October 31, 2007


My sister and I climbed a bit of a hill in Arizona to reach the top where there was a single, giant saguaro cactus. We were able to get right up next to it, to see how tall it was, how green it was, how strange it was, at least compared to things that grow were we live.
It was a mystical plant. And there we we were in the desert, paying homage to this ancient plant. It lives where nothing should be able to live. It grows over years and years, and we were there only for one single day --not even -- to see it.
And when we came very close, we heard the cactus singing. It was a sound like nothing I have ever heard before. I know it was the wind blowing through those spikes but it sounded like music from heaven or some other-worldly place.

I have heard a lot of music in my life, and a lot in the last few weeks. But I have never heard anything that sounded like that cactus singing to us. It was like music from beyond human understanding. It was the "music of the spheres." It was the music of God.

Photo by Jane Highsmith

October 28, 2007


It was homecoming today – not the football game kind of homecoming with a parade and floats and the smiling queen with the bouquet of roses. This was homecoming at church, my brother’s church. It is a small country church, out in the middle of nowhere. The members all know each other by name and genealogy, have probably visited in each other’s homes, go sit in the hospital when one of them is having surgery, and lend a hand or send money when there is trouble. Homecoming means special music, fall flowers, and dinner in the fellowship hall after worship. Tables were piled with food: fried chicken, pimento cheese sandwiches, collards and potato salad, devilled eggs, hush puppies and biscuits and ham and barbecue. And a whole separate table just for dessert with cakes and pies, cupcakes, banana pudding and peach cobbler. There was sweet tea in big red cups, and it was good. Everybody was talking and laughing and taking pictures. The little boys were running around, the teenaged girls were patting their hair, and the teenaged boys were watching the teenage girls. And the rest of us were catching up with each other, smiling at the children, and eating. There was everything in abundance in that small church – love, food, family, enjoyment, joy. Other churches may have gathered today with bigger choirs or fancier buildings or more powerful preaching, but none with a purer spirit of fellowship than where I was.

Centering Prayer, cont.

In giving instructions about prayer, Jesus said: “Go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” I think the KJV uses the word “ closet,” and that strikes me as somehow more powerful. First of all, a closet is a small, dark space, without room for distraction. And second, if I were to pray in my closet I would need to do a lot of work first – and maybe that is just the point of this instruction, at least to me.

My closet is packed with stuff. I have more clothes than I can possibly wear in a month, I suppose. And just how many pair of black shoes does one woman need? If I were really to go into my closet to pray, I would need to get rid of a lot of stuff, literally and figuratively. I sit to pray and I am surrounded by my physical and mental accumulations. They crowd out my silence, intrude into my spirit, and disturb my soul. Instead of focusing on God, I think about what to wear, which bills need to be paid, whether I did the agenda for the 8:30 meeting. I try to pray in the midst of a soul crammed with the accumulations of too many seasons. I have held onto that which should have been discarded or recycled long ago: old grudges and hurt; imagined identities that no longer fit the reality of who I am; unnecessary busyness that bounces around my brain like a pack of chattering monkeys.

The room for centering prayer at the cathedral is dark and plain. It is a physical representation of what I would want for my spiritual reality. So I work on emptying my spiritual closets -- and my physical ones, too -- so there will be a little more room for the Holy Spirit, even in the midst of all the stuff of my life.

October 24, 2007

Centering Prayer

Every Wednesday, the cathedral has a half hour or so of centering prayer. The space is wonderful, dark and still with smooth white walls, one candle burning and the morning light coming through a high stained glass window. This morning, a woman came in and sank down in her chair and said "Oh, yes." And her "yes" hung in the air and resonated in my soul and I felt "yes" too.
I am not very often quiet and almost never quiet in the company of others. There is something about a collective silence in a place that has known hundreds of them that soaks into your bones. I do not need to pray -- somehow the space and the silence pray with and for me. I will cherish this when I leave, when I am back home where my praying is filled with to-do lists and garbage trucks and the paper thumping against the front door. But for now, the prayers still linger within, my poor prayer and all those powerful ones of the other people, unknown to me, whose silence enfolded me this morning and continues to do that.

October 23, 2007

Bells, bells, bells, bells......

Marie Borroff has a lovely poem “In the Range of Bells” about walking down the hill in New Haven and listening to the bells ring. I am here at a cathedral also in the range of bells, but I do not find it a thoughtful exercise. Instead, it just seems like (dare I say it) noise. The ringing yesterday and again tonight seems random and unpredictable. It is not music to me nor is it a sound that counts the hours, coming, as it does, at odd moments. It is as though some unseen hand needs to practice a six- or seven-note scale – over and over and over. And maybe that is in fact the case. I prefer the sound of acorns falling from the tree outside, birds going to sleep, and even a siren in the distance that calls me to prayer for someone in distress. The disembodied dinging of these bells is not peaceful, not prayerful.
There is much about this place that is lovely and calls to the contemplative in me, but there is also much that seems of pomp and privilege, and I do not connect with it. I wonder if the appreciation of grandeur is, as they say, an acquired taste. I have been formed in a small country church, not a cathedral, where the music was an often out-of-tune piano and the voices of those I loved singing over my head. There were no sophisticated choirs, no carillons, no majestic organs. But all the music, here and there, is the praise of God. Even, I suppose, these interminable bells…..

October 21, 2007

Irony for Dinner

I’m not very good at eating out by myself. I love cooking for myself at home, making nice dinners and eating well, but there is something hard about going to a restaurant alone. I did that tonight, though, at a place down the street where I have been before, so it didn’t feel so strange. I took a book and sat at a small table outside. It was a lovely night, warm and clear, and the place was crowded. The people right next to me were a young couple. She was wearing a sparkly diamond, and they were planning their wedding. Or rather, they were planning the reception. She was very concerned that the guests not see the place where they would have dinner until after the cocktail hour. He had suggestions that she seemed to find helpful, but mostly (I thought) he just agreed with her. I wanted to ask them if they had thought about the ceremony at all, but, of course, I didn’t.
I ordered guacamole and it was very good. And I read a chapter in my book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, called “Eating Neighborly.” It describes a diner in Vermont with a menu of food that comes from within an hour’s drive, a place with the slogan “ Think locally, act neighborly.”
I’ve been in Washington for a week now, and I haven’t seen an avocado tree anywhere. But I ate the guacamole and enjoyed it even though it wasn't consistent with "neighborly" behavior. And I wonder if it would have been a neighborly thing to do to ask that couple about their vows and the prayers and promises they would be making for their lifetime.

The World is About to Turn

This morning after church, I walked around Georgetown for a couple of hours. I had never been there before and it was a lovely day for a stroll. Georgetown is a shi-shi (is that a word?) kind of place. There are old buildings, quaint and charming, alongside expensive shops and upscale restaurants. I didn’t buy anything expensive, just a couple of used CDs, but just about anything you can imagine was for sale. There were Barney’s and Kate Spade, with the palm reader upstairs; rare books and the Egyptian store; Godiva and Subway. It was crowded with tourists and maybe locals, too. There were old people and babies being wheeled around, people, like me, consulting their maps, and folks just looking for a nice place for Sunday brunch. And there were a lot of street people. One woman was on the corner, dressed all in white, holding a basket with a hand-written sign that read “Giving is a blessing.” All she had in the basket was pennies. There were men, many of them, with paper cups held out, some of them sitting on the sidewalk, others on overturned milk crates. I remember thinking that there were so many more of these folks than there are back home. And then I wondered if that is really true. I wondered if I have just gotten so used to seeing them in my own setting that I don’t even notice them anymore.

The anthem at church was the Canticle of the Turning. It has these words: “From the halls of power to the fortress tower, not a stone will be left on stone. Let the king beware for your justice tears ev'ry tyrant from his throne. The hungry poor shall weep no more, for the food they can never earn. These are tables spread, ev'ry mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn. And my heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all the tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.”

And that was the song that was running through my heart all afternoon.

October 20, 2007

The Art of Art and the Art of Preaching

The National Gallery has an exhibit of J.M.W. Turner’s works. There are a lot of paintings, and as is often the case, they are displayed chronologically. The first room has watercolors that are so specific and detailed they might be photographs. These early paintings are often buildings, in what the materials describe as “the fashionable Picturesque aesthetic, which embraces qualities of variety, asymmetry roughness, and decay.” However they are characterized, the paintings are lovely. Later works are done in oil and take on epic topics: war, fire, storms. There are some biblical themes, too: an angel in the sun, Moses, the fourth horseman, the flood. But here is what I notice: the progression of the work is from precise to abstract. There is more and more of what seems to be to be experimentation, the same scene from multiple vantage points, with lavish use of color shifting with each new view. And finally, at the end, the paintings are almost pure color and light, so open as to demand the viewer’s own interpretation.

I see here somehow the progression of my preaching work. When I began, I thought I had to present a clear depiction of what the text was saying. I thought I had to show it exactly as it was – meaning exactly as I perceived it to be, although I don’t think I had that level of self-awareness. I’ve tackled my own epic themes, and I’ve come at the same text from multiple perspectives. And the longer I’m at this, the more I see my preaching opening up. My intention is no longer to say what I see, but rather to try to create some kind of space and light that pushes others to do their own interpretive work. I want to suggest, to use color, to work with layers of meaning, but I do not want to illustrate, to copy, to try to duplicate. I want to experience what is before me and draw others into their own experience.

Here is how one contemporary described watching Turner paint: “He began by pouring wet paint onto the paper until it was saturated, he tore, he scratched, he scrubbed at it in a kind of frenzy and the whole thing was chaos – but gradually and as if by magic the lovely ship with all its exquisite minutia, came into being and by luncheon time the drawing was taken down in triumph.”

And so I preach, tearing and scratching and scrubbing and immersing myself in chaos -- praying all the while that something will come into being by lunch time.

October 18, 2007

Walking the Labyrinth

At the National Cathedral this week, there have been opportunities for interfaith prayer practices focusing on peace. There was a big concert with Graham Nash and David Crosby, Emily Saliers, Jackson Browne, and Keb’ Mo’. Tibetan monks have chanted and made a sacred sand Mandela. There have been prayers and songs and services. This afternoon I walked the labyrinth that has been put in place as part of this.

The piece of painted canvas is laid on the stone floor of a chapel with a large mural of Jesus after the crucifixion being carried to the tomb. There are candles on the altar and rows of chairs with kneelers. It is a very Christian space. Two people are chanting there, in a language I do not know, accompanied by harmonium and drums. When they pause between chants, there is the sound of a choir from somewhere else, singing a traditional hymn. Some people are walking, some are sitting in the chairs, some are kneeling.

I watch for a while, and the labyrinth seems crowded. I am reluctant to put myself in the midst of all those people, all bunching up together. One woman makes her own path, skipping over parts of the labyrinth, going her own way. I am a little amazed by this, and then amazed that I am so rule-bound that it would not occur to me to do that myself. I wonder if she missed something, or if it was an act of courage to break off in her own direction. I know that when I walk, I will stay within the lines.

I begin to walk, and I am in a hurry. It is hard, so hard, to slow myself down. But bit by bit, I absorb the rhythm of those who are more patient, more prayerful than I am. As I wind around the circles, I feel my soul unwinding. There is a middle-aged man ahead of me in khakis and a green polo shirt, a little wobbly in his sock-feet. Going that slowly puts me off balance at first, too. And then I feel my feet on the canvas, and I feel the solid stone underneath, and I somehow get my grounding. I can feel my feet slowing, my breathing slowing, my mind quieting.

There are children and teens walking, too. Two brothers enter the chapel. They are maybe nine and twelve. They take off their tennis shoes and begin. They are followed by two girls roughly the same ages. They walk, too, while their mother sits on the side and watches them. When I pass the man in the green polo shirt, I smell his cologne. When I pass the boys, they smell like clean laundry. We all follow the path, around and in and out.

In the center, I find a deep prayer within myself. And even when I leave the labyrinth, leave the chapel, leave the cathedral, the prayer stays with me, and so does the quiet and the unhurried feeling.

October 16, 2007


He watched with great intensity as I poured the water from a pitcher that his great-great-aunt had bought. It splashed and danced in his grandmother’s bowl, wetting the embroidered cloth that had belonged to his great-grandmother. I talked to him about the preciousness of water in a desert place and poured it for him to see from his grandmother’s pewter cups that would now belong to his mother. He listened and put his hands in the water. I prayed and so did he, and we watched each other as the words were spoken. His parents promised to raise him to be a loving and faithful person, one who would seek peace and justice, and his aunt and uncle, now godparents, promised to support his parents in this labor of a lifetime. And none of us needed to promise to love him because we already did.

And then I took him in my arms and put the water on his head and said the ancient words of Jesus. And the water dripped on his curls, and he was baptized. And we prayed again, and I held him close and I, too, was held close in that most holy moment. Then I took the oil and anointed him as a precious child of God. And he put his fingers in the tiny bowl and he anointed me. And we went around the room, and he anointed every person there. This little one, who is such a blessing, offered a blessing to all of us. And then we were all baptized -- with our own tears. And it was joy and grace and love, and You were there.

October 15, 2007

Holy places

I have been to Arizona for the first time in my life. It is almost impossible to believe that it is the same earth as the place where I live. For one thing, there is more sky than one can take in. The first time my brother visited, he described it as feeling naked, and I know what he meant. There is something about it that strips you down, makes you feel bare and small, exposed. But exposed to what?

We went to Sedona, a place of red rocks and light so lovely it is almost tangible. There are locations there that people call vortexes, and we bought a little booklet that described them. They are energy fields, spiritual places where one can tap into some kind of inner wisdom or special revelation. It is the kind of thing that New Age spirituality embraces – and so to be pooh-poohed by traditional faith, I suppose.

But it seemed to me to be a lot like the same kind of thing I heard described when I visited Wales, only there it was not vortexes but rather thin places. In Sedona, it is buttes carved from red rock; in Wales, it is holy wells.

And the question that I debate with myself is whether one has to go somewhere special to find the Holy. Do you have to meditate on a mountain in Arizona, or wash in the icy water of a Welsh spring? Do you have to be in a sanctuary on Sunday? Does God live in a particular kind of place? I want to say no, but at the same time, I cannot discount the stories of connection to the Other in these thin places. And I have to say that something about the air and the light and the rocks in Sedona – and being on holiday with people that I love – did seem somehow sacred. I know that God is everywhere, and I also know that a lot of the time I do not pay attention. But there are places and times where the barrier between me and my Maker is thin, almost transparent, and I see with clearer vision.

I brought home a little bottle of water from Holywell in Wales, and I brought home a vial of red sand from Sedona. God is not in the water and God is not in the sand. But the Holy is in the memory of those places where people have prayed and worshiped and had the eyes of their hearts enlightened over the eons. And the water and the dirt remind me of my own exposure to the Spirit.

October 14, 2007

Leaving the pulpit

Our church is one that people sometimes refer to as a “major pulpit.” It’s an interesting way to put it, isn’t it, because the church is not a pulpit. And I don’t even preach from the pulpit these days. I preach in the midst of the congregation, out among the people. That is what the church is – the people. And the Word is meant to be in our midst. In fact, it is in our midst: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Only we don’t act that way very often. And it has taken a lot of effort for me to enact this belief with my preaching.

But, hard as it is to let go, something profound happens when I walk down that center aisle during a sermon. For one thing, I do not separate myself from anybody else. We are all there together, waiting for the Spirit to speak. I have prepared the sermon (oh, yes….) but even so, I am often surprised by what happens to me in the preaching, how some turn of a phrase takes on a new and deeper meaning for me that it did not have in the practice time, how I suddenly see something I did not know before. But the most powerful thing for me is people’s faces, wearing the signs of what is behind their eyes: watching and listening, daydreaming, fighting boredom, sometimes reading a book or napping. It is a microcosm of the life of faith as I experience it myself. The Word is right before me, and sometimes I am paying attention, sometimes I am bored, sometimes I am distracted and busy, and sometimes I am just worn out with it all. But still the Word speaks. And I may hear some of it in spite of myself.

My prayer before preaching these days is that my words may be transformed into the Word that the people need. That means that it isn’t anymore so much about what I say as it is about what the people hear. It isn’t all about me and how good a job I can do with the sermon. I doubt I will ever let go of my need to study and prepare and do the best I can. But these days, I am learning to trust that it doesn’t all depend on me. I am learning to trust the Holy Spirit. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t easy to walk out there in the middle of the church and preach.

This old church

The church I am serving is old, and we are celebrating its oldness this year. It is a miracle to be in a church that has been around for more than two centuries. That is a long time. I sometimes think about the people who started the church. Documents from the time preserve their intentions, written in spider web script on fragile, crumbly paper. They wanted a church that would have strong preaching and sound doctrine, a church that would prepare young people for a life of service and faithfulness, a church that would not be subject to the rules of the prevailing society. I wonder how well they would think we have done in continuing their legacy.

It is astonishing to try to take in all the change that has happened in the world since this church was begun. That change is reflected in the church, as well. Sermons are shorter, for one thing, and they are less theological, too, I suppose. The preacher, at least this one, does not presume a level of Biblical literacy in the congregation, so sermons that teach are likely to focus on scripture rather than doctrine. The liturgy, literally “the work of the people,” has always been that, so now the liturgy is diverse and ecumenical. We incorporate prayers and practices from many Christian traditions. We sing music that was sung in the eighteenth century, and music that was written last week. We have a huge pipe organ -- and a djembe, an African drum. Worship leaders are not necessarily ordained, and (it would have shocked and appalled them!) the senior pastor is a woman.

At the same time, some things have not changed, and it is even more astonishing to ponder that. There is still an emphasis on strong preaching, a pattern that has persisted through the life of the church. The church has a renewed focus on preparing young adults for a life of meaning and mission, for a life of ministry – although we think of ministry in a much more expansive way than just being ordained. And this church is reclaiming what it means to be a countercultural institution.

When the church was founded, all churches in the area were under the control of a board of local pastors. They decided everything having to do with anything ecclesiastical. That this church broke away from that was extremely controversial at the time. We are not controversial in that same way now, but we are still countercultural. We are in a community where just being Christian can be controversial. Conservative members of our community feel that this church is too liberal, too “out there.” And liberal members of our community often see no need for church at all -- this one or any other, for that matter. And yet, here we are, not the cultural institution that this church once was, but still here, still worshiping, still trying to figure out what it means to be Christian in the world where we find ourselves.

It is fun to celebrate being old, having survived a long time. But it is not enough. The past is only prologue. There is that old saying that God has no grandchildren, meaning that those of each generation must establish their own new relationship with God, not relying on the previous generation to do that for them. What matters is here and now, and where we go from here and now. And just as I wonder what our predecessors would think about what we are doing, even more I wonder about those who come after us. What will they think? I pray they will see this as a faithful time of reawakening.

And through all of this, I realize anew that the church is always written in a spider web script, fragile and lovely, but still created from the strongest stuff that exists. It is only when we try to preserve what we have been that we crumble and disintegrate. So spin us out into our future and make us always aware of the now -- the eternal Now.

October 4, 2007

Back door ministry

There are lots of folks who have traditional -- maybe even conventional -- ministries, but I am not one of them. From the very beginning, I seem to have done things outside the accepted norm. A friend once observed that, from ordination on, I had come to ministry through the back door. He was right, but he spoke a deeper truth, perhaps, than he realized.

The back door of my little house leads into the kitchen.
It is usually a calm and serene place. An old stained glass window colors the light red and blue and green. Measuring cups hang on the wall, and there is an antique towel rack and a chalk board made of a piece of slate from the roof of my grandmother's house. The space is bright and cozy, a tiny room, but when friends come, that is often where we end up, all crowded around the preparation and the food. When I am in the midst of some big project, it gets messy and disordered, with pots in the sink, spills on the counter, crumbs on the floor. I always want things to turn out well, and often they do. Invariably, there is something interesting (maybe not always good....) that emerges from that mess. But then again, there are times that no matter how well I follow directions, no matter how much time and attention I devote, no matter how fresh the ingredients, my efforts result in failure. I cook my heart out, and nothing edible comes of it. But I can never linger too much on what went wrong, when there is always another meal to think of. Usually, I find something nourishing in the pantry or fridge but there are times when there is nothing that seems to feed me. And in all of this, the culinary successes and the failures, I keep on trying -- trying new recipes and techniques, trying to improve my old skills, trying to find ways to keep body and soul together and well fed. And I do that every day, over and over again.

My kitchen is a daily parable of my ministry. I am often called to those places behind the scenes, places and events where a lot of the work
necessary to keep things going and to sustain people gets done. My ministry is not the formal "living room" kind but rather where folks stand around talking. Yes, I have worked in churches and am doing that now, but these have always been temporary positions. I have done substitute preaching, stated supply, interims, and transitional pastorates. I have stayed as long as several years in a church and as short as one Sunday. I have gone for extended stretches with no church to call home. But I have always had ministry. It has been messy sometimes, I have known failure and disappointment, and there have been times when the work was simply exhausting. I have hungered for substance when there was nothing but staleness and leftovers. But every now and then, I have put my heart into something new and challenging and have had it all come together in ways far better than I could have envisioned. And often this ministry of mine is a source of serenity and light.

As a "Martha," I am at home in this kitchen that is my ministry. I love creating a place of hospitality. I love feeding people with the Word. I love doing the work needed to prepare for the visit of Jesus. And I also struggle with resentment against my sisters, and brothers, who are in the living room doing the formal entertaining. But I also claim this gospel truth as my own: "... Jesus loved Martha ..." (John 11.5). And I remember that the one whose name I bear recognized and understood his calling when almost no one else did, and I am sustained and nourished by my own recognition of the Christ who comes to me.

I hope to offer reflections here that sustain and nourish, that comfort and renew, that invite others to embrace and thrive in their own unconventional ministries. We all have a ministry, a calling. I'll share my views on mine, and I'd love to know what's cooking with you!