by Robert Calhoun
This past month, during the first week of May, I was sitting on a bench outside a coffee shop beside the Big Thompson River as it coursed its way through Estes Park… a cool day, the water level on the rise with spring rains and early snow melt. Sipping coffee with a book, notepad, and pen in hand. People passing by.
When first sitting down, I noticed a large fluffy gray jay…gripping tightly to a lone boulder in the middle of the stream. A mature bird, feathers periodically ruffled by the breeze…he appeared comfortable…I imagined him to be contemplating what he saw both near and far…as he held this space on the boulder in midstream. My eyes often returning to my winged friend, wondering what he saw, what he knew. He was there for what seemed a very long time, while pages turned in my book.
And then, at one moment looking up from my reading…. I saw the boulder was bare. I had not seen him fly away. Now just a bare boulder, a space that earlier was filled with my feathered friend.
I was surprised how the image of that empty rock grabbed… held my attention. This empty, vacated, space without the gray jay had my full attention now.
Empty spaces. What to do with empty spaces?…….spaces where what was is no longer; or spaces where something has always been missing, spaces yet to be filled……spaces that appear suddenly or spaces that capture our attention slowly over time? Empty spaces due to the natural changes of life…..spaces ripped open by the unexpected. How do we experience, how do we respond to, those spaces before us and within us?
Empty spaces call up many feelings and reactions…curiosity, compassion, excitement for a new start, hopefulness ….or confusion, heartache, doubt, fear, hopelessness…… it is not unusual for us to fill empty spaces with distractions, even false gods, so as not to even notice what is missing.
What do we do, how do we wait… for what or for whom do we listen?
My thoughts went to Good Friday at noon-time in our Plymouth sanctuary where I and one other…were in that quiet space for almost an hour, a space which spoke of emptiness, waiting. What or who if anyone holds that space with us?
Perhaps Jesus wondered, as he waited….in the wilderness....or in the garden.
Or Mary outside the tomb.
Or twelve apostles “all together in one place,” and Mary, the mother of Jesus, as they gathered in a house on Pentecost, along with the many others who gathered as was the Jewish custom at the end of the grain harvest…..The twelve apostles aware of an empty space, remembering, wondering what to expect, waiting for what may be next if anything….
I have read about Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, theologian and mystic… at the corner of Fourth and Walnut Street in downtown Louisville, Kentucky in the 1950’s… watching, waiting, not yet imagining what was about to come….
You have had your times….I have……moments when what has your full attention is the "bare boulder," the empty space that cannot be ignored….times when the messenger has disappeared, belief seems hollow…when what you thought you believed no longer makes sense, even belief in yourself….times when nothing seems to be holding the space in front of you…when what was reassuring…is gone and its absence is what fills you.
Life………waiting for the phone call that does not come…… receiving the phone call you do not want to receive….starting out in life without a clue where to go…..a sudden lack of purpose….the end of a relationship…
…standing at the grave of your parent, child… partner…….or times when the thoughts of past traumas take over your mind…. perhaps the "empty-nest" time, or the aging process and the awareness of approaching death……
… spaces that speak of emptiness….These days, the nightly news often speaks of empty spaces: uncertainty, lack of civility… divisiveness…one more shooting…. excluded from entrance for simply being who you are….us against them.
The twelve apostles gathered “all together in one place,” in a house, and the many others gathered as was the custom at Pentecost.
Perhaps that is the meaning of faith…to gather together, to still gather even when the space before us is empty…still gather when the road ahead is unclear.
Perhaps that is faith… for us to keep gathering as a Plymouth community, week after week, even in times when the "boulder" is empty, when something is missing, the promise seems distant…..still gather when our efforts to be welcoming seem futile…. to gather together, share bread together… where we hold the empty spaces for each other…and together see what is, what is not, and what has always been. To still gather, remember, wait……wait for the signs of reassurance, wait for our eyes and hearts to open to the loving presence that holds the space with us, shines light into dark places……
…reminding us of our birthright, that we are not alone, as love unfolds before us and among us and we move out into the world with boldness and compassion knowing that "God is still speaking."
These things I pondered sitting on a bench outside a coffee shop on a spring morning alongside the Big Thompson River. And then, as if unaware until that very moment, I felt the rush of the wind upon my face, the branches waving, and heard the loud, mighty, sounds of the rushing water as if many voices were speaking all at once….and now all of that energy had my full attention and I left that bench and began walking on the crowded sidewalk, enlivened by something familiar but for which I could not name, with the sense we were not separate, not alone, but were all walking together with the One who breathes with us.
Robert Calhoun is a member of Plymouth and serves on the Pastoral Relations Committee.
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, CO
I am, by trade, a poet and a professor. In order to write poetry, I have to give myself over to the mysterious work of language, and in order to teach, I have to be comfortable speaking to groups of students about abstract concepts. Despite this training, I was, at first, incredibly intimidated by idea of speaking on the subject of the Holy Spirit. I asked myself, how does one begin to talk about something so experiential, something that cannot, by its very nature, be fully articulated? As I considered these questions, though, I realized that talking about poetry might have equipped me, in some small way, to talk about the Holy Spirit.
Working with words, one soon realizes their limitations. We know the language we have created to communicate with one another, though full of beauty, is, in the end, also insufficient. The Holy Spirit touches that part of us that cannot be reached in the usual ways. Language’s failure becomes the holy spirit’s entrance point. Paul writes of this in his first letter to the Thessalonians when he says, “our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction.”
In times of desperation or, conversely, in times of great joy, I have felt this wordless, but convicting presence. Maybe you have felt this as well. I often experience this presence as a revelation. William Paul Young wrote, “The work of the holy spirit in our lives is to reveal the truth of our being so that the way of our being can match it.” The Holy Spirit, then, calls me to first see myself anew, and then to meet that self rather than to return to some false self that is concerned not with God’s will for my life but instead with the image of myself that I wish to project to others. The Holy Spirit, then, asks me to consider who God called me to be rather than who I think others might expect or want me to be.
Hal asked that I talk specifically about my experiences with the Holy Spirit, and I could offer several examples of the way the Holy Spirit has revealed the truth of my being and called me to meet that truth, but I will give just one example. Two years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Up until that point, I had prided myself on being strong, both physically and emotionally. I was someone who believed I was independent, someone who had worked hard to achieve my goals as a writer and an academic all the while birthing and raising two daughters. I assumed I had everything under control, and I aimed to project that to others.
The revelation I faced with my diagnosis is that the strength I had prided myself on was an illusion. Cancer was not something I could fix on my own, not something I could control. I had to embrace vulnerability, live in it and exist there, which was something that was incredibly uncomfortable for me. As I underwent tests and procedures, there was no denying that in this moment I was being called to confront a truth of myself that I had long tried to ignore.
On the one hand, I turned to language, as I often do, to see what words might have to offer, and I learned that I might need to reconsider the words I had previously used to describe myself to myself—words like strength and independence were replaced with words like vulnerability and connectedness. But there was also a feeling that I could not shake, a conviction, we might call it, that these simple substitutions were an insufficient response to the Holy Spirit’s calling.
It was a feeling of deep need for God’s all-encompassing presence, and that need demanded a response of some kind. To return to William Paul Young’s words, the Holy Spirit had revealed a truth of my being that now needed to be matched by the way of my being. It was at this moment that I was introduced, not coincidentally I’m sure, to the practice of Centering Prayer. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Centering Prayer requires silence and sitting; it requires the practitioner to relinquish control and to open oneself to a force which is outside of language.
If I had relied on words and strength to engage with the world prior to my cancer, the Holy Spirit, I believe, was going to use that experience to call me to a wordless place characterized by deep vulnerability. It is here, in this wordless, vulnerable space that I feel most bolstered by God. As I practice centering prayer, I often experience failure. I am unable to turn off the noisy mind, which is characteristic of the desire to control. While I am attempting to sit quietly so that I might be in the presence of the Holy Spirit, I find myself making lists, making plans, fretting, constructing conversations I need to have at work or with my family. And then, from time to time, I am able to quiet myself and see that what this practice is really about is to reveal to me how little control I actually have. Here in this failure to sit quietly, I am confronted with the need for God. And this neediness is, somewhat paradoxically, deeply comforting.
And that is, in my experience, one of the hallmarks of the Holy Spirit—paradox. I think of a story Richard Rohr tells of a man coming to him in deep despair after losing a business he had worked for decades to build, a business he had prided himself on. Without his business, and in this space of profound failure, he didn’t know who he was any more. In response to the man’s despair, Rohr said, “Hallelujah.” Rohr is celebrating the paradox of loss as gain. The man who had understood himself as a success must now understand himself as a failure and in this understanding, he has readied himself for transformation. This is the paradox Jesus tell us of in Matthew 16:25 when he says, “For if you want to save your own life, you will lose it; but if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it.” This isn’t something that happens once, but something we are called to do on a daily basis and in ways we cannot foresee. In my experience, when I am called into a place of contradiction, a place that is uncomfortable, unfamiliar, contrary to what I think I already know, the Holy Spirit is at work. The truth of my being is revealed so that I might, not through my own strength but through God’s, be transformed.
Sasha Steensen is the author of four books of poems: House of Deer, The Method, and A Magic Book, all from Fence Books, and most recently, Gatherest from Ahsahta Press. Recent work has appeared in Kenyon Review, West Branch, Omniverse, and Dusie. “Openings: Into Our Vertical Cosmos” was published as an online chapbook by Essay Press. She teaches Creative Writing and Literature at Colorado State University, where she also serves as a poetry editor for Colorado Review. She lives in Fort Collins, Colorado with her husband and two daughters, and she tends a garden, a flock of chickens, a bearded dragon, a barn cat, a standard poodle, and two goats. Learn more about her work here.
Dr. David L. Petersen
Plymouth UCC, Fort Collins
“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down.” So begins Psalm 137, a psalm that refers to a momentous time in the history of the Israelites. Between 600 and 580 before the Christian era, many of the leaders and much of the population of Judah were forcibly removed from their land and taken to several cities in the Babylonian empire. It was a wrenching event, since the centerpiece of their religion, the temple in Jerusalem, had been destroyed, and many of their cities had been burned to the ground. Their religion had focused on, among other things, the offering of sacrifices, which according to their beliefs could only be offered at the temple. Such religious practices were no longer possible. The people had lost their homes, their land, and their central religious shrine.
Fortunately, most, if not all, of us, will never experience that sort of exile. We know about other exiles, for example, the exile of the Cherokee people in the first half of the nineteenth century from their homeland in Georgia to what is now Oklahoma. But that is not something we’ve lived through. There are, however, other kinds of exiles, if we mean by exile "a prolonged and usually forced living away from our normal lives due to dynamics over which we have no control." We can be sent into exile by economic forces, by ill health, by social forces, and by psychological forces.
We can be sent into exile due to economic forces. This happened to my father’s family during the depression. My grandfather was employed by a woodworking company, which had lost much of its business. As a result, he moved his family to Arkansas, where they were able to live off the land and at much less expense than would have been the case had they stayed in Illinois. They were really in exile, away from all their family, away from their church, and away from the place that they knew as home. This wasn’t self-exile; it was a forced migration due to pressures against which they could not stand. We know people in that kind of exile.
We can be sent into exile due to the forces of ill health. A person can be forced to leave one’s healthy self and made to live with a compromised body. Last month, Sara and I visited a friend who is in the final stages of her struggle with brain cancer. We knew her as a terribly bright, energetic, and funny person. I worked with her on a number of editorial projects and within the context of our professional society. That was then; this is now. Now, she lives in exile from that former self, having suffered brain damage from the cancer and paralysis from a stroke. She is in exile, isolated from the person she formerly was. We know people in that kind of exile.
Social forces can drive people into exile. Children can be subjected to bullying and ostracism on social media and in person, so much so that they become suicidal. Jamel Myles, a nine year old who lived in Denver, committed suicide last month due to over a year of bullying at his grade school. He confronted social forces against which he could not stand; he lived in a social exile. We know people in that kind of exile.
Psychological forces can send us into exile. When a parent, a spouse or a child dies, the forces of grief batter us like a flood. We are moved away from the comfort of home to a land that is desolate, missing the person whom we had loved so much. Grief can move someone into a psychological exile. We know people in that kind of exile.
All of us are subject to these powerful forces that can drive us into various times of exile. How can we respond? The Old Testament offers at least three resources for how to live in exile and they come from three different biblical books.
First, the book of Lamentations. This brief book expresses the feelings of shock and grief that ancient Israelites experienced when their country was defeated, their capital and temple was destroyed, and much of the population was taken into exile. The poet uses the technique of personification, allowing us to hear how the city of Jerusalem, personified as a woman, responds to these events:
“She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks” Lam 1:1
She says, “For these things I weep, my eyes flow with tears…my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.”(1:16). “Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me.” (1:12).
There is a clear message for us: Mourning and crying are a normal, even essential, response to exile. They help us cope with the deep emotions created by the experience of exile.
The message: Mourn and weep!
A second Old Testament response to exile occurs in Psalm 137. This psalm is a song about two cities: Babylon and Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the defeated city; Babylon is the city to which the Israelites had been exiled. We hear their voices from where they now live in exile:
“By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs:
And our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand wither.” (Vv. 1-5)
Not only had the Israelites been taken into exile, they had been ordered by their captors to entertain them with songs that they had sung at home, before they were taken into exile. To this, the Israelites said "No way. We are putting our musical instruments up in the willows and we are not going to forget Jerusalem."
There is a clear message for us: One can resist the forces that have put us in exile. We may not get out of exile. But that doesn’t mean we give in. And we must remember what is like to be “at home.”
The message: Resist and remember!
The third Old Testament response comes from the book of Jeremiah. The prophet Jeremiah himself was not taken into exile by the Babylonians. Rather, he was forcibly moved to Egypt by some of his fellow Israelites. Before being taken to Egypt, he wrote a letter to those in the Babylonian exile, telling them how to survive.
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jer 29:5-7)
Jeremiah knew that some of those who had been taken into exile expected to return soon. And he knew that others were despondent, living away from their home. We don’t often think of prophets as offering “pastoral” advice, but that’s exactly what Jeremiah did. He told those in exile: try to live productive lives, build houses, have families, and pray for the city where you live since your welfare depends on its welfare. Those may have been surprising, even shocking words for those who received his letter, but they were wise words.
There is a clear message for us: when we are in exile, we should build and pray, especially for the welfare of where we have been put so that we can live and flourish.
The message: Build and pray!
Most of us live in some sort of exile at one or another point in our lives. There is no one way to respond when we are in exile. But our religious tradition offers us at least three cogent and compelling ways to respond:
Mourn and weep!
Resist and remember!
Build and pray!
Dr. David L. Petersen is a Plymouth member, Old Testament scholar, and an editor of the Common English Bible,
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