Day Seven (or Eight?): Living Stones

We’ve quickly moved into a space where time runs together. This happens on vacation, pilgrimage, silent retreat, backpacking trip. It’s hard to keep track of details, and yet the richness of experience continues to flow. This is as it should be.

On Sunday (which was more or less the eighth day), we worshiped at St. George’s Cathedral, and visited afterwards with its Dean. Kevin Meadows offers this reflection on the day:

This morning we attended Mass at St. George’s Cathedral, the Cathedral Church of the Diocese of Jerusalem. The Very Rev’d Hosam E. Naoum, Dean of the Cathedral, officiated the Mass and provided the sermon. We had a chance to have tea and coffee with him and several parishioners afterwards. He shared with us a brief history of the Cathedral, an overview of the Diocese of Jerusalem, as well as the diocese’s ministries here in Jerusalem.

The Very Rev. Hosam Naoum and Mother Sara

The Diocese covers an amazing, and amazingly complex, geography – including not just Jerusalem, but also parishes in Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Syria and Lebanon. He spoke of the ministries they provide: health care services, educational programs and other humanitarian work. He also spoke of the role of the Diocese, and Christians in general, in ongoing peace and reconciliation efforts between the various religious groups and nation states wrestling for control of this land. While commenting on what drives him in this work, he noted that we are a people of hope. “And remember,” he said, “right near here is the empty tomb.” The empty tomb is the source of hope at the center of our faith and at the center of the day-to-day lives of people living, working, and praying in Jerusalem. It is this hope, the Dean was quick to remind us, that inspires him and many other Christians in the region, in spite of devastating conflict and struggle. Christ has risen!

And this relates to a final ministry Reverend Naoum mentioned – the role of the diocese in supporting the pilgrimage of Christians like us. In talking about pilgrimage, the Dean distinguished between encountering what he called “ancient stones” and “living stones.” The ancient stones are the ones we visit, snap pictures of, and read about in pamphlets or books. The living stones, however, are the lives of those impacted by an encounter with the story told by the ancient stones – the story of hope. And what distinguishes our pilgrimage from a mere Holy Land tour, is that we are here to encounter not just the ancient stones, but especially the living ones. We have been blessed to encounter many such living stones while here, as we did while visiting the children at St Vincent Creche/Orphanage; listening to Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb speak of the role of Dar al-Kalima University in changing the lives of the Palestinians students who attend; or listening to the stories of our fellow pilgrims, especially as they describe their encounter with this place.
Ghassan, our tour guide, has said several times that a given site may or may not be the actual place where this or that biblical event happened. The importance of these places lies not so much in geographical accuracy or specificity, but how these places have given birth to a story of hope that transcends time and place, changing the lives of those who believe. It is the story of this place that has meaning, not just the physical location. Being so near these sites merely provides us a more enlivened encounter with that story, the story of the greatest hope of all.
For those of us who are blessed to be on this pilgrimage, I pray that our experience here may make us living stones, perhaps just a little more so than the start of our pilgrimage. For our loved ones, family and friends reading this blog from a distance, I pray that your lives too are changed by your own encounter with the story of hope, even if it you are reading this from a bit further away from these ancient stones.
Kevin’s fellow pilgrim Heidi McElrath offers remarkably similar–but well worth sharing–reflections on living stones: 
The dean (the first indigenous dean, he told us) says pilgrims to the Holy Land who do not meet the local church have come to see the dead stones – the one rolled away from the tomb, the one that Jesus prayed on in Gethsemane, the ones that form the Holy Sepulcher or the Church of the Assumption – but they forget about the living stones, the faithful who make up the church today. These Palestinian Christians have a hard road to walk. The dean explained that though he is Palestinian, he carries an Israeli passport and cannot visit churches in several countries in his diocese, including Syria and Iran. The bishop himself has just visited the episcopal church in Damascus for the first time in almost 6 years (it is still thriving). My 40 minute bus ride to church pales in comparison.

Pilgrims, too, are living stones

As I look around at my fellow pilgrims, I think how they are, too, are living stones. These people I have the honor to love and live with, these are the stones of my church. You who are in Seattle and you who are far away and you who make up the faithful wherever you live. You are the living stones. Seeing you, speaking with you, praying with you, riding a bus with you and a scouting out pomegranate juice with you — these are actions that make pilgrimage a lifelong endeavor.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to be here to see these “dead “stones, these ancient foundations of the faith that have been built upon over and over and over, that have been prayed on for millennia. I’m grateful for the chance to celebrate the Eucharist with believers in Jerusalem. I’m grateful (eternally) for the living stones I get to take back to Seattle with me and those who are waiting for our return. I’m grateful to be on a lifelong pilgrimage together every single day.
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Day Four: Nazareth and Galilee with Mary and Jesus

The altar at Duc in Altum Church, with Galilee in the background

We began the day in Nazareth and ended on the Sea of Galilee, the weather changing as often as our location. The end of the day was lovely and full of light, and our pre-dinner sharing felt the same. Heidi McElrath shared her experience and I asked her to write it down to share with all of you.

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When I was young, I remember being told that Mary was also young. When I’ve been scared, I remember being told that Mary was also scared. When I’ve talked of my desire to be a poet, I remember being told that Mary, too, was a poet. I always found comfort in the thought that God could take someone so weak — someone like me — and use her to enact salvation in the world.

The church of Mary’s Well

Today, we stood in the Basilica of the Annunciation, in the house where tradition holds that Mary was visited by Gabriel, where Jesus’s human body began. We dipped our fingers into the well where Mary collected each day’s water. We walked the land of Jesus’s formation—shaped, drenched, and witnessed by Mary.

The narthex of the Duc in Altum Church

We visited the archaeological site at Magdala—home to another famous Mary—and the beautiful Duc In Altum chapel. The entryway to the building is a huge atrium, held up by eight pillars inscribed with names of our church mothers—Mary Magdalene, Susanna, Salome, Martha and Mary—and one is blank to represent “women of all time who love God and live by faith.”

I have never known so significant or beautiful a space dedicated to the spiritual work of women. To stand on the holy shore of the Sea of Galilee in a room surrounded by the maternal pillars of our church was overwhelming.

Once the majority of our group had left the building, Kierstin, Adrienne, and I took an extra moment to reverence the space and the women it represented. I wished desperately to remember even one setting of the Magnificat that I used to sing so regularly. All that came easily to mind were these lines:

He hath put down the mighty from their seat
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things
and the rich he hath sent empty away.

I have come to see that yes, Mary was a young, scared, poet of a girl, but she was also a bold, revolutionary thinker who worshipped a God who wanted to overthrow hierarchies and class systems. Mary was invested, even before Jesus was born, in feeding the hungry, taking down the mighty, exalting the meek, and she shared this with her son.

This is the Mary who birthed Jesus, who taught him to speak and walk and live. This is the Mary who is our first example of the Christian life.

Heidi, Adrienne, and Kierstin

So with confidence, we three twentysomething women spoke loudly in this room of our mothers: Hail Mary, full of grace. Our Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.

I pray that we can see ourselves reflected in this bold, revolutionary woman, who formed our Savior, who was scared and young and poetic and helped God turn the world upside down.

Amen.

Day Two: Newark. 

We arrived in Newark at 7am after a relatively short and uneventful flight across the country. With a 9-hour layover ahead of us, we went our various ways: some went into the city, some to a hotel room for a shower and a nap, some relaxed in the airport’s Meditation Room, and others wandered the airport, in search of breakfast and then lunch.

The Newark Airport is fairly new and completely automated, especially when it comes to selling just about everything. However, the airport has also adopted the good practice of asking for instant, real-time feedback!


I asked people which button they’d press for today and while most of our pilgrims are sleep-deprived and disappointed not to be closer to the Holy Land, they all said they’d press the yellow button, because the day held difficulties and also much for which to be grateful. Again, like life.

The subversive power of resurrection

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

Part of my Lenten journey included the Stations of the Cross most Wednesdays. It was a blessing to make that journey-within-a-journey week after week. If you’ve ever participated in this service you are familiar with the verse and response: “We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.” Saying those words on my knees, over and over in the darkness of the Wednesday evening liturgy got them into my gut in a new way. O Christ, by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

So here we are, on the first day of the week, on the other side of the cross. Do we feel redeemed? What about the world? What would a redeemed world look like? I think most of us would agree that it would look different from our world.

I could tell stories of terror and violence on the other side of the planet, in Brussels, Istanbul, or Jakarta, but I don’t have to; it’s all around us. We could look at poverty and desperation in another hemisphere, but we need only walk around our block. We can read about broken hearts in the daily news, or we can find them in our neighbors, our friends, and sometimes, in ourselves. We could look toward another era, an earlier time, for fear and civic unrest, but it’s here, in our time. More and more people I speak with talk about their fears for our own nation, our place in the world. You don’t need me to tell you stories of bad news.

the-empty-tomb

We live in a time not unlike the time and place where Jesus’ first disciples encountered the empty tomb, a time deeply entrenched in a system of racial and religious prejudice and economic inequity that made everyone powerless to effect change.

What do we do about this? What do we have to say about this on Easter morning? If you get together with friends or family later today and talk to them about your morning, and if they say—as my friends often say—“Oh, yeah, it’s Easter….I forgot,” is there anything to say to them about this day that connects with the rest of life?

Yes. Tell them about the “subversive power of the resurrection.” I’m borrowing the phrase from New Testament theologian Nancy Claire Pittman, who has written that resurrection is “an invitation to live as Jesus lived, a doorway to a life in which meals are shared with enemies, healing is offered to the hopeless, prophetic challenges are issued to the powerful. Only now it is not Jesus who does these things, it is we ourselves who see … the subversive power of the resurrection in order to live it now.”

Tell them about the subversive power of baptism.

Years ago, I had the privilege of participating in the baptism of my two-year-old niece. It was a complicated situation. My niece and her big brother were not churchgoers; my sister-in-law was having them baptized to please her father, who was dying three thousand miles away. My niece was having none of this. She screamed and cried all the way through the procession to the font. She hadn’t had her nails trimmed in a while and her mother, who was carrying her, had scratches on her neck.

The priest used a line I’ve borrowed whenever I’ve baptized a fussy baby. He said: “We all respond to God this way sometimes…” When it came time for the actual baptism, she struggled even more. The priest turned toward the congregation with a big smile and said: “I think we’re all going to get a little wet.”

In a few minutes, we’re all going to get a little wet. There are cathedrals that do asperges with giant branches of water from a swimming-pool sized font, and everyone gets soaked. This water is a tangible reminder of who we are, why we are here, and who we belong to.

When we blessed the water earlier this morning, we remembered the water of creation, the water through which God delivered God’s people into the land of promise, the water in which Jesus himself was baptized. This is the same water that fills our font, the water with which we washed each other’s feet on Maundy Thursday, the water we used to wash this altar.

The water is the same water drunk by our enemies and those who wish us harm, the water that bathes the person with whom we are angry, the person who has hurt us, the person who doesn’t know we exist.

Remembering these connections across time and borders has never been more important than at this moment in our common life. Through the call-and-response of the baptismal covenant, we become active participants, stakeholders in the life of the one who rose from the dead and who goes before us in the transformation of the world.

LS20120612_stpaul_005-smallWe adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world. The cross itself is redeemed: God turns a shameful death into triumph over death. Hence the crucifix hangs right here where we feast and celebrate. God redeems our sin and alienation, exchanging them for love and hope.

Easter does not erase suffering. Easter says that God never stops being present in suffering and that we, too, as followers of the risen Jesus, can be present for those who suffer, can be present in vulnerability, in love, in the mighty, subversive power poured onto us in the waters of baptism.

Before dawn, we heard the Exsultet, an ancient hymn of praise that proclaims our Easter faith: This is the night when you brought our ancestors out of bondage in Egypt, and led them through the Red Sea on dry land….this is the night when Christ broke the bonds of death and rose victorious from the grave.

We don’t say “that was the night,” but this is the night. Every time we proclaim resurrection we proclaim liberation of the oppressed, food for the hungry, good news for the downtrodden. The resurrection is now. The life we covenant to live in baptism is now. Like the prophets and storytellers whose words fill this day, we bring into this moment all the suffering and fear around us and we take from this moment the life that cannot die, the life that, as George Herbert says, killeth death.

The angels of the Lord ask: why do you look for the living among the dead? Witnessing and experiencing the subversive power of the resurrection, the subversive power of baptism, is as important now as it has ever been. Unless we’re going to live out our lives inside the empty tomb, we must find ways to wield our baptismal identity for good.

Maybe redeeming the world is redeeming fear and turning it into courage. Perhaps redeeming the world is about redeeming doubt and turning them into good news. What if it’s redeeming complacency and resignation, to turn it into outrage and action? What if redeeming the world is about finding stories of love winning, and telling those stories. Maybe redeeming the world is about being those stories, living those stories. Let’s find out.

 

 

Ten things I learned about Mexico City, myself, or both

1) I love this city. Before I came, I knew only what most people know about Mexico City: it’s crowded (20 million at last count), with terrible traffic and smog. What I didn’t know until I got here is that it is monumental, as in full of monuments, like Washington, DC, or Paris. It is sprawling with hundreds of distinct neighborhoods that seem to go on forever, like London. It has its own distinct food smell, like Taiwan. It’s got that particular urban intensity that one finds in, say, Times Square. And I haven’t seen a bit of smog.

2) Unlike the only other part of Mexico I’ve been to (Puerto Vallarta, which hardly counts, really), I spent most of a day wandering throughout the most touristed parts of the city and saw only a handful of people who looked like they came from the U.S.

mexicomap3) Mexico City is really far away. Take a look at a map sometime. It’s pretty far south and east of most places people I know go in Mexico. This may explain why hardly anyone seems to speak English here, even in the areas that seem to cater to out-of-towners.

4) I must learn Spanish. I’ve always insisted that it’s easy to get around in places like this because a) everyone speaks some English (but they don’t, duh) and b) I can usually pick out every second or third word in written Spanish. (Big difference from generating speech. Duh.) On my first morning in Mexico City I put together the most spoken words in Spanish than I ever have in my life: Buen dia. Por favor: habla Ingles?

IMG_29955) There’s constant noise, and it doesn’t seem to bother me. For one thing, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything by spending two or three hours knitting in my hotel room while the life of the city goes on around me, because I can hear it. Street preachers, vendors hawking tamales and tacos, police directing traffic with their whistles, groups of children squealing with delight, street performers drumming and singing…all of it is right outside my room. The sounds change only slightly as the sun goes down, leaving more and more of the Catedral out my window in shadow.

6) The guidebooks aren’t kidding when they say it gets cold after the sun goes down. This morning out my window I saw people in down jackets, hats and scarves. By the time I went out around eleven, it was warm on the sunny side of the street. By three, everyone was in t-shirts. By seven, when I ate dinner at a rooftop terrace restaurant, I wished I had a hat and gloves.

7) My French is much better than I thought. Three years of high school French forty years ago has stood me in good stead. The problem is, it comes out when I’m groping for a word in Spanish. Hardly ever helpful. I love it here, but maybe I’m overdue for a trip to Paris sometime before my memory goes. Or Italy. Seems I know how to say molto bene and it keeps coming out when I mean to say something else entirely.

8) It’s much more fun traveling in a non-English-speaking country when I’m with my husband. He knows how to say please, thank you, and beer in about fifty languages, and much more than that in Spanish, French, and German. And he’s generally into adventure and learning. I’m not.

9) When you’re me and you’re traveling alone in a country where you feel awkward and out of place because you can’t speak the language and because, unlike every Mexican woman under the age of 80 who is not a nun, you don’t dye your hair, it’s important to acknowledge and celebrate every little victory. Getting a new watch battery. Finding the best side street café. Finally getting up the nerve to order and eat a street taco (and learning the difference, once more between picante and caliente—the former refers to spiciness; the later to temperature). Like when I bought postcard stamps, making hand motions for how many I wanted and even messing up the hand motions so the clerk both started laughing. She typed numbers on a calculator, showed it to me and asked: Quatorze? Si, quatorze! Gracias.

10) When I arrived I wondered whether I’d made a mistake to plan a couple of days here alone before joining a group for an 8-day retreat in Cuernavaca. Did I really want to spend 48 hours feeling vulnerable and stressed in a this crazy-stimulating place when I’m in a wee bit of internal turmoil due to recent changes and losses in my own life? How would I do in a disorienting place when I am interiorly disoriented to begin with? Turns out it’s been the perfect place to unravel and then collect myself in the middle of this hot mess of a city and get grounded. I love this city.

“Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

“Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

In 1971 I etched those words with a pocket knife in the green enamel of the bridge railing where the main road crossed Rondout Creek (“crick”) in Alligerville, New York. My father had a sprawling old farmhouse there, which he escaped to from the city over weekends and summers. The creek divided a gravel road lined with houses from Frank’s store. The thing to do, if you were twelve in Alligerville in the summer, was to walk across the bridge to the store. Several times a day. I’m guessing our gang of five or six bored kids accounted for at least half of Frank’s non-gas business. For days on end we subsisted on popsicles, soda, cigarettes, and jerky, bought with spare change mixed with pocket lint, pooled together with the occasional crumpled dollar bill.

Today is the first day of the rest of my life. (I guess every day is. That’s the point, right?) But today was my first day untethered from a wonderful job I held for five years. Today is the day of wondering: what am I doing? What’s next? I feel a bit like Adam and Eve thrown out of Milton’s paradise: “And the world lay all before them.”

So what’s next? Only God knows, has been my answer to this habitual question from colleagues, friends, and parishioners.

IMG_2975Yesterday I walked from my car to the cafe where I’ve had a quick latte and journal-spew every Sunday morning before church for the past few years. These shoes caught my eye. They remind me of so many things: who I longed to be back when I was twelve, summer feet toughened against the hot tar as I stood barefoot scratching words on the bridge railing. Who I tried to be for a season or two in college, metallic blue eyeshadow caked on in layers before heading out to a dive college town disco. They remind me of an imaginary younger self: flashy, nimble, and daring.

I love loving those shoes, but I don’t ever have to wear them. They’re not even my size. But on this first day of the rest of my life, everything is up for grabs.

Modern art and me

Last week my family and I had dinner with the family that hosted us in East London for the summer in 2002. It was great to reconnect and we had joyful and far-reaching conversation. At one point we were talking–I’m not sure why–about art. And I was reminded yet again that there are two kinds of people in the world: people who like modern art, and people who don’t. Or at least, people who say they do, and say they don’t. (I’m guessing there are a whole lot of people like me who a) like everything and b) don’t know beans about art.)

In any case, the conversation spurred me to get past my general aversion to museums, especially popular museums in large, foreign cities, and today I made the pilgrimage with thousands and thousands of others across the Millenium Bridge to the Tate Modern. It was late in the day which did not deter the crowds one bit, but it meant that for me, I started, rather than finished, with tea. I sat in the comfortable cafe with a cuppa and a coupla scones and looked at map to plan my visit, knowing that I would poop out after an hour, tea or no tea.

millenium bridge

was so jazzed by the art and the space that I lasted three hours instead of one. It was truly splendid, and If you want see a whole bunch of images, here are some of the photos I took.

But I was really there for Mark Rothko. Mark and I have a special relationship. For most of my adult life, I had been vaguely familiar with his work, familiar like:  “Oh yeah, that guy who does those big huge squares.” 

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When my father died in 2005, that changed. I was in a whole new world of hurt. In the airport heading home from Philadelphia to Portland for the last time, I had a task to look forward to: I had volunteered to write with the news of my father’s death to people who were around when I was a kid, but with whom my father had lost touch over recent years. In the airport bookstore I found a box of cards by abstract expressionists. I never liked them before. I never understood non-representational painting. I wanted art to refer to something I could name, and to make the familiar more so.

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But now, in the uncharted territory of grief, where I couldn’t put words to anything, these artists were saving my life. Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman. How did I ever live without them? Their illogical order of things accompanied me during that journey, and I was able to write over and over again in the airport coffee shop and then on the plane:  it has been a long time since we’ve been in touch; I am guessing you have probably heard by now but I want to be sure you know that my father died. You were such an important part of his life when I was growing up…. Through this repetition I came to understand what, in my work, I have told others over and over again: the little tasks right after a death keep us from falling apart, and keep us connected to one another, to the living. And now I could tell people about how Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock somehow–as mysterious as death, as mysterious as Eucharist–became the map with which I navigated the way back to myself without my father.

nortonSo visiting the Tate Modern was, in a way, a pilgrimage to visit my man Rothko, who has a whole room there of paintings which he himself actually gave to the Tate, and there’s a great story that goes with them. (Some of you probably already know it.) In the late 1950s, Rothko was commissioned to paint a set of murals for the fashionable Four Seasons restaurant in New York City in the Seagrams Building. He found the murals were darker than his previous work: maroon, dark red, and black. He eventually realized that they were too dark and serious to be the backdrop of a restaurant, and withdrew from his commission. (And I’m guessing there’s another side to that story; you can look it up.) Instead, he gave the paintings to the Tate Gallery as an expression of his affection for England and for British artists, particularly JMW Turner. Go figure. I’ve always been a fan of Turner’s, ever since a painting of his was on the cover of my very favorite college English anthology.

But it never would have occurred to me to see any artistic affinity between the two. Yet here they are:

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The second painting represents Rothko’s “transitional work,” when he was trying to make up his mind what kind of painter he was going to be. Most people who are familiar with Rothko are familiar with the later stuff.

So now, if you’ve read this whole post, you know pretty much everything I know about art. Where do you fall on the modern-premodern continuum, if there is such a thing? Has art ever saved your life?