I’m pretty sure you can tell that it is a stack of stones.
is a stack of stones left by pilgrims to help others find their way.
It is also a long held spiritual tradition to stack stones where holy experience has taken place, and you mark the spot because you want to remember.
Sometimes, it’s just a fun, but bold and brave way to say, “I was here”. To be sure of our own existence.
So, this is the simplest aha moment ever. So simple, that when I say it, it sounds cliché’, and yet it came to me as genuine and revelatory, (which, by the way, is the point of contemplation and the purpose of listening by engaging with art supplies), so I’m holding it as a holy treasure for my Lenten journey...
The aha occurred to me on my way home after Bible study.
If you read all the way to the end of this letter, I will tell it to you, no matter that it is simple.
But first, a little reminiscing.
We decided over breakfast what to do with our day. Benno and I were camping on the eastern slope of the glorious Sierra Mountains.
Magnificently Barren. Ancient and rugged and stunningly beautiful.
Rock under every step, the view in every direction.
We would hike this day, to Italy Pass, a trail that had a ‘not well marked’ designation. As it turned out, there was nothing but little stacks of stones for a ‘trail’, 3, 4, 5 inches high; rocks not easily seen against a backdrop of rock. Mountains of rock, but stones small enough to pick up and stack in delightful little Cairns.
We hiked and climbed and rested our way from 10,000’ to nearly 12,000’ by way of this 4-mile ‘not well marked’ trail.
It was not a trail really, at all. It simply was, a way.
A way through the rocks to more rocks.
I began to feel the presence of those who went before, as though they played with us by stacking stones. Or held conversation. Or offered company without words.
Mischievous Elves knocking the stacks down to make the trail go still.
They were even, companions, keeping us safe. Beckoning. Gesturing. Warning. Including.
With stacks of stone.
Such delight, our silent company! Watching for their signs, following them forward, telling us to turn sharp or turn back, or to go down again and then go up.
Though I am a novice hiker, eventually I felt lighthearted enough that I could join the throng of adventurers who forged this trail with their Cairns, and said to me:
“I’m here, and I see you. And you are here, too, with me.”
And we added, here and there, little stones of our own.
Our marked steps, with this ritual of rock.
Our journey by foot in the Sierras.
Probably 6 or 7 years ago now, with our stone stories still stacked in the Sierras,
No matter that we are novice pilgrims.
Our journey is worth making. Our story is worth telling.
So, my ‘Aha’ moment that I mentioned at the start of this page. . .
It is as if I heard Jesus say, after I finished my art journal and was almost home,
and in just a whisper:
‘that’s me. there. for you. I am your cairn.”
So, simple as it is, trite as it might sound, I hold it sacred.
I inadvertently drew Jesus into my story, onto my page, in a pen and ink and watercolor cairn.
But only in hindsight, it occurred to me, that Jesus himself, could be the Cairn.
He went first.
He stacked stones.
He made a way.
He journeyed the wilderness, kept company with the creatures.
He sat down in a parched and dry land,
in a magnificently barren uninhabitable place, and made habitation.
For my journey right now, into the wilderness this Lent, he is my company.
He is the whispering voice. He is the muse inspiring, the sprite inviting, the mischievous elf knocking the stacks down to make the trail go still.
He is the wanderer in this wilderness who is himself stacked stone to say, as pilgrims do:
“I’m here, and I see you. And you are here, too, with me.”
Walking holy ground,
And looking at me, he said to her, “she is here now”.
His expression, his gentle tone, the essential goodness of what he said, anchored me for the duration of the trip; like a motto or mantra in my head.
She is here now.
As if all the past has come to fruition in the present moment, and that now is all that matters and that the present moment is truly, all that exists.
His words framing the eternal significance of it, that the now matters, because it is full of God.
Now is where God is.
There is no going looking for God. There is no waiting. No hoping. No pining.
No pleading. No searching.
God is here now.
And always in the present moment. We can find God. Right now.
So the challenge is to be, in, the present moment.
There is no thinking, ‘drat! I just missed it!” or
“maybe God will come along again, soon, or maybe tomorrow”.
Mindfulness is a spiritual practice, even a bit trendy in common parlance, the vocabulary of mindfulness.
In simple terms, I guess I would say that
~ the practice of mindfulness ~
is developing an attentiveness that locates you in the very present moment.
Lent gives us the chance for this practice. Lent is a season that helps us locate ourselves in the here and now. We devise all sorts of Lenten disciplines with one ultimate purpose, to center ourselves in the presence of God.
To become attentive to God, right now.
To sink down in and not budge.
To stay. In it.
It’s hard to be present to our own lives. To fully inhabit our bodies, our relationships, our work, our play. Our own selves and souls, constantly scattered.
We’re frantic sometimes to find the thing, the technique, the place, the person, the product, that will bring the soul’s satisfaction of deep connection with the one who brought us into being, or that will give our lives meaning.
It’s still a mantra for me.
Yep! I whisper of myself, to myself, in the third person: “She is here now”.
To locate myself. To re-member myself.
To drop down in to the gravity that presses my feet on the earth. And go, nowhere. But into the keen awareness of the presence of God.
“She is here now”.
And there is no running about. Just being here.
No scattering, no next best move to make, no better place to be, than right here, right now, in the presence of God.
Wherever my feet might be on this good earth.
The Holy Spirit, will take us into the Wilderness tomorrow, Lent I, for solitude and silence and journeying soul work, deep into the presence of God in the human experience.The goodness of God in our temporal life, the transcendent holy one, near and present and indwelling. My life infused with the sacred.
God in my human experience, and me, paying attention.
Boots laced for the soul work of inhabiting my body,
We tease Peter for always saying the wrong thing.
He’s all heart, that Peter.
That fisherman gone falling in love with Jesus,
worshiping the ground he walks on and the storm he stills.
This fisherman with a raging heart to match the sea he sails.
He knows the holy when he sees it.
He flips his lid for it, all the time.
He climbs out of the boat to walk on water when Jesus says “come on!”
He jumps out of the boat and swims a hundred yards to shore one morning,
because he sees the risen Jesus there cooking breakfast.
He’s all in. Always.
This week he’s exuberant about building some tents!
It’s what his Hebrew upbringing taught him about what you do with The Holy.
You build your life around it.
That’s what his ancestors did in the Wilderness after they escaped from slavery in Egypt. They built the God-Tent in the middle of the community, then circled it around with the people-tents.
This Holy presence of cloud by day and fire by night. Right there in the middle.
Up on this mountaintop, Peter suddenly knows himself to be in the presence of the Almighty and feels compelled to build some tents, [ tents, booths, tabernacles, . . . all of these are just different Bible words meaning a branchy structure that you can get inside of, some of them more elaborate than others].
Spot on Peter! Go for it!
Name the Holy One as Holy;
See him, love him, grab hold of him;
build your life around him!
Great instincts! What a beautiful wild heart!
But Jesus tells Peter, “we won’t build our tents up here, but we’ll go back down the mountain together, and for now, we’ll guard our Holy experience with silence. We’ll stay inside of it, together, while we go out into the world.
We’ll live inside of it, out there.
So, my thought about this gospel text, as our crescendo of light culminates and transitions into Lent, and we descend into the wilderness with this Incarnate Holy One, Jesus,
is this. . .
I want to think of Lent as a practice of tenting with the Holy One. Sans branches.
So how do I build this walking talking sleeping waking tent-life, with this precious sacred presence?
What could I do, to weave together a keeping place, guard some kind of silent stillness, with a structure of loosely bound branches (aka ~ a Lenten discipline) for keeping close company with the Holy One?
I’m thinking about what I could put in place.
What could you put in place,
that would make you, as you move about in your daily life, acutely aware that you are the temple, the tent, the booth, the house. . . of God. . .and that you live in this transitional housing called the human body, with God, night and day, day in and day out?
What about you?
What would help you guard, keep, tend, the presence of this brilliant new light of Epiphany that shines in your heart?
What would help you live inside of it, the presence and experience, of the holy one?
How will you structure your tent, this Lent?
This season of Epiphany has been luxuriously lengthy!
I’m sure you know that Epiphany can be as short as 4 weeks or as long as 9, and this year we are enjoying 8 beautiful weeks of increasing light.
Light that began with our following a star in the night sky that stopped and stayed over a house, where Jesus was. Three kings ushered us in, and we have stopped and stayed, too, basking!
God is in the house and we know it through
ordinary substances that bring us God,
like Manger hay that cradles God, and the human face that bears God’s image;
like water in the font and fire on the wicks of prayer candles,
and bread and wine on the table for a feast.
Physical Substance that makes us know Spiritual Presence.
This is an Epiphany kind of knowing:
that the spiritual resides in the physical, the Holy in the Human.
We have been practicing the spiritual truth that the Ordinary mundane life ~ is filled with God!
We’re coming to the crescendo of light!
Peter, James and John, on a mountain top with Jesus and he is transfigured before their eyes, full-on light, white as snow, fuller’s soap, even ‘bleached linen’ one gospel says. Blinding light that makes us close our eyes for its holy brilliance.
This Incarnate Christ, this human Jesus, this God in the body. . .in transfigured glory.
The story is even set as a mountain top experience ~ to signify that we have reached the height of insight. An ultimate knowing of things about truth, beauty and goodness.
And this is that truth for us:
when Jesus is transfigured, we realize that we have been transfigured, changed by the ‘new light that shines in our hearts’; a revelation of self, to show us God within, God in, around, beneath, above, behind and in front of us.
Eight weeks (plus two for Christmas) and we finally know we are God’s holy habitation, God’s house, a temple for the holy spirit. God’s happy abiding. God, In Us.
It’s just the very assurance we need before going back down the mountain with this Incarnate One, who is about to lead us into the wilderness, to get a deeper understanding of our humanity. He can do this, because his humanity is like ours. [He was born of a woman, remember?]
We need that truth, that particular light, before we descend the mountain into the depths.
We need that light, down deep and certain, to risk a look at our humanity, in particular, at our mortality.
For me it is the only context in which I can near the edge of the grave, close enough to withstand the smudge of ashes on my forehead as a taste of death.
It is only in the taste of death, that I can actually get a whiff of the resurrection.
Up close, sensory.
Smudge on skin.
Burning, ash, scent of singed fibrous palm branch, substance in dust.
And so, it’s worth going there, to the edge of my grave in the ashes of Wednesday, because ironically, it gives me hope.
Funny thing to think that maybe my heart skips a beat on Ash Wednesday because we play with it: Our death.
And we play with fire and holy spirit, who will get in my grave and gather me from the dust and ash, and raise me with holy spirit breath, from the dead;
and call me Ruth again.
Lent will focus on the wilderness and the journey of wending our way through the depths and crevices of our own humanity and indeed our mortality, to the passion of our lord, and our shared grave, and . . . our shared resurrection.
No matter how long Epiphany lasts, it always finishes with the same Sunday gospel:
~ the story of the Transfiguration ~
And this year it will happen on March 3rd, the last Sunday after the Epiphany.
Let’s savor these final weeks of Epiphany and the beautiful new light that shines in our hearts, because that light goes with us, into Lent. It is our knowing, in the midst of our not knowing.
Savoring, basking, gathering light,
In a week when Valentines swirl, and the mail might arrive with scented stationery or upside-down stamps, or flowers might arrive at the door, or better yet, home-made red construction paper hearts backed with white fringed paper doilies to carry big love from children, with heart candy that says: Be Mine!
. . . in that spirit. . .
I send you these rose petals, this home-made heart on my dining room table, my expression of love!
And did you see, that I wrote it in Latin, my greeting of love?
You probably did notice, and you probably also noticed that it was vaguely familiar!
Indeed, because it is the phrase we have begun singing during our love feast in church. We sing it when we all share together our bread and wine for a love feast at the table, candles and white linens, notwithstanding. Definitely the romance of love!
“Ubi Caritas, et amor, ubi caritas, Deus ibi est.”
We’re singing in latin, and doesn’t everything sound better in latin?! More romantic, more mysterious, more feasible, more hopeful. . .
It’s that good old Ancient church of ours,
“Ubi Caritas, et amor, ubi caritas Deus ibi est.”
("Where true charity and love abide, God is there")
The church has been loving and singing of it for centuries.
This little ditty that we sing during communion is a Gregorian chant, as old as the 10th century, possibly the 4th century, and perhaps, and most likely, from even before the mass itself was formalized as a ‘rite’ in the very early church.
We lift our voices with the throngs, we join in the God-love with a sweet melody, in hopes that the ethereal will produce the tangible.
We sing with the ancients, this Gregorian Chant, during communion, in hopes that our singing of God-love, will produce human-love. We sing in hopes that in our chanting of human-love, we will see God.
“Caritas” expresses love for humanity, and wherever that is found, God is there.
Imagine! All we have to do is love, any kind of love at all. . . any love . . . and God is there! Voila!
Do we seek God?
Do we doubt God?
Do we long for God? Do we beg God to show up?
Do we wonder at God’s absence?
And Yet. God is so easily found.
God is there in our loving.
God is as certain as that.
All we have to do is love…and we do indeed, love.
That much I know. I’ve seen it.
For all our want to play with the liturgy and bring light and joy and peace into our worship ~ here we are ~ singing Gregorian chant! For love!
Aren’t we smart?!
Let’s talk more on Sunday morning, about this great love and the occasion for our feasting!
"God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them."
I John 4:16
Two weeks ago we blessed our trails, outside, with water and asperges and prayers, conversation and reflections, and dogs in tow (as it was our ‘every-second-Sunday-pet-friendly-Sunday’).
Some among us met us at strategic points along the way so that they could have access by way of the pavement.
Some among us went along on the pilgrimage by way of a hand-held labyrinth.
The labyrinth holds the truth that every journey outward is really a journey inward. And that every pilgrimage is made for the sacred truth that God is with us in every step, and that we embark on any and every pilgrimage for the deep and singular purpose, of going with God.
Beth Ellis is one among us who used the hand-held labyrinth (and we celebrate her recent trade-in of a therapeutic boot for ‘real’ shoes!). She shared with me that she had a surprisingly profound experience with this paper labyrinth. I asked if she would be willing to share the same with you.
She said yes, so here, in my parson’s letter, I have included her reflection.
Thank you ever so much Beth.
“It was a line on paper to wile away the time as Catherine Giel filled the sanctuary with musical fragrance.
Follow within the line was all you had to do to arrive at the center, the heart.
As the pen made it's way around curve after curve, my mind stopped controlling and I just focused on the path.
I wasn't expecting anything except passage of time, when, rounding a curve with my point, I had this thought: 'follow where You lead'.
Again, another bend or two and this came into my mind: 'honor things brought into my life'.
What was this?
What or where were these thoughts coming from?
When the very next thought relayed was: 'it's Your majesty'.
The next thought that came to me on the path was: ‘long periods of introspection yet nearness in fellowship with You'.
I continued following the course around another bend and then to another.
Once again I received the understanding that: 'this is a journey and a process'
And: 'I want to see Jesus in all of this and after life'.
Continuing on to the center I understood: 'continue to follow the path until I walk into the Holy Light of peace and joy'.
Amen! to this hand-held labyrinth walk.
Clergy often say, that Sunday morning is not their own worship time. Because they’re working. On the job.
I am not that clergy person. Yes, I am working, but I am deeply engaged with you in the Sunday morning experience of actual worship, even though I am 'the celebrant’.
And, as the celebrant, I am keenly aware of the moments, the energy, the movement, within the liturgy.
Last week I was ‘keenly aware’ of the water of baptism and the sacramental drama we engaged in, when we sang “Down to the River to Pray” and everyone processed to the font, encircled it, and stood together for the reading of the gospel and the story of Jesus’ baptism.
I know it’s a vulnerable thing, to do something like that as a congregation. Might make you a little uncomfortable, because its a vulnerable act.
Getting up from your seat, and moving out of the pew.
Singing and walking around and going somewhere.
Embodying the definition of Liturgy, which means in Greek: the work of the people.
Attempting to follow new rubrics (liturgical directions) gracefully, like Episcopalians are want to do.
But we gave it a whole-hearted try, and it was rugged and beautiful.
When I felt your nearness and gathering, your presence, your voices coming close, the movement of your feet, your circling around; It was powerful. The energy changed. The human element animated and transformed. It became a living symbol. I wanted to just stay right there, for a long time.
It’s not like the moment happened ‘by accident’, the Worship and Music team planned it that way.
And, although we cannot orchestrate spiritual experience for one another, the Worship and Music team thought about, talked about, mused and envisioned, what the season of Epiphany might mean for us and how we could create liturgy in just that purposeful way.
We chose the Font as a center-piece for the season, to move it front and center as a sacramental gesture, “an outward and visible sign for us, of inward and spiritual grace". We chose it because it is overt and obvious, as a symbol of gathering and becoming community.
We are born of this holy water. We’re kin.
We are born of God;
We are born, like Jesus was born, of Holy birth waters, Holy womb, Holy human flesh.
We gathered around the font, and then we saw Jesus, dip down into the water with John. And we got in, too. Down into the Jordan River.
And suddenly, there in the water with them, we realize our sameness.
We see Jesus in the water with us and realize that He is like us.
He is human.
The water ripples and parts and encircles us together with him in the water.
Our human form immersed with his human form.
You and me, in the water with the Holy Incarnate One.
We see Jesus in the water with us and realize that we are like him.
We are holy.
Even in our humanity. Even, born of a woman. Even, ordinary, physical, and earthbound.
We are holy.
He got in the water with us, so that we would know it.
That He is human, and that we are holy.
He got in the water with us, by way of his Incarnation, and by way of his Baptism.
Splashing about in the water with you, for the humanity of it, and for the holy.
One year ago, at this very time I wrote to you these words:
“A wind from Ghana has swept in
and we are filled with the Holy Spirit and the delight of God
in the face of his son, George Neequaye!”
A year ago, we stood in that liminal place that we talked about on Epiphany, the liminal place of a doorway and standing on both sides of the threshold; by nature, a vulnerable place; we stood in that place and extended Welcome and Hospitality.
And now, one year later, a wind from Ghana has swept in again:
George sent us a Christmas Card with that wonderful African symbol that means: Except for God
We are swept up into 2018’s hospitality journey with these Christmas greetings.
George is feeling nostalgic for our company as he keeps up with us in the parson’s letter. He loves us and sends us greetings of Merry Christmas, and at the mention of it, we well up with an international love held in mutuality from half way around the world.
And suddenly in our mind’s eye, we feel ourselves standing in the doorway again, on both sides of the threshold, reaching and loving, and calling out.
We can see his stature and playful grin,
and hear his laugh and wallow in his preaching words and clever accent.
And his singing. . .!! Oh his singing!
I can see him, now,
stepping out from his flat on a Sunday morning,
clad in his High Church vestments, ready to worship and greet. And love.
We have been changed, because we opened our doors to George.
We risked love,
loss, possibility, challenge.
We risked knowing and being known.
We did something that hasn’t been done before,
and it took the likes of everyone to pull it off!
And it paid off! A Wonderful experience!
But there was no way to know ahead of time. . . what it would be like.
And now we’ve said good-bye yet again, to our second seminarian in as many years. First there was Matt, and now, Bob.
Bob Farrow has graced our presence with class and sophistication,
his wholeheartedness and
gentle listening spirit,
and ever-ready sense of humor.
He stepped into the requisite vulnerability of being a student!
That was his risk.
We risked welcome and allowing another to know and be known.
Bob loves us and we love him.
We stepped into that liminal space again when we said good-bye and bade him well,
and we risk the loss of his going.
But we have written it on our doorposts,
that we love God with heart soul mind and strength,
and that’s how we get through it!
That’s how we endure a love that sustains a bit of sorrow.
And now, the wind of God sweeps in again,
this time with a -3*C chill,
because it comes from Helsinki, Finland!
We opened our doors and welcomed a holy family on Tuesday.
Toni and Katerina Makela, and their little 2 year old boy, Daniel, arrived.
They are delighted with their apartment and will be our guests for one semester as Toni begins his studies at Candler School of Theology at Emory University.
And don’t you know. . . here we are, still painting and carpeting and working with the fire marshal on ‘crash doors’ and emergency exits, and then last evening the thermostat went out, the room went cold, and the bathroom lights quit working!
But you know what?
Our faith community at Highpoint
keeps the love,
lives the love, and
walks in love,
and all is well. . . (space heaters, extra trips, phone calls, repairmen, ladders, patience, and paint rollers notwithstanding!)
Keeping, living, walking in love, with you,
That is what we are doing with this open door of hospitality.
We’re missing one essential piece: A Crib!
Of all the Christmas kinds of things to say,
“We have room in the inn and we need a crib for the infant child to lay his head. . .”
Yes, we’re having a baby!
Well, actually, we're having a toddler.
Daniel is 3 years old.
We will open our doors and welcome the holy family, on January 8th, this coming Tuesday. Toni and Katerina Makela, from Helsinki, Finland, will be our guests for one semester, from January to June, as Toni begins his studies at Candler School of Theology at Emory University.
Jesus said the Greatest Commandment is this:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength”.
It’s called: the Shema.
It is from Deuteronomy chapter six.
Deuteronomy cradles that commandment with an initiative:
It says to write the love on the doorposts of the house, to strap it to our foreheads, and to twist it around our hands, wrists, and up our arms. In other words: an initiative to live the love with our full being.
It says to talk about the love of God as we’re sitting down and rising up, when we eat and when we lie down, and when we walk out the door and onto the lane and into the world!
In other words: Words! Love language. Think it, say it, speak it.
Fill up, bubble up, overflow with love!
And that is what we are doing with this open door of hospitality. A second opportunity to be home for some from a faraway land, to welcome in, to love, to offer respite. To be a place to live in love with God.
We’ve done it before, and we are good at it!
God delights in our big hearts. Our generosity. Our vulnerability.
Our entrepreneurial spirits. Our willingness to risk.
Here we go! For another experiment in love!
God inhabits our house,
and even you and I, in our very bodies, are his holy habitation.
Keep the love.
Live the love.
Keeping and living, with you,
I received some joyful words from Roy Wright on Christmas morning that served as a balm for my soul after a wild and woolly Christmas Eve.
It was his description of our Christmas Eve Service laced with endearing humor and the sense of God’s presence in it with us, embracing our human frailties.
I thought you would enjoy reflecting on the Christmas Eve Service with his lightheartedness, which creates quite a pleasant soulful vignette! For those of you who missed this Christmas Eve with us, let this fuel your imagination as you will! For those who were also there, may we lift a ‘cheers’ to deciding how it is we choose to tell our stories.
Roy’s letter lightened my spirit and as I read and reread it, I am finding that it keeps Christmas for me. Fortunately, Christmas lasts for 12 days! (and is not all spent in one quizzical night)
So here’s this, from Roy:
“Good Morning, Ruth......
What a wonderful Christmas Eve service at Highpoint!
Thank you and all the members for the team effort to make the service a success.
Yes, as I pondered the service afterwards it seemed like parts of it were from a scene from a Fellini movie - pianist has flat tire, arrives late wearing a Christmas cap, sort of stumbles through the hymns, but is probably a wonderful improvisational jazz pianist, John with his wonderful baritone voice pitching in to help move along a hymn, Mike’s occasional vocals and the lady, who was a guest, had her small dog regaled in his special Christmas outfit. It was all good and God was in the midst of it all accepting and forgiving our human frailties.”
Roy’s greeting, that “The New Year for Highpoint will be a good year!”,
is mine as well, to you.
In Merriment and Love,
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.