Sunday, January 15, 2017

KKQ 2017: Sunday Morning, Tasting

Here is where I explain this little series of meditations...

Deuteronomy 8:6-10; Psalm 63; John 2:1-11

One of my favorite cinematic scenes is from the movie, Chocolat - actually, many of my favorite scenes are from that movie - when a table full of people who might not otherwise have sat down together are invited to dinner.  A savory meal is served, and there is stunned silence as luscious dark chocolate is poured over the roast on every plate.  Slowly and politely, the guests close their mouths around a first forkful, and in a moment as full of mystery and grace as what happens at the altar, the flavors mingle into something more than a meal to nourish the body.  It is a strangely intimate scene as deep delight fills their faces, and they look at one another and smile.  Their story lines have carried them through loss and longing, sickness and sin, humiliation, loneliness, and despair.  But each has also learned that they are loved and capable of more than they ever imagined.  That night they become friends.  That night they taste communion.

Our sense of taste has the primal function of alerting us to foods that are energy-rich and foods that are poisonous, but most of the time it is the most luxurious of all our senses, enhancing our experience of the mundane and necessary act of eating.  Hundreds of thousands of receptor cells in our taste buds recognize molecules in our food and register them as sweet, sour, salty, bitter, or savory. Then...well, that's actually about all we know for certain about the neurological path from the food we eat to the place in our brains where gustatory information is processed, which means, I guess, I have to accept my son's insistence that he doesn't know why he doesn't like Brussels sprouts, he just doesn't.

So how is Jennifer going to connect all this to knitting and quilting?  She wasn't sure either, at first.  "What wonders there are to behold," is the refrain we have repeated in our worship here, morning and evening, like so many psalmists before us in scripture.  This world God made, by God's own admission, is very good, and we were given eyes and ears and noses and hands to delight in it, and so to delight in God.  We see how beautifully the shades of blue in that quilt shift from dark to light, or how gently that instructor guides a knitter's hands to the next stitch.  We hear the rhythmic hum of sewing machines, the soft sighs of an iron.  We smell wool and suddenly remember a pair of mittens our grandmother made.  We feel yarn flow through our fingers, fabric flow beneath our hands, the weight and warmth of a finished piece.  What wonders there are to behold!

We taste...well, here is a wonder.  Our physical sense of taste is so particular, so unique for each person, that we have come to use the word to describe our creative preferences, what we wear, how we decorate, what our favorite fibers or colors or patterns are.  Quilter Susan Towner-Larsen describes creativity as a juicy process, like eating a Georgia peach when it's just-right-ripe, succulent and sweet, eaten outside or over a sink.  We're aware of how the peach looks, how it smells, how it feels, how it sounds when we slurp its nectar in.  We taste that peach as it fills us, and just as God in this delicious way nourishes our bodies, so does God also feed our souls a juicy capacity for creative expression according to our taste.

We are fed through all our senses, writes knitter Susan Gordon-Lyon.  "From the first rhythm we hear, our mother's heartbeat, we expand our awareness and comprehension of the world around us, and we seek to duplicate its beauty and fathom its secrets by depicting it in symbols and patterns.  Pioneer quilt makers expressed what they saw in their world: flying geese, tumbling blocks, double wedding rings, Virginia reels, as well as stories and myths that lent mystery to their lives, such as the story of Jacob's Ladder.  In the intricate knitting combinations used in Aran sweaters, the names of the stitches tell stories of the knitter's world: marriage lines (up and down), honeycomb, blackberry vines, ocean waves, the tree of life."

What have you tasted?  What are we called to create?  Our faith is in a Word made Incarnate, who made the blind to see and the deaf to hear, turned water into wine, washed smelly feet, and touched the untouchable.  In all the shapes we have cut and seams we have sewn and colors we have chosen and stitches we have knit here this weekend, this, the pattern of Christ, is what we have duplicated.  This has been, and is, our best creative work: our listening to one another's stories as we stitched, our offering of helping hands, our seeing and celebrating each other's hard work, our prayers whispered, our laughter shared, our chocolate savored, our gathering here in this chapel.

At this table, as we celebrate our holy communion, we will see and hear and smell and touch and taste who we are - the Body of Christ, knit together from many and diverse threads, a beautiful patchwork of people, each of us loved and cherished by God.  What wonders there are to behold.

And at this table, we can see and hear and smell and touch and taste who we also are - a community of knitters and quilters and the companions who came with us, women and men with the capacity to create, each according to our taste but all for the purpose of making the world more beautiful and warm and wrapped in love.  It's more like a potluck than a sit-down dinner, for each of us brings something different and wonderful to the table - quilts, scarves, hats, humor, wisdom; different shapes, colors textures and fragrances; and many different tastes.  Let us feast.  What wonders there are to behold!  Amen.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

KKQ 2017: Saturday Evening, Touching

Here is where I explain this little series of meditations...

Psalm 139; Mark 6:53-56

"That's the thing about yarn," a knitter said to me Thursday night, after asking if she could touch the skein in my bag.  "That's the thing about yarn," she said.  "You have to touch it."

It's true, of course, as anyone who has ever walked into a yarn shop knows.  You have to touch everything, even the yarns you don't intend to purchase in colors you'd never choose.  Silk.  Alpaca.  Merino.  Cashmere.  Angora.  Even the words are tactile.  That's the thing about yarn.

I asked around the quilting room, and I learned it's the thing about fabric, too.  "We have to feel the weave and weight," I was told, " even if we'd never use it.  How could we not reach out and touch bolt after bolt of smooth batik, or color-saturated cotton, or crisp white linen?"  What wonders there are to behold.

When the yarn and fabric come home with us, we touch every single inch, every single yard, as it becomes something constructed of stitches and intention.  The yarn slides through our fingers on its way to be knitted; the fabric slides under our hands on its way to becoming a quilt.  And when we're finished, we'll wrap ourselves or someone else in what we have made.

All the rest of our senses - sight and sound and smell and taste - are limited to a very small area - eyes and ears and nose and mouth.  But touch happens everywhere: head to toe, right to left, back to front. Touch is unavoidable, as observed by the children in the movie Despicable Me, who upon being told  to not touch anything ask impetuously, "What about the ground?  Can I touch the ground?  What about the air?  Can I touch the air?"

Our skin is our largest sensory organ, with countless receptors primed for texture, movement, temperature and pressure - the smoothness of fabric, the tickle of a loose thread, the warmth of a wool scarf, the weight of an old quilt.  It is a remarkable and vital layer of who we are, the boundary between us and everything that is not us.  At the same time, our skin is impermeable and porous, inviolable and immensely vulnerable, protective against and responsive to the touch of others, tough and so very fragile.

And the world outside of us is textured as we press against us, or as it presses against us.  Sometimes life is smooth and even, sometimes soft and warm.  Other times it can feel stiff and unyielding, coarse or scratchy, tangled and torn.  Sometimes it has worn so thin we're hanging by a thread.  I do not have to tell you that sadness and weariness are so real that we can sometimes literally feel them as physical sensations.  There are somatosensory receptors not only in our skin but in our bones, our joints, our vital organs.  We don't just hurt.  We feel hurt.  We aren't just sad.  We feel sorrow.  We don't just mourn.  We feel grief.

So it was that the Word became flesh and lived among us, we read in the gospel of John.  Like us, it was only a layer of skin in Jesus Christ that separated God from all that was not God, and what wondrous things happened when Jesus touched us.  People were able by his touch to seat hear, to speak, to walk, to stand up straight, to be made whole, and lest we worry that our touch is not so powerful, I submit to you that what he really did by his touch, by his placing of his hands upon another person's skin, was heal their darkness, their isolation, their forced silence, their overburdened-ness, their fear.  By his touch, Jesus reminded people they were loved and cherished and that their well-being mattered, and he restored them to community.  We can do that with our touch, too.

We know how what we do with our hands - our knitting, our quilting, our stitching - how it heals us, calms us, renews us, binds us together.  Anne Lamott says that in our times of darkness or despair, stitching is "the finger and heart version of putting one foot in front of the other."  We also know how what we do with our hands heals others when we wrap them in our prayer, our thoughts, our love, our scarves, our quilts.  How touching even the fringe of a garment can make one well in heart and spirit. Anne Lamott goes on to write, "The world is always going to be dangerous, and people get badly banged up, but how can there be any more meaning than helping one another stand up in a wind and stay warm?"

That's the thing about yarn.  That's the thing about fabric.  That's the thing about being knit together in love and prayer through Jesus Christ.  What wonders there are to behold.  Amen.

KKQ 2017: Saturday Morning, Smelling

Here is where I explain this little series of meditations...

Psalm 45; Luke 15:17-24

If I told you this was going to be a spiritual meditation on our sense of smell...I know, I'd be a little skeptical, too.  Then again, I don't think I'm alone in believing the smell of hot coffee and sizzling bacon in the morning is a spiritual experience.

It's just that there aren't that many fragrances in scripture, other than a little incense in the temple, a little frankincense and myrrh, and the oil a woman once poured over Jesus' feet.  The Ignatian tradition of prayer, from the 17th century, invites us to enter scripture more deeply, to read with all our senses, so that we might imagine the smell of the fruit in Adam and Eve's hands, or the odor of an ark full of animals, of dust and sweat covered disciples, the earthiness of a vineyard or the sweetness of a wheat field, the smell of fish being cooked over a fire on the beach, or the fatted calf prepared for feast when a prodigal has returned.

It's also an unusual subject for a meditation because our sense of smell is so personal, almost uncomfortably intimate.  Unlike seeing or hearing, which can be done at a distance, we have to be pretty close to something to smell it (except, bless them, for skunks and 16-year-old son's laundry baskets).  And smells, unlike light or sound, linger - they hover in the air as particles, not waves, entering over and over again into our bodies through our noses as we perform the simple but necessary act of breathing.  Odors can be absorbed into fabrics and hair and skin, and so can remain long after the source of the odor is gone.

So it's a little strange to meditate on how our noses help us notice God.  But then again, has the smell of something wonderful ever stopped us in our work, slowed and deepened our inhaling, made us close our eyes to focus on the fragrance?  Maybe lilacs or lavender, pine needles or pumpkin spice, that first whiff of sea air, a newborn's head, or warm chocolate cake?  We have noses for a reason, and if it is in part to sniff out danger, it must also be for the sake of delight, a gift from God, and a part of how we come to know the world.

The intimacy of smell is literally deeply physical, far more than just our proximity to something fragrant.  Receptor cells are triggered, and the impulses they send travel through our limbic system, the most primal part of our bodies, to which, in our brains, the hippocampus and amygdala are attached.  These perform associative thinking and process emotion, and together they make memories.  When we smell something, our brains, unbidden, whip that fragrance together with how we're feeling or where we are or who we're with, so that when we smell that thing again, we are immediately transported back to that time or person or place.  The oil and heat of a sewing machine smell like our grandmother's house.  The wool I bought on Iona smells just like being there.  The smoke wafting from a neighbor's chimney back home smells like the fireplace lounge here.  The tomato sauce at dinner takes us back to our grandfather's kitchen.  Your WindSong literally stays on my mind.

If all of this isn't enough to convince us to consider our noses as a spiritual gift, there are a few other passages in scripture that speak of smell.  From the letter to the Ephesians, "Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us as a fragrant offering to God."  And from the second letter to the Corinthians, "For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved."  We are the aroma of Christ, the aroma of love, the fragrance of offering and sacrifice.  How profoundly intimate. In the movie Michael, the archangel smells like cookies to people around him.  What does it mean to smell like someone who follows Christ?

In some Episcopal Churches it very well may mean to smell a little like frankincense, so thick are the clouds of it hanging in the air.  Mostly, I think, carrying the aroma of Christ has to do with letting kindness and mercy and grace waft between us and linger on us, so that anyone who wanders our way senses welcome, as when we smell something that reminds us of home.  A blessing in the service of morning prayer we use at the Cathedral says, "Live so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in us generous friends."

What will we smell today?  Please do respect personal space!  But amidst the aromas of steam and warm fabric, wooden needles and wool, bread and wine and breakfast and mountain air, perhaps we will also breathe in Christ.  What wonders there are to behold!  Amen.

Friday, January 13, 2017

KKQ 2017: Friday Evening, Hearing

Here is where I explain this little series of meditations...

Psalm 78; 1 Samuel 3:1-11

"One, two, yarn, two, knit two, two,, wait..." Sigh.

If I gave my meditations titles, this one would be, 'Things I heard at Kanuga Today.'

"You mean I have to take the whole row out?"

"I did it!"

"Those colors look beautiful together."

"Seriously, we're eating again already?!"

I heard needles clicking, sewing machines humming, stitch markers clinking, irons sighing, instructors patiently explaining, people laughing and telling stories, toast crunching, bugles sounding, birds singing, prayers said together, and silence being shared comfortably.  All the sounds you would expect at a knitting and quilting retreat.  At Kanuga, anyway - I don't know if every retreat center has bugles and special toast.

What wonders there are to behold, our sense of hearing among them - delicate with narrow canals and tiny bones, hair-like fibers and skin stretched tight as a drum, detecting the movement of sound in the air.  Vibrations become nerve impulses, and nerve impulses become thoughts, and the thoughts become...this is my favorite friend is speaking...someone is crying...the wind is howling...will that dog ever stop barking...

Knitting and quilting are relatively quiet pursuits, and at the same time filled with sounds: scissors snipping and yarn flapping and yarn swifts spinning.  True quiet, in fact, is hard, if not impossible, to come by in our noisy world of phones ringing and devices dinging; of traffic and train whistles and planes making their final approach; of talk shows, bass lines, videos that start playing when you haven't even clicked on them, experts arguing on the news, sirens, gun shots, car alarms.  We've even learned to shout silently when we write a text or email in all caps.

There's lots of noise out there, and unlike our sense of sight, which we turn off by closing our eyes, our ears are always perceiving the sounds that bombard us, even while we sleep.  The Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor laments how difficult it is to find true darkness or true silence, so pervasive are waves of light and sound all around us.  They come at us with such velocity, she writes, that we have to defend ourselves against them, and may become so calloused that we no longer see or hear, even when our eyes our open and our ears unstopped.

And even if we could shut out sound, there's lots of noise inside ourselves as well.  We can close every door and turn off everything that hums or beeps or ticks and tocks, but then the volume of our thoughts turns up, and while those tiny bones in our ears don't hear them, somehow it still registers as sound.

How then do we listen, for surely not every sound is an imposition.  God did not create a world that stays silent.  Waves crash, leaves rustle, bees buzz, people sing.  And even God, in so many stories we read in scripture...even God has a voice.  How do we listen?

That's what we asked a seminary professor who was teaching contemplative prayer.  We were to sit in silence, he said, and obediently, we our classroom on 9th Avenue in New York City.  It was evening, and outside the open window, people were passing by, talking and laughing loudly.  A truck idled at the corner and then began beeping its backing-up-warning.  A light must have changed, because traffic picked up, and it was surely a yellow cab that honked.  A car alarm was set off as another large truck lumbered by.  "We can't do it," we said.  "How can we hear God when there is so much noise?"

Our professor smiled.  He knew we'd ask.  "Are you sure you can't hear God?  Listen differently," he said.  "Pray the noise.  Those people passing by?  Pray for them - who knows what burdens they carry.  Those trucks are delivering some kind of goods or services - pray for those who go without.  The traffic, the horns - pray for the safety of all who travel.  The sirens, the alarms - pray for all who are in danger, and for those who go to their aid."

Speak, for your servant is listening.  God's voice comes in countless ways, even in scripture - there is that still, small voice, yes, but there is also thunder and angel song and the words of teachers, friends, and strangers.  Listen differently, it's as if Eli said to Samuel.  Are you sure you aren't hearing God's voice?  Listen differently, God says to us.  What will we hear?

Needles clicking?  Pray for the person whose head that hat will warm.  A sewing machine?  Pray for the family whose loved one wore the t-shirts that are becoming a quilt.  A bugle call?  Pray for the staff who cooked our food.

Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.  What wonders there are to behold!  Amen.

KKQ 2017: Friday Morning, Seeing

Here we are again - another series of short meditations on knitting and quilting and toast, because here I am again - serving as chaplain at the Kanuga Knitting and Quilting Retreat.  This year's theme for our morning and evening worship was "What Wonders There Are to Behold," exploring God's creation (which is mostly to say, again, knitting and quilting and toast) through each of the five senses.  

Psalm 104; John 9:1-10

Sometimes I remember to look for it, and other times I forget that I'll see it - that first sight of real, true mountains somewhere beyond Birmingham along Interstate 20, as we make our way from Jackson, MS, to Kanuga.  I love that moment, and whether I've been watching the scenery or not, anticipating their appearance, the sight of those mountains instantly fills me with delight, no matter how much Alabama road construction I'm navigating.  I can't help but smile, and breathe more deeply, and relax my grip on the steering wheel just a little, along with my grip on whatever has been occupying my thoughts.  And inside the car with its recycled air, I'm smelling evergreens and layers of leaves, feeling the movement of a rocking chair, hearing silence broken only by birdsong, tasting morning's first bite of toast.

What wonders there are to behold, so many of the psalmists sang, marveling at all God has made, including ourselves, made with eyes and ears and noses and hands and mouths for beholding God's wonders.  God could have mountains for God's own delight - do you remember, in Genesis, how very often we are told that God look at what had been made and called it good, very good? - but so great was God's delight that it could not be reserved for God alone.  We are created with an extraordinary capacity to experience and be transformed by the wonders of this world.

Our bodies are filled with and covered in specialized cells, remarkable receptors for light and sound and smells and touch and taste.  They take in everything around us and send it as electrical impulses to our brains, where what we experience is shaped into images, memories, knowledge, and insight, a patchwork of color and scent and soft or rough, a weaving of sounds and sweetness and saltiness and wonder.

What we see makes up as much as 75 percent of what we perceive - it is the sense, when our eyes are healthy and open, that we rely upon most.  And our eyes are up to the task, each one made up of millions of working parts.  We are so conditioned to respond to visual stimuli that when we understand something, we say, "I see."

So what do we see?  I wonder if, most of the time, the better question is, what do we not see?  What are we so focused on that we're blind to everything else, like the people in the gospel story who only recognize the blind man by his blindness, and not by any other characteristic?

God's vision contained an entire creation, and each individual element in it.  So are we, made in God's image, capable of extraordinary sight.  We can take in such big pictures as a beautiful lake...and notice any number of details, like the play of light on wind-driven ripples, the perfect reflection of clouds and sky when the lake is still, the infinite number of shades of green among the trees along the shore.  A conference room full of people...and the way a smile grows on the face of the person sitting beside us.  A finished quilt so large it takes two people to hold it up...and how the quilter cut the fabric in that one square to keep the blue flower intact.  A whole row of stitches perfectly (or mostly-perfectly) executed...and the way that knit-two-together leans just a little to the right (don't worry, it's supposed to do that).  A pattern we just aren't sure we can master...and the next step in that pattern, which we can.

Perhaps it does take time to recognize our ability to see, to allow our sense of sight to inspire us and not merely inform us.  Here, on retreat, we are given just such a gift.  If, and I'm not saying this is likely, but if we get caught up in anxiety over the numbers and words and patterns of this day, in the same way we can so easily get caught up in the to-do lists and appointments and obligations of our daily lives away from here...if all we can see is what doesn't delight us, Leo Tolstoy wrote, "In the name of God, stop a moment, close your work, look around you."

What will we see today?  The hands at work beside us, how they hold the yarn just so, or move their fabric past the needle with such care.  The last of the snow hiding in the cool shade of a cottage.  The dropped stitch, the crooked seam...and the people all around us who can help.  The bird riding a current above the lake.  The pink yarn so saturated we can't look away.  The dance of flames in a fireplace.

In the name of God, look around.  What wonders there are to behold!  Amen.