The Spiritual Practice of Noticing Beauty

I spent a lot of time looking at trees this winter. When out walking, I paid attention to them. I watched their branches weaving intricate patterns as I passed beneath them. I marveled at the solidity of their trunks rooted firmly to the ground, and the power of their branches reaching gracefully toward the sky. I admired the occasional leaves that clung tenaciously, dry and withered, to the place where they had thrived during the lush summer months. How they withstood the blustery wind, thrashing rain, and frigid snow when most leaves had jumped ship long ago, I’ll never know.

This was how I survived the winter. By noticing the beauty in the world around me.

I’m not a big fan of winter. I’m not a winter sports kind of gal. I’m naturally cold-blooded – my hands are like icicles even on the hottest of days – so winter feels exceptionally cold to me.

And on top of that, winter over the past few years has been tough. It has signified times of difficult transition. Times of questioning. Times of waiting. Times of uncertainty, unknowability, uncontrollability. Winter hasn’t been the happiest seasons for me, recently.

So I decided that this year would be different. I wasn’t going to let winter get the better of me. I asked for snow shoes for Christmas so I could walk in all kinds of weather, and I picked up some ice cleats to wear when the roads got slick. I kept walking on a daily basis.

And, through attending to the world around me, I found that I resented the season less. In fact, I began to – dare I say – enjoy it. I developed an affection for the specific beauty of winter. Bare branches next to open sky became something I treasured.

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Now, it’s April, and spring has finally sprung here in New Jersey. I look around me and drink in the colors and fragrances, and I delight in the young, green leaves now adorning the same branches that I watched so avidly over the winter months. There’s no doubt about it – I’m immensely happy that spring has arrived. But this year, I don’t have the same sense of enormous relief that I’ve felt in the past. This year, spring is another beautiful season. Just another gorgeous time of the year to appreciate the wonder of creation.

In theory, I believe that we can always find beauty in the world, no matter where we are, or what the landscape, or what the weather. In Psalm 19, the skies proclaim the glory of God – they speak without words, yet their voice goes out to the world. There are no limits to the grandeur of creation. All we have to do is lift our eyes, and pay attention. But the reality is, this doesn’t always come naturally. It takes practice.

This year, the spiritual practice of noticing beauty helped me to conquer winter.

And… spring is still pretty darn amazing.

Perceiving Newness

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“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

Isaiah 43:19 (NRSV)

Deep in the winter of 2010, I perceived a new thing. It was so quiet, so subtle, so muffled by the clutter and noise and busyness of my life, that I barely recognized it.

It was a song.

It started when I was listening to an Irish harp tune from the 1600’s, and something in it connected with a deep sense of longing that I had within me that evening. I had just preached that morning on the longing expressed in Psalm 63 (“my soul longs for you like a dry land…”), and in the quiet of the house late at night, I put melody and words together to create a new song.

I barely perceived this new song emerging from old melody and ancient scripture, and yet, it came. And I wrote it down. And I sang it softly to myself, for months and months. Then I sang it softly to my husband, and he suggested that I sing it a little bit louder and in public, to our local Northern Ireland congregation. They told me that they loved the way it sounded, loved the idea of combining old melody with ancient scripture, and suggested that I listen for a few more songs.

And here and there, after a month or two or three, I perceived another new song, and then another and another. Eventually, there were enough songs to make an album.

The new thing was beginning to unfold.

I needed partners for this music; partners to bring the songs to life and to help coax this new thing out a little bit farther. I asked the McGraths of County Tyrone to join me, and together we worked on the songs, along with our producer Dónal O’Connor, to usher forth our first Celtic Psalms album in 2013. We had a wonderful, celebratory launch concert, and there was much excitement and a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment.

But the perceiving wasn’t over yet. The new thing was still emerging.

We continued to do music together, even after I moved back across the ocean to the US. The songs kept coming. One, after another, after another, until a second album sat waiting to be brought to life. In 2015, our second volume of Celtic Psalms came out.

Once again, though, there was more newness on the way.

A publishing company began to discuss the possibility of printing songbooks of the albums for choral or congregational use. Meanwhile, the McGraths and I shared our music not only in Northern Ireland but also in the Northeast US. On that 2016 US tour, we found that these Belfast-born songs spoke to people in the big cities of Boston and New York City, and in rural Pennsylvania, and in suburban Maryland, and in small town Princeton, New Jersey. The psalms truly reach across time, place, and culture, and it was a delight to see this with our own eyes.

We could sense the newness springing forth, left and right.

The most recent newness sprang forth this January. We were asked to lead worship at the Calvin Worship Symposium in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and in the course of a week, including worship services and workshops and concerts, we sang before over 2000 people. GIA Publications released Celtic Psalms songbooks for both albums, and those sold out by the second day of the conference.

For a girl who could barely bring herself to sing that first song to her own husband, this was all quite something.

Newness, exploding everywhere. It felt like that first day of REAL SPRING, when you not only smell the growth taking place around you as you fill your lungs with its freshness, but you see it with your own eyes, and it’s bursting with vibrant color.

This was significant particularly because of the many times in the past few years when I felt like nothing, nothing was happening. Perceiving newness requires a lot of listening, and waiting, and hoping, and praying. Perceiving newness demands a certain loss of control, because, really, I am not the one creating it. Sure, I play my part in its co-creation, but essentially, it comes from God. And with this particular project, for a variety of reasons, I have had to wait for long periods of time to see things come into bloom.

So, during that splendid week in Michigan, I was finally able to celebrate the growth that I could see with my own eyes. Rejoicing in all that has sprung forth in the past years. Thankful to the God who brings new things into being. Overwhelmed by the wonder of hearing that quiet song deep in the winter, and then hearing our songs being sung by an auditorium full of people seven years later.

Now that I’ve returned home from that exciting, fulfilling week, I know that the mantra remains the same: the newness continues to unfold. The perceiving isn’t over yet. There is more to come.

This music began by building bridges between Protestant and Catholic communities in post-conflict Northern Ireland. At my workshops at the Calvin Worship Symposium, I encouraged people to use this music to build bridges in their own communities. After all, the psalms are for everybody. They reach across the barriers of time, place, culture, and denomination. They touch the soul and remind us of our common humanity before God. My prayer is that this music will bring healing and wholeness to individuals and communities as they connect with their joys and sorrows, together, before a God who listens compassionately.

This is the newness that I perceive right now, though it’s too early to be able to see the blossoms emerge. Over time, I hope and pray that they will unfold, even if I am not privileged to see that happen with my own eyes.

I am so thankful to the God who asks us to perceive newness. The God who challenges us to pay attention to those quiet movements within and around us. The God who provides the partners and supporters and companions that we all need in order to usher a new thing into reality. The God who nudges us forward when it seems like nothing, nothing is happening. For this God knows that, from just under the surface, a new thing is about to emerge.

Now it springs forth – can you not perceive it?

* * *

The song below features the refrain “Sing to the Lord, to the Lord a new song… Sing to the Lord, sing all the earth!” It’s a paraphrase of Psalms 98, 99 and 100, set to the melody Willy Taylor, and can be found on the first volume of Celtic Psalms.

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The featured photo, taken by Kitty Taylor, is entitled “Lyre” and is based on Psalm 98. Click the link to read her fascinating (and fitting) description of her piece.

 

Light Will Come

Caspar David Friedrich

The longest night is over. The light is already beginning to shine on this earth for a few more moments each day.

But the last few months have seemed dark indeed. Bad news upon bad news. Even good news has been dimmed by the worry that a shadow might be cast over it at any moment.

Each time I open up the paper, or look at the TV, or scroll through my social media newsfeed and see haggard bodies walking through torn-apart streets, and weary faces seeking a place to rest, and desperate people pleading for rescue, there’s no ignoring it: there is darkness in this world. When I hear story after story of individuals or communities being targeted and harassed because of race, or religion, or the way they choose to express themselves, there’s no denying it: there is darkness in this world. When I read about land being willfully polluted by greedy profiteers, or natural disasters sweeping away entire landscapes, or rising temperatures destroying ecosystems, there’s no avoiding it: there is darkness in this world.

When I look ahead at the future, it doesn’t look as bright, crisp or clear as it once did when I was younger. It looks rather shadowy. As a mother of three young children who are rapidly becoming more independent, my maternal mind is primitively wired to sound warning bells whenever I sense danger, to ensure the safety of my offspring. I’m no longer that naïve child, that foolhardy teenager, that idealistic college student, that hormone-empowered pregnant woman, that blissed out baby mama. No, I’m the mother of three children who have their own legs, with which they can (and should) walk out into this big, bad, dark, dangerous world. I’m the mother of three individuals who have their own personalities, their own strengths and weaknesses, their own hopes and insecurities, and it is heart-wrenching to think of the pain or suffering they have, are, and will inevitably go through. I’ve witnessed too much sadness in the lives of loved ones for whom things have not always turned out rosy, and I know that things something go very, very wrong in this dark world of ours.

There is darkness. Many have been sitting in darkness for the past few months. Many have spent their lives sitting in darkness. Many will sit through darkness in the years ahead. There’s no use pretending that this isn’t so.

 

In the beginning of Genesis’s account of creation, “darkness covered the face of the deep.” God creates light, but God doesn’t destroy darkness.

“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” (Genesis 1:1-5)

 

God does not banish the darkness. It remains.

Darkness remains. Darkness covers us with its shadowy blanket, casting mystery and unknowableness around us. Ancient peoples’ great fear was that darkness would not end, and that the light of the sun would never again return. Perhaps we are not so different, anxious as we are that the darkness might overpower the light; worrying as we do, that it might swallow us up forever.

 

In our darkness, we utter the same words prayed by others in countless times, places, and life circumstances, wondering whether God has left us.

“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22)

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13)

“O Lord, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence, let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry.” (Psalm 88)

 

The people who have prayed these psalms in their own times of trouble are our companions in our darkness.

But with voices echoing through thousands of years, these companions also testify to their own experiences of God’s faithfulness, assuring us that even though we cannot always see God’s face, our God has not left us alone.

“Even though I walk in the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” (Psalm 23)

“In the watches of the night… my soul clings to you.” (Psalm 63)

“At night, God’s song is with me, a prayer to the God of life.” (Psalm 42)

 

 

One thing we know: there is darkness. But there’s another thing we know, and that’s that darkness does not last forever. The psalms also remind us of this.

“Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and God saved them from their distress; God brought them out of darkness…” (Psalm 107)

“The Lord is my light and my salvation: whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27)

“Weeping may linger through the night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30)

 

Morning by morning, we know that light will come. Morning by morning, the dark shadows scatter as the sun’s rays break over the surface of the horizon. At this particular time of the year – especially following the longest night, especially in the days leading up to the birth of our Emmanuel, God with us – we celebrate this profound truth.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it,” declares John 1:5.

Right now, I hold tight to this core belief. It is precious to me. It is a message that I want to live into as a parent, as a pastor, and as a human being. It is a message that I want to pass on to my children, and my children’s children, and my children’s children’s children. It is the greatest truth there is, because it counters our deepest, most primitive, most reactionary fears. It is a belief both profound and simple, expressing the everlasting, undying hope to which we cling: that even though darkness remains, it will not prevail. Light will always pierce through even the darkest night, and a new day will dawn.

Until then, we wait. “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in God’s word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” (Psalm 130)

And when we do sit in times of darkness – which we inevitably have, are, and will, even during this Christmas season – may we find some small part in ourselves that can trust that one day, our Light will come, and all things will be brought into the full brightness and warmth of God’s hope, and peace, and joy, and love.

The image above is called “Woman before the Rising Sun” by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840).

 

 

 

 

Longing for Refuge

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The Psalms have always been a refuge for me. From the time I was able to read, I stole away to my room for solace from the bustle of the household. There in the quiet, I flipped open my Bible, and the pages often opened up toward the middle, to a psalm.

 

 

“As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul thirsts for you.” Psalm 42

“O God, you are my God, and I long for you.” Psalm 63

“My heart cries out and my flesh faints for the courts of the Lord.” Psalm 84

 

As a child, being at the heart of the family felt like both a blessing and a curse – I loved them dearly, but my emotions and thoughts also became mixed up in the midst of the relationships, the happenings, the conflicts, the conversations going on around me. I needed to find my center, my refuge, and I found it in God.

 

So, I escaped frequently to the quiet of my room, crawling under my covers and breaking open the psalms. These ageless words entered into me – the prayers of ancient people reverberating in my heart, becoming my own. As the deer longs to drink from streams of water, my soul is thirsty for you. O God, you are my God, and I long for you. My heart cries out to be in your presence now.

 

Meditating on these words, praying these prayers, I slowly found myself once again in the calming presence of God. I knew, somehow, in the depths of my being, that God had heard me, that God cared for me, and that God had met me there. I sat in that blissful place for a few moments, until I heard someone calling me to set the table, or to join the family for a movie, or to get on with whatever I was up to that day. Though it was always hard to leave that serenity, I carried a piece of it with me as I left my room and returned to the rest of my life.

 

The psalms have been my refuge, and they have been for countless others around the world for thousands of years. It is incredible to me to think of the universality of this longing to be in God’s presence. For millennia, in a myriad of cultures and time periods, people have longed to find solace in God. They have longed to lay their burdens and concerns into God’s arms so that they might rest fully in their Creator. We all long for things to be made right in this world, long to be our best selves, long to find our center, long to be at peace within ourselves, with others, and with God. No matter what separates us from each other, we share this deep inner longing to find refuge in God.

 

Though my longing was met momentarily during those moments of solace, it would always return. Again and again, that longing would return, and I would be called back to that same spot to seek God’s presence once more. As I got older, got married, became a minister, became a mother, it never failed to come back. That longing within me indicated that something was off kilter – that my emotions were overwhelming me, that my thoughts were careening in an unhelpful direction, that events in the world around me were whirling and swirling in a way that left me feeling turbulent inside. But as soon as I noticed that desire to return to God’s presence, and stole away to my quiet place once more, the storm within me began to die down. That longing was a signal for me to seek God again.

 

We might think of longing as something we want to get rid of – something to be satisfied, quenched, vanquished, gone forever. But I know that my longing has been a gift to me. Every time that longing rises within me and I pay attention to it, I find myself drawn closer to the heart of God. Without that signal, I’m not sure I would have chosen to return so frequently over the years, or found so many quiet moments of much-needed serenity in the midst of the activity of life.

 

Advent is a time of longing. Longing and waiting for the culmination of the season on Christmas day, when the celebration begins. But the longing we have now, leading up to that climax, can teach us something as well. Our longing beckons us to return to our place of refuge, again and again, amid the whirl and swirl of this busy time of year. In that place of refuge, those ancient words resound in us still: As the deer longs for streams of water, so our souls thirst for you. O God, you are our God, and we long for you. Our hearts cry out to be in your presence now.

 

This Advent, may each of us find peace, solace, and serenity in the heart of the God who came to be our Emmanuel – God with us as our refuge in the midst of the chaos of this world.

 

The image is called “Stream in the Forest” and was painted by Gustave Courbet (1819-1877).