Thursday, October 11, 2007

Meditation #2

Meditation #2 - The second in a series of three meditations for the ECW Quiet Day at Trinity Episcopal Church in Natchez, MS.

Fall in New York City is not much like fall in the Appalachain Mountains. Oh, the trees in Central Park change color, along with the occasional tree or two growing in planters along the sidewalks. But no sooner do the leaves fall, than they are caught up in the whoosh of the street sweepers or raked into bags and thrown out with the trash.

Still, early in my first autumn spent in the city, only a few weeks into my first year of seminary, I set out on a walk through the paved pathways and towering buildings. The air was crisp, but no leaves rustled underfoot; even if they had been there, the noise of Westside Highway traffic would have covered up their crunching.

Everything about the city was new to me, a tremendous change from the relatively rural southern towns I had lived in my whole life. The constant pace, the rich diversity of skin colors and languages, the sheer numbers of people, the daily trips to the grocery store, because you can only buy as much as you can walk home with, the ever-present hum of traffic and subways and airplanes and millions of conversations happening all at once, the smell of ethnic dishes mingling with the smell of sewers and steam, the trapeze school on the Lower West Side…

It’s right there on the side of the highway where I was “hiking” that fall day. I was caught completely off guard when I saw for the first time the swinging bars and swaying nets perched so close to the Hudson River it seemed the trapeze artists could sail right across to New Jersey. For quite a while I stood and watched them, learning only later that these brave souls were not professionals but students, just ordinary people like me, swinging high above the ground so many people walked on every day. That part looked like fun, I thought, as I watched a student leap from one platform and swing in a wide arc toward an empty trapeze that had been released from the opposite platform. That swinging part looked like fun. It was that letting go part, though…that letting go…

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast…hold fast…don’t let go… As we move, in our own lives, through seasons of transition and uncertainty, as we swing through the air in a wide arc toward the unknown, our survival instincts kick in and we tighten our grip, we hold fast for all we’re worth to what is familiar, to what we know. Even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, we hold fast…

Walking back to the seminary through the streets of Manhattan that crisp fall afternoon, I remembered bits and pieces of a poem, aptly titled “Fear of Transformation,” in which the author begins, “Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings…” What if that were true, I wondered, looking around me at all the people on the sidewalks, in taxis, running up or down the stairs to the subway. I think I smiled, imagining all of us swinging through the streets toward our different somewhere’s.

“Most of the time,” the poem continues, “I spend my life hanging on for dear life to my trapeze-bar-of-the-moment. It carries me along a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I’m in control of my life. I know most of the right questions and even some of the right answers. But once in a while, as I’m merrily (or not so merrily) swinging along, I look ahead of me into the distance and what do I see? I see another trapeze bar swinging toward me. It’s empty, and I know in that place in me that knows, that this new trapeze bar has my name on it.”

Seasons of transition can move so slowly, as when the leaves turn gradually from green to gold and brown and red and the shadows lengthen a little earlier each afternoon. We can see and feel the changes happening around us and we are able to anticipate what changes may yet come. Other times, we are clonked cross-eyed by a trapeze bar that appears out of the blue and we have only a moment to decide whether to reach for it or to let our trapeze bar swing us back to safety. And still other times, we are so content upon our walk through life, or perhaps so discontent, that the world changes around us and we don’t notice it at all.

Peter, James and John were clonked cross-eyed, I think, when on an ordinary day they went up with on the mountain to pray with Jesus. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white…and they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. The disciples were desperate to preserve the moment, to hold fast, to not let go, and so they rushed around the mountaintop looking for sticks and vines to build a dwelling place. When the blazing glory faded and the moment passed away, Jesus marched them right back down the mountain and went back to work along the roads that he walked every day.

The world seemed a much different, much darker place when Mary Magdalene stood weeping in the garden, desperate to preserve the crucified body of Jesus, to hold fast, to not let go. And while she was weeping, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying…turning, she saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus, supposing him to be the gardener. Mary held so tightly to her grief and anxiety that she could not see how everything had changed until Jesus spoke her name. When the blazing glory of recognition faded and the moment passed away, Jesus marched her right back out of the garden and back to work along the roads she had walked with him every day.

What happens in that space in between? In the distance between mountaintops? In the space between death and new life? The trapeze-swinging poet writes, “I know that I must totally release my grasp on my old bar, and for some moment in time hurtle across space before I can grab onto the new bar. Each time I am filled with terror. It doesn’t matter that in all my previous hurtles across the void of unknowing, I have always made it. Each time I am afraid that I will miss, that I will be crushed on the unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between bars.” In our seasons of transition, we find ourselves staring into the space between how life has been and how life will be (or might be).

In the autumn of my last year of seminary, my class went on retreat in the mountains of Connecticut. Surrounded once again by fall’s fiery foliage, we were aware of how much our lives had changed in the three years we had been together. We were different people. The world was a different place. The church was a different place. For a little while longer, we would still be soaring through the streets of the city, but a new trapeze bar was approaching and we would have to make the leap into the ministries we had been preparing for.

Our chaplain gave us the assignment of writing a prayer to use daily during our time of transition. After a weekend of reflection, conversation, hiking through the woods, and more than a little rustling like children through the fallen leaves, we came up with this prayer: O God of good graces, to you we turn faces as we now stand in this space between places…

Just as in the season of fall the leaves have no choice but to let go if there are to be new leaves the following spring, so in our seasons of transition do we have no choice but to let go if there is to be new life in us. We have to let go of our what-if’s, our anxieties, the things that glue our fingers to those bars. Otherwise we live today dreading tomorrow, and live tomorrow dreading the next day, and so we miss altogether the experience of swinging and soaring and hurtling. We miss today and every day. We miss the space between places. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear…can any of you by worrying add a single hour to the span of life?...Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

In the city of Amsterdam during World War II, a young Jewish woman named Etty Hillesum kept a journal in which she wrote about the terrible changes happening all around her. But she also wrote about remarkable changes happening within her, about a deepening faith that God was with her and a rising conviction that there was an enduring goodness in the world worth preserving. Etty wrote, “I think what weakens people most is fear of wasting their strength.” In the pages of her journal, we are allowed to witness that breathtaking moment of letting go and soaring into a space between places.

What happens in that space? I believe it is in that space – perhaps sometimes into that space, but always in that space – that God calls us. In that space, down from the mountain, Jesus called his disciples to serve. In that space, outside the tomb, Jesus called Mary to preach the good news. In that space, God called Etty to comfort those whose lives would never be the same again.

In that space is where we now live, as Paul loves to tell, Even though our outer nature is passing away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure. In that space is where we are called to serve and preach the good news and give comfort.

Of course, some caution in life is prudent. At the trapeze school in New York City, you do wear a harness, and there’s a safety net underneath. And some holding on in life is life-giving. That’s why we celebrate things like the 60th anniversary of a school. And yet, in our seasons of transition, the only way forward is through the space in between. “Incredibly rich places,” the poet realizes. Scary, perhaps; disorienting, usually, but rich. “Yes, with all the pain and fear and feelings of being out of control that can (but not necessarily) accompany transitions, they are still the most alive, most growth-filled, passionate, expansive moments in our lives.”

It is time once again for us to entertain quiet, a space for reflection or prayer, stillness or, perhaps, swinging. What in-between spaces loom before us? What if we let go our grip? What might God be calling us to? When you hear the bell ring about 30 minutes from now, it will be time for our noon meal in the parish hall.

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