I Arrive Late I arrive late. The avian chorus is halfway through the morning program. Tiny wrens trilling, crows demanding attention, a catbird offering its scratchy exaltation. The cardinal’s whistle, occasional and sweet. Their song and the stillness they celebrate accomplish my intention, the daily challenge of heart-opening that requires study, prayer, writing, the diligent quest for communion with the divine. The birds don’t know about theology. They simply offer their voices to the music of presence, unstitching the veil to reveal the cathedral of this fragile, fulgent moment.
“Do not underestimate the thrill of trying.” –Julia Cameron
Mixed media art has always captivated me. I marvel at the imagination and creativity of those who bring together a variety of elements to interact and cohere to stimulate the viewer with the outcome. A bird rests on a torn edge of newsprint, and its song breaks into my thoughts. A disembodied hand offers a gift. Colors are layered, inviting me to pause and look more deeply into myself.
Would I like working with these materials? I’ve gotten hooked on it, but it took me some time to gather the courage to try it.
My first attempts at visual art were assignments in a college class. My initial drawings were so light that they could hardly be detected a few feet away. What was the point if nobody could see it? I had to be bolder. Charcoal drawings were assigned, so there was no choice to display my work for others to see. Gradually I gained a bit of confidence.
My best work was in calligraphy. It was the one skill I took with me and used in the years to come, crafting signs and small gifts. It makes sense that this appealed to me, because if I love anything in this world besides people and pie, it is the written word. It is almost as if words are old friends, so I am comfortable with the creative process in their company.
It’s no wonder, then, that my first attempts at visual art in recent years have involved words. In my desire to influence my grandchildren’s faith, I select a special Bible verse for each Baptism Day anniversary and render it playfully in calligraphy. They are not works of art, but they convey the value of Scripture’s wisdom for them. I hope they also indicate my love for them.
Calligraphy always caught my eye in gift shops and galleries, beckoning me to keep going back to this medium. It was daunting to attempt something that takes time to develop, but I had to try.
My next attempts used not only the Scripture verses, but paraphrase and color. Putting the verses into my own words drew me into their meaning. Imagining how to present them artistically was a new and exciting process.
My mind and imagination were opening up in other ways, and it seems that a new kind of creativity was beginning to flower within. I have always enjoyed the creative process in ministry and parenting, finding ways to teach and nurture within the bounds of traditional norms. As my perceptions about God, the world, and myself evolved, my desire to create expanded. I began to write poetry. This was fearsome at first too, probably because of my admiration for good writing. How did I dare offer my own words to the world when fine writing already exists, in abundance?
The inner voice refused to be deterred. Although countless other writers are blessing us with their wisdom and humor, they do not use my voice. I have something to say too.
It takes a long time to trust one’s inner voice. Mine is easily silenced by the fear that is perfectionism’s most effective tool. But these days I recognize the problem, so I can keep it at bay. “The perfectionist is a bully,” says Julia Cameron in It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again. “It wants us to doubt ourselves. But saying no to bullies does often make them go away…Creativity is an awkward process, two steps forward, one step back…We must be gentle with ourselves and have reasonable expectations, lest the perfectionist try to take us out of the game. With humble forward motion we are strong—stronger than the perfectionist.”[i]
My skill at poetry has grown only slightly since I began, because I do not practice it often. I ponder whether it is important enough to me to give it more time. That will show itself as time goes on. As a mentor from years past put it, “Either you will, or you won’t, and that’s OK.” I don’t have to live up to expectations for writing that are not grounded in curiosity and joy.
It was in following Cameron’s process, using her tool of Morning Pages that compelled me to try mixed media. Writing every day helped me consider what I really want to do with my time. As it happens, an art class appeared in my social media feed. “Tiny Tattered Houses” was advertised by Jennifer Chamberlin, who teaches the craft on her website “The Maker Beehive.”
I toyed with it for only a few moments before I signed up. The fee was a mere $15. What did I have to lose?
I loved it.
Finally I found a medium that promises me satisfaction and joy without being squelched by perfectionism. There were no exact lines or colors, only what emerged from my fingers and imagination.
Playing with paper, paint and glue released a whimsical spirit in me that I hadn’t realized was buried under responsibility and worry, mostly stemming from pastoring three churches during the pandemic. I was also dealing with intense pain from a total knee replacement. The creative process distracted me from the grinding experience of recovery, and I was lifted into a place of adventure and beauty.
The same website offered a yearly membership, which I immediately dismissed as too time-consuming and expensive. But my newly-awakened creative spirit would not let it rest. The cost was not more than I spend in books in a year, I reasoned. Writing my Morning Pages gave me the moxy to register and put down the money. I wrote, “I’m going to do it. I’m going to accept the invitation to explore a fun medium with a little guidance and accountability. It will free me from trying to develop my creativity too carefully and open me up to my carefree, fun self. (I know she’s in there!)”
Julia Cameron claims “it is enthusiasm even more than discipline that brings creativity forward. With just the slightest encouragement, our creativity responds to our taps, as if it has been lying in wait. I would argue that it has—everyone has a wellspring of creativity flowing beneath the surface, just waiting to be released.”[ii]
Cameron has helped me stoke the fire of my creativity. Over the years other family and friends have encouraged me to find my voice—in whatever form it takes on a given day—and use it. (Thanks, Karen C, Barbara H, Wendy V, Ginger A-L, Vicky M, Steve J, Carol A-J, Pam V, Mindy M, Jennifer C and all the Maker Bees!) It feels like a wondrous gift after a season of difficulty and fear.
I am grateful to have found new energy that fuels other pursuits, including ministry and my work as a spiritual director. I have long experienced the flow of creativity directed by the Holy Spirit when I write sermons and funeral/wedding meditations. I suppose I have regarded those as safe vehicles for my voice. But now I find that any activity can be flipped from drudgery to joy when viewed as a creative endeavor. In my current role as a chaplain, I approach each nursing home resident and staff member with curiosity, ready to listen and respond creatively as the situation warrants.
I wrote about the new energy for ministry in my morning pages: “These understandings are reflected in my new interest in mixed media collage and the pleasure of writing free verse poetry. The outcome is not so much planned as discovered. The Spirit is party to creating, and sometimes surprises me. I can lose myself in the process and be open to what flows.”
That’s it. Losing myself in the process, being open to what flows. Not a bad way to approach life in general. I wonder how I can be creative today as I clean windows and iron the clothes? I might even get back to my little corner studio and do more mixed media first! Time to play some more.
[i] Cameron, Julia. It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again, 2016. (New York: TarcherPerigree/Random House), p. 120.
[ii] Ibid., p. 97.
What did they expect when they followed him to Bethany, a whole day’s journey from the scene of Jerusalem’s crime and its surprising aftermath? He had been talking about what they would do next, but he kept leaving out his part whenever they tried to tie him down on that point. He repeated his big dream for them one more time before he grinned and a gust of wind picked him up. A brief tug of war with gravity (they groped for him, futile attempts to keep him grounded, to call him back: please, please, don’t let him get away!) but Houdini Jesus shrugged and sighed at their tattered faith trying to hold him in its tether. When he looked up again, a mysterious, animated mist appeared, beckoning and embracing him. He relaxed into the welcome. Only in his absence would their understanding bloom and go to seed, a dandelion puff the Spirit could not resist scattering everywhere out of control, finding purchase in the most unexpected places.
A re-telling of Luke 5:17-26 Even though the house was already crowded, when the elders arrived, they were given front row seats, where the teacher was telling curious stories about seeds and banquets and quarreling brothers. A Pharisee was posing a convoluted question when falling debris gave them just enough warning to avoid the chunk of ceiling that barely missed Jesus himself. The dust cleared to reveal a makeshift pallet lowering by ropes, tipping and wobbling, its passenger trembling and wide-eyed, wincing when he landed with a thump. The teacher laid a calming hand on his shoulder and then smiled up at his friends, whose chutzpah left a ragged gap in the ceiling. Simon was heard murmuring his prediction: another healing! But Jesus looked deeply and thoughtfully at the man and said, “My friend, be assured, your sins no longer have the power to cripple your spirit.” The elders immediately exercised their veto power, with force. Jesus’ thoughtful gaze turned on them. A pause. “Please trust me. I know the deepest truth and it is this: paralysis of the limbs is nothing compared to the paralyzing effects of a rebellious heart. So that you will know this too, watch this man walk home with healthy legs and an unburdened heart.” Sure enough, the man stood, tentative, took a few shaky steps and left differently than he came, light on his feet, his pallet of shame left behind in a pile of dusty, broken-down dogma.
And a poem had to be written too! Look Out Below The heavens were opened when the Dove-Spirit surprised Jesus with her wings of light. He looked up every so often after that, just in case. But what opened one day to his surprise was the ceiling, breaking apart and raining debris on everyone. No dove, only a trembling man on a wobbly pallet. Despite the elders’ protests, Spirit tuned him in on the fractured heart of a broken man. Not many of the crowds who came to him were so easy to read, but the shame had etched its lines on this man’s face long ago. Such sadness needed its cure and so he did, touching the heart with a refreshing wash of absolution, and stroking life back into the shriveled limbs for good measure. The teacher couldn’t resist checking the reactions of the men gazing down. He did a double take when their glad faces seemed to flicker and gleam, and he felt a familiar flutter stirring the air just above his head.
The longer I watch him the more I wonder whether the Cross of Jesus was not the only moment our saving happened, as if such cruelty could solve an inevitable, deadly equation. Perhaps it was only the penultimate moment to resurrections’ triumph— though unheralded, un-choired— the sealing of love’s new first word. But even then it would be hollow without all those other interruptions: the divine impulse making food blossom in their hands on a hillside, a girl’s lifeless eyes fluttering open, Lazarus leaning into the muffled announcement that even time must step aside for love’s insistent force. The shape of all the saving— all the loving— required the alignment of his arms. He extended them in one terrible timeless moment into which he gathered all the other moments and offers all of it time after time resisting confinement, elusive as spirit, expectant. Constant. Be still and see there he goes again.
I often cross myself in worship especially when the bread and wine of Christ are re-membered in me. The gesture is an affirmation of who I am and whom I follow. Today the cross is smudged on my face for all to see how poorly I reflect his cross I claim as my own. It is out of focus, lacking the crisp outline even a shadow can cast. My feeble attempts at following in his way make my cross indistinct. And so I turn again, accept the invitation to come closer, slowly, to the cross made dim by distance until its texture and detail draw me in, fill my vision, and define me.
This poem came to me as I as cleaning the guest room, after Christmas and the pleasure of hosting family from far away. We took a calculated risk with COVID, since several of us had already had the virus.
They have vacated the room where I make the bed, unhurried, unwilling to disturb their presence that lingers in the quiet. They slept beneath the quilt my mother made. My child-adult and her husband, the soul mate and lover she awaited, yearning for the one who yearned for her while the patchwork of her life came together. Granddaughter of a stitcher of longings, a practical woman of vision, and prayer. Daughter of the one who watched the pattern come together and now makes the bed again, runs her hand over the storied, precious handiwork, in lambent, loving benediction.
Only you could merit a name that is a dawning a promise daily kept hope hinting slowly reassuring yes, I am here never rushing, yet insistent letting the dark take its rest. You let it sigh and set while you make yourself known calling my attention not to yourself but to the trees’ winter branches who nevertheless pen their delicate praises upon the blue of you.
The angel visits Mary; one virgin is being prepared. In a haunting parable (Matt 25.1-13) about the end times, there are ten virgins, five of whom are properly prepared.
I am captivated by the sonnets of Malcolm Guite. He also masterfully crafts poetry anthologies, including his Advent/Christmas collection, Waiting on the Word, which includes John Donne’s “Annunciation.” The richness of this tribute to Mary is unpacked expertly by Guite, and my own slow reading of the piece yields precious insight. The incarnation is mystery enough to behold for a lifetime, if only by pondering the last line:
Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb.
My imagination juxtaposes Gabriel’s announcement to Mary with the parable of the ten virgins. I have always understood the oil in their lamps to be a symbol of preparation for the Day of the Lord. Be faithful. Be alert.
But what is involved in preparation? The lamps must be refilled. The wise young women brought oil with them, but they only had enough for themselves. The foolish ones had to find another source elsewhere. They missed out on the advent of the bridegroom, because they did not have enough oil.
Oil in the Scriptures is both a staple and a sign of God’s provision and blessing. It is used for healing, for lamps, for anointing, and refreshment. Where there is oil there is life and goodness.
A journal entry from a couple Decembers ago reads: “I am in a season of life that is not unlike Advent, so the mood of Advent itself feels especially intense this year. For some months I have sensed a preparation for something that is to come. God’s Spirit seems to be painting provocative designs on the walls of my imagination. My prayers are often wordless yet profound. I feel a great potential stirring. A parable about oil lamps being refilled resonates. Poems and images of Mary bearing a secret touch a deep cord.”
The gospel images of preparation and potential are helpful. Mary seems to be like the virgins who are prepared. There is the oil of life, and also the image of the seed, which in Mary is the beginning of God’s “new thing.” (Isa 43.19) The small seed of God’s inbreaking needs time in the darkness, time to germinate. It must take in the nutrients required. There is no need to hurry; indeed, pushing it to yield its fruit too soon will spoil it.
We bear a secret, disciples of Jesus Christ. We share Mary’s role as Theotokos, God-bearer to the world. The substance of the secret is the Love that formed the universe. As such, it is not only se’creted (hidden) within us, it is also secret’ed (generated or released) from us in myriad ways. The “immensity” of God is borne into the world in the tiniest of ways, by a thought or a glance, a soft touch, a word fitly spoken.
My mind moves to the story of another Mary and her secrets. She poured oil on Jesus’ head (Jn 12.3) at a dinner given in his honor. Judas objected to the extravagance. He could not see that her gesture came from a deep place, where love had been pulsing and expanding until it had to find expression.
The precious secret is revealed in the manger. But it also exists inside us, where the oil of God’s life fuels our love for Jesus Christ. Our love for him lights the way of hope, at Christmas time and always.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger for ever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:8-14)
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also...‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (John 14:1-3, 25-27)
A Message for You This Holiday Season
We are approaching the shortest day of the year in December. For many of us, it has felt dark for a long time, since the beginning of the pandemic at least. Of all people, you who have lost loved ones this year are among those suffering the most from the restrictions of the pandemic. It seems that there are deeper levels of darkness we never dreamed of visiting, yet here we are.
Every year in December we get into conversations about how Christmas gets co-opted or watered down by materialism. We don’t like to see it become just another reason for over-indulgence and profit. We feel as though we have to strive to stay focused on the “real meaning of Christmas.”
Yet this year you may suffer from a different problem. The merriment surrounding Christmas feels hollow, even painful, when you are in the throes of grief. Family celebrations highlight the absence of the person you love, introducing sadness into your cherished traditions. Perhaps you even feel disloyal celebrating the holiday at all, because that special someone isn’t here to share it with you.
With all these tangled emotions, we can find ourselves sinking even deeper into grief. It is hard to find comfort when others around you want to feel joy. But you can’t. You just can’t.
This is the reality of being human. There are times of darkness, and times when the darkness is made even more profound because of the circumstances of the world around us that put our suffering in stark relief.
Yet here, too, we have a reason to turn to God, for God has plumbed the depths of our humanity and made all of it sacred—every part of it—with His presence and love. Yes, there is love there in the depths with you, because God is there.
God sees you and will love you through the worst of it. Meanwhile, you need to be gentle with yourself and do what you need and nothing more. It is all right to let go of or simply tolerate any part of this season that obscures your experience of that divine, healing love you need so much.
I hope you can hear the good news I want to tell you: God embraces both you and the one you have lost. Nothing and no one is beyond the reach of God’s love.
Despite all the glitter and celebration surrounding Christmas, we know that Jesus was born in poverty and obscurity. He knew what it was to be exploited, unseen, hopeless. To observe the happiness of others while unable to experience it himself. He withdrew often from the company of others to be fully in his father’s presence. The love of the Father was his comfort, his strength. That fierce love enabled him to show us that his love could not be snuffed out, not even on a cross. I believe he died there not only to atone for our sins but also to prove that divine love does not die. It cannot be killed.
Neither can your love for your spouse, child, parent, friend. It lives on. And their love for you lives on too. This is not a wistful notion. It is the deepest truth in the universe.
As you gaze into the manger this year, I hope you will see the one who knows your pain and asks only to be held close to your heart for your healing. He will do that. He came precisely for that reason. Jesus will heal your heart, sooner or later. Whether you feel his presence or not, he is with you, now and always. Believe this truth, and know the peace that only he can give.