Walking in Darkness into the Light

As the world turns from Thanksgiving to Christmas, Christians observe the season of Advent…when we await, in hope, for the coming of the Christ Child at Christmas.

We slow down and observe a Holy Pause.  For the next four weeks, we reflect on what it means to live in darkness as we await the coming of the Light of Christ into our world.

Today is the First Sunday of Advent.  In the scriptures appointed for today, the readings all speak of the end times.

In the Book of Isaiah…we see the image of God judging the nations, and of all peoples beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

In the Gospel of Matthew…we hear descriptions of “the rapture” and are told to live in expectation of the Lord’s coming in judgment.

And in the Book of Romans…we learn that salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became believers. Night is gone and day is at hand. Therefore, we are to cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…the light of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

These images, especially from the Book of Romans, must have been on the mind of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, during the time of the English Reformation…almost 500 years ago.

When I think back to the mid 1500’s when the Church in England became the Church of England during the reign of King Henry VIII, it was a time of great turmoil.

Throughout Europe, battles were raging between Catholics and Protestants for the very heart and soul of Christianity.

Religious wars became the norm and everyday Christians were not sure just what to think and who to follow. Their world had been turned upside down.

In England, after King Henry’s death, the church struggled for its identity. In the midst of this Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, along with other bishops and theologians, developed the first English Book of Common Prayer which was published in 1549. This would be the first prayer book to be used by all the people, not just the clergy. It was written in the common language of English, and not in the church’s language used for worship which was Latin. This was so everyone could understand what was being said and to be able to take part in the service.  That is why the church’s prayer book was called “The Book of Common Prayer.”

Many prayers were specifically written for this First Book of Common Prayer including the collect for the First Sunday of Advent, which we still use today.

In fact, throughout the centuries, this same collect was prayed not only on the first Sunday of Advent but on every day of the Advent Season right up until Christmas Eve.

It speaks to our longing for the light as the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer. During the next four weeks, darkness will take over more hours of the day, and we will yearn for more light.

Just recently, I went on retreat at Osage Forest of Peace in Sand Springs, Oklahoma. Osage truly is a forest, and once the sun began to set, darkness dropped like a heavy curtain over the entire retreat center. A thin slice of moon and a few distant stars provided the only light.

We were told to bring flash lights on retreat, but even with those it was hard to get around. On the first night, I got lost trying to find my cabin. Fortunately, the executive director found me wandering down the wrong path and kindly showed me the way back and pointed out where I had made a wrong turn.

I have to admit that it was a little scary walking in the deep darkness of the forest, especially when you could hear sounds of animals rustling through the woods and acorns dropping like rocks on the parched land.

This experience reminded me of a book I had recently read: “Learning to Walk in the Dark.” In it the author Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest, says that darkness provides a way to find God especially during the times that we don’t have all the answers.

She says that we are often uncomfortable, and even afraid, of darkness because we equate darkness with danger.

Barbara Brown Taylor says that it is through darkness that we find courage and new ways of understanding the world around us. Rather than cowering in fear, it is in the darkness when we can feel God’s presence and the light of Christ breaking through and guiding us along life’s journey.

She encourages us to turn off the lights and embrace the darkness, both literally and spiritually.

What is this darkness that Barbara Taylor Brown talks about?

Basically, it is anything that scares us.

Darkness often occurs when we receive bad news that threatens to overwhelm us. How many times have we felt cast into darkness when we have learned about the death of a loved one …or when we have been struck with a serious illness, or loss of a job, or had a sudden shock of any kind.

In this darkness we feel Fear…Disbelief…Shock and Grief.

It is as if the lights have gone out in our world and we are left staggering in the darkness.

It is into that darkness that the Light of Christ comes.

Christ’s coming is not like flipping on a light switch in a darkened room, or of going from midnight to noon…from total darkness to total brightness.

Christ comes more like the coming of the dawn…when the darkness slowly gives way to a soft glow on the horizon…and then slowly, slowly, slowly it becomes brighter and brighter.

I can remember sitting by the bedside of my children when they were little, especially on nights when they would be running a fever. It always seemed scarier when they were sick in the middle of the night. I would do anything I could to get the fever down including putting a cold wash cloth on their fevered brow. Often I would sit by their side, and sometimes I would lay down next to them so that I could listen to their breathing.

Those were some scary times, and I give thanks that I felt God’s presence with me as I cared for my children.

I think of God coming to us like that…like a mother comforting and consoling her children…and offering a healing touch and a cool cloth to ease away the fever while waiting for it to break.

As the days pass by, and the seasons come and go, each day and each season brings us opportunities to grow in our faith and to see things in a new way.

I don’t know about you, but I am so ready for Advent this year. I want to pray the Collect written centuries ago…to cast off the works of darkness and to put on the armor of light…Christ’s light that is coming into the world.

I want to light the Advent candles…starting with only one this first week, and then adding an additional candle every week until all four candles are lit.

I want to be constantly reminded that Christ’s Light is coming into our world, and it will overcome whatever darkness we may be experiencing.

Along with this collect, I want to pray these words from an ancient hymn that still speaks to us today: (Hymnal #56)

O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lowly exile here, until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel

Shall come to thee O Israel.

May you have a Blessed and Holy Advent. Amen.

 

 

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The Dream of God: Our Call to Return

In the days following our 2016 Presidential Election, I have struggled to discern how I will personally respond to the outcome.  I have been flooded with strong feelings such as Anger, Denial, Rage, Hope, and Fear.  I have wavered between Acceptance, Grief and Holy Outrage.  I am not sure which of these feelings or positions will take up permanent residence in my heart.  I have been seeking resolution of my internal conflicts.

I wondered who I could turn to for help in sorting through my feelings and discerning my ever-evolving vocation.

Various prophets, preachers and teachers came to mind.  One stood out among all: Dr. Verna Dozier.  Verna was a much beloved professor at Virginia Theological Seminary by the time I was a student there in the late 1980’s.  Previously, she had taught high school English in Washington, DC during the 60’s and 70’s…tumultuous times of civil rights demonstrations, desegregation, rioting in the streets and general unrest.

One day I asked Verna how she survived those times.  She laughed and said that her students thought she was cool because she wore a beret and must have led them to believe that she was one of the Black Panthers who fostered civil unrest.  That must have saved her as she struggled to teach inner city students about the works of Shakespeare and other literary giants.

Dr. Dozier was far from an anarchist but she did believe in shaking things up.  She became well known in the Episcopal Church for her call to wake us up to the Dream that God had for all of us…to be doers of the Word and not just bystanders.

I was privileged to take her class on “The Bible and Contemporary Society.”  She taught us how to look at the world with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.  Verna encouraged us to reach out to people of all different backgrounds and to engage in social justice to bring about the Dream God has for our world.

Verna is a prophet for our times and I am calling on her for wisdom and discernment in the weeks and months and years ahead.  I have re-ordered her book: “The Dream of God: Our Call to Return.”  My copy from seminary days got left behind somewhere in the many moves I have made in the last three decades.  But her words still ring out in my heart.  I will be sharing excerpts from her work in future blogs, and hopefully her wisdom will take root and help guide us through this tumultuous time.

May we join together in action and prayer as we seek Peace and Justice for all, Mary Anne+

(Photo was taken of me with Dr. Verna Dozier at my installation as Associate Rector of Good Shepherd, Dunedin, FL in January 1995.  Verna was the preacher and soul friend extraordinaire.)

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My Mother’s Safety Pins & Her Legacy of Kindness

When my mother passed away in 1978, my sister and I sorted through her belongings.  Some we kept, some we passed on to other relatives and friends, and others we gave to charity.

For sentimental reasons, I kept a few of her sewing supplies which included a small glass jar of safety pins.  They are just simple steel pins that have remained beautifully preserved in a glass jar whose lid is painted with roses, my mother’s favorite flower.

This jar of safety pins has now taken on new meaning for me this week.  In the aftermath of Tuesday’s presidential election, I felt shocked and stunned.  Then grief set in.  I felt bereft that all that I had worked for in my lifetime was now put in jeopardy: civil rights, women’s rights…the right for people of every race, color, and creed to express themselves freely regardless of their sexual orientation, social status or physical abilities.  I thought of all the progress that we have made in our country in the last 50 years and how this election might try to turn back the clock and reset history.

I will not sit quietly by and allow this to happen.  I have to find a way to continue to champion diversity and inclusiveness which are at the heart of my core values.

Our country is made up of people from every nationality and culture.  Our motto remains: “E Pluribus Unum…Out of many, one.”  This has not changed, regardless of the rhetoric we are hearing blaring from our television sets and flashing across our news feeds.

In the past few days, a grass roots movement has sprung up which invites people to wear a simple safety pin as a sign to others that you are a “safe person” to talk to if you are fearful for any reason.  This movement actually started in England after Brexit, and now has spread to the United States.  Simple, really…but also profound…creating safe havens in our chaotic world.

Today, for the first time, I opened my mother’s jar and put on one of her safety pins and wore it out in public.  And I shall continue do so as long as it seems meaningful.

My mother was the kindest person I ever knew, and I want to carry on her legacy of kindness to every friend and stranger I meet.  This will not be easy as I am sure there will be some backlash.  There always is when standing up for liberty and justice for all.

But I am not afraid.  I am determined to carry on my mother’s legacy of kindness by wearing her safety pins as a symbol of unity and peace and safety.

From the words of the prophet Micah: “What does the Lord require of you?  To do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”  Michah 6:8

Peace be with you, Mary Anne+

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Sacred Journey to the Forest of Peace

As I arrived at the Forest of Peace, the air felt intensely dry and the weather unseasonably warm.  The out-of-doors felt like the inside of my heart and soul…warm and dry.

I longed for moisture, for mist, for coolness…perhaps even a gentle rain to quench the spiritual thirst that brought me to this place.  I have come seeking rest and renewal and respite from the chaos of the outside world.

As the wind whips around the trees, it almost sounds like rain fall.  But as I listen closely, I realize that it is more like music…the staccato of dry leaves swirling through the air as they crash to the ground.  Amidst the leaves are clusters of acorns, and they make a riveting noise as they smash to the forest floor.  Pop, pop, pop….pop pop…like pellets shooting from the sky and finding their mark on the dry earth.

The acorns fall among the leaves and blend into the rust brown landscape that is parched from long months of drought.  Deer prance through clearings searching for water.  They only find dry creek beds and empty watering holes that sit exposed, waiting to be filled by mother nature.

Bushy-tailed squirrels scramble along the grounds gathering acorns.  They also rustle through the trees, jumping from branch to branch, like mall shoppers flitting from store to store searching for bargains and early bird specials.

The crows call out as they flit around the forest, and they swirl round and round as if to gather inhabitants of the forest for worship.

We find each other…eight Belle Coeur Sisters.  We gather for reunion…and yearn to be nourished, healed, and restored to service.

Wind chimes draw us to the main house where we are fed hearty soups and healthy greens and nourishing grains.  Next to the dining room we find a circular chapel that is dedicated to all faiths.  All are welcome to sit in silence, to chant prayers, to hear words of wisdom …and to leave somehow changed by the experience.

In the Bede house we sit in circle and share rituals and sacred life arts and crafts.  We share our stories and our wisdom, and reflect on what it means to be a sister to one another.

On All Hallows Eve we gather in the “mother grove” and recall our ancestral motherliness.   Crows form a protective circle around us.  As night falls we walk the labyrinth in silence and darkness.  The stones show us the way.  We touch the bark of trees that are keeping watch, and we get glimpses of the Celtic Cross that helps us find our way to the center.  There we find a stone bench with amulets left behind by pilgrims who have walked this way before us.

As the days go by, we lose a sense of time and space.  Our internal clocks become set to forest time.  Morning, Noon and Evening prayers and meals become our “daily office,” and form the pattern for our days and nights in the woods.

We reflect on our life’s journeys, and how we have moved from maidenhood to motherhood and now into crone time.  We encourage each other to embrace our roles as wise women, healers and elders.  We celebrate our past and look forward to the future.

A spiritual energy flows through our beings and light shines in our darkness.  We gain a new sense of freedom and awareness as we spend these sacred moments together.

On All Saints Day we gather for many forms of prayer and share communion together.  “Bread for the Journey, the Cup of Compassion.”  This ceremony unites us with the communion of saints in heaven and on earth.

The time comes for us to leave the Forest of Peace and journey home to our hearths and homes.  Our beloveds await us as we return to life beyond the forest.  Sacred silence remains in our hearts as the world begins to bombard us with noisy chaos.  We protect the silence that strengthens us and heals us and that will remain with us as onward we go.  We will not let go of that silence easily or completely.  We will carry with us…a Forest of Peace.

 

 

 

 

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