#BlackLivesMatter

I’ve been trying to write this post for months.

I spent the better part of this year filling the pulpit at a very small church in rural Georgia. One Sunday in July, as I drove down the country highway back home, I saw something in the distance that was unusual, and caught my attention. The first thing that I could clearly discern were confederate flags hoisted up along the front of an otherwise unassuming roadside building. Then I noticed three men with cowboy hats on holding signs up toward the cars approaching in the other direction. As I came closer, they turned in a swift, choreographed motion, and my stomach dropped and my mouth dried up and for a moment, I froze. The signs read, “Black Lives Don’t Matter,” and “Only White Lives Matter.”

I drove along in shock, until at some point I called my husband and burst into tears, recounting what I’d seen. I was nauseous. I cried the rest of the way home. I cried as I packed our bags for our honeymoon. I cried for Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile. I cried for the families of color who would be subjected to that hatred as they made their way home from church. I cried for the children in the backseats of passing cars, excited to practice their reading skills only to sound-out phrases no child should ever hear or see. I cried because it made me afraid. I wanted to stop, to get out of my car, to yell and scream and swear, to speak up and speak out, but I was genuinely and truly afraid for my life. I never wanted to see those men again.

I wish I could tell you I didn’t. On my last Sunday at the church, this time with my husband in tow, we saw them again. They had upgraded. The confederate flags were still waving in the wind, but they’d moved back farther off of the road. They had a table with literature on it. They were sitting in chairs. They had a tent to block out the sun. As we drove past, they had just finished displaying the second of two white, hooded robes.

I’ve been so feeling so helpless, so heartbroken. Now, with the news of two more officer-involved shootings resulting in the deaths of two more black men, I find myself needing to speak up, to speak out. To my friends who are people of color – I hear you. I love you. I believe you. I am sorry. I am your ally. I am listening.

I’ve been debating about deactivating my Facebook account until the current election season is over. We have descended into a level of polarization in this country that continues to stun me. I believe that the current political climate only heightens the polarization that comes when yet another police officer uses deadly force against yet another person of color. I’m tired of reading of the grief. I’m tired of becoming incensed at the many, many ways white people I know and love try to deflect from the real problem of systemic racism and our own, individual prejudices.

But deactivating my Facebook account is an exercise of my own privilege. I have the privilege to look away. I have the privilege to forget what is happening. I have the privilege to ignore the lived experiences of others and continue in my safe, white existence. My life is not at stake. The lives of my family members are not at stake. I will not be gunned down by a police officer when I have car trouble. I will not have to worry about my husband being shot with his hands in the air. I will not have to counsel my sons on how to best interact with the police so that officers will believe that they are not a threat, or on drugs, or carrying a gun.

I am at the very last step of the process of ordination to the ministry of the Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church, USA.  I am currently serving a church as a pastor. The Word I proclaim, the Sacraments we celebrate, are manifestations and proclamations of God-Incarnate, who put on skin and walked among the grieving, the marginalized, those victimized by inherently violent societal structures -a God-Incarnate who was executed by an Empire that found his radical welcome and love to be too threatening to its own systems of oppression. I find no other way to be faithful to Jesus Christ, and to my calling, than to admit my own privilege, my own prejudice, my own fragility, and to promise to be an ally to those whose skin color endangers their very lives.

There is a phrase to describe what happens when those who are members of the dominate culture are confronted with uncomfortable facts about their existence: white fragility. I see it exercised over and over on my newsfeed, on twitter, on CNN, NBC, Fox News, and in my own life. White fragility privileges white emotions over the lived experiences of people of color. How you feel about a situation, as a white person, doesn’t override the actual, lived experience of someone who isn’t. We have made ourselves judge and jury. Here are some examples of phrases that come from a place of fragility.

1. #AllLivesMatter. Sure. Yes. They do. But if that’s your response when you read or hear Black Lives Matter then stop, take a breath, back up. You’re missing the point. I’ve seen a few quotes and illustrations that sum it up better than I can. One is this: when you go to the doctor with a broken arm, you don’t want to hear her say, “all bones matter.” Yes, of course, all bones matter. But when something particular is broken, you want that to be fixed. Another is this: If your house is burning down and your neighbor -whose house is not on fire – has a fire hose pointed at his house says, “I know your house is burning down, but all houses matter,” you might get angry. You should get angry. Most recently, Shane Claiborne tweeted that if Jesus were to say today, “Blessed are the poor,” some might respond, “No, Jesus, blessed is everyone.” Sometimes we’ve got to proclaim a truth that has been lost in a broken system. Yes, of course, everyone’s lives matter. The point is that some lives seem to matter more than others, these days. It’s not that only black lives matter; it’s that black lives matter, too.

2. “The media is creating a race war.” No – it isn’t. No it isn’t. It isn’t. I’ve seen that one a lot. It is easy to to pass the blame onto some construct like “the media,” but that ignores two problems. One – we are racist. We are. We live and participate in systems that benefit and privilege people with white skin over people of color. Here’s an example: recently, I was driving down a highway on a clear day, going about 5-10 miles over the speed limit. I was breaking the law. I shortly came upon a highway patrol officer slightly hidden behind some trees. He could have pulled me over, and I would have deserved the ticket. Just after, a car passed me and I noticed that a black man was driving and I thought, “Oh, I’m fine. He’ll get pulled over before I will.” I felt ashamed for even thinking it, and also let the reality sink in that I was probably right. Between a black man and a white woman, there is a greater likelihood that the black man will be pulled over, even traveling at the same speed. I imagine you might know that feeling. One of the things, I think,  that makes us so fragile is that if we really start to do the hard and difficult and necessary work of creating true equality, those of us who have benefited from racist systems will benefit no longer. We will be held accountable. We should be held accountable. That scares us, so we blame someone else, something else, anything else. The second problem with the idea that the media is creating some kind of race war is that racial inequality isn’t something new. The media just happens to be paying attention differently than it has before. We think that because we had the Civil Rights Act of ’64 and the Voting Rights Act of ’65 that everything’s fine, racism is over because we “fixed” it in Congress. Unfortunately, legislation does not equal reconciliation. We still have a long way to go. The reality is that the media coverage is making us uncomfortable because it is challenging our privilege. Let it. It’s past time for us to be uncomfortable with the way people of color are treated in this world. Watch it. Take it all in. Then do something about it.

There are other examples – about statistics on police killings, crime, class dynamics, etc. – that are also products of our fragility. The main point is this: when you find yourself reacting adversely to the notion that the lives of black people matter, ask yourself why you’re reacting that way. What is it within you that causes your defense mechanisms to kick in? What’s at stake for you? What are you afraid of?

It seems like our nation needs to take a collective deep breath. So, I invite you to take a breath with me. Step back. Write a draft before you write a post. Consider how the God who wept over the death of Lazarus might be lamenting over Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott. Consider how we might create a more just, equitable and sustainable future for all of God’s beloved children. Read books, articles, blog posts written by people of color. Consider where Jesus would be – where Jesus is – in our midst.

I have hope in the God who makes all things new that this, too, is not beyond redemption. I have hope in the God who unifies us that we can rise above discourse, hatred and polarization. I have hope that the power of the Holy Spirit can and will move in our hearts and change our lives. I have hope for that day when we can say “all lives matter” and mean it. I have hope in the God who calls me and you, that when we pray as Jesus taught us, God’s Kingdom will indeed come and be among us. Right now, the coming of God’s Kingdom looks a lot like a protest. I have hope in that, too.

 

 

When the Son of Man Comes…

On June 1, I started an 11-week journey of CPE. CPE stands for Clinical Pastoral Education. From the ACPE website:

“Clinical Pastoral Education is interfaith professional education for ministry. It brings theological students and ministers of all faiths (pastors, priests, rabbis, imams and others) into supervised encounter with persons in crisis. Out of an intense involvement with persons in need, and the feedback from peers and teachers, students develop new awareness of themselves as persons and of the needs of those to whom they minister. From theological reflection on specific human situations, they gain a new understanding of ministry. Within the interdisciplinary team process of helping persons, they develop skills in interpersonal and interprofessional relationships.”

This summer, I’m doing my CPE with the Training and Christian Counseling Center at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. There are six of us, and we each serve in various placements in downtown Atlanta. I’m serving with Central Presbyterian’s Outreach and Advocacy Center. Central works in partnership with individuals and families to assist and advocate with them to avoid or overcome homelessness. In fact, most of the guests we serve on a daily basis are currently experiencing homelessness, or are just one step away from having nowhere else to go but the streets.

Much of what we do involves helping people obtain some kind of identification. Atlanta has a relatively poor track record when it comes to working with individuals experiencing homelessness. In preparation for the 1996 Olympic Games, the City of Atlanta passed a law which made it illegal not to have a government-issued ID. Many people who live on the streets don’t have a state-issued ID, or a birth certificate or social security card. For many of our guests, those things were stolen from them. For others, they had to leave them behind because they were fleeing a dangerous situation, like domestic violence. Others were kicked out of their homes as teenagers, without any documentation proving who they are. Still others, suffering from undiagnosed or untreated mental illness, simply can’t keep up with the things they have.

So, many people who have no where else to go end up in jail or prison because of a violation of this law. To add insult to injury, the state of Georgia confiscates your ID when you’re incarcerated, and they don’t give it back. So, when you get released, you’re potentially back on the streets, without ID, and therefore without the ability to get a job or find housing. And you have to start the process all over again.

Day in and day out, the staff and volunteers at Central tirelessly work to restore hope and dignity to those who are ignored, mistreated, or worse. There’s a surprising amount of laughter when we’re meeting with a guest. There’s also a less-surprising amount of sadness. My heart breaks, over and over, for these children of God who have nowhere else to turn.

The most frustrating thing about the work that I’m doing is that Central Presbyterian is directly across from the front steps of the Georgia Capitol, and very close to Atlanta City Hall. The work that we do at Central, and places like it, will never end until the people with the power to do something for the least of these actually do something. Much of what’s legislated in Georgia is for the benefit of those already wealthy and powerful. Many of our guests sleep right outside of our gates, in the shadow of the gold-plated dome.

I’ve been reading through the lectionary this summer, and I was struck by a pair of the readings last week. The Old Testament reading was Deuteronomy 16:18-20. It reads:

“You shall appoint judges and officials throughout your tribes, in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall render just decisions for the people. You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eye of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”

It was coupled with the Gospel reading – Luke 18:1-8:

“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me down by continually coming.” And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will God not grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?'”

Well? Will he? Nothing has made me wonder that more than these past two weeks. What is God’s justice? Whatever definition we may find, the for-profit prison system isn’t a part of it. Illegally detaining people isn’t a part of it. Forcing the most vulnerable among us to jump through a thousand hoops while simultaneously demanding and expecting that they be working and “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps” isn’t a part of it. Institutional and systemic racism isn’t a part of it.

This is what we face, as people of God. A world that wants us to believe that there’s such a thing as valueless and disposable people, cogs in the machine. That’s in direct opposition to the biblical narrative of redemption, of grace, of God’s love for the world and each individual who is a part of God’s creation.

And so, we demand justice from our leaders, crying out day and night until they, too, are worn down like the unjust judge. So that, when the Son of Man comes, he will indeed find faith on earth.

India

In 24 hours time I will be on a plane to India. Technically, I will be on the first of two flights: from Atlanta to London, and from there on to Bangalore.

I am traveling with a group from the seminary for a class called “Explorations in Alternative Contexts.” This course is a requirement for the MDiv program at CTS. We will be gone from the 27th of December to the 11th of January.

The course description is as follows:
“In this class, students will encounter various Christian communities in south India, especially in the metropolitan centers of Bangalore and Hyderabad.  We will explore a cultural and religious context in which the church is engaged in interfaith conversations, on a regular basis, primarily out of necessity rather than by choice.  Through this encounter, students will grow as theologically-informed readers about the various ways in which the gospel, culture and theology shape each other and will reflect on what it means to live in an ecclesial context in which the church constantly finds itself at the margins—numerically, politically and ideologically.  As a group, students will develop insights about becoming resilient and imaginative amid difficult situations and about transforming crisis into opportunities.”

We’ve been meeting as a group once a month over the last semester to eat Indian food, get to know one another, and discuss issues of caste, gender, interfaith dialogue and the intersection of religion and politics.

I am a nervous flier, and a bit wary of the 20-or-so hours we’ll spend 30,000 feet above God’s good earth. However, my nerves grow more distant as my excitement for this opportunity makes its way to the forefront of my consciousness. I am nearly packed, have done most of the required reading, and can’t stop looking at pictures of where we’re headed – not unlike the nights before YAV orientation.

For those of who you’ve been faithful readers of this collection of my experiences over the last two years, you may recall that I was originally placed in India for my YAV year, but because of extenuating circumstances went to Belfast, instead. I am, as you already know, overwhelmed with gratitude each and every time I think of the people and experiences that shaped my year of service in that damp wee country in the North of Ireland. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I have, however, been very curious about how my life would be different had I served in India, and I wonder what things await that perhaps I wasn’t ready for a few years back.

I do not plan to blog regularly during this experience. However, my group will be keeping a blog – to which I will contribute. You can click here to access it. If you click on the link before the 28th, you likely won’t find anything. But click away if you’re so inclined!

I so appreciate all of the love and support I’ve been given and that I continue to receive from dear friends around the world. This experience will undoubtedly change my classmates and me in ways we can’t even begin to imagine. I humbly ask for your prayers: for the ten students enrolled in the course, for the two brave professors leading us, and for those brothers and sisters in India whom we have yet to meet. Pray also that these experiences will shape all of our ministry to the glory of God.

All love and peace and hope during this sacred season of joy and new beginnings.

Here we are.

This week, I’m joining forty people from the Presbyterian Church (USA), along with about 6,000 women and men from around the world, at the United Nations 58th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women. As part of the PC (USA)’s delegation, I am also serving on behalf of Ecumenical Women.

I join eight other young women who were chosen to attend with Presbyterian Women’s Young Women’s Leadership Development. We were given a full scholarship to attend. I am so very grateful for the opportunity to meet women from around this nation and our world.

When I was in the 10th grade, my high school choir (Sumter High School) under the direction of the wonderful Eric Wilkinson performed Mozart’s Vespers at Carnegie Hall. As part of the trip to New York, we toured the United Nations complex. I don’t remember much about the tour, because at the time I had no idea I would need to pay close attention. The one thing I do remember, however, is a photo display featuring women from around the world. The description invited the viewer to guess the ages of each of the women, and then remove a panel revealing the actual age. I was floored. Most of the women, I guessed, were in their forties and fifties. As it happens, the women I thought were in their fifties were actually in their early twenties. By our standards, they had aged far too soon. Our tour guide explained that the conditions these women experience daily causes them to appear so aged. Most of them have no childhood or adolescence, the guide explained.

This year, the overall theme of the CSW is “Challenges and Achievements in the Implementation of Millennium Development Goals for Women and Girls.” In 2007, I attended my first Model UN conference in Atlanta. The topic? Evaluating the MDGs at their halfway point. Oh, continuity.

The Millennium Development Goals were established by the United Nations in the year 2000 as a global development framework for the next fifteen years. The eight goals are:
1. Eradicate extreme hunger and poverty
2. Achieve universal primary education
3. Promote gender equality and empower women
4. Reduce child mortality
5. Improve maternal health
6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
7. Ensure environmental sustainability
8. Global partnership for development

Much progress has been made toward these goals. For instance, according to the 2013 Millennium Development Goals Report, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has been halved at the global level (from 1990). However, there is much work to be done – which is what brings us here.

Ecumenical Women has released a statement outlining the four areas that we identify as priority areas. They are:

1. Poverty and Hunger
2. Equal access to education
3. Health
4. Ending violence against women and girls

Through this 58th Commission, we will be setting the stage for 2015 and beyond. We heard from Lopa Banerjee on Saturday. She is the Chief of Civil Society for UN Women. She pointed out that 2015 is a crossroads – it is the end of the MDGs and the beginning of the post-2015 SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). It is also the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration. It is an incredibly important time. And as we particularly acknowledge and address the failures of the MDGs, we can know what to emphasize for the post-2015 agenda, so that structural change will occur in order to have lasting progress for gender equality; a common set of minimum standards.

We had the great privilege of hearing from the Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlango-Ngucka. She spoke yesterday after our chapel service. Here’s a video: (it’s a bit long, but it includes the singing we did before, at her invitation). Phumzile Mlango-Ngucka was elected to South Africa’s Parliament in 1994, and she later served as the Deputy President of South Africa (from 2005-2008).

Three themes from this time are emerging for me, already:

1. Progress for women is progress for all of humanity. Gender equality is not a conversation in which only women should participate. We need the other half of the population in order for this conversation to have any relevance. We must raise our daughters and our sons to know the importance and value of women and girls within each and every society.

I feel so connected to my women’s college roots these days. Dexter Edgar Converse, the founder of our institution, wrote in his founding statement, “The well-being of any society depends much upon the culture of her women.” And it’s so very, very true. And men must be a part of not only the conversation, but the implementation of change, as well. Please check out heforshe.org to find out more ways to empower men and boys to join in the movement.

2. Our stories matter. Stories will change the world.
Many of you know that I believe fully in practicing nonviolence in all forms in every aspect of life. I mean, we’ve tried violent intervention and resistance since, like, the beginning of time, and it hasn’t really worked thus far. What can it hurt to try something different? (A conversation about what nonviolence is and isn’t would probably be helpful here, but that’s a different subject for a different day.)

I am beginning to believe that nonviolence as a way of life begins with storytelling. Listening and being heard. It’s not impossible to behave violently toward someone whose story you know – but it’s a whole heck of a lot more difficult. It’s about re-humanizing those who have been dehumanized. It’s not about speaking on their behalf- because how could I ever do justice to someone else’s story? I have my own to tell. But, we can create space for other stories to be told – stories that are otherwise unheard and unnoticed. This is the way we begin to move forward.

3. People of faith must advocate and must speak out. So often, people of faith are seen speaking out against something. (Just recently, I was incensed as a state representative in the state of Arizona declared that the vetoing of the bill which would have legalized discrimination against the LGBT community is a “war on people of faith.” No, it isn’t. But that’s what the rest of the world sees as our representation: a fearful people. A people who live as if God’s grace could ever actually be taken away. A people who have forgotten the goodness of all of God’s creation. A people who speak out of a place of hurt rather than a place of love. A people who shout for action rather than calling for peace.)

We cannot be afraid, in our own churches and communities, to make clear that gender-based violence in any form is completely and totally unacceptable. We must make clear that lack of access to clean water is not the way the world was created to be. We must make clear that the decision whether or not to have sex does not lie with the male alone. That women and girls are not objects. That reproductive health and rights are universal, and that access to each of these things is a human right. That it is unacceptable that women worldwide provide 60% of labor and own 1% of property. Speak out. Speak up. Pave a new path for people of faith. Raise a new voice and sing a new song. We have such power in our togetherness. And power is not a zero-sum game, contrary to what the world would have us believe. We can only become more powerful agents of change in the world as we combine our gifts and passions. The Kingdom of God is within our reach – but we won’t see its realization without, among many things, gender equality. So here we are.

Rainy Days

It’s been overcast and rainy a few times in the last weeks. And while many of my friends here grimace and moan, I smile to myself.

You see, the rain is no longer a nuisance.

The rain is a very physical reminder of another home, of a place I love and cherish. The rain is a physical reminder of how incredibly fortunate I am. The Columbia community has already proven itself to be a great fit – my classes are challenging and engaging, my professors are brilliant and many of my classmates have fast become my friends.

But in the midst of this happy transition, I miss Belfast.

In some ways, the transition home has been harder than the transition abroad. I think this is because when I was leaving the States, I knew that my time away had an expiration date. I don’t know if and when I will ever get back to Belfast, and there are people there whom I love dearly, and who I will likely not see again (in this lifetime, anyway). It is harder because my daily realities no longer include the primary school that stole my heart, the church community that showed me that I am more than my voice, and the YAV community that loved me even at my most undeserving.

I know that these things will come here, with time. Time is hard. Time is agony. And change is an odd thing. It can be subtle, yet powerful.

I begin nearly every sentence with some form of, “Well in Belfast…” or, “When I lived in Northern Ireland…” But at some point I stopped saying, “Hiya!” or, “I’m away,” or, “You’re doing my head in.” At some point, “biscuits” once again became “cookies”. I can say “pants” without blushing, and no one makes fun of me when I say the word, “aluminum.” I miss it desperately, at times. But I am also falling desperately in love with my experience here. I am growing, stretching, learning, doing and being.

On rainy days in Belfast, no matter how cold or wet it was outside, I was warmed by a welcoming hug as soon as I walked through the doors at Whitehouse. I was warmed by the smile of a nine-year-old as I shook the rain off of my jacket. I was warmed by the fellowship found around the lunch table at the Vine. The rain is no longer a dreary thing. My time in Belfast taught me that the rain is a reminder that beyond the clouds exists warmth and light. Always.

There is something to be said, I think, for a people who have experienced a collective trauma. There is a warmness and sense of camaraderie that cannot be found elsewhere. So if you never gathered it from previous posts or conversations, please hear me now: the loveliest people in the world can be found nestled along the loughshore in Counties Antrim and Down. I now carry with me a different understanding of the word hospitality. I carry with me stories and memories which sustain me on the coldest and wettest of days. I carry a spirit whose kindness and generosity knows no bounds. I carry the heart of a people. I carry it in my heart.

Change and Grow

This is it.

My last service is over. Plates have been cleared from the tables, goodbyes have been said and keys have been returned. My bags are packed and waiting upstairs.

In a few hours time I leave for Dublin, where I’ll catch a flight to Prague and travel for a week or two before heading back to the States.

It’s surreal that this has all come to an end. I knew it would, in some part of my mind. But here we are. Officially. It’s been an incredible journey – one that began around January of 2012 and is now beginning a new chapter as the page turns away from my time here.

I’d like to leave you, finally, with some lyrics that encompass (as best as anything can, I think) the last year and a half of my life.

I worked with several grade levels at Whitehouse Primary School, but I got to know the P7s especially well. I had the great privilege of conducting the music for their Leavers Assembly. This song, Change and Grow, is one that they sang in June. And while the Anna Owens of years-gone-by may have found it to be incredibly cheesy, I find that it now has a great deal of meaning.

Change and Grow

Winter passes into spring,
Seasons come and go,
There’s a time for everything,
For everything must change and grow.

Lessons learnt along the way,
Things we’ve come to know,
We take with us each new day,
For everything must change and grow.

There are places we’ve loved and those we’ve left
There are days we remember well.
There are faces we know we shan’t forget,
But this day we move forward,
This day we move forward.

Who knows what tomorrow brings,
Where the winds will blow?
There will be new songs to sing,
For everything must change and grow.

Through the laughter, through the tears,
In life’s ebb and flow,
Seize the moments and the years,
For everything must change and grow.

There are places we’ve loved and those we’ve left
There are days we remember well.
There are faces we know we shan’t forget,
But this day we move forward,
This day we move forward.

Winter passes into spring,
Seasons come and go,
There’s a time for everything,
For everything must change and grow.

There are places we’ve loved and those we’ve left,
There are days we remember well.
There are faces we know we shan’t forget,
But this day we move forward,
This day we move forward,
This day we move forward.

This day I move forward.

Goodbye for now, Belfast.

photo

Eternally yours,

Anna

Time.

There’s so much.

There’s so much more I need to do, and write, and see. My time here is finally and actually drawing to a close. As I’ve been trying for days to compile my thoughts and feelings into something fluid for my final Sunday at Whitehouse (and a final blog post), I realize that I’m just not quite ready.

It’s strange, these days, because I feel very much the way I did this time last year, when my anxiety and excitement and sadness would overwhelm me all at once and I would burst into tears in the middle of Target (and, now, Tesco). But I’m doing my best to allow each feeling its time and place; to allow it all to wash over me, to change me, to form me – much in the same way the winds and the rain have shaped the landscape of this beautiful place I’ve had the great privilege of calling home for the past eleven months.

I have, over the course of the year, been rendered speechless countless times by the overwhelming beauty of this part of God’s creation. I have learned the meaning of the word awesome. I may have written this before, but it isn’t hard to imagine why the ancient Irish peoples believed that the divine lived just below the surface of the mountains, which is why they treated (and Celtic tradition still treats) the earth with such great care.

After the coldest winter in a century and the spring that wasn’t, we are in the midst of a proper summer – and it’s glorious. Every time I leave the house I still can’t believe I live in a place so picturesque, so inspiring. While I manage with words most of the time, I’m no poet. Mary Oliver is a poet who seems to capture the world the way I see it, too. I don’t know her story and I don’t know what she believes, but she writes of the glory of the world around us in such a way that you can’t help but experience it, too. I spent some time reflecting on her poetry on our retreat in Iona. So while I attempt to feel all things as they come, I’d like to leave you with this expression of my feelings of gratitude for the opportunity experience this kind of goodness by way of photos from Iona followed by some of Mary Oliver’s poems.

 

Iona 2

Song of the Builders

On a summer morning
I sat down
on a hillside
to think about God-

a worthy pastime.
Near me, I saw
a single cricket;
it was moving the grains of the hillside

this way and that way.
How great was its energy,
how humble its effort.
Let us hope

it will always be like this,
each of us going on
in our inexplicable ways
building the universe.

Iona 3

Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?

There are things you can’t reach. But
you can reach out to them, and all day long.

The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God.

And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier.

The snake slides away; the fish jumps, like a little lily,
out of the water and back in, the goldfinches sing
from the unreachable top of the tree.

I look; morning and night I am never done with looking.

Looking, I mean not just standing around, but standing around
as though with your arms open.

And thinking: maybe something will come, some
shining coil of wind,
or a few leaves from any old tree –
they are all in this too.

And now I will tell you the truth.
Everything in the world
comes.

At least, closer.

And, cordially.

Like the nibbling, tinsel-eyed fish; the unlooping snake.
Like goldfinches, little dolls of gold
fluttering around the corner of the sky

of God, the blue air.

Iona 4

This World

I would like to write a poem about the world that has in it
nothing fancy.
But it seems impossible.
Whatever the subject, the morning sun
glimmers it.
The tulip feels the heat and flaps its petals open
and becomes a star.
The ants bore into the peony bud and there is the dark
pinprick well of sweetness.
As for the stones on the beach, forget it.
Each one could be set in gold.
So I tried with my eyes shut,, but of course the birds
were singing.
And the aspen trees were shaking the sweetest music
out of their leaves.
And that was followed by, guess what, a momentous and
beautiful silence
as comes to all of us, in little earfuls, if we’re not too
hurried to hear it.
As for spiders, how the dew hangs in their webs
even if they say nothing, or seem to say nothing.
So fancy is the world, who knows, maybe they sing.
So fancy is the world, who knows, maybe the stars sing, too,
and the ants, and the peonies, and the warm stones,
so happy to be where they are, on the beach, instead of being
locked up in gold.

Iona 7

Look and See

This morning at waterside, a sparrow flew
to a water rock and landed, by error, on the back
of an elder duck; lightly it fluttered off, amused.
The duck, too, was not provoked, but, you might say, was laughing.

This afternoon a gull sailing over
our house was casually scratching
its stomach of white feathers with one
pink foot as it flew.

Oh Lord, how shining and festive is your gift to us, if we
only look, and see.

Iona 5

Why I Wake Early

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and the crotchety –

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light –
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

Iona 6


The Old Poets of China

Wherever I am, the world
comes after me. It offers me
its busyness. It does not
believe that I do not
want it. Now I understand
why the old poets of
China went so far and
so high into the mountains,
then crept into the
pale mist.

Iona 8


Mindful

Every day
I see or hear
something
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It is what I was born for –
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these –
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
of grass?

Iona 9

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I’ll tell you mine.
Meanwhile, the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile, the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Iona 12

What Was Once the Largest Shopping Center in Northern Ohio Was Built Where There Had Been a Pond I Used to Visit Every Summer

Loving the earth, seeing what has been done to it,
I grow sharp, I grow cold.

Where will the trilliums go, and the coltsfoot?
Where will the pond lilies go to continue living
their simple, penniless lives, lifting
their faces of gold?

Impossible to believe we need so much
as the world wants us to buy.
I have more clothes, lamps, dishes, paper clips
than I could possibly use before I die.

Oh, I would like to live in an empty house,
with vines for walls, and a carpet of grass.
No planks, no plastic, no fiberglass.

And I suppose sometime I will.
Old and cold I will lie apart
from all this buying and selling, with only
the beautiful earth in my heart.

Iona 11

Logos

Why wonder about the loaves and the fishes?
If you say the right words, the wine expands.
If you say them with love
and the felt ferocity of that love
and the felt necessity of that love,
the fish explode into many.
Imagine him, speaking,
and don’t worry about what is reality,
or what is plain, or what is mysterious.
If you were there, it was all those things.
If you can imagine it, it is all those things.
Eat, drink, be happy.
Accept the miracle.
Accept, too, each spoken word
spoken with love.