A Psalm for Palm Sunday

We’ve been sleeping with the windows open at night. When morning begins to spread her skirt of light, it’s the song of the robins that coaxes open my eyes. Last week I planted my garden greens and yesterday I noticed their sleepy faces poking up from the soil bed. Tomorrow the weatherman calls for snow.

I think the robin song is the most hopeful of all songs.

Since I returned from Refine the Retreat, I have had my own retreat, of sorts. I’ve been quiet—curled into family and the moments as lived. Presence has been nourishing me, the slow-going through the days. I’m slowly getting back up to speed with life.

Yesterday I gave a short homily for a Lenten luncheon series at the church of one of my mentors. I thought I’d share a slightly edited version of that message here. As we prepare to enter Holy Week, may you be blessed, dear one.

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I spent my 48th birthday with a group of about 45 women at Refine the Retreat. We were at a retreat center called Our Lady of the Pines—a beautiful, former girls school turned nunnery turned sanctuary—where our hearts were primed to hear God’s voice. Each morning I led the women in lectio divina. We walked a prayer labyrinth on the property and prayed under birdsong mingled with the voices of tall, limber pines singing in the wind. When the time came to give my message, I was changed. I felt close to these women—safe—and God kept nudging me to give a different message than the one I’d prepared. I felt the urging to share more deeply and allow myself to be vulnerable.

So I did. In the context of scripture, I shared the story of a difficult experience my family had just been through. Something that had caused great pain that still touches us in many ways. And as I was speaking the words out loud, I was taken by surprise. I felt a sob well up in my throat and there was nothing I could do to suppress it. I had never spoken about this story publicly and my emotions took me off guard. But when that sob escaped, something beautiful happened. Every eye turned unblinkingly upon me. The tears had captured their attention. This is something they all understood so well: sorrow; grief; the deep soul disappointment that life hands us sometimes. I looked out over the faces of the women I was speaking to and I saw only love.

After a time of worship, as we clustered in small groups sipping coffee and nibbling sweets, woman after woman approached me. In hushed tones, they shared similar stories of darkness. Times of despair and pain. With few exceptions, these women told me how they kept their pain a secret, held it tightly to their hearts, locked behind cut-flower words and plastered on smiles only gum-deep.

My heart broke as I listened and the realization sunk into me: We do not feel safe to share our pain, our brokenness—our humanity—in our churches.

Eugene Peterson says the Psalms are where we go to learn our language as it develops into maturity, as it answers God. The Psalms are fraught with humanity, giving breath to a plenary human experience. The Psalm on the lectionary for this Palm Sunday is chapter 31:6-19.  It’s a typical lament; a cry for help and complaint that moves through petition and toward a statement of trust and praise. In fact, a large portion of the Psalms could be categorized as lament. The estimates are from one third to one quarter of the Psalms falling in this category. And that word—Psalm—the Hebrew word for Psalm means “praises.” Does it seem odd to you that a book of praises would hold so many laments? Or do we need to change our definition of praise?

 And why is this Psalm a companion to Palm Sunday? It certainly lends very little triumph to the triumphal entry. But what it does do is boldly hold that tension that often so colors the human experience. A lament does the unthinkable—it holds anguish and hope side-by-side; revealing the depth of the nature of human life. The Lenten season is a time when the humanity of Jesus calls out to our own humanity.

When I read the story of the Triumphal entry, I cannot help wondering what was going through Jesus’ mind as he wrapped his legs around the soft underbelly of that donkey, the noise of the crowd ringing in his ears.  He knew what he was going to. He’d already tried to explain to his disciples on two different occasions that he was going to his death. No heavenly army swooping in, no Roman defeat, no redemption of all the years of oppression his people had faced. What was he thinking?

Jesus was fully human. It was Pilot who said it: “Behold the man!”

But do I? Behold the man? Too often I want to impose upon Jesus some kind of superpowers, but Jesus was a man. Fully God, yes, but fully human as well. How could one made of flesh and bone, one whose blood ran as hot and cold as ours, how could he withstand such horrors? How could he plead with God to take away this cup and still end by saying, “Yet not what I will, but what you will”? Jesus felt the full range of human emotions. Yet he was as close to the Father as any human could be. Anguish and hope held side-by-side.

Writer Dan Allender reminds us that “the poetry of the psalms were the hymns of the people of God. It was their song book,” he says. “it was what they sang in the temple at their worship services. The psalms are often thought to be the private poetry of people who struggled with God … [but] God intends for lament to be part of worship; and he intends for it to be done in community.”

How many times must our Lord have sung the Psalms, given his voice to lament?

Lament cuts through insincerity, unveils pretense, and leads to trust and wonder. Because true worship involves bringing every aspect of our lives before God—not ignoring the hard stuff of life, but worshipping in the midst of our struggles.

Jesus prayed a portion of Psalm 31 from the cross: Into your hands I commit my spirit … Such a beautiful statement of trust. But don’t you wonder, if he had sung this Psalm before … don’t you imagine that the rest of the Psalm was on his mind as well? And the hard stuff comes after that sweet statement of trust.

Be merciful to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and my body with grief …

 Jesus knew the power of lament. He knew the power of sharing sorrow publically.

At the first Refine the Retreat, one of the ladies who is an artist told us about the Japanese art of Kintsugi (or kintsukuroi). It’s a 500-year-old method for repairing broken pottery. You see, she said, in those ancient times, most families only had one good bowl or platter.  If it was broken, repair was necessary. Over time, artisans began repairing the cracks with a special lacquer mixed with gold, so that a bowl highly valued by the family may have many gold-veined lines through it. The golden seams became a sign of value, instead of disrepair. The cracks a vehicle to appreciate beauty in brokenness.

We are a flawed people living in a fallen world. But we have been healed with something far more precious than gold lacquer. We are washed in the blood of Jesus. But we remain in this in-between time—redeemed but waiting. Broken, but beloved. This is our reality: in this life, we will have troubles. If Jesus did not shy away from lament, why should we?

Our times are in your hands, O LORD. Let your face shine on your servants, save us in your unfailing love. Amen.

West Virginia Morning: Hope Emissary

Fridays are the emissaries of hope. And I had so much hope for this day.

We pick Ted up tomorrow for his spring break and so my plan for this day was to tidy the house, give him a cozy welcome, do the mom thing. I washed his bedclothes, tucked in the grace of fresh sheets. I picked up his space and vacuumed away the dust of his absence. I was doing okay, ticking items off the list, until I went outside to empty the vacuum canister. We have a bagless and when the canister is full, I like to walk to the edge of the yard to empty the dirt of our lives into the meadow. It makes me happy to think of a bluebird nest knit together from the lint of our carpet fibers, a sparrow chick nestled into strands of my hair. Bits of our life and skin and dust passed on in love. Ashes to ashes.

When I have things to do, it’s dangerous for me to go outside. From my place by the fence where I stood tapping the vacuum canister against the post, trying to loosen stubborn bits of fuzz and life debris, I had a clear view of the walnut tree that was taken down by the windstorm day-before-yesterday. That old beauty splintered right down the middle and dropped his right fork into my neighbor’s yard.

I couldn’t help myself. I set the canister down on my raised bed and moved closer.

A small cupboard, cracked open—a secret hiding place for squirrel or woodpecker or other forest spirit was given me. Scent of dried wood wafting, long inner striations exposed, rough bark cracked and frayed—his years laid bare. Yet, he still rustled briskly up above. How many times have we given that tree up for dead when it surprised yet again with fruit in season? In the wounding, I could see the long struggle for the years. The inner parts were dry and brittle in places, smoothed to a shiny sheen in others. Still, the remainder of the row of trees stood on, oblivious to their brother’s demise. Could they be? I know it’s impossible. I know how trees speak to one another, how they share much more than the sunshine that falls over their leaf-hats.

I ran my hand along the splintered skin. I felt the sadness all tree-lovers feel when such a shelter is struck down. I whispered thanks to the tree for all it has given and wondered aloud to God at the brilliance of such a thing as a tree. I remembered Belden Lane’s petition to include trees in the Communio Sanctorum, the communion of the faithful, and I understand. As I took my leave, the sky let loose with the frailest of snowflakes—love confetti for our brother tree.

I grabbed the vacuum canister and headed back to work.

West Virginia Morning: Witness

This morning the sky is the bluest blue and the trees dress early. I look out the bathroom window as I brush my teeth. I’m on the second floor, peering over the back yard, far into the meadow behind our house. From this bird’s eye view I see the maple is taking on her early leaf flocking, a soft magenta down where buds begin to unfold. And the pussy willow dons a cottony ragtop where the sun first touches her in the morning. All the fruit trees that hide in the meadow most seasons are beginning their conspicuous bloom. I run the brush through my hair and scramble downstairs, grab the camera and go out to stand under the earth’s awakening.

The coming of spring is nothing short of a miracle most years, but when spring arrives in mid-February? This is cause for celebration. I lose myself for a time in the slow-opening of a crocus, the way a branch offers a promise—prophesies.

I try not to think about the possibility of a late-season freeze. Isn’t this hope? Giving myself fully to this moment? Annie Dillard says, “ … beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” I am there. I am here. For just this moment, I will witness the miracle of spring.

West Virginia Morning: Early Bloomer

yellow crocus

This morning, as I walked Bonnie around the house, I saw a little piece of the sun had fallen down to earth. It’s late February, and my crocuses are blooming—bright yellow petals winking in the morning dew. We’ve had an unusually warm patch of weather these past few weeks, but I’ve lived here long enough not to be fooled. The birds, however, appear to be falling for nature’s trickery. Everywhere I turn the sky is full of robin-song and sparrow-music. Yesterday I peeked in my bluebird box and, sure enough, the beginnings of a nest were tucked inside. When Jeff and I walked down Sleepy Hollow road, we saw an American Kestrel falcon perched on the powerlines. As we drew near, that beauty took flight, circling slowly over the meadow that hugged the roadway. She was so free in her flight, she took my breath.

On my days off, I’ve been working on some upcoming projects, writing curriculum for a couple classes I hope to teach and researching resources. Today, I re-read most of Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge’s poemcrazy: freeing your life with words. At the end of chapter 2, under the practice section, the author encourages the reader to buy a journal and keep it with them. “It’s never too late to start,” she says. “Don’t try to catch up by going back in your life. Start with now.”

Something about those last three words made my throat catch a little. “Start with now.” It sounds so simple, I mean, where else can I start except now? But so many days I feel like I’m trying and trying and trying … struggling to make up for all that I’ve missed—all the regret that comes with the late blooming. And then I see an early-blooming crocus and the round-headed silhouette of a falcon and I know deep inside of me: now is the only moment we really have.

Instead of feeling regret, tonight I let that thought comfort me. Tonight, I let myself be fully present in this moment and as I do, I can feel the wings of my heart stretch wide.

Wide for the soaring flight.

West Virginia Morning: Light Comes Earlier

The light comes earlier each morning. We wait for it—lift our faces to the sun like prayer. When I take Bonnie out this morning, the blue light of night still lingers. The stars still haven’t shut their eyes and I wave at Orion as we wind around the house. At the edge of the dome, light striations are only just beginning. To me, they look like layers of phyllo, layers of light, and the goodness of the earth’s rotation rouses a slight lift in my spirit.

The days grow longer and I still I miss my slow mornings: reading poetry out loud to God and Bonnie, sipping my coffee and underlining words. Yesterday, the sun warmed the winterstruck and Jeff and I sat out on the deck long into the night. The robins were singing their sweet-sad song and I could smell new grass, the earth melting from the outside in. I felt a holy whisper in my ear, grow, it seemed to purr.

Time. I’m always telling my patients that some things just take time. I don’t know why I’m so slow to adjust. Things linger inside my heart, resisting motion. But the way the light spills slowly into the days these mornings—this is teaching me. I’m learning how to pay attention in the midst of the busy—how to notice the kairos in the chronos.

I think it will be a life-long lesson. And I’m ok with that.