Uncle Zach (again)

Zachariah

In this Advent season, I am reposting this piece.  You can listen to a wonderful  audio version of this story, narrated by Boyd Barrett, a dear friend.  You may also want to explore his other podcasts – you’ll be glad you did.

 

“Tell me again, Uncle Zach, tell me the story of the angel, when you were in the temple.” Jesus is staying over for a few days and is helping his uncle with his work.

John rolls his eyes and looks at his cousin. Not again. John is intimidated by the story. It is his father’s story, but the weight of it rests on him. ‘The spirit and power of Elijah’ the angel had said. Sometimes, in the quiet, John felt inside himself for the stirrings of this prophecy, fingering his own soul, looking for signs of Elijah or of any real power at all. Nothing. So, he hides a secret fear that he will fail the prophecy. Hearing the story only makes it worse.

Jesus and John are eleven, old enough to know that their stories are both unique, not old enough to understand what that difference may yet mean.

Zechariah begins the story and Jesus settles in beside him. John is across the room, finishing up his chores so he can leave as quickly as possible. They have both heard the story before, but not often. It is hard on a family to hold the weight of such a story and Jesus’ siblings aren’t very fond of it, or of the other story that follows. But today it is just Zechariah and Jesus and John inside, so the time seems right to tell it again, in detail.

Zechariah takes a deep breath and begins. When he starts the story he is looking straight at Jesus. “You know how it works,” he says. “When it is time for my division to bring the incense into the Holy Place, we draw lots. It is our way of letting God pick the servant. It is an honor for the lot to fall to you. And when I was chosen, I felt, as I always do, a slight rush of pleasure that I am the one that God wants this day. God’s call to the priestly tribe is a precious gift. God’s call to a single one . . . to me . . . or to you . . . is . . . a wonder.”

By now Zechariah is no longer looking at the boys. John and Jesus are both listening, pulled by what he is saying, by its echo in their hearts. There is deep quiet in the room. “I went into the Holy Place, into that place that God has chosen to be present. You think you are prepared when you go in – but the Presence hits you and, every time, you know that there is no way that you will ever really be ready for that place. It always takes me a moment. Like letting your eyes adjust to the darkness when you enter a cave on a bright day – or more – how your eyes adjust when you go back into daylight from the cave. So, I wait at the doorway for my soul to catch its breath. And then, when I find my legs again, when I can move, I take the incense to the altar.”

“The Presence is most strong that day. It is as if I am not the only one touching the Presence. The Presence is always magnified in my heart when someone next to me is touching it, as well. It was that sense, but more, that day. As I approach the altar, I suddenly know why. There is an angel standing there. Once he appears, he is powerfully real . . . as if I were the vision and he the substance . . . but even more, he is touching the Presence so powerfully that I am overcome.   I start to tremble, almost to fall. He reaches out and catches my arm. He takes the incense from my hand and places it on a bench next to the altar and tells me not to be afraid. I wonder why he says that . . . it’s not fear that I feel. In fact, I hardly am aware of myself enough to feel anything at all. But his words draw my attention back to myself and I can see that I am trembling.”

“We sit together on the bench, with the incense between us. He looks me in the eye and waits till I have calmed myself a bit. Then he speaks to me, ‘Don’t be afraid, Zechariah.’

“He says my name. My name. He was waiting there specifically for me. Now I do start to feel the fear. He sees my eyes widen and he takes my hand, “Zechariah, your prayer has been heard.”

“Now, boys, you have to know that I had not really been praying when I came into the temple. I had been too busy with the preparation, with the responsibility. I was sitting there, wondering what prayer he was talking about.”

“‘Your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son,’ he says, quietly, waiting for the words to sink in.”

“My heart shakes itself. Oh, that prayer! The prayer that was on my lips for so many years, but had slowly, with age, become just an echo in the deep recesses of my heart.” Here Zechariah stops and looks at John, saying, without words, how much the boy had been their prayer. John looks away, feeling the weight of one more burden, one more way to disappoint.

“And then,” Zechariah continues, still looking at John “then the angel smiles. ‘You will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth.’ The angel bends forward. There is a joyous urgency to his manner. ‘Your son will be great in the sight of the Lord. He will drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will go forth in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.’ By this time the words are feeling triumphant.”

“My own heart is on a double track. Part of it surges with new hope, eager to receive this news and take it to Elizabeth; thrilled to think that the power of the prophets might return to our poor land. The other part, well, I’m not sure. How can I be a part of such a plan? We both are old. And Elizabeth . . . oh, my . . . if I were wrong, and raised this hope to dash it once again . . . I’m not sure she – or I – could bear it. So, I yearn for the promise while I fumble in fear that it just cannot be so. ‘Are you sure?’ I grasp the angel’s sleeve. ‘I’m not . . . Elizabeth is not . . . we are both too old.’”

“The angel pulls away, looking suddenly stern. ‘Am I sure? Am I sure? I AM is sure, is giving you this promise! How can you doubt the word of God?’”

“I am looking at my hands. ‘It’s not that I doubt God; it’s that I cannot trust myself. I know, too well, my frailty.’”

“Gently now, the angel takes my hands. ‘It is that very frailty that reveals the power of God. Can you not see? It is the barren womb that shows God’s power most clearly. Will you fail to go to your wife? Will she fail to conceive? Will the baby refuse to be born, to grow? Do what you can do. God will do the rest. Your very frailty will show God’s presence in this gift. You were not chosen at random, but carefully nurtured into your role. And now, because you need to see how frailty speaks, you will be mute until his birth.’”

“Some thought it was a punishment for my lack of faith, that I was mute. But really, boys, there were no words to capture what I’d seen. Who would have believed me, anyway? My loss of words told them I had seen a vision, yet it let me save my secret for Elizabeth. We savored that time alone with the secret of God’s power, till it could be hidden no longer.”

“Your circumcision, John, released my tongue, released the story into your life. I know you feel its weight. But do not fear. It’s like the angel said, frailty does not matter. God requires nothing but our obedience. You do what you can do. Then, you wait to see what happens. You let God shine through your frailty. And you rejoice.”

Zechariah is smiling. John comes round the table to stand for just a moment beside his father. Then he pokes Jesus in the arm and chases him out the door. They shake off the quiet and melt back into their eleven-year-old lives.

 12 5 03

[photo cropped from ‘the Rabbi’ by Rafal Kiermacz under cc 2.0 ]

Intersectional natives

 

come togetherI was born into a world of hierarchy, bureaucracy, and linear logic. To get anything done, someone had to be in charge. Things had to be intentionally built under a leader’s direction. The process was carefully controlled. So were the people. You needed ‘strong leaders’ and minions. We had no eyes to see emergence.

But the generation coming to the forefront, now, was born into a very different world. Some call them digital natives, but that term seems to focus on the facility with digital tools rather than on the capacity to imagine the deeper realities that the interconnectedness of the internet and big data have revealed.

It’s not so much a new skill set as a new world view.

Perhaps ‘intersectional natives’ might be an alternative term for those who were born into a world focused on and enlivened by the intersection of cultures, disciplines, ideas, and opportunities. They were born outside the box. Indeed, many were born into a reality that understands that the walls of those boxes where often intentionally fabricated to keep things separate – to emphasize difference.

Now, the essential focus has shifted from categories to connections.

Those of us who are not born intersectional must take care neither to try to stuff them back into our boxes, nor fear that their souls are ‘lost’ because they do not live there. We must, instead, encourage them to hold to the path of love, rather than rules. The rules may shift with the context, but the foundation of love is the essence of life. Love is life’s purpose, its path and its glorious fulfillment.

And, of course, love is about connection.

Indeed, this generation may be the one that can lead us to a better understanding of the Trinity – the reality of a God outside the box. They may help us understand that relationship is the source of reality. It is not about separate ‘persons’ but a bigger, more inclusive ‘one.’

Perhaps this will be the generation that builds bridges rather than walls.

I do hope so.

[photo by Miles Kent per cc 2.0]

my cavern

cavernI stand at the mouth of a cavern – huge, dark … powerful in its presence and mystery. I want to enter, something calls me in, but I am also fearful. If I walk this path, will I soon get lost amid the stalagmites and stalactites and crevices and boulders that lurk within the shadows? Will I fall or be trapped? Will I simply wander to no avail?

Yet, there is this call, not really audible, just a tug upon my soul. I take a deep breath and step toward the dark. And in that first step, I feel my heart open just a bit – or perhaps it just softens. It is an almost imperceptible move, like the coming wakefulness of morning, arising from the deepest sleep to the next level, just below awareness.

I take another breath and resist the urge to steel myself. It is not about holding tight, but letting go. Another breath, another step, ears on alert, heart inching ahead of my frame, I move. One slow step at a time, searching … or, no, opening, I move.

This is different. I somehow know that this is not a process where I will find something, or figure it out, or come to understand. This is a process in which I will be changed, opened, melded.

It has taken these few steps for the whole sense of this call to change. I am not called to some great mission, to some accomplishment that will be a offering for you. I am called to become someone different, someone melded, molded, reconstituted into a vessel, or … not so much a container for something other than I am, but a container that is an amalgam of me and you – a container that can now hold something that could not otherwise be held.

Beheld… that word, itself, turns a corner in me. If I let myself be seen – and the darkness provides a bit of a robe for my nakedness even as I shed my successive layers of protection – if I let myself be seen, I will become more of myself. Beholding as creation.

And beholding goes both ways. As I find my way through a successive unmasking of my very self, I find my way to you, as well. You dwell in truth. An honest soul, and only an honest soul, can truly encounter you. It is a law of the spiritual realm – that truth is a prerequisite.

Yet truth alone, sterile and hard, will not suffice. Somehow, honesty must be mixed with the affirming pulse of life itself, the truth of true connection, where the coming together is full and free and beautiful. Some would call it love, but even that word seems too light a thing.

And now all my words fade to mere filaments of hope. They cannot really do justice to what is.

I stand, naked, in the dark, still shedding layers of presumption and constraint. And the darkness, itself, a deep and quiet and holy darkness, swirls around me, urging union, promising completion.

Slowly the darkness becomes light. Turns out the darkness was within me, and I have begun to shed it, ever so slowly. The light begins to smile upon me, to welcome me, to make its way into me. My growing honesty is, at last, allowing me to embrace – to be embraced by – the truth of you.

This process is not done, but it is begun. And I am glad.

My soul, a bit raw from this successive unveiling, feels closer to itself. It confirms a truth that has long dwelt with me. I have no words. Except, perhaps, ‘thank you.’

[photo by Emily Mocarski per cc 2.0]

a change in plans

plans
A change in plans
Can be disconcerting.
It suggests that I’m not really
The one in control, after all.

Imagine that!

It also reminds me
That my focus, all too often,
Is on the circumstances,
On things to do and places to be.

I have a to-do list,
Not a to-be or to-be-with list.

But, when plans change,
I am reminded
That the richness of life
Lies in the continual dance of relationship.

Circumstances are just the medium
Where we dance that dance.
Life is not really about what, but who.

And I am so grateful
For those who dance this dance with me.
They touch my soul with grace
And open my eyes to the deep.

With these companions,
Plans are dance steps drawn upon the floor.
When you are actually dancing,
There is joy in creating the dance together.

Change is where the life is.
Let’s dance!

[image modified from photo by Jeremy Keith per cc 2.0]

Follow the Song

through the plainI wake on the plain, beside the angel. The fire has died into ash-covered embers and the night sky has begun to fade to morning. The angel is sitting, back to the fire, looking out into the plain. He is robed already and has his staff in his hand. He looks at me and smiles. We gather our supplies, cover the fire, and begin the day’s journey.

It is a pleasant walk at first. He is humming softly to himself and the air is almost sweet with the fragrance of the wet grass. My feet are damp with dew. I shift the pack upon my back, balancing it on my hips, letting the shoulder straps lie slack.

The pack creaks softly as I walk. The weight of the backpack is so much easier to carry when it fits well.

On we walk, step, step, step, forward on the faintly visible path. If the angel were not guiding me, I would not really be able to tell the path from the ruts of dried streams and the passageways of animals who cross the plain in their daily search for food. My own path is hard to discern among the others. But the angel is confident and strides forward in even, unhurried, but determined steps.

“How do you know the way'” I ask, “since all these patches of earth look the same?”

He pauses on the trail and looks down. “The ground does look the same,” he observes. “That is not where the path is marked. It is written in my heart. I follow his call and not a path. Do you not hear it?”

I strain my ears, but I am not aware of any call, of any sound to guide my steps. I shake my head, a bit chagrined. It’s obvious that I am a novice here.

“Then I will teach you to listen,” the angel replies. He begins to hum. “This melody has been sung throughout the ages in response to the majesty of God. It springs forth when his presence is seen. Its tune, its cadence, its underlying essence is the pattern for your call. Learn the song. Sing it to yourself.”

“The song is my call?” I ask. “The same song of the ages, the same call?”

“No,” the angel replies, “the song only reveals the pattern in which your call will come and acquaints you with the essence it will bring. You learn from the song to recognize your own call when it comes. The song trains your inner ear to hear the call of God.”

“When will he call?” I ask.

“He calls you now.”

I feel desperate. “But I cannot yet hear it.”

“He knows and he will call until you hear. Be patient. Trust him to teach. As long as your heart is directed toward him, you cannot fail, for he is your partner in your journey. And he never fails. He is still creating you, with your cooperation. He tunes your ears, your heart, to hear the melody, to play the melody. Then you will find your purpose, and others will use your melody to find their own.   As long as you desire to follow, he is patient to lead. You demonstrate your desire; indeed, you fulfill your desire by singing the song that tunes your ears to his call.

When you have learned to recognize it, you will hear and know.”

“Teach me the ancient song.”

“Listen.” The angel begins to hum an ancient and intricate melody, a rich history of faith played out in notes of strength and assurance upon the air. There is an essence in the song that speaks to my ears. I strain to hear and learn. The angel smiles and we begin to walk again. He is humming, and I, once in a while, can anticipate a note and join the song.

Don’t look to the earth to find your path. It is not there. It is being called forth within you by the partnership between his creative hand and your willing spirit. It fits you well. Rejoice in the process and in the promise of its completion.

1/11/95

[the photo is my own]

The short list

A list of things that will pass:

  • The soft sighs of a sleeping childpeaceful sleep
  • Spring’s cool mornings
  • Flowers that wake after a rain
  • The ache of yesterday’s exercise
  • The strength of my resolve
  • The urgent demands of this day
  • The current political mess
  • The opportunity on my doorstep
  • This, this, this, too.

A list of things that will not change:

  • God’s love in all of this

At last, I can breathe again. Nothing is too precious or too painful to be outside the realm of the embrace of love. I am grateful.

[photo is my own … already she has changed]
[Thanks to Brene Brown for her work on foreboding joy.]

dawning

seeing more

 

The chief thing that separates us from God is the thought that we are separated from Him. – Thomas Keating

 

As I wake to this new day,
As I yawn and rub my eyes and peer into the breaking dawn,
I begin to see the edges of things, coming clear.
And, today, there is a subtle shift in vision.
I begin to see the heart of things, as well.

Within the frame of morning,
I begin to see a shimmer of your presence.
I begin to imagine your smile upon the dawn,
Your fingers brushing the edges of the grass,
Your hope rising upon the horizon.

And it is here that I begin to know
That imagination is not mere fantasy
But the early sign of the gift of entrainment
The fruit of practice
The pattern behind the patterning.

Rote practice is not the key,
But a continual turning of the heart toward you,
The intention – not to do the work, but to be open to it –
Has begun its work in me.
And that is what dawns on me this morning.

I am so grateful.

[photo used with permission from Mike Bizeau’s beautiful blog – nature has no boss]