The Unboundedness of Limitation

It seems every conversation I have with people these days comes down to the theme of limitation. Each one of us, in our own unique way, is experiencing limitations that hinder us and withhold from us certain aspects of the life we knew only eight short months ago.

Limitation defines so much for us right now: we weave our lives around the COVID rules and restrictions of whatever area we live in. We either abide by or resist those rules and regulations, but we’re aware of them nonetheless – building our lives around what we can or can’t do.

Limitation is our current reality. It’s the terrain we must dwell in to keep others and ourselves safe and healthy.

And in that limitation also resides much grief, frustration, anxiety, and helplessness.

Where we used to plan and dream far into the future, this limitation freezes us in a timelessness – forces us to stay put within our homes, our routines, our locale, for an undetermined amount of time.

Where we would have traveled and explored and adventured, we can only cast our mind’s eye to past memories, or turn to images on screens to transport us elsewhere.

Where we would have broken up our days and weeks and months with gatherings large and small, enjoyed blissful moments of witnessing or performing the arts, and taken in festivals or once-in-a-lifetime events, we can only stay within the scope of our mundane daily rhythms.

Where we once extended ourselves into our busy schedules, expending our energies for a multitude of activities and projects and causes, we now struggle to find ways to contribute meaningfully to the world.

Limitation.

I read the story of Mary being visited by the angel in Luke 1 with different ears, from this context of limitation in which we reside.

Two women, both in situations where it should be impossible for new life to grow within them. Two women whose limitations seem obvious.

And yet, the angel says: with God, all things are possible. God announces that new life will spring forth where none should be able to. Limitations no longer claim hold on these women’s lives.

Caught as we are in our own webs of limitation, how freeing it is to imagine God cutting through all that to release us: to bring new life and all it entails – hope, potential, change, dreams.

Could it be that God can break through our confines even without some dramatic reversal of events – without a vaccine, without a cure – and bring forth life in and through our limitations?

Perhaps there is boundlessness within our limitation. A vast world within our boundaries, which we are perfectly free to enjoy.

I consider some of the things that fill my life now that I never had time for or interest in before.

Gardening, for one.

My body eagerly spends hours digging, hauling, mixing, planting, when I wouldn’t have had a clue about it months ago.

Within the confines of my daily existence, I looked out the back of my house and slowly began to envision something new out of what was right before my eyes. I saw flowering bushes and a multitude of bulbs bursting forth with color in spring. I saw climbers and rambling roses. I saw arches and stone paths. I saw shows of color that shifted at varying times of day and season. I saw vegetables and herbs to nourish my family.

And I quickly caught on to the fact that the possibilities are endless.

I have a world to explore, and I haven’t even left my home (except to go to the garden store, which is my new favorite destination).

Boundlessness within limitation. The possibility of new life where there seemed to be none before. The ability to plan and dream and envision something new. A way to plant hope for the future.

Sometimes – not always, but sometimes – we can glimpse that unfettered freedom within our confines.

God breaks through and finds a way to bring new life, even where it seems impossible.

May it be so for you.

Mothering Arms

Twelve years ago I was handed a tiny human to hold for the very first time. I still remember the delightful shock of seeing the curves and crevices of this new person, whom no one had ever seen before, in all her particularity. “So you’re the one who’s been living inside me!” I thought. She had a character, a personality, a uniqueness, an “I am who I am” quality about her. And she was wholly mine (ours!) to embrace, to welcome, to love, to embrace. To hold.

Holding our daughter became life’s new activity. Holding her for feeding, holding her to walk from room to room, holding her with extended family, church members, friends – and handing her to them to hold.

What a precious experience it is to hold a newborn baby! There is nothing like their newborn smell, their fragile lightness, their precious vulnerability. And the holy task – the only task we have at those moments – is to show utter gentleness toward the human being in our arms.

Holding her that first moment filled me with such a sense of awe, instantly. Over the following hours, days, weeks the initial surprise transformed into familiarity, as I came to know her every movement and expression, as I developed an intuition for what she might be trying to communicate.

In the beginning there were also hours, days, nights when I felt baffled, holding her in confusion and frustration as I attempted to understand how to meet her needs.

But eventually, sometimes after a bit of a struggle, we would melt into the restful embrace of contentedness. My arms became that place of stillness for her, that place of comfort.

Like a child with mother quieted, reads Psalm 131.

Last week as I reflected on this passage, I recalled the way I had rested in my mother’s arms as a child. Though it’s been a while, the memory was fresh and visceral. I could feel the stroke of her hand through my hair. A sense of wellbeing washed over me – a contended relaxation. I had no where I needed to go, nothing I needed to do. Only to allow myself to be held in my mother’s arms.

Though I’m a grown woman, this memory of being held felt so deeply comforting to me. I continued to remember it throughout that day and the days after. I hope I continue to return to it, over and over again.

For the arms holding me in this image were not only my mother’s – they were God’s.

I was resting in the love, acceptance, and tenderness of the Mothering God.

It made me realize how important those moments of tenderness with my own daughter are, even now. She is growing up, she is developing her independence, and rightly so. I want that freedom for her, and I want her to develop that confidence to strike out on her own, as I did.

But when those moments of tenderness come, I will treat them as sacred. In those times when she rests on me, she is also experiencing rest in the arms of the Mothering God. The God who will hold her and love her much longer, and better, and more fully than I ever could as her earthly mother. I have my limitations, my faults; I make my mistakes. But God is the one who will embrace her forever.

So for now, while I can, I will hold my little girl, who is not so little anymore, and I will give thanks that the Mothering God will continue to hold her all her life long.

Love is Lord of All

Love is Lord of all. These words of Joseph Campbell echo through the centuries into a far different time than when they were first written. The words of his original poem (entitled “My Lagan Love”) echo here alongside the words of Psalm 84, and those combined words speak into our reality here in 2020.

Love is Lord of all. We cry out in times of distress, fear, uncertainty, that God would incline an ear to us.

Today, the world awaits the results of an election with an uncertain outcome. And on this day, we remember who is truly ruler of all; we remember whose reign will be eternal.

For Love is Lord of all. Love, not hate. Love, not self-serving power. Love, not fear. Our hearts turn to this eternal Love, which will far outlast any earthly kingdom.

This ruler cares for the vulnerable, reaches out to those pushed to the margins of society, stands with the brokenhearted. This ruler doesn’t inflict pain but nurses wounds and brings healing. This ruler is Lord of a kingdom where peace and justice abound.

And this Love, this Lord, is ruler of all. This was true in the beginning and will be forevermore.

Greater than any earthly leader – we entrust our lives, our societies, our world, into the embrace of this God of Love, who is kind and gracious.

To this God of love, who is good and giving, we lift up our souls.

Today we submit ourselves to this greatest power.

In the end, this is all that will matter.

Did we love one another? Did we love ourselves, as we are beloved? Did we treat others with the dignity bestowed upon them by their loving Creator? Did we make our decisions based on love? Did we work toward loving systems and structures that allowed for all members of our communities and societies to be included and respected, honored and welcomed? Did we choose love in our daily interactions – with family, with friends, with strangers, with foes?

In the end, this is all that will matter. That we live our lives in service to Love.

Love will outlast it all. It The God of Love will outlive any election. Love will rise up, and will always rise up through the cracks of brokenness in our world.

Let us remember this, and live by this, today and always.

For Love is Lord of all.

With the Presence of God

In this week’s lectionary reading, Moses declares to God: we will not go forward unless your presence goes with us.

Actually, he says it in the negative: If your presence will not go, do not carry us from here.

It reminds me a little bit of my child refusing to go up the dark stairway to get ready for bed unless I accompany her. If you don’t come with me, Mommy, I won’t do it!

It’s terrifying to look into the distance and imagine ourselves journeying through unknown terrain on our own. And so we seek that assurance, that promise, that we won’t walk alone.

We might even dig in our feet, much like Moses, or like my daughter. I won’t go if you don’t go.

The passage in Exodus, and the Psalm that accompanies it (99) fills our minds with rich imagery of the awe-inspiring power of God.

Who wouldn’t want this God to be on your side?

The people tremble; the earth quakes.

There are times when I dislike the transcendent, all-powerful, intimidating power of God expressed in these passages. I’d say most of the time I prefer nestling in to a warm and cuddly God, who is patient and kind and gentle.

But, the transcendent power of God can also be a true comfort and assurance.

So, I can also relate to Moses’s adamance that he will not proceed any further without God to guide him.

I’ve been saying this myself, recently:

I simply don’t want to go forward with anything I’m dreaming or planning or envisioning if God isn’t going to go there with me.

It’s simply not worth it.

If I’m venturing off toward something that sounds like a great idea to me but God’s not in it, I’m wasting my time and energy. I’m sure to sputter to a stop in no time.

But if God is in it, if God is on that path with me, all things are possible.

This transcendent God can move mountains. This God can make the earth quake. This God can ignite fear in the hearts of those who don’t stand for the way of justice and peace, mercy and love.

With a pillar of fire by night and pillar of cloud by day, God led Moses and the Hebrew people across their wilderness.

And today we ask this same God to walk with us across ours, and to give us signs of God’s presence that give us assurance and comfort as we move forward.

We sing to this God a new song – an ancient song, sung anew in our time.

We ask – no, we demand, in the same way as our spiritual ancestor Moses did – that wherever it is we go in the coming months and years, God’s presence would go with us.

How Quickly We Forget

Lead singer: Chloe McGrath

It’s a haunting melody, and a haunting message.

How quickly we forget.

In times of difficulty, we turn to God and plea for help. We worry, we fear, we despair… And then, God delivers.

…Delight emerges where there was only despair

…Opportunity appears where none was unimaginable

…Light shines out from amid loss

…Joy springs up unpredictably

We shower our thanks to the God who delivers

And yet, how quickly we forget.

When the worries and fears and despair return, we wonder…

…Is this the time when God will fail to come through?

…Is this the time when God will abandon?

…Is this the time when I will be forsaken and left all alone?

And we convince ourselves that this is indeed what has happened.

We seek solace in the things we can control; we cast images of our own making; we conclude that we have no option but to fend for ourselves.

How quickly we forget.

Yet, at moments when the world seems to be crumbling around us, even when we find it so easy to forget those moments of redemption…

God remembers.

…God remembers a covenant made long before our birth, to love and care for and guide us

…God remembers, graciously, to show us compassion even when we turn away

…God remembers all our worries and fears and despair and holds them, tenderly, patiently, waiting to continue the journey with us

And as this eternally loving God listens, the fog of forgetting begins to lift from our eyes.

And we see, with a clarity that we may have had before, and with a certainty that grows stronger once again, that God has been with us all along.

May we ever bless God’s holy name. Amen.

The Heavens Declare

I’m fortunate enough to live on the beautiful north coast of Northern Ireland, where I can go for swims in the sea and walks on the beach daily. 

I grew up in a big city, surrounded by concrete buildings and crowds of people, so I don’t take the nature that surrounds me for granted.

I found that during lockdown, when much of my work went online and I was spending a lot of my time glued to a computer screen, I depended even more than ever on my walks in nature – for refreshment, and for sanity. 

Not only was it precious time out of the house and away from my family of five, but it was time to recognize that I am part of something much bigger than myself, much bigger than my little home – I am a part of God’s world. 

A world created by God, a world cared for by God. 

And nature – creation – reminded me of its artistic Creator: God the Creator of majestic vistas, of the brilliant colors of flowers, sea, and sky; of creatures – birds, fish, seals, and of course humans; of cool, refreshing breeze, of warm sun on my face. 

Psalm 19 has always been one of my favorites: “The heavens declare the glory of God.” 

It reminds us that nature can act as the word of God, speaking to us of who God is and reminding us of God’s care for us. 

The youtube link above is for a song I arranged with paraphrased words of Psalm 19 set to the Irish melody The Lark in the Clear Air, part of our collection of psalms set to Irish and Scottish melodies (Celtic Psalms).

I’ve included photos of the beautiful vistas I saw on my walks through this last spring, in the height of lockdown, when every sight of beauty was even more poignant in a world turned upside-down by pandemic. 

May you find time each day to emerge from your homes, from your home offices, or from wherever it is that you spend your days, and shift your gaze to the heavens, to be reminded that the same God who speaks through the beauty of nature around us, speaks to and care for you…for each one of us. 

Part of the Pilgrimage

For many years, I have accompanied people on pilgrimages in Ireland. I meet groups at the airport, with the bags they have carefully packed, and I usher them to their hotels or retreat centers to begin their journeys.

People often come on these pilgrimages at great expense – of money, of time, of effort – and they have enormous hopes for what the experience will bring them. They hope for clarity, they hope for insight, they hope for connection, and in some cases they hope for nothing short of revelation. It’s a tall task, facing this group of people with such high expectations.

And yet, if there’s one thing I know, it’s that their journey will change them. Their journeys will leave them different when they return home a week, ten days, a fortnight later. It doesn’t matter the length of the journey: it will change them nonetheless, and most often not in the ways they anticipate.

Pilgrimage is a spiritual practice that, for thousands of years and in a multitude of cultures and religious traditions, has been embraced as a reliable source of transformation and inspiration. Regardless of the destination, regardless of the companions on the journey, regardless of the scenery, the types of accommodation, the weather, the time of year, the stage in life, those who go on pilgrimage will be altered by the experience.

Leaving your comfort zone and traveling through a new space, with all the unknowns that it brings, is sure to have an impact on you. No matter how carefully you plan the itinerary, no matter diligently you research prior to the journey, no matter how intentionally you prepare yourself for every moment of the trip and all its possible eventualities, you will still hit the unknown and the unpredictable, and it will affect you.

“It’s all part of the pilgrimage” became my mantra.

The one sure thing about pilgrimage is that it involves facing the unknown. But the question is: how do you respond to it when it arises? What does it bring up for you? What does it trigger within you? How do you treat others, or yourself, as you encounter it? How do you pray through it? How will it shape you into a new person?

The unknown and unpredictable can bring out the worst in us. It can reveal fear and resentment. It can unearth old hurts. It can expose judgmentalism, and harshness, towards others or ourselves. People can be impatient, ungracious, and uncharitable when things don’t go the way they’d hoped.

But on the other hand, facing the unknown of pilgrimage can also cast a light on the goodness within each one of us. It can reveal our resilience when encountering the unexpected. And when I saw pilgrims releasing their need to control the outcome of their journey and simply taking each step, each day as it came, with all of its surprises, the richer their experience became for them.

Here in Coronavirus 2020, we have suddenly arrived in a new space. Though we have not even departed from home, we have left our comfort zones far behind us and entered into the unknown. There’s no doubt that all this affects each of us greatly.

Though we may have scheduled these weeks, months, and years down to the hour, things have most definitely not gone according to plan. Indeed, none of us could have dreamed of how different our lives are now than we’d imagined they would be only a few short months ago.

Though we have not packed our suitcases with everything we might possibly need for this journey, we still carry our baggage. We carry our fears, resentments, and hurts as we walk through these days.

The question is: how do we respond to this unexpected present we are traveling through? What does it bring up for us? What does it trigger within us? How can we treat others with grace and kindness as we walk forward on this journey? How can we be gentle with ourselves as we step forward into whatever awaits us tomorrow? How can we find words and ways to pray through this time? And how will living through this experience shape us into new people?

If there’s one thing I know, it’s that journeys into the unknown will change us. This is a truth that has been embraced by human beings for thousands of years. We will be affected, we will struggle, we will grow, and we will not return to normalcy the same people we were before all this began.

Yet, in the midst of this unexpected twist in our plans, we may experience in our own homes the very thing we set out for distant lands to accomplish. We may receive the clarity, the insight, the connection, the revelation that we long for so deeply. We will be transformed – perhaps not in ways that we would have hoped for or chosen – but transformed nonetheless, into richer, stronger, wiser human beings.

It’s all part of the pilgrimage.