Archive for the ‘lectio divina’ Category

Day 25: And Cleanse Me

March 21, 2012

And Cleanse Me © Jan L. Richardson (click image to enlarge)

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
—Psalm 51.2

From a lectionary reading for Lent 5: Psalm 51.1-12

Reflection for Wednesday, March 21 (Day 25 of Lent)

Creatures of dust and mud that we are—as we were reminded on Ash Wednesday, at the outset of this Lenten pilgrimage—it’s not that God needs for us to be all tidy in order to come into the presence of God. We are already there. Yet we carry so much that can serve to insulate us from recognizing and being present to the God who is always present to us, and who still perceives our beloved shape beneath the layers of grime that cling to our souls. The distractions we build our lives around; the harm we cause others or ourselves; our inability to see ourselves as God sees us: how might we allow God to wash all this away, not so that God can see us more clearly, but so that we can see the God who makes a home within us?

[To use the image “And Cleanse Me,” please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

A Blessing with Roots

July 5, 2011


Getting Grounded ©  Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Proper 10/Ordinary 15/Pentecost +4 (July 10): Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23

During our recent Saint Brigid’s retreat, we were treated to a poetry reading from Father Kilian McDonnell, one of the Benedictine monks of Saint John’s Abbey, where our retreat took place. Having been on the retreat a few years earlier when Fr. Kilian came and shared his poems, I had been looking forward to his return visit with much anticipation.

For most of his life Fr. Kilian (who I first introduced in this post at The Advent Door) has worked as a theologian—teaching at Saint John’s University, writing scholarly books and articles on systematic theology, and taking a leading role in ecumenical work. At 75, in his so-called retirement, Fr. Kilian began to write poetry. In an essay that he wrote eight years after his poetic beginnings and included in his first published collection of poems (Swift, Lord, You Are Not), Fr. Kilian describes how, while reading a poem in the New Republic, “I said to myself, ‘I think I can do as well.'”

He acknowledges that his career as a scholar writing theology “out of a dogmatic, abstract, highly authoritarian, text-bound tradition” and dealing not only with the scriptures but also with “conciliar decrees, papal encyclicals, episcopal pronouncements, all highly conceptual, content and meaning-oriented,” had not prepared him particularly well for a vocation as a creative writer. “Too much imagination in theological writing,” Fr. Kilian observes, “can bring you to the stake.” Even in his own monastery, Fr. Kilian’s turn toward poetry was looked on by some as, if not outright dangerous, then a frivolous pursuit; he tells in one of his poems of a monk in the community who says, “Kilian does not have/enough to do./He writes poetry.”

Yet he has persisted. And as he prepares to turn 90 this year, Fr. Kilian is anticipating the publication of his fourth book of poems (the first having been followed by Yahweh’s Other Shoe and God Drops and Loses Things). It’s due out next month and is titled Wrestling with God. During his afternoon with us, Fr. Kilian gave us a sneak peek of the poems in this forthcoming book.

Most of Fr. Kilian’s poetry finds its grounding in the scriptures. And while some folks with stereotypes about monks, poetry, and the scriptures—let alone a combination of the three—might suppose that a longtime monk who takes his inspiration from the Bible would produce poetry that is ethereal or sentimental, Fr. Kilian’s poems provide a wondrous witness to how the contemplative life calls us deeper into the world, not away from it. Part of Fr. Kilian’s charm and punch as a poet lies in his earthiness (evident in such poems as “The Ox’s Broad Behind”), as well as in his willingness to go deep and deep into the layers of the biblical stories and to confront and call forth, with his piercing poet’s eye, the complexities of human life in this world given to us by a God who is both marvelous and maddening.

I will tell you that it is a wonder to be in the poetic presence of someone who has been pondering the Word—praying with it, contemplating it, ruminating upon it—in spitting distance of a century. Although we are not all called to become poets, Fr. Kilian’s deep engagement with the Word offers a window onto a life where the Word has found good soil and has born fruit, as this week’s Parable of the Sower calls us to.

As I ruminate on this week’s parable, I find myself wondering: What soil—what earth—is the Word finding in our own lives these days? How do we seek out the Word—in the scriptures and in the person of Christ—in the rhythm of our days? How willing are we to go deep into the layers and complexities it offers to us? How do we take the Word into ourselves and let it take root across the span of seasons and years? What fruit are we called to let the Word bear in and through us?

A Blessing with Roots

Tug at this blessing
and you will find
it is a thing
with roots.

This is a blessing
that has gone deep
into good soil,
into the sacred dark,
into the luminous hidden.

It has been months
since the ground
gathered the seed
of this blessing
into itself,
years since the earth
enfolded it.

Sometimes
that’s how long
a blessing takes.

And the fact
that this blessing
should finally show
its first fruits
on the day
you happened by—

well, perhaps we shall
simply call the timing
of this ripening
a mystery
and a sweet grace.

Take all you want
of this blessing.
Take every morsel
that you need for
the path ahead.
Let its fruits fall
into your hands;
gather them into
the basket of
your arms.

Let this blessing
be one place
where you are willing
to receive
in unmeasured portions,
to lay aside
for a moment
the way you ration
your delights.

Let yourself accept
its inexplicable plenitude;
allow it to give itself
to sustain you

not simply for yourself—
though on this bright day
I might be persuaded
to think that would
be enough—

but that you may
gather its seeds
into yourself
like the ground
where this blessing began

and wait
with the patience
of seasons
and of years

to bear forth
in the fullness of time
a stunning harvest,
a plenteous feast.

P.S. For a previous reflection on this passage, see Getting Grounded.

[To use the “Getting Grounded” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Related artwork:

Into the Seed

Listening at the Cross

March 31, 2011

One of the things I love about having Garrison Doles in my life is getting to collaborate with him in a variety of venues, from retreats to worship to workshops and beyond. I’m delighted to announce our latest collaboration, this time in the digital realm. We have just released a new video titled Listening at the Cross: The Seven Last Words of Christ, which intertwines my artwork and Gary’s music.

The images in the video come from the series I created for the book Listening at Golgotha, Peter Storey’s series of reflections on Christ’s words from the cross. Peter is a friend whose ministry has included serving as the bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and as the chaplain to Nelson Mandela during his years in prison. As one might imagine, this pastor who spent much of his ministry engaged in the struggle against apartheid has some distinctive insights into the crucifixion of Christ—as well as his resurrection.

Gary’s haunting song “This Crown of Thorns,” from his CD Draw Us Closer, accompanies the images. As always, working with his words and music draws me deeper into my own creative work, and it is a delight to offer you this marriage of song and image in this Lenten season. We pray that in these days, Listening at the Cross will invite you into an evocative space of quiet and contemplation as we journey with Christ not only to the cross but also to what lies beyond it.

In addition to launching the video on YouTube, we are also releasing it at the very cool Vimeo site, where you can view it here. To share the video in worship and related settings, you can find a high-resolution version by visiting Listening at the Cross on the Jan Richardson Images website. As always, using the Jan Richardson Images site helps make possible the ministry that I offer at The Painted Prayerbook and beyond. And downloading the video will support Gary’s ministry as well!

Know that we are grateful to be on the path with you, and we wish you many blessings in these Lenten days.

Transfiguration: Back to the Drawing Board

February 7, 2010


Transfigure © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Transfiguration Sunday, Year C (Feb. 14): Luke 9:28-36 (37-43)

I was nearly finished with the collage before it occurred to me that the design perhaps owes as much to the snow I was recently in as it does to next Sunday’s gospel text. Gary and I have returned from Minnesota, and although we (and they) joked about the wisdom of importing Floridians at this time of year, it was a great gift to be in a lovely winter’s landscape and to receive wondrous hospitality as we shared a morning at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church (including a worship service that takes place in their art gallery, what a concept) and in events at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality and United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.

At the events, I had occasion to share images of some of my artwork from the past 15+ years. It was the first time I had brought these images together in quite this way, from early work such as Wise Women Also Came (made when I was still using construction paper!) to the more recent collages I’ve created for this blog and The Advent Door. Looking back over this body of work prompted me to do some reflecting on how my style has changed. Although paper collage remains my first love, my technique and my style have both shifted considerably, taking an increasingly abstract turn since I began creating artwork for my blogs more than two years ago.

When it comes to the creative process, I can’t say I have a lot of control. Trying to wield too much control, in fact, is one of the worst things an artist can do (which doesn’t always keep me from trying). I didn’t exactly set out to do abstract work. The technique, which involves painting tissue paper, emerged from creative necessity as I was working on The Welcome Table: the scale was so large (4.5 x 6.5 feet) that I couldn’t snip the characters’ clothes out of magazines; I had to fashion them myself. I can’t explain the ensuing turn toward abstraction, except in part: once the painted papers showed up, that’s the path they took me down. That, and these lectionary texts that take me to places that so often resist traditional depictions. I experience abstract art as being more like poetry in the space that it creates. “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson wrote. I’m not trying to explain these passages, but to evoke, to invite, to sidle up alongside the texts and offer a doorway into them amidst line and shape and color.

Along the way, what I keep working and hoping to do is to give myself to the mysteries involved in the process of making: to pay attention to what emerges among the papers and to follow where they lead; to keep clearing out a space within myself that leaves enough room for something new to show up; and to avoid growing so attached to a particular style or technique that it becomes overworked and ossified.

In my artful work and elsewhere, the challenges that the disciples encounter in this passage from Luke are my own challenges. Like Peter, John, and James at prayer with Jesus on the mountain, I sometimes struggle to stay awake when it’s easier to be lulled into sleep and to miss the thin places, the meetings of heaven and earth, that open up in the midst of daily life. And when those thin places come—when a burst of inspiration opens a new world, say, or, after hours or months or sometimes years of experimentation, something finally comes together at the drafting table, and both the work and I myself are transformed—it can be tempting to want to set up shop there, to preserve the moment, as Peter longed to do. I recognize his impulse in my own self, his desire to want to linger in the wonder. And why shouldn’t he? Yet the persistent invitation of Jesus is to take what we have seen, what we have found, down into the trenches of everyday life.

It’s not a new message; I’ll wager that the greater percentage of the sermons preached on this text will offer a variation on the theme of navigating the transition from the mountaintop to the flatlands. And yet we need to keep practicing that transition, to keep rehearsing the journey that moves us from being recipients of wonder to becoming people who, transformed and—shall we say it?—transfigured by what we have received, can then offer these wonders to a broken world.

When the disciples come down from the mountain, they still have plenty of struggles ahead. They’ve hardly gotten their feet back on flat land when, Luke tells us, they encounter, and fail to heal, a boy in the grip of what Luke describes as an unclean spirit. In juxtaposing the stories, Luke suggests that the disciples’ own spirits are still struggling between holding on and letting go, are still struggling to leave a space for the wonders that Christ seeks to do within and through them. It will take rehearsing, and practicing, and rehearsing some more. In my own life, cultivating this space is something that, quite literally, I keep going back to the drawing board to learn.

This is a great passage to lead us toward Lent, a season that is all about discerning what it is that we cling to, and what we need to practice letting go of in order for Christ to become more clear in us. But Lent will come around soon enough. In the meantime, where does the story of Peter and John and James connect with your own? How are you navigating the journey that their own feet trace between the mountaintop and the flatlands? What do you find yourself tempted to cling to, and how do you practice letting go of it? Do you have habits and spaces that invite you to cultivate an openness to the new ways that God desires to work in and through you? Where and how do you rehearse the transfiguration that God seeks to bring in your life?

As we move toward Transfiguration Sunday, may we keep awake to the wonders in our midst, let ourselves be transformed by them, and follow the path they open to us. Blessings.

[For an earlier reflection on the Transfiguration, please see Transfiguration Sunday: Show and (Don’t) Tell. To use the “Transfigure” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Update: Speaking of the creative process, the very cool site patheos.com has recently reprinted an interview that Christine Valters Paintner did with me at her also-very-cool Abbey of the Arts, in which she invited me to reflect on my practice as an artist. Here’s the reprint at Patheos: Sacred Artist Interview: Jan Richardson.

Eat this Book

February 14, 2009

blog-bookbinding21

During the past couple of weeks, I’ve spent some time in the bookbindery (a.k.a. my dining/kitchen/studio table), working to replenish the supply of books that I’ve published through my small press. With Lent just around the bend, I’ve been particularly focused on shoring up my stock of my book Garden of Hollows: Entering the Mysteries of Lent & Easter. Drawing on the texts and images that the Lenten season gives us, Garden of Hollows invites readers to contemplate their lives in the light—and shadows—of the stories that lead us toward resurrection.

I established Wanton Gospeller Press in order to create small, intimate, artful books of a sort that traditional publishing houses typically can’t offer. Although I’m continuing to work with publishing houses, I’m grateful to have a pathway that enables me to develop my own vision for a book and handle its production from start to finish. I do virtually the whole shebang myself: writing, artwork, design, making the covers, and binding the books. The process is labor intensive, but I enjoy the rhythm and being engaged in each step of bringing a book into the world.

With this round of book making, I’ve added a couple of new, artful elements, including gorgeous endpapers made of mango papers that come from Thailand. The paper is beautiful, translucent, and has mango leaf inclusions, as you can see in a couple of the photos above. I’ve selected a different mango paper for each of my Wanton Gospeller editions; for Garden of Hollows I chose a lovely pale green.

My sweetheart Gary says using mango paper is a good choice, as readers can eat the endpapers if they start feeling peckish along the way. That’s actually a great image for these books, and for the process of lectio divina (sacred reading) that gave rise to them. The Dominican nun who first taught me about lectio sometimes calls it lectio bovina, in respect of the way that this form of reading invites us to chew and chew on a sacred text until we gain the nourishment it has to offer. Garden of Hollows grew from a long process of ruminating on the sacred stories of the coming season. I pray that this book, in turn, offers some of the sustenance that I have found.

I would love to share these Wanton Gospeller Press books with you! For more information and book excerpts, click on Wanton Gospeller Press, where you can order either from Amazon.com or directly from me.

Happy munching!

Getting Grounded

July 8, 2008


Getting Grounded © Jan L. Richardson

This week finds me packing my bags, getting ready to head to Minnesota for my always-anticipated annual retreat with fellow oblates of St. Brigid of Kildare Monastery. As usual, we’re having our gathering at a wonderful retreat house on the grounds of St. John’s Abbey, a Benedictine men’s community. Also as usual, our retreat falls over the Feast of St. Benedict (July 11), which always makes for a festive time to be hanging out with Benedictine folk. The retreat offers a near-embarrassment of Benedictine riches, in fact. In addition to having occasion to celebrate and pray with the monks and others connected with St. John’s, we’ll visit the sisters at St. Benedict’s Monastery just down the road, joining them for Vespers on the Eve of the Feast.

Throughout our retreat, we’ll also have our own rhythm of community prayer. Stepping together into the ancient rhythm of the Liturgy of the Hours, my fellow retreatants and I will keep a schedule that will include morning, noon, and evening prayer as well as compline, the nighttime prayer. Getting up for 7 AM morning prayer is a real stretch for this night owl. But entering that rhythm of prayer together for a few days, when we are otherwise a dispersed community praying in relative (if spiritually connected) solitude, is a cool thing.

Though we keep to a liturgy schedule that sets aside appointed times for prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours beckons us to a pace that is anything but task-oriented. It invites us to slow down and savor what the liturgy offers us: the Word that reveals itself in the scriptures, in the prayers, and in the silence. In her book The Cloister Walk (which she wrote during a stay at St. John’s), Kathleen Norris observes that liturgical time “is essentially poetic time, oriented toward process rather than productivity, willing to wait attentively in stillness rather than always pushing to ‘get the job done.'”

When not praying the Liturgy of the Hours, we’ll spend some of our retreat in sessions exploring this year’s theme, “Simplicity in the Monastic Tradition.” I’m delighted that one of the folks presenting a session this year will be Fr. Luke Dysinger, OSB. For years I’ve been passing around Fr. Luke’s online introduction to lectio divina, Accepting the Embrace of God: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina, providing it as a resource on retreats and elsewhere. I particularly appreciate Fr. Luke’s discussion of what he calls lectio on life, which first got me thinking about our own lives as sacred texts—an idea that shapes much of my work these days.

With all this to look forward to, I’m intrigued that the lectionary offers us Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23 for this Sunday. The Parable of the Sower is all about the work to which both the Liturgy of the Hours and lectio divina invite us. These ancient practices each beckon us to be loiterers in the neighborhood of the Word, to hang out and dawdle with it, rather than moving through it with a briskness that assumes we know what it has to say. The liturgy and lectio both invite us to consider how we’re allowing God to cultivate us, how we are tending our interior earth as a place where the Word can take root and grow—not just for ourselves but for the life of the world.

As I head out tomorrow, I’ll be carrying those images that Jesus offers in this week’s gospel lection. I’m curious to see what earth might get moved in my soul in the coming days, what new ground God might challenge me to give. How about you? What sort of cultivation is going on in your soul these days? Is there any earth that God might be inviting you to offer? What practices are you keeping—or needing—that help you do this kind of sacred groundwork?

Me, I’m off to finish packing. Blessings to you in all your journeying.

[To use the “Getting Grounded” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Palm Sunday: Where the Way Leads

March 14, 2008


Where the Way Leads © Jan L. Richardson

At the opening of her book To Dance with God, Gertrud Mueller Nelson tells the story of an afternoon she spent absorbed in a project at her sewing machine. Her daughter Annika, three years old at the time, dug into the basket of scraps that sat at her mother’s feet. Annika pulled out several long, bright strips of discarded fabric, gathered them up, and slipped away. Gertrud writes than when she went to find Annika, “I tracked her whereabouts to the back garden where I found her sitting in the grass with a long pole. She was affixing the scraps to the top of the pole with great sticky wads of tape. ‘I’m making a banner for a procession,’ she said. ‘I need a procession so that God will come down and dance with us.’ With that she solemnly lifted her banner to flutter in the wind and slowly she began to dance.”

This week we celebrate Palm Sunday, remembering the day when the crowds of Jerusalem offered a procession to celebrate the one who came to live, and walk, and work, and dance among us. Matthew gives us the Gospel lection for Palm Sunday this year. Matthew 21.1-11 tells the familiar story of how Jesus sends two disciples ahead to the village to bring back a donkey for Jesus. (An art historical note here: Matthew’s claim that Jesus rode a donkey and a colt, which probably stemmed from a not-entirely-precise reading of the Isaiah prophecy that he quotes, produced some unusual medieval depictions of Jesus riding two animals at the same time. Not saying he couldn’t have done it, but I think he already had enough going on that he would have avoided that particular balancing act.) Matthew goes on to tell of the crowds: they line the road with cloaks and branches, they go ahead of Jesus, they follow after him, they shout Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven! And to those in Jerusalem who ask, “Who is this?” these same crowds say, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

It is a scene of jubilation, this procession in honor of the prophet. For those who know the rest of the story, however, there is an eerie note to the cries of the crowd. The way of palms will lead to the way of the passion, a path marked by shouts of accusation and a collective demand for Jesus’ death, a path traced in blood.

Amid the hosannas of the festive crowd, I keep hearing a voice that echoes from the other end of Jesus’ story. It belongs to John the Baptist. It is a lone voice, a ragged, fiery, locust-and-honey-drenched voice, a voice that raised its cry long before the crowds began to do so. Early in his Gospel, Matthew tells us of John, and he turns to the prophet Isaiah for words to describe him: “This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out
in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.'”
(Matthew 3.3, quoting Isaiah 40.3, NRSV)

John had indeed prepared the way for his kinsman Jesus, whom he recognized long before anyone else, even, as Luke tells us, leaping for joy in the womb when his pregnant mother Elizabeth heard the pregnant Mary’s voice. By the time that Matthew tells of a cloak-and-branch-strewn road, John is gone, dead at Herod’s command. What would the Baptist have thought of where this way, so well prepared, was taking Jesus? A prophet steeped in the stories of his prophetic forebears, John would have been well acquainted with the evils that can be visited upon a prophet. Yet he would have known, too, that evil never has the final word.

In the same Isaiah passage that Matthew quotes to describe John the Baptist, the prophet goes on to say this:

A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower
of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord
blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will
stand forever. (Isaiah 40.6-8)

The word endures. The Word endures. We who stand among the Palm Sunday crowds know that the Word will soon be beaten, mocked, and killed. We know, too, that that is not the end of the tale.

But we have not yet moved on to that part of the tale. This week’s Gospel lection beckons us to linger alongside the road, to lift our voices in celebration, and to ask ourselves a few questions. I find myself wondering, what is the way that I am preparing for Christ? Am I clearing a path by which he has access to my life? Am I keeping my eyes open to the variety of guises that Christ continues to wear in our world? Taking a cue from Annika, what am I lifting up, that God might come down and dance with me?

On the cusp of Palm Sunday, on the threshold of this Week of Weeks: blessings to you, and a pair of dancing shoes.

[To use the “Where the Way Leads” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Unbinding Words, Part 2

March 8, 2008

initial-i.jpgn the Middle Ages, artists depicted the raising of Lazarus with styles that varied but drew upon standard elements. The artists presented the viewer with the entire scene: a commanding Jesus summons forth Lazarus, who appears in some state of enshroudment. A crowd gathers around; typically, at least one of the bystanders holds his or her nose, underscoring practical Martha’s observation: “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days” (John 11.39). The Limbourg Brothers offer such a depiction in Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry), which was, as its title suggests, one of the most lavish Books of Hours of the medieval period. You can visit The Raising of Lazarus to see their view of the scene (with an abundance of nose-holding folks).

The Saint John’s Bible, the first Bible to be entirely illuminated and lettered by hand in more than 500 years, presents this scene from a strikingly different perspective. Rather than placing the viewer near the bystanders outside the grave, the illuminator, Donald Jackson, locates the viewer inside the shadowy tomb. We are close enough to smell the death-garbed Lazarus. But we see from a perspective very close to the waking man’s own: our gaze follows his toward the opening of the tomb, where Jesus stands drenched in light.

The shift in perspective beckons us to see that as Jesus calls to Lazarus, he calls also to us. How are you feeling challenged to move this day?

Prayer of Confession

God of compassion,
we acknowledge the times
we have lived too long
with the words that others have put
into our mouths,
with the pain they have written
onto our bodies,
with the terror they have burned
into our hearts,
with the shame they have inscribed
onto our souls.
We know the times we have clung
to sackcloth not of our making,
when we have lived
clothed in weariness,
cloaked with anger,
and enshrouded by sorrow.
We grieve the occasions
when we have lived with alienation
rather than association,
when we have sought isolation
rather than consolation,
when our wounds within
have shut others out.
We confess our fear of the dark
and our uncertainty of the light.

Yet you have placed within us, God,
a longing for survival,
a hunger for your wholeness,
a yearning for your comfort,
and a hope for all our healing.
Bless our mouths
to name our wounds,
that we may not fear them;
our bodies,
that we might cherish them;
our hearts, that we may delight
in their longings,
and our souls, that we may trust
the wisdom of the stories they hold.
Grant us the courage
to be touched by you,
that when our days of weeping
are done,
we may wear your garments of gladness,
see one another in the light
of your love,
and stand together in the power
of your resurrection.
In the name of the risen Christ,
we pray. Amen.

Prayer © Jan L. Richardson, from In Wisdom’s Path: Discovering the Sacred in Every Season.

Lent 5: Unbinding Words

March 7, 2008


Unbinding Words © Jan L. Richardson

For the entire season of Lent I have been looking forward to this week, because it gives us John 11.1-45 for our Gospel reading. The raising of Lazarus is a Big Story. It takes place at a pivotal place in John’s narrative. The action has begun to intensify; Jesus has just narrowly escaped stoning, and he will soon make his triumphal, if short-lived, entry into Jerusalem. The primary goal of the story is to display Jesus’ power: to demonstrate, as a friend of mine once observed, that Jesus isn’t much impressed with death.

John conveys his point with a richness of texture and detail that makes this a particularly compelling text with which to do lectio divina. The story is dense with movement and meaning, and it offers an extravagance of entry points for reflection.

I am intrigued by the web of relationships among the participants in this text. There are Mary and Martha, whose story is bound together with the unbinding of their brother, and who foreshadow the presence of women at another tomb that lies not too distant. I am curious about the friendship that these siblings shared with Jesus, how their home in Bethany seems to have been for Jesus a particular place of hospitality, comfort, familiarity, and, as John points out, love.

There is Thomas, seemingly destined to forever carry the title “Doubting Thomas,” who ought to be better known as the one who, in this story, demonstrates his willingness to die with Jesus.

There is Jesus, whose presence in the story is marked by waiting and weeping.

And then there is Lazarus. Though the story hinges largely on him, for most of it he is a passive background figure. We never hear his voice, and it is only at the end of the story that he finally becomes really interesting, when he is faced with the choice of whether or not to come out of the tomb.

This story is one of my favorites, not just because it’s a Big Story but because of the way that so many stories come together within it. This is not just Almighty Jesus at the height of his powers, showing off what he is capable of; this is Jesus reaching into the depths of who he is, pouring himself out on behalf of those with whom he is most intimately in relationship. Jesus enacts Lazarus’ raising, but he does so in the context of a community. Jesus calls Lazarus forth, but he calls upon those around Lazarus—sisters, kinfolk, neighbors—to unbind him and let him go.

Despite my fascination with such details that this story offers, and despite the fact that I’ve been looking forward to it for all of Lent, it’s taken me a long while to get my act together on doing the artwork and writing for this reflection. There are a variety of reasons for this. Perhaps it’s best simply to tell you a small story.

I live and work in a studio apartment that’s about 300 square feet. I have one closet. After living here for nearly a decade, the closet has gotten pretty full. My decision to clean it out this week owed to a couple of factors: I was looking for something that I thought was in it, and I am getting myself situated to begin working full-time on a new book. I suspect many writers would tell you that there is no time when cleaning seems more compelling and, in fact, absolutely essential than when there is a new writing project at hand. As a result, my apartment is the tidiest it’s been in a long time. This periodic impulse derives partly from my resistance to writing, but I’ve learned that it’s also part of the process, kind of like a dog who turns around in circles before finally settling down. I experience a strong connection between my external and internal space. Clearing and cleaning and sorting is a way of wreaking some sort of order amid the chaos that attends the writing process.

I had not done a purge of my wardrobe in many years, and, as a result, I wound up with a startlingly large pile of garments needing to be ushered into their next life. I’m not a clothes horse; I don’t even particularly like shopping for clothes, mostly because most clothing stores around here offer a sea of sameness that induces lethargy and saps my will to Try Things On. Despite this, I had managed to amass a sizable collection of clothes that I hadn’t worn in years. I had had some of them since college. A number of the garments held sentimental attachments for me, and I subjected my sweetheart to stories of my two favorite sweaters, received as gifts in college and worn for years, and to lamentations over a few pairs of Birkenstocks that were worn beyond the point of repair but that I could hardly stand to throw away.

This small story is simply a way of saying that I have spent a fair bit of time this week thinking about what I have clothed myself in, what attachments they have held for me, and what I need to let go of. I anticipate you figured out a while back that I’m not talking just about literal clothes. Sorting through the stacks has provided fertile opportunity to wrestle with deeper matters of the patterns with which I garb myself, and to reckon with layers of habits, practices, and routines, not all of which serve me, or my community, well.

The raising of Lazarus is indeed a Big Story. It unfolds, however, in the context of patterns of relationships, choices, habits, and personalities that influence how each character participates in and responds to Lazarus’ raising. Our own lives are built on these same details. We each garb ourselves in routines and practices that carry us through our relationships, our work, our hungers, our lives. Those routines and practices influence how we receive and respond to God’s call. We may be swathed in layers of habits that may have once fit us, habits we may once have found beautiful, habits we may yet be attached to long past their usefulness but which now insulate and shroud us from the presence of God.

The season of Lent beckons us to reckon with our most entrenched habits as individuals and communities: to sort through them and to recognize that Christ, in all his humanity and all his divinity, has power even over them. This season reminds us that the miraculous and the mundane are intimately intertwined. We are called to wrestle with the very details that shape our lives together, that new life may emerge.

So I ask you some of the questions I have been carrying for myself this week: In your daily living, what patterns are life-giving and help you notice the presence of God? Which habits keep you bound? What helps you hear the voice of Christ who stands at the threshold between death and life? What will help you choose to come forth, and to help someone else do the same? Are there people who can help with the unbinding?

May you find the presence of God in every detail.

[To use the “Unbinding Words” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Lent 4: Here’s Mud in Your Eye

February 27, 2008


Mud In Your Eye © Jan L. Richardson

One evening during my senior year of college, I had dinner with a couple of friends I hadn’t seen since high school. As we caught up over our meal, I shared that I was preparing to go to seminary to become a minister. Upon hearing this, one of my friends immediately launched a series of questions. What did I think of homosexuality? Fornication? The inerrancy of the Bible? It was clear that my friend, who (I had quickly learned) thought the idea of women in ordained ministry was both unscriptural and immoral, wasn’t really interested in a conversation. He was administering these questions not as a way of learning how I was sensing God’s call in my life but rather as a litmus test to see just how far I had strayed from God’s will for me as a woman.

There are questions, like those from my high school friend, that seek to keep us in our place, and there are questions that help us find the place where we belong. Our Gospel lection this week, John 9.1-41, invites us to hear both kinds of questions and to notice the vast difference between them.

John draws us into the story of a man, blind from birth, who has an encounter with Jesus that results in his being able to see. For those who had known the man as a blind beggar, the change in his condition is deeply unsettling. They begin to ask questions, first of one another, then of the man. They take him to the Pharisees, who ask questions of their own. Then they bring in the man’s parents and ask questions of them; they, in turn, direct the questioning back to the man. Lifted from their context, here are the questions they pose:

Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?

Then how were your eyes opened?

Where is he [Jesus]?

How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?

What do you say about him?

Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?

What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?

There is a sense of mounting tension in John’s story, a steady escalation of frustration and fury on the part of the questioners each time the man responds. He is telling them nothing they want to hear, nothing that fits into the beliefs and experiences that they carry. The newly-sighted man possesses a remarkable sense of calm, answering in the only way he knows how: from his own experience. “One thing I do know,” he says, “that though I was blind, now I see.”

When the man’s inquisitors press further, he finally asks a question of his own. “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” His questions are too much for the questioners. John tells us that they begin to revile the man, finally sending him away with an abrupt, rhetorical question: “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?”

Their questions induce a sense of claustrophobia in me. These questions are not doorways into conversation. These questions are fences, these questions are walls. They are designed to reinforce the boundaries of what these people already know, and to keep their landscape of belief, experience, and knowledge safely contained.

These questioners are arrogant. They are aggravating. It would, therefore, be easy to dismiss them as the bad guys in this story. Reading this text in the context of lectio divina, however, urges me to consider where I find those maddening questioners inside myself. And I feel a measure of compassion for them, because I know the times when, faced with something beyond my own experience, I have scrambled for an illusion of security. I know the times, at least some of them, when I have retrenched the boundaries of my beliefs, when I have been overly defensive of what I think I know, when I have asked a question—of someone else or of myself—that built a wall rather than opening a door.

One of the best practices we can engage in, during Lent or any season, is to ask the questions, of others and ourselves, that expand our vision rather than confining it. Good questions carry something of a ritual within them, a sense of the sacramental: they do for us what the act of washing in the pool of Siloam did for the muddy-eyed man. Good questions rinse our eyes. They help us practice seeing. They widen and deepen our vision. They clarify our perception of what is present in our lives and of what is possible. They remind us, as a friend recently reminded me, that we may not always get answers, but asking a good question makes way for a response.

John wants to make sure that we know that Siloam, the name of the pool in which the man washed his eyes, means Sent. Here I have to make the theological observation: Is this cool or what? We are all being sent. Sometimes we are sent beyond the boundaries of what others find acceptable or comfortable or convenient. Sometimes we are sent beyond the limits of our own vision. Whether or not we know where we are going—and sometimes especially when we think we know where God means for us to go—we are ever needful of learning how to see. Like Jesus with the blind man, God calls us to participate in claiming the vision that God gives us, so that, as Jesus says, God’s works might be revealed in us. In order to know where and how and by whom we are being sent, we need to keep visiting Siloam to do the washing that will keep our eyes clear.

John closes this story with questions that are good eye-clearing questions. Jesus, John tells us, finds the seeing man and asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answers Jesus’ question with a question: “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” His question leads, not to a wall, or to a law, but to worship.

It’s the Pharisees who offer the final line in the long litany of questions that this story contains. Overhearing the exchange between the sighted man and Jesus, they ask, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”

Are we?

How well is your spirit seeing these days? What questions are coming your way in this season? What questions are you offering? Are they doorways or walls? How do they take you deeper into the mystery of Christ? Are there deeper questions beneath your questions? What questions will help keep your eyes clear so that you can see, and be sent?

[To use the “Mud In Your Eye” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]