God as Mother

In preparation for pre-meeting Bible study yesterday, and in honor of Mother’s Day, I was pondering the maternal metaphors for God, pulling out files I had compiled almost a decade ago. These include tender images such as:

I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” (Hosea 11:4)

Other images suggest protection:

Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings.” (Psa.17:8)

I gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” (2 Esdras 1:30, quoted in Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34)

Not all the images of mother are tender and comforting as the mother hen.   God can also be a mother bear, fiercely defending her young:

I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs, and will tear open the covering of their heart.” (Hosea 13:8)  I guess we all know that mothers can be angry and judgemental, but this is not an image I relate to.

The image that struck me in a new way yesterday is that of God as a mother eagle:

As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions, the Lord alone guided him.” [Jacob in the desert] (Deuteronomy 32:10-11)

This image suggests a God who, like the mother eagle, pushes its children to grow and try new things.  Mother eagles teach their young to fly by pushing them out of the nest but catching them as they fall. God has been stirring up my nest lately, pushing me to go beyond my comfort zone in speaking out in public about climate change. There are days when I feel that undergirding of support, being borne aloft  on eagle’s wings, and there are other days when I experience the terror of falling.

Help! I don’t know how to fly!

Yes, you do. Trust me.

 

 

 

Advertisement

May Day

Yesterday was May Day. I have been musing about the different ways that date is celebrated in America, from marching labor unions to dancing earth goddesses. As a child in New England I wove baskets out of construction paper, filled them with wild flowers and hung them on the neighbors’ doorknobs.   Here in Fairbanks we don’t have wildflowers yet (except for a few intrepid dandelions), but yesterday I participated in a beautiful Beltane ceremony wearing a wreath woven from store-bought flowers. We danced around a Maypole, weaving our brightly colored ribbons into a lovely pattern.

 

Each of these ways of celebrating involves weaving, whether it is making interpersonal connections, affirming community solidarity, or creating a piece of impermanent art.   One of the songs we sang in the Peace Choir on Saturday night was “Famine Song,” based on a song sung by Sudanese women as they wove baskets during a time of drought. The weaving and singing together helped them through this hard time. For me, weaving means connection.

 

In doing the Maypole dance I observed how my color showed up in the pattern. It didn’t get blended into a whole but retained its distinctness as it intertwined with other colors. That makes me think about how in a Quaker meeting we each contribute our distinct spiritual gifts, weaving a pattern that is different from what any one of us could create on our own.

Then there are the words from one of my favorite hymns:

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian (or Jewish or Muslim or whatever) love.

May you Blessed Be

 

 

IMG_1100

Reflections on Earth Day

I am resting today from a very full weekend. On Saturday we celebrated Earth Day with a large event. It began with a “Walk for all Species,” a beautiful parade which included a number of  bird puppets, each held aloft by three people walking abreast– one holding the head and the other two the wings. There were also children in animal costumes, a couple of dogs, a baby tree, and a large banner of a caribou with a sign advocating protection for the Arctic Refuge. The parade was led by a woman wearing a straw hat with spruce boughs, cones, and bits of birch bark representing the boreal forest.   It was a warm, sunny day and spirits were high.

The walk ended at a downtown church, where 17 organizations had set up tables with colorful displays about local food, recycling, political action, soil and water conservation, and much more. Under the banner “Interfaith Climate Action” I had set out a collection of statements from many different religious organizations concerning their response to global climate disruption, material from Interfaith Power and Light, a copy of Laudato Si, the Papal encyclical, and the Green Bible.  A f/Friend agreed to tend the table so I could participate in the simultaneous program in the sanctuary.

After I had helped set up the space, read the Mayor’s Proclamation about Earth Day, and walked with a sandhill crane puppet, I put away my lists and settled into a spot in the sanctuary right in front of the podium. We had lined up speakers from many different faith traditions, including Alaska Native, Buddhist, Catholic, Jewish, Episcopal, Muslim, Unitarian Universalist, Presbyterian, Baha’i, Lutheran, and Quaker. Except for when I got up to read the Quaker statement, I stayed in my spot and held each speaker in the Light. I hadn’t really planned to do that. In fact, in my early thoughts about the event I had envisioned myself in more of a speaking role. But I felt “in the place just right” as I listened deeply, amazed by the boldness, clarity, and similarity of the statements calling for people of faith to be good stewards of the earth and take action in reducing carbon emissions.

In reflecting on the event today, I am reminded of the story of Mary and Martha in the Bible, where Martha worked in the kitchen and served the guests while Mary sat and listened at Jesus’ feet. There were moments during the program in the sanctuary when I wondered if I should go and help out where others were working at the tables.   But I stayed firmly planted in my role of prayerful presence. Sometimes we just don’t know in advance what we will be called to do in a particular situation, but I believe if we stay open to Spirit’s guidance we will be rightly led.

Opportunity

I love the Quaker use of the word “opportunity.” I first heard it some twenty years ago when Allen Oliver, a traveling minister, suggested that I approach a person with whom I was in conflict by requesting a “personal opportunity.” He said this person would know what it meant. I didn’t, but I learned that there was a tradition among Friends for one to seek silent worship with another in their home, and that the tradition is mostly upheld by Conservative Friends today. In our Meeting, when there is conflict between Friends we typically use terms like “listening session,” by which we mean that the two parties, often with a third person who serves as a prayerful presence, meet together in worship to listen to each other and to Spirit.

Being a word lover, I looked up the origin of the word “opportunity.” Its Latinate roots are ob, to + portus, harbor: “blowing toward the harbor.” An opportunity, then, is a suitable occasion or time. That seems innocuous enough. However, I suspect that, like the term “elder” among Quakers, the term “opportunity” may have taken on a tone of judgment, so if someone requested an opportunity with another, that other would say, “Uh, Oh. What have I done now?”

So how do we create, both in our interpersonal relationships and in our meetings, the space within which deep, non-judgmental listening and authentic speaking can happen? Can we invite the winds of Spirit to blow us safely to the harbor?

The WOW factor

Each year at this time I am amazed at the quality and quantity of light. Although the ground is still shedding its snow cover, revealing splotches of muddy earth, the sky is full of brilliant sunlight. When people in other places ask me how I survive the cold and the dark here, I try to explain the annual cycle. They nod and their eyes glaze over as I tell them that the amount of available light changes at the rate of plus or minus f 6-7 minutes a day. Right now we have more than 15 hours of light, and it will keep increasing until June 21. By then we will be used to the never-ending daylight. But right now I am still amazed when I walk outside after an event in the evening and say, “Wow, it’s still light!”

There’s another story that accompanies this amazement. We are also experiencing warmer than normal temperatures for this time of year. This means that the trees may leaf out a full two weeks earlier than usual. I love what we call “green-up,” the vibrant new life, but I also worry that these warmer temperatures are the result of global climate disruption.

How do I hold both emotions at once? Amazement and concern. I think we need both. When I look at a glacier or a sunset, I want to say, “Wow! and to appreciate the transitory beauty of the moment. That’s my heart space. My head tells me that the glaciers are retreating, the waters are rising, the woods surrounding my home may be dying, the permafrost is melting, and more. But just for this moment, let me feel the joy and love the world.  I love the following poem by Mary Oliver.

Messenger
by Mary Oliver
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

Prayer Posture

 

When I was a child I was taught to kneel by my bed to say my prayers at night. At other times, like in church, I learned to sit with my hands folded and my head bowed as the pastor prayed. Images of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane typically show him kneeling next to a rock with his hands folded and looking up. In another situation, described in Matthew 26:38-39 we learn that “he fell with his face to the ground and prayed,” in one of Islam’s prayer positions. Another prayer position I learned later in life is a standing posture with arms outstretched and looking up, the way popular culture depicts Native Americans praying.

I read somewhere that it’s not the body’s posture but the heart’s attitude that counts when we pray. That may be true, but I have done enough yoga, tai chi, and Japanese tea ceremony to know that body posture also matters. When I am doing a posture or movement correctly there is an energy flow. I don’t have the language to describe it, but I can feel the difference when the yoga teacher repositions me during practice.

This morning I began a new yoga class, returning to a practice I have done off and on for many years. The teacher spoke of integrating body, mind, and spirit. I felt opened and awakened. I’m not sure what this has to do with prayer, really, except that it opens the channels to allow for communication with the divine.

In settling into waiting worship I often pay attention to my posture. Sitting in a chair is not the optimal position for prayer, or worship, but it can happen. I lengthen my back, put my shoulders back and open the chest (opening the heart), feel myself suspended from above, and plant my feet firmly on the ground, if possible.

I once sat in on one of Marcelle Martin’s classes on body prayer at Pendle Hill. I don’t remember the exact movements, but I remember how liberating it felt to pray with my body in different positions. I think the Muslims understand this, as there are 5 postures for daily prayer. It seems traditional Jewish practice also included different postures, including the prostrating one. I don’t know enough about those different postures to know if they represent different attitudes of prayer, e.g. gratitude, supplication, praise (thanks!, help!, wow!, as Anne Lamont puts it), but in my own practice I will try to mindfully consider what positions or movements reflect those attitudes.

Post -Easter Musing

Post Easter Musing

As a child I recall asking my parents why, if Jesus rose from the dead, he is still hanging on the cross in Catholic churches. Now I am asking why Christians focus so much on the narrative of death and resurrection and ignore the radical teachings of Jesus. Could it be because those teachings challenge our way of life? Did Jesus really say that we should give up our wealth, feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and LOVE OUR ENEMIES???

As a Quaker, I have come to see the meaning of the resurrection in a new way. George Fox (1624-1691) said, “Christ has come to teach His people Himself.” To me that means that Christ (the inner Light, the inward teacher, the Seed) dwells within us and is directly available. The teachings continue.

I also see the death and resurrection story as deeply rooted in human cultural experience. As a college student reading The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer, I was amazed to learn that ancient practices in many places around the world included rituals of killing the divine king, or tree-spirit, or spirit of vegetation, and burying an effigy (a tree branch) which would then burst forth with new life. Placing the Christian narrative into this larger picture of seasonality, with the rebirth of life in the spring (in the Northern hemisphere, at least), helped me better understand it.

My joy at this time of year comes from seeing new life springing forth. In Fairbanks, Alaska, the physical manifestations are slower than elsewhere, but I sense around me evidence of spiritual awakening. This gives me hope.

Vernal Equinox

This week I have been musing about the meaning of Equinox. Somehow, especially here in Alaska, calling a day between the 19th and 21st of March the “First Day of Spring” doesn’t quite cut it. In Fairbanks, at least, the ground is still covered with snow. The trees are not yet budding out, as they are in the Lower 48 states. There are no crocus or daffodils pushing up. What we DO have is more light. What blows my mind is the fact that at the Equinox, whether vernal or autumnal, there is equal, or almost equal, amounts of light and dark everywhere on the planet. If we tune in at all to celestial phenomena, that must mean something. In many places, where people live in cities and rule their days by work schedules, this event goes virtually unnoticed, but in Alaska it’s a big deal. From this point onward to the Summer Solstice, we rapidly gain daylight until there is no dark at all. If I were to create a ceremony to mark this event, I would want to have balance, equality, and a moment of stillness. I think about one of my favorite quotes from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

In the past I have used this quote to share with non-Quaker audiences what it is like to settle into silent worship. But today I see its relevance to the Equinox, the still point of the turning world.

A View from Peru

Having just returned from a month-long trip that included 3 weeks in Peru, I am still processing the experience and have many stories to tell. One major component of the trip was attending the World Plenary of Friends in Pisac, but I am working on a report to my Meeting about that. What is on my heart to write about today is a theme that carried through all of our time there and has continued to niggle at me since arriving home.

In Cusco, Pisac, and throughout what has become known as the Sacred Valley, we saw evidence of disruption and destruction by Spanish conquistadors who, in their search for gold ignored the cultural, artistic, and spiritual riches of the indigenous culture. The “good stuff” offered by the Incas to the invaders were the amazing textiles woven in intricate patterns from alpaca and llama wool. For the Incas, gold was used for decoration, not the basis of their economy.   The architectural knowledge that produced the structures in Machu Picchu, Sacsaywaman, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Cusco, with their huge, finely-cut rocks fitted into complex patterns, still astounds any viewer. Their extensive knowledge of plants as a source of food and medicine is being re-discovered. How could the Spaniards not have seen this and learned from it rather than destroying sacred sites and building their own cathedrals on top of them?

The Incan Empire is gone, but the Quechua people of Peru are still strong in spirit. As we walked around the tourist areas of Cusco we saw hundreds of small store-front tour agencies offering “spiritual journeys,” capitalizing on a trend among Westerners to experience something of the spiritual energy of Pachamama (Mother Earth).  Our guide at Machu Picchu told us that while there are still shamans, wisdom keepers, among the Quechua people, one is unlikely to find them on a brief visit to the Andes. He was also convinced that any energy in the rocks could be understood as science, and that the ancient Inca were geologists, astronomers, agronomists, etc. It seems irrelevant to me whether we appreciate the ancient knowledge as science or religion. What is important is that there were, and still are, indigenous ways of knowing about a particular place that transcend those categories.

What happened with the Incas and the Spaniards is a story played out all over the world, including Alaska. Colonization is almost always accompanied by a suppression of indigenous knowledge and an imposition of the colonizers’ language and cultural ways. We are now facing the consequence of these actions: an unsustainable way of living on earth.   Our world is out of balance. Indigenous people all over the world are calling us to change our destructive ways and listen to the wisdom of the elders, to care for the earth, to care for each other. It was interesting to hear on the radio today about Pope Francis’ visit to Mexico, where he made this same observation about indigenous people. The theme continues.

 

 

 

Eager Longing

Yesterday in Bible Study we looked again at Romans 8: 19-25, a portion of which is the theme for the FWCC World Plenary in Peru: Living the Transformation: Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. This time we focused on the phrase “eager longing.”   The accompanying queries helped us examine what we most deeply long for, as individuals and as a faith community.

My musing this morning is about how we experience longing. Is it physical? Intellectual? Spiritual? Where in our bodies do we feel it? Many of us have experienced physical longing—when our bodies have a need that cries out.  Is there a comparable spiritual longing? I have often wondered what our Quaker forebears experienced when they quaked during worship.   What powerful force shook them so? Today when we sit quietly in our circles or hollow squares with our eyes closed, hands resting on our laps, if someone jumped up and shook, or rolled on the ground, someone from Ministry and Counsel would quietly escort them out of the room. Are we supposed to experience spiritual longings quietly?

Sometimes I feel that deep longing in wild Alaskan spaces: Walking on the Root Glacier, kayaking in Prince William Sound, hiking above Panorama Pass in Denali National Park. My soul cries out. I feel a sense of oneness with creation. Is this what Creation, or God, or whatever we choose to call it, is “waiting for with eager longing?”

Included in the study materials from FWCC was an excerpt from Spirit Rising , where a young man from Kenya writes about the reformation in Quaker churches that now allows for singing and clapping. He says that the previous restrictions on “musical instruments and hands clapping in praising the name of God. . . resulted in a reluctance to participate fully in activities.” When we attended a Quaker church in Kenya four years ago, we experienced joy and life in that form of worship that was both physical and spiritual.

Our form of worship is not necessarily silent. I prefer the term “waiting worship,” as it expresses that sense of expectation, of longing.   Do we enter our worship spaces with eager longing? Do we expect to experience God’s presence together? Are our hearts and minds prepared for what might come?