I simply want to take in the light. That’s the gift of The Ascension.
Beauty infused with light equals Glory.
That mural above the high altar, transfixed and breathless before its resplendent light.
The glass wall through which to see and see more and more and feel the heartbeat of those that love you, even if only in the old stone, stacked.
The communion of saints.
The forgiveness of sins.
The life everlasting.
For the love of it,
I’ve never liked Noah. The story, rather, not Noah himself.
So, I guess I should say I've never liked the Story of the Flood. Almost every religion has one, an ancient cultic flood story.
In Illuminated Pages Bible Art Journaling, we’re in a series of random passages wherever a tree is mentioned, so I took the risk of the flood story because of a feature character in the story:
Curiously enough, in this story, technically it is just a leaf. It says, the dove returned with a “freshly picked olive leaf”, [hence "the tree" since an olive leaf comes from an olive tree.]
So, in my art journaling I found some peace, maybe joy, definite satisfaction, in the part where God makes covenant with the earth.
A Promise to creation itself.
“Never again will I curse the ground on account of man.”
And the rainbow, as we all know, is the sign of the promise.
Just 3 sentences later, the next chapter opens with “Eden-story” language all over again:
“God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them: be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.”
God covenants with creation and then trusts us, all over again, to live here,
on fresh-from-the-flood land, like in Genesis, when God parted the waters, and brought forth the land.
Its creation all over again.
Dry land emerges.
And God sets humanity, on the ground, in the middle of it all.
I’m seeing this bible story: Locally.
Globally, but locally.
Our partnership with the earth.
Our want to restore people into covenant with God and the creation. And to, likewise, be restored. It’s part of "the ministry of reconciliation” ~ which interestingly enough ~ is the mission statement for the Episcopal Church, itself.
The Earth, in Sandy Springs, is scarred with a pipeline running right through the middle, and we, here at Highpoint, have reestablished fruitfulness. Life with a garden, a community garden, a gleaners’ garden no less, (a Leviticus initiative) that invites ‘the poor’, (which is to say, the ones outside of a faith community), to find food.
For a myriad of reasons, culturally, people have left church, and find church to be irrelevant, or inconvenient, spiritually uninspiring, or generally misguided.
We are inviting people who have lost interest in, or grown weary of, the complexities of church life, or who have never wanted super-organized religion, (i.e. the church), and people who consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious, to find a spiritual home in our faith community, by meeting under the trees at 4:00, on the fourth Sunday of every month.
We are inviting these, all and any, to the meeting circle in the woods at the top of the knoll on High Point Road.
"Church of the Woods" is not a gimmick.
It is our freshly picked olive leaf, because we know there is a tree in there somewhere.
A tree from which the whole world knows, the olive branch extends.
We are inviting these, all and any, who find themselves to be without a community, or outside of a faith community, to be part of this community based solely on
our common humanity,
our common need,
our common love, for the fruit of the earth.
In the spirit of peace and reconciliation with all creation, because God thought it was worth the risk,
Abraham, sitting at the door of his tent, midday,
notices with a start, that three visitors stood before him,
at the Oaks of Mamre
where he had made his tent village.
Abraham’s whole family, extended family, livestock, and servants. And all of their tents.
This story of Genesis 18 was our text for Monday night Bible Art Journaling in our Illuminated Pages class. We are in the middle of a random series of texts that mention something, anything, about ‘trees’.
And Genesis 18 mentions a tree three times, at The Oaks of Mamre.
These visitors that showed up under the oak tree:
First it calls them, ‘three men’.
Then ‘the Lord’,
And Angels of the lord.
And again, men. And later it calls them the Lord and two angels.
Suffice it to say, “Holy Visitors”.
Abraham experienced a visitation from God and God’s favor.
There, at the door of his tent and under these oaks.
As the story goes, Abraham extended to them the ancient, exceedingly important custom of hospitality to strangers.
Water for washing their feet.
And rest under the tree.
He suggested they lean on it, while he fetched a morsel of bread for them to eat.
So there, the three Holy Visitors sprawled out in the shade and took their naps.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, everything took place at lightning speed.
“Quick!”, he said to Sarah, “Go get 12 quarts of flour, and mix and knead and bake bread.”
Then Abraham himself ran and selected a calf and told his servants to hurry up and roast it.
A feast for the visitors after their rest, which they enjoyed, with Abraham, under the tree.
This oak tree, we learned, could possibly have been a pistachio tree, or some other kind of nut tree, but the main thing being, its sprawling branches that made the beautiful place
where they enjoyed hospitality, rest and relief, shade, holy presence and visitation, favor with God, community and feasting.
I was enchanted by this silent character in the story. The Tree.
Broad and strong.
Solid and stationary. Silent.
A Powerful Presence.
Being. And Place.
Deep down, roots.
For my art journaling. . .
I stayed with the tree ~ this silent structure, under which all of the other exquisite things happened. You can probably guess, that the process took me right away into a metaphorical plunge and spoke to me of an interpretation which was all about us, here, at Highpoint Episcopal Community Church!
To capture the ‘making’ energy of Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality,
their bustling about
their excitement of serving these important holy visitors,
to capture this cyclone of activity, I used torn up strips from a sewing pattern, which to me always means: we’re making something.
We can cut, and turn, and pin and press, and measure, and stitch, and this fabric will become a garment that fits, and is one-of-a-kind, and authentic, imaginative; something I can see in its pieces, but do not yet hold in my hands.
They’re making a feast. A table of hospitality.
They’re making a life under this tree, this oak of mamre, where they have already loved and worshiped God, as, some time ago, they had already made an altar to the Lord. (it says so, 5 chapters back)
And then there’s Our making a feast. Our table of hospitality.
This place where some time ago we (you) built an altar to the Lord and lived and loved and opened the tent doors in hospitality, all the while believing some divine promise; and how, now, we’ve set down a second altar, as Abraham did in this latest piece of the story.
This magnificent life of love and worship and hospitality, up under these oaks, (and of course, beech and pine and tulip and sweetgum. . .) on this holy hill.
And, they’re imagining with their holy visitors that
God will make good on his promises for ~ life ~ in this place.
In fact, the Holy Visitors promised Abraham and Sarah, that in a year’s time when they visit them again, they will be holding their son Isaac in their arms.
Even in their old age.
And it tickles them, each, individually, and they laugh, even while they embrace the promise.
Poetic language lets me over state, but also, to say things we might not dare to say in straight prose.
I think we all know, that I take it to be divine promise, that in a year’s time, we will know that we have made a spiritual life and house here, that will endure.
Yup! Lots of work to be done to ‘make’ this thing. This tree, this pattern, this holy garment that clothes us for life in the world.
Yup! We’re all working hard.
Yup! It’s a lot of fun, but nonetheless shocking when Abraham says: “Quick! Make 36 loaves of bread!”
Its feels like that doesn’t it?
A little overwhelming in some ways,
but in most ways, exhilarating, thrilling, and exciting . . .
Because we are Hosting the Holy One. For a spectacular party!
And who doesn’t love to throw a party!
The joy we find here under the sprawling branches,
The bustling work behind the scenes to make a Feast.
The hospitality and open tent door,
The divine favor.
The holy community and sacred partnerships like theirs, this Abraham and Sarah.
The promises. And giggling about them.
The exquisite things that happen,
All up under the sprawling branches. This Church.
This is our Tree. This Tree House. This Highpoint.
Out on a limb, I am always, yours,
My day got ahead of me so I didn’t get out for a run
until the sun was high in the sky and the temperature registered: 82’
A bit warm for a run,
but just right for the heavy scents of spring, weighty and voluptuous,
Privet Hedge and Honeysuckle both, floating on the breeze.
I don’t know the chemistry of air, or how heat changes the air into a structure that can do this heavy lifting, or if in fact that’s how it works at all.
But I’m a romantic, so it makes me think of the offertory sentence that I say to you most every Sunday.
“Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us,
a fragrant offering and sacrifice, to God.”
What a mystery! The changed structure of resurrection-laden air.
We’ve been to the grave and beyond our knowing, Christ has been raised, and his heavy scent, weighty and voluptuous, rises with the heat of the Paschal Fire.
And it gets all over us!
Resurrected Love! Somehow, it has a scent.
And we smell like it!
And St. Paul says to us: "You, are the fragrance of Christ"
People who haven’t been around the fire, know that we have, because they can pick up on the scent. They can get it, from us ~ the love of Christ.
All the world can know the love of Christ, because we walk in love.
The household is heady with the fragrance of divine love, simply because we walk through the room, and they can smell the love.
The neighborhood is sensitive to the presence of the Divine, because the love of Christ exudes from our pores, and drifts on a breeze, invisible, but making certain of an unmistakable Sacred Presence.
The world is tilting its curious head, for an uncanny, recognizable but yet unidentified, Holy Fragrance.
Because we, are walking in love.
We carry our Paschal pillar candle in procession, because we know what the fragrance is
and we delight in it!
It is the victory of love!
It is life over death!
It is mortality putting on immortality!
It is Divine love!
It is the light of Christ!
It is our Sunday celebration!
See you in Church,
Reverend Ruth Pattison
Rev. Pattison serves the people of Highpoint Episcopal Community Church as the Parson, exercising her gifts for collaborative leadership through preaching, liturgy, and the pastoral arts.