Saturday, February 25, 2012

Wild Beasts and Angels

Wild Beasts and Angels: A Meditation for Lent
(Based on Genesis 9:8-17 & Mark 1:9-15, common lectionary readings for the first Sunday of Lent, year B.)

Ten nights back, and the moon was still bright, just past its full, round glory, waning gibbous above the faithful remnant of snow. The wood stove had been well-fed, that night, and the warmth had poured up through the grate into our half-attic room. There, in the midst of February, the small room had become stifling. We opened the window half-way and settled in for the night, the bright moonshine spilling in over the sill.

For a while, all was quiet. Wrapped in the cares and business of the day, we gradually eased our whirring minds down into sleep. A truck went grumbling down the dirt road. Again, silence, then—blessed sleep, deep, restoring, healing sleep, peaceful oblivio—WHAT THE HECK WAS THAT?

We struggled awake, sat up in bed, and strained to make sense out of the unearthly series of noises, the rising, dipping pitches, the staccato yips and echoing, resonant howls. “Ohhhhh. Coyotes.”

Once or twice a year, in the deep eroded stream beds that carve through the 30-acre woods behind our house, the coyotes gather. It's often more than one pack that converges, and the range of voices is eerie and amazing. Have you ever heard the coyotes when they gather and begin to sing? One wild call rises into the night, answered by another. Other voices join, and they go on for hours, vying for attention, trying out for solos, and then breaking out into a rolling, wild cacophonous chorus that goes on almost too long to bear, full of spell-binding syncopation, intense dissonance and hackle-raising harmonies.

We lay there, in the over-warm house, in the cold blue moonlight, trapped between the security of our blankets and the unleashed wilderness just beyond our half-open window. And that's as good a place to begin as any. No matter where you are, it's a good place to begin the season of angels and wild beasts, the season of Lent.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.

Immediately. It's one of Mark's favourite words. He is so eager to get out the Good News, so hungry to share the power of this life-altering experience, this world-transforming story! Never mind the baby in the stable. The gospel leaps right in at the Jordon, with Jesus being baptised by John. And immediately, the heavens are torn apart, and the Spirit descends like a dove, and a voice names him as God's Beloved child! And before we even have time to figure this all out—before JESUS has time to figure this all out—he's driven, lobbed, forcefully flung right out into the wilderness.

What would have happened if the story took a different direction? “Jesus was baptised, and then immediately went back home.” No, that's not how ministry works. “Jesus was baptised, and immediately went into town.” No, town is for commerce, not transformation.

He had just been baptised. He had gone under the surface of the water. He had been submerged in the flood, a ritual drowning of all the old ways, and he had broken the surface and emerged into light and air and possibility again. He was the new Noah, water streaming off of him, there with a dove of promise and God's voice to declare a new covenant. And, like Noah, in a radically altered landscape, he had to figure out life all over again. Yes. Wilderness. There, with the wild beasts, tended by angels.

Because wilderness isn't just a place we go. Wilderness is something inside of us. We each carry, inside our hearts and minds, a bewildering landscape full of barren places and tangled thickets. It is full of strange characters: shadowy schoolyard taunters, lost and lingering loves, and other ghosts that haunt us, the harsh or compassionate faces of our ancestors, the sweet and frightening demons of our dreams.

We wake and walk with this, move through the world with this wilderness inside us. And, in the neat compartments of home and school and office, in the blind repetition of the daily grind, we cannot expect this wildness to make sense. The paved roads and square rooms—the ones that work so well for machines—do not work so well for our suffering, searching souls.

There's a reason seekers have gone into the wilderness—or created quiet times and sanctuary spaces—for century after century. Whether we hike or paddle into actual wilderness or simply set aside time to pray, meditate, and wander our inner wilderness in God's good company, these spiritual adventures feed our souls.

For the good of our souls, we need time and space away. We need stones under our feet. We need rough old trees. We need the purity of deserts, the rough angles of mountaintops. They help us unclutter our vision until we can see the wideness of God's love. They help us empty out all the competing voices until we can name our personal demons...and only those pure, elemental spaces can bring us the needed clarity. And we don't need to be afraid of this adventure. Remember what happened to Jesus when he went out:
...the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Yes, he faced temptation—really, more of a series of spiritual tests: hurdles to leap on a marathon journey of the soul. But Satan, the great tester, was not his only company. He was with the wild beasts, and angels waited on him. You see, they go together, those angels and wild beasts. God made the rainbow sign as a promise to all of Creation, every blessed thing that lives and breathes in that wonderful, fragile, ferocious, wild and wonderful community of life.

In the wilderness, Jesus was among his sisters and brothers—some furred, some leafy, some buzzing or burrowing, some smooth or scaled, some fringed, some feathered. There, with his wild kin, he was never isolated, not even in his deepest fear, rage, grief and anxiety. Tended by angels, he was shown the blessing of hidden springs and the beauty of unexpected wildflowers. His soul blossomed with them. And after forty days in such company, Jesus was ready to live into the promise of his baptism. He was ready to face the extraordinary work that God was calling him to do.

So, the adventure begins: immediately, whether we are ready or not. We can hide if we want to. We can pull the blankets over our heads or turn up the volume and stay hunched over our little glowing boxes. We can drive faster so we don't see the wild things moving beyond the pavement's edge. But the season of Lent beckons to our spirits, welcomes us into wider and wondrous possibility.

Listen: the wind is rising. Bulbs are starting to stir under snow and half-frozen mud, down in the dark earth. Listen: the stars are dancing above us, pulsing and shimmering to a celestial rhythm we were meant to notice, learn, and share. There are crows in the branches, throwing their glossy heads back with raucous laughter, joyfully urging us on with all their might. Listen: there are coyotes outside our windows, calling us out with their soaring songs.

Come, all you, baptised and blessed. Let us go, immediately, into this season of pilgrimage, these forty days of wild beasts and angels. Let us launch out, immediately, where our inner wilderness and God's creative wildness can meet!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dust to Dust: A Poem for Ash Wednesday

As I work through my winter reading list, (mostly Kirkpatrick Sale and Wendell Berry, with an occasional dip into Madeleine L'Engle), I've been thinking a lot about dirt--and angels.

Ancient stories are full of people freaked out by angels, terrified to come into close proximity with The Light & Power of the Divine. Today, in this hyper-tech age, we seem more likely to reach for, grasp at, and embrace anything that hints at God-like power. Our cities are now so bright they drown out the stars people used to regard with awe.

So... it seems we have the opposite problem of the ancients. We are not frightened by divinity. Instead, we are completely freaked out by dirt. We cringe at the "antiquated" language of "ashes to ashes and dust to dust" because we really can't bear to acknowledge our proximity to decaying matter. We really can't handle being that intimate with earth.

Tonight, I will celebrate Ash Wednesday. For those unfamiliar with this ritual, the dry and brittle palm fronds saved from last year's Palm Sunday are saved and burned into ashes, then mixed with water or oil. In a quiet, meditative service, often after nightfall, we pray together, perhaps sing together, and receive the "imposition of ashes." A finger or thumb is dipped into the ashes and simple cross is marked on each forehead, usually accompanied by the words, "remember: you are dust, and to dust you will return." We then move out into the night in silent meditation.

Here, then, is my offering: a prayer/poem for this strange, earthy, ancient day:

We are people of the earth:
the grey blowing grit of it,
the shoe-sucking mud of it,
the rich fertile muck of it.
Our bodies are the soil where dreams decay
and seeds of new hope spring up.
In our bones sleep the ashes of ancestors, stuff of old stars.
We are mountains tumbling into sand.
We are crushed stone.
Wait. Be not resentful, nor ashamed by earthiness:
Even dust rides on the breath of the Spirit.
Even the darkest rot is God's fertile ground.
So, Beloved, come: feel the gentle touch.
Accept the ashes.
Wear the dark smudge with quiet joy:
a holy sign that we are never far from Creation's embrace,
and a promise that not even fire can destroy
the startling traces of God's abiding love.

--copyright MaineCelt 2/22/12