One early morning last week I walked into my spiritual direction room, ready to spend some time working on a retreat with the theme Tending the Fire. The sun was barely up and the room was shadowy, but the view out the window made me pause in delight. Overnight the leaves on the neighbor's tulip poplar tree had turned golden.
It wasn't hard to find fiery fall light this past week, filling the leaves with glory. For some, even their veins seemed full of fire.
This week's lectionary psalm, Psalm 36, includes these verses:
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light we see light.
One of my delights this week has been seeing my houseplants illumined by these days of sunshine. Seen from the right angle, even their cells seem full of light. Look closely at the Christmas cactus blossom or the geranium leaf below. I'm not surprised by the icy sparkles of the geode -- the green light of the geranium leaf catches me with wonder.
From John O'Donohue's "A Morning Offering":
All that is eternal in me
Welcomes the wonder of this day,
The field of brightness it creates
Offering time for each thing
To arise and illuminate.
And a few illuminated things from the past few sunny days, each with its own type of brightness.
If you stand on our front doorstep and look across College Avenue to the northwest, this is what you see -- the houses across the street and behind them, the Goshen College Music Center. On a gray day, it's nearly invisible, and we've been having a lot of gray days.
Last Friday, however, it was clear and cold. I walked my last directee of the day to the door, and as we said goodbye, this is what we saw:
"Alpenglow!" I exclaimed.
Years ago I sat on the porch of my uncle's cabin on Lake Granby, and watched as the sun set and the mountains glowed a rosy red. It didn't last long. Dad said it was alpenglow, an optical phenomenon that occurs after the sun sets, or just before sunrise, when the sun is below the horizon, but light is being reflected off of snow or ice crystals and creates that rosy glow on the opposite horizon.
I don't know if this was alpenglow, or just the last rays of the setting sun hitting one of the few high spots around. As my son once said, northern Indiana is rather geographically-challenged. We have to take our mountains where we can find them.
By the time my directee left and I had grabbed my camera and crossed the street for a clearer shot from the parking lot, the light to the east was fading.But the western horizon still glowed.
Yesterday was the first Sunday in Advent, and also our annual Messiah Sing at Assembly Mennonite. As always, the lighting of the Advent candle was a light-filled moment. The fourth and fifth graders ushered the candle lighter in with a simple procession/dance; the banner and the table visuals were created by the MYF. Later the rafters rang as over 200 people filled the worship space to join in singing excerpts from Handel's Messiah.
I heard the Hallelujah chorus from the kitchen, where I was helping ready a plenitude of potluck dishes -- casseroles, crockpot concoctions, salads, breads, desserts, and more. Some dishes were familiar -- Dana's semeles with honey butter, carefully prepared by his Sunday School class, Steve's massive cooker full of rice and chicken, Lois' taco salad, Joy's quiches. Others were new and tempting --shrimp salad, lemon cardamon rice pudding, variations of rice and bean dishes from many lands. The wealth of diversity was echoed in the ages and faces of those that soon sat down to enjoy the feast. I wish I had photos, but I was too busy helping refill the tables.
Thinking of the seasonal metaphor I explored last week, Assembly is in the spring paradox stage. We've come through a period where death touched us closely and where new life has also been vibrant. We have ten babies born in 2012 among us, and several more on the way. Thanks to the baby boom and to newcomers to Goshen who have joined us in recent years, we face all the challenges and opportunities that such growth brings.
One of those opportunities has been "Assembly North." With the support of the Assembly Leadership Group, a group of about 20 people began meeting this summer to explore the possibility for another Assembly-related worship group. Rather than working out all the details ahead of time, we took on the mantra "The Way is made by walking" and set out to see what might happen.
This fall we began meeting regularly at 11:00 on Sunday mornings at Faith House for a time of worship and a simple meal together. During the month of November, about half of us shared about the invitations from God that we've sensed as individuals, and ways that we are living those out, or new invitations we're beginning to glimpse. It has been a good way to learn more about each other and the 'sparks sown in us like seed,' to borrow a phrase from "What is this place," the first song in the Hymnal Worship Book.
A week ago we culminated that sharing with a candle lighting ceremony. Erin placed the peace lamp/Light of Christ in the center of our circle and invited each of us to light a tea candle from it on behalf of the person to our left, with the group joining in to say, for example, "May Sally's light shine." Each person was named, as well as those who were out of town celebrating Thanksgiving with their families. We had time to sit with the Light, noticing the way the tea candle flames all leaned in towards the lamp, and the way that the lamp flame danced in response.
What Assembly North will become is still unknown (a 2nd Assembly campus? a house church? a new congregation?). It is good to be part of that unfolding, just as it was good to be with the whole Assembly yesterday, joining in with song and feast. Here, too, what we will become is still unknown, as we continue the journey together. But both are places of light and welcome, and the Holy Spirit blows in our midst, bringing comfort and challenge and transformation -- a fitting awareness to carry into this Advent season, as we wait and we watch.
It was a lovely afternoon for a trip to the Defries Calendar Garden just south of Goshen. Early September is apparently the time for purples, yellows, and greens, catching the light.
The combination of morning light, a heavy dew, and fall flowers makes for some glory-filled moments, thanks be to God.
We celebrated Labor Day by cleaning out the garage, resulting in one trip to the recycling center, one pile to be put out with the trash later this week, another pile ready to be hauled to the Depot, and a somewhat tidier garage with room for all the bikes.
We also took an early morning walk along the millrace, soon after sunrise, and enjoyed the light on the plants along the water's edge, and the close encounters with miniscule wildlife. (Even though we didn't find any monarch chrysalis hanging from a milkweed leaf.)
This is a Japanese tea bowl from the exhibit we went to in Kalamazoo in mid-November. My eye was focusing on leaves of all kinds during that season of leaf transformation.Today it is fitting well with a paragraph I came across in a Christian Century article in the December 13th issue, "Times of Abundance", by Amy Frykholm. She interviewed Terra Brockman, an advocate for sustainable agriculture and founder of The Land Connection. The paragraph came in the midst of a discussion of people's reactions to "imperfect" fruits and vegetables:
I learned about the importance of imperfection when I lived in Japan. In the Japanese tea ceremony, you have to use imperfect clay bowls because the aging, cracked, asymmetrical bowls force you to see beyond the surface to the spark of light and beauty within. The spark points to perfection within imperfection.
Food is not about some perfect size or color or presentation. It's about joining us to the earth, our fellow creatures, family, guests, and ultimately God. It's about life here and now, about seeing the spark of light and beauty in our world and our lives, even with all their imperfection and unpredictability.
Amen -- it's like the broken and blessed pot I wrote of November 28, it's like all our lives. It's about seeing the spark of light and beauty in the midst of all the imperfection, unpredictability, and change.
So here's a few more sparks of light, found in what at first glance was a gray, frozen, barren landscape.
_ Yesterday our Gestalt Pastoral Care training group gathered again at Pathways Retreat Center, which was lovingly decorated for Advent. Our times together are a mixture of presentations and practice, as we take turns learning how to minister to each other and being the one doing Gestalt work.
This means that in a given session, most of us are participating as witnesses, learning as we watch, sometimes having a role to play or a response to make, and praying for those actively working.
During one session yesterday, I was one of the witnesses and the song that Adam Tice wrote for Assembly, Will You Hold me in the Light, kept going through my head. Or more accurately, two phrases – the title and “Hold me in the light of God.” I kept hearing them sing in my head, inviting me to hold the one who was doing the work that session in the light of God.
“Holding someone in the Light” is the way I often visualize intercessory prayer, and I usually think of the light of God as illuminating and healing, cradling the person I am praying for.
During this time of prayer, I had a sense of the light of God as healing, yes, but that sometimes the healing comes through the burning away of dross. The light of God can be painful in its healing and illuminating.
I kept thinking of the fire of roses in George Mac Donald’s The Princess and Curdie. In this fairy tale by the Scotch pastor and writer who influenced C.S.Lewis, Curdie encounters the princess’ great-great-great-ever-so-many-great-grandmother, a mysterious lady who lives in a garret at the top of the tallest tower, spins moonlight into thread, watches over the kingdom, and appears sometimes as an old crone and at others as a beautiful woman. As we learn to know her, it becomes clear that mysterious as she is, she is goodness and grace. MacDonald doesn’t use the words holy or divine, but this royal lady is one of the faces of God for me.
In her room, Curdie finds a hearth where “a great fire was burning, and the fire was a huge heap of roses, and yet it was fire.” The royal lady has a task for him, telling him it needs only trust and obedience, and promising, “It will hurt you terribly, Curdie, but that will be all; no real hurt but much good will come to you from it.”
Curdie is willing, and the lady tells him to thrust both hands into the fire.
Curdie does, painfully, with the end result that his hands are as white and smooth as the lady’s, and with the gift of discernment that as the story progresses helps him to know good from indifferent or evil. We also learn that the lady felt Curdie’s pain every bit as much as he did.
Near the end of the book, the fire of roses appears again, bringing health to one character near death and transformation to another.
As one of the characters in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books warns about Aslan, the great lion who plays a Christ-like role in the books: “He’s not a tame lion, you know.”
The light of God is not a tame light, you know. Sometimes it burns like a refiner’s fire, burning away dross, purifying the silver and gold.
"Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it."
Mary Oliver in "Sometimes"
I've taken on a prayer practice of looking for the moments of light in each day, whether actual or metaphorical, and then writing or posting photos of what I find.