Leaves

A couple weeks ago, I was sitting on my deck, reading and enjoying the mild late-20170923_081601summer/early fall weather. After a while, I noticed a gentle, rhythmic sound. It sounded like it might be starting to rain. But I looked up and saw that the sun was shining and the sky was clear and bright. But the sound persisted. Eventually, I realized it must be the sound of leaves falling in the woods beyond my lawn.

A few days later, I was driving down a tree-lined country road on a bright, sunny day. Suddenly, I was driving through a shower of yellow leaves, gleaming like gold coins in the sunlight that filtered through the trees.

Yes, the leaves were definitely beginning to fall!

20171010_082043_001Summer is my favorite season of the year and I hate to see it go. For all the beauty that comes with Autumn and all the dazzling colors it brings to the maples here in New England, I can’t help feeling sad, knowing that it heralds the imminent arrival of the frigid, bleak cold of winter. When winter gives way to Mud Season here in Vermont, I’m among the first to watch for the first glimpse of pink buds on the trees. It thrills me to see the barren trees take on a certain softness as they prepare to explode into the great green canopy that will shade and delight us during the months ahead. But inevitably, Autumn will creep up on us like a stealthy predator, slowly stealing the shiny green of the leaves and turning them to a duller, dustier shade of green. And then, long before I’m ready, the leaves turn yellow, red and orange, blazing for an all-too-short season with colors that force us to turn aside and take off our shoes, because the ground we’re standing on has clearly become holy. But after their all-too-brief moment of transcendent glory, the leaves quickly turn brown and fall to the earth, leaving empty branches reaching to the sky as if in prayerful surrender to the cold ordeal that lies ahead.

Mystics of many traditions tell us that Nature is one of the ways God speaks to us, at least 20171007_082609if we’re willing to listen. In that sense, the trees have much to teach us about spirituality. A superficial reflection on the annual rise and fall of the leaves might suggest a parallel with our own life cycle from birth to death . . . but such a reflection doesn’t go far enough. We are more like the trees than the leaves. Once the leaves fall, the naked trees don’t die but continue to draw enough life from the earth to make it through the winter. Barring the traumas of wind, ax or chainsaw, the trees will survive the winter and bring forth a new crop of leaves and fruit. Though certain years will be better than others and the radiance of their Autumn splendor may vary, the trees can expect their leaves to repeat the cycle of birth, flowering, glorification, and death many times during their lifetimes.

The same is true for us. God calls each of us to bring forth new life, to blossom and flourish, to reveal some kind of transcendent beauty, and then let go and be dormant for a time until new life again summons us to begin a new season of fertility and productivity. Like the trees, we remain after the “leaves” of the current season fall away. 20171001_092148We remain, with arms uplifted and naked, waiting to receive God’s next blessed manifestation through us. Sometimes that call will be to produce much fruit. Sometimes it will be to offer shade and comfort. Sometimes it will be to shine with ethereal beauty to enable a new Moses to hear the voice of an angel. And sometimes it will be to stand naked in silent witness to the power of Life to endure cold and suffering.

Even as the leaves fall and die at our feet, their message is one of Hope and New Life. Even in the coldest winter, something new is coming to life through us! Let the trees teach you their Truth!

 

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Changing Colors

Everyone knows that Northern New England is famous for its Fall foliage. During September and October, thousands of people will visit the area to view the hillsides and valleys ablaze with brilliant colors. But these amazing landscape masterpieces don’t appear overnight. It all begins much earlier and slowly unfolds, virtually unnoticed. Only yellow brancha careful observer will pay much attention to the single leaf or branch that undergoes a subtle shift in color during July or early August. It will be weeks before a whole tree stands out against its lush, green neighbors to herald the transformation that is underway. From that point, the process begins to accelerate until the changes almost seem to be taking place as we watch. The landscape we viewed in the morning is much different than the one we see at sunset.

The way God works in our lives follows a similar trajectory. The early signs are almost undetectable. For the casual observer, nothing at all seems to be happening. The changes we passionately pray for seem to go unanswered. Nothing seems to be changing, inwardly or outwardly. The healing we long for, the strength that we lack, the insight we need for an important decision, all seem to stubbornly elude us.

turning treeBut despite our inability to detect it, something is already happening. We are no longer the same person we were before. Beneath the surface, the spiritual tides are turning, and it won’t be long until the winds and sands will shift as well. Before we know it, we find ourselves on a new path, responding differently to the circumstances that bedevil us, quickening our pace toward a future that we can sense but not yet see.

Sometimes we miss these subtle but significant changes because we are looking in the wrong place, expecting something more superficial or dramatic than the deeper work now underway. But like the leaves around us, as time goes by, the changes become more noticeable. Often times, our friends will notice it before we do. Eventually, however, we ourselves will notice that the drab green garment of our lives has taken on a dazzling new appearance. The ordinary bush now burns with an eternal flame!

Unfortunately, while the maple trees around us are transformed in a matter of weeks and months, the time required for our transformation may be significantly longer. The turning of human seasons is more unpredictable than the seasons in rural New England.field landscape Therefore, it’s important that we continually be watchful for the changes underway – both within us and in the lives of those around us. We are not stuck in a fixed identity, subject only to our own limited energies! No one’s life is untouched by the artistic paintbrush of God’s love . . . even though we may need each other’s help to see the emerging colors clearly.

Let’s celebrate our gloriously changing spiritual colors!

Aroma

Last week, the field across the road from our house was mowed, raked and baled. As it was taking place, I was in a near-ecstatic state. As a teenager, I worked on several dairy and cattle farms near my home during the summer which always including the haying season. While the work was hot and hard and more labor-intensive in those days than it is now, I still have fond memories of that whole process. Above all, I remember the smell of new-mown hay. So for those precious three days last week as the field was mowed, raked and baled, I not only experienced a series of fond reveries but was bathed from morning to night in the sweet smell of drying hay. It never ceases to amaze me how fields of grasses that for weeks could be so ordinary and unnoticed can suddenly become the most amazing perfume that can delight the senses for days at a time! (My deepest condolences to those with grass allergies and who can’t share my enthusiasm for these delicious seasonal aromas.)raked hay

This recent olfactory experience made me wonder if this was what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he stated in 2 Corinthians 2:15 that Christians should be the “aroma of Christ” to those in the vicinity. Maybe he was only thinking of the smell of a delicious home-cooked meal. But the point he was making is that people of deep spiritual maturity create a certain kind of intangible “environment” around them that is qualitatively distinctive and noticeable in ways that transcend our normal senses. I’m sure that this is true, not only for spiritually mature Christians, but for people of any religious tradition who are highly attuned to the presence of a Transcendent Higher Power.

I suspect we’ve all had the experience of being in a social gathering and having a new person arrive whose very presence changes the whole atmosphere in the room. Depending on the person, the climate may become more tense and uncomfortable, or conversely, it may become noticeably more peaceful and relaxed. Social scientists have known for some time that even the presence of an observer can change the outcome of their experiments. Despite our inflated claims of personal independence, we are much more subject to the influence of people around us than we realize – both in good and detrimental ways. Likewise, we also exert a much greater impact on others than we either intend or are aware of. Our words, our actions, our facial expressions, our body language, even our silence and inaction all send subtle messages to the people around us about the nature of our Being. If we are rooted in fear, anger, pain or hatred, others will somehow know it. But if we are rooted and grounded in a Love that nothing or no one can destroy, that also will be mysteriously conveyed to those around us.bindweed

That grounding in Divine Love is not an idea or a doctrine, but an experience. It is an experience that is older and deeper than any other experience we can remember. But the wounding, hurtful experiences we do remember may tend to obscure our awareness of that deeper reality. Spiritual practices are designed to help us to sharpen our sensitivity to the mysterious ways our lives have been touched by that Benevolent Power, and thereby improve the spiritual “aroma” that we create around us. Working with a Spiritual Director can be one of those practices. If I can help, please let me know.

Discovery

Once Spring arrives, but before the leaves come out, my wife and I usually set aside a day to wash all our windows, both inside and out. But due to the unusual amount of rain that fell this Spring, that task had to be postponed by nearly a month. By the time we got around to it, the leaves were out and the flowers were starting to bloom. Consequently, as I climbed down into the drainage trench along one side of the house, rather than standing on dirt and gravel, I found myself knee-deep in vegetation. Wading through the weeds wasn’t much of an impediment, so I began doing the job I came to do.

But when I got to the largest set of windows, something caught my eye. I looked down beneath the window and saw something golden yellow. I pushed the taller grasses aside, and discovered a lovely row of yellow Daylilies planted there and just beginning to bloom! Somehow, we had lived there for more than five years and never noticed them – probably because of the weeds and taller plants hid them from view. It’s amazing the things you can miss when you aren’t looking for them!yellow daylily

As I remember this wonderful moment of discovery, I realize that it has many similarities to the spiritual discoveries that occur in our lives. Instead of requiring us to climb a mountain or travel to some exotic retreat, all it requires of us is to look more carefully at those familiar parts of our lives that we overlook or take for granted. What I thought was nothing more than a drainage ditch turned out to be so much more than I imagined – a place of beauty that transcended its more mundane function of keeping rain water away from the house.

The same is true of those qualities and characteristics about us that we disregard, devalue or disdain. Carl Jung referred to these parts of ourselves as our “Shadow,” the dark side of our personalities that we want to deny or eliminate. But as he took pains to point out, these qualities often hold the seeds of something extraordinary, profound and beautiful. That is undoubtedly why Jesus and other great spiritual leaders paid so much attention to those people whose lives seemed easy to ignore: those who were broken in body, mind or spirit; those who seemed disreputable and worthless; those who no one else regarded as worthy of admiration or respect.

spring flowerIt’s not always easy to see ourselves with fresh eyes and to appreciate the beauty that lies hidden within us. It can be hard to dig through the dirt and weeds of our lives to find the treasure that is coming to bloom there. Sometimes, all it takes is a closer look in the mirror. Sometimes it takes a friend or spouse to help us see more clearly. Sometimes it will take a Spiritual Director to help us see what the Divine Gardener is cultivating within us. But whatever it may take, I urge you to set out on that journey of discovery. The effort will definitely be worth it!

 

Rocks

20170408_150421_001Rocks. All shapes, all sizes. They’re everywhere here in New England. From the rock-bound coast of Maine to the White Mountains of New Hampshire to the Green Mountains of Vermont, rocks are familiar residents of this part of the world. And while tourists may come from other climes to admire them, they’ve more often been colorfully cursed by the farmers who had to wrestle them out of their pastures and fields. Despite their occasional picturesque configurations, rocks are most often regarded as useless obstructions to some useful endeavor – God’s ugly waste-products from an otherwise beautiful and fertile creation. All the rocks we see built into walls, foundations and fireplaces are not so much a testimony to an appreciation of rocks’ utility, as a pragmatic and inexpensive way of disposing of these unwanted blemishes on the landscape.

Tomorrow, Christians around the world will observe Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem. The Gospels all report that it was a festive occasion, as his followers and admirers celebrated his arrival. In Luke’s account of this event, Jesus’ critics feel that such boisterous demonstration might provoke a repressive Roman response, and they demand that he restrain them. He responds by saying, “‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’” (Luke 19:40)20170301_082645_001

Luke’s gospel is the only one to mention this brief reference to rocks, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. Jesus’ critics feel that his followers are making a big mistake – a dangerous one that could have serious consequences. But Jesus refuses to condemn the enthusiastic crowd, and instead, insists that if they were silent, even the lowly, worthless stones beside the road would celebrate for them. As a result, he seems to be inviting us to reflect on our own “stone-like” qualities. We often feel more like rocks than human beings. When we make a bad decision that has negative consequences for ourselves and others, we can easily feel like an ugly, useless rock sitting exposed in the field. We feel like we don’t belong there, and that everyone would be happier without us. Losing a job, betraying a spouse, disappointing our family can all leave us feeling as useless, lifeless and helpless as a rock beside the road. Aging can also prompt us to feel more like a sedentary obstacle than like the dynamic, productive and energetic person we once were.

But no matter how rock-like we may feel, Jesus reminds us that we are not without value. Failures, mistakes, disabilities and social isolation characterized the lives of most of the people Jesus ministered to over the course of his life, redeeming, empowering, healing and resurrecting the lives of those regarded (by themselves and others) as useless stones beside the road of Life. He showed us how, whatever our circumstances, we can be transformed into something great and glorious. Regardless of our reputation or social status, God can still build us into something beautiful and enduring.

20170407_153613In our current society, where productivity and utility are dominant values, this truth can be easily overlooked. But we are part of a larger Reality in which even the stones are blessed! We aren’t alone, but part of a magnificent construction designed by a Power beyond our control. Can you catch a glimpse of it? Can you hear the stones singing and shouting around you? Can you feel the rocks in your soul beginning to tremble and come to life? If so, wonderful! But if not, please remember that a Spiritual Director may be able to help.

The Great Detective

imag1044I’m a fan of British detective shows. I like them partly because they tend to be character-driven instead of action-driven. They also tend to focus more apprehending the criminal by understanding the perpetrator’s motives rather than on destroying the evil-doer by any means possible. As a result, the cases are solved more often by outwitting the villain than on subduing him/her through violence. And since there is always an abundance of possible suspects, all somehow involved in questionable sexual and/or financial activities, the stories imply that few of us are as morally pure as we’d like to think we are.

These shows tend to have several distinct parts: THE CRIME, THE PURSUIT, and THE APPREHENSION. The first and third parts are relatively short and straight-forward. The bulk of the action takes place in the second part, as the tenacious detectives collect and examine evidence, discover clues, conduct multiple interviews, develop a plausible narrative, and ultimately identify their prime suspect. It is this evolving process of unraveling the mystery that makes each episode appealing and worth watching. The more complex and inscrutable the mystery, the more we’re captivated by it. We can’t resist seeing someone make sense out of something that initially seems so totally baffling.

20170306_151809Perhaps the reason these detective shows intrigue us is because they parallel our own spiritual struggles so closely. On some deep level, we all have a sense that a crime has been committed against us. Whether we think it was God or our parents or some other culprit who victimized us, we feel that we have been unjustly deprived of something essential for our physical, emotional, or spiritual well-being. In some way, our lives feel broken or incomplete. A sense of wholeness has been lost, and we can’t resist the impulse to solve the mystery and bring the criminal to justice.

At that point, the pursuit begins. Like intrepid detectives, we doggedly examine the evidence, look for clues, interview anyone who can enlarge our understanding and shed new light on the one(s) responsible for our current state. At times, the trail goes cold, and we fear that the mystery is unsolvable. But then, we get a break, and new clues appear and open up new avenues of inquiry.

Eventually, our detective work bears fruit. We get a lead to where our suspect resides. We catch a glimpse of a suspicious figure sneaking through the trees. The hooded figure steps out of the shadows, removes a mask, and finally, we see the criminal’s face. But just as on TV, the person we see before us is not who we expect. The face that is revealed to us . . . is our own! The one who has caused us such misery is none other than a part of ourselves that we have failed to recognize and embrace. The crime done to us was not the removal of something precious and irreplaceable, but rather it’s our self-inflicted blindness to the wholeness that is already ours. The wounds and experiences that we thought had diminished us turn out to be seeds that have born priceless fruit that we have not appreciated or utilized. The scene of the crime has become the cradle of blessing. Our vulnerability has become the vehicle of our salvation.

20170306_100139_001Our spiritual journey is not ultimately one in which we search and apprehend the Divine Mystery. Rather, as in Frances Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven,” it is God who ultimately pursues us with the patience of a tireless detective, not to judge, punish, or destroy us, but to open our blind eyes to the blessedness that is already ours. The task of a spiritual director is to persuade us to stop running away and let ourselves be caught.

Mud

20170228_082511_001I was in the parking lot of the grocery store on my way back to the car, when I found myself having trouble finding it. It hadn’t been stolen, and I hadn’t forgotten where I’d left it — I just had trouble recognizing it. The previous week of warm weather had resulted in so much mud and slush on the roads that my car had changed color from all the grime. Even the green license plate had become a nondescript beige.

The day was sunny and the roads were now dry, so I decided it was time to head for the carwash across town. But as I got there, my heart sank. A lot of other people were similarly inspired. The line of cars was backed up all the way out to the road. There were at least a dozen cars ahead of me. For a moment, I considered leaving and coming back next week, but the weather is so unpredictable this time of year that I decided to stay and wait my turn. Needless to say, it gave me a lot of time to think.

As I sat there, it occurred to me that the experience I was having was not unlike the spiritual journey many of us find themselves on. Our lives, just like our cars, occasionally need to be cleansed from the accumulated “mud” that we’ve picked up along Life’s way. Stress, illness, workplace disappointments, financial problems, losses (large or small) all leave their marks on our souls. Just as it’s hard to live in Vermont without ever having to drive on dirt roads, it’s hard to get through Life without hitting some rough, “muddy patches” along the way. Sooner or later, we find ourselves in need of a “spiritual carwash.”

Expect Temptation

20170308_152442_002But like my carwash experience, we’ll often be tempted to give up and go home prematurely. For various reasons, we conclude that there are too many obstacles standing in our way. Finding the cleansing we need will definitely require a commitment – a firm decision that it’s all worth the trouble. It requires a degree of discipline to get in line when there are so many more enjoyable things that we’d rather be doing. Are we ready to inconvenience ourselves or do we just want to go home and stay the way we are?

Be Patient

Once we decide to take that first important step, then we need to be prepared to wait. Slowing down from our hectic pace is essential. The line to the “spiritual carwash” moves slowly. We don’t usually reach our goal instantly. Having overcome our initial reticence, we now have time to anticipate the benefits that lie ahead of us. Just as washing a car not only improves its appearance but also increases its longevity, so our spiritual cleansing offers us release from the burdensome grit and grime that threatens our overall welfare. Spiritual practices don’t often bear their fruit overnight but emerge gradually over time. If we want the benefits of God’s cleansing, then we have to be willing to wait to see the results. In that sense, waiting is an act of faith.

Select Wash Options

20170303_080648_001Once we finally are ready to enter the carwash, we have to decide what type of wash cycle to use. Will it be just a light, superficial wash, or one that cleans the undercarriage as well? Will we be satisfied with removing surface dirt, or will we also want to prolong the cleaning with a coat of wax?

Will our spiritual cleansing be quick drive-through experience, or will we expose the unseen and unseemly parts of ourselves to the cleansing waters? That decision is often harder to make than we expect. But it’s a decision that will make a big difference in the long run.

Get Washed

The same is true spiritually. We don’t cleanse ourselves but put ourselves in a position to let the Divine Mystery have its way with us. We don’t like to admit that it’s something that we can’t do for ourselves, but it’s true. (We’ve tried, and if that had worked, we wouldn’t need to be here today . . . but obviously, we do!) And even though we’re just sitting there, the change we see afterward is dramatic!

Repeat . . . Often

20170228_083328_001Of course, this cleansing won’t last forever. We’ll drive through the mud again and eventually need to repeat the process. (Here in Vermont, that will probably be sooner rather than later!)

The same is true with our spiritual lives. Life happens. Mud happens. God happens. The Divine carwash stands ready to get us back on the road again in much better condition than before. It makes the next stage of the journey much more enjoyable for us and for others. But don’t take my word for it. See for yourself. Visit your local “spiritual carwash” today!