Stillness by Kim Zimmerman

“And when he came to the place where the wild things are, they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws till Max said, ‘Be still’ and tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once.”

– Maurice Sendak

If only we could tame the wild beasts of our minds so easily. We race through life leaving the present moment in our wake. Spinning in a whirlwind of thoughts and schedules, we neglect to take inventory of our selves, or enjoy what lies along our path.

In The River, Thich Nhat Hanh describes a river who spent her days chasing clouds. She wanted to possess the clouds, but could never capture one, as clouds are impermanent. One day, a strong wind blew all the clouds from the sky. The river didn’t know what to do with herself and deemed life not worth living, with no clouds to chase. That night, as she cried, and sat with herself, she realized that clouds are made of water. What she was looking for and wanting to possess was already in herself. The next day, she was able to notice the beauty of the blue sky behind the clouds and all of nature that surrounded her as she flowed along. She was finally at peace and happy. “There is nothing to chase after. We can go back to ourselves, enjoy our breathing, our smiling, ourselves, and our beautiful environment.”

Can you relate to the river?

I have been practicing Yoga for 11 years. Yes, Yoga has helped me to gain strength, balance and flexibility, but, most of all, it has taught me how cultivate stillness in my mind. I know now that I previously used physical exercise in times of need – graduate school, college, even high school – to still my mind. As I ran or cycled, I subconsciously focused on the rhythm of my breath integrated with my footsteps or pedal strokes. I would often find myself in a beautiful state of calm and effortlessness that is often referred to as the “zone,” and felt as if I could go on forever. I would return home with a great sense of mental clarity and calm.

In fact, Yoga was originally practiced as a way to open the body and calm the mind in preparation for a seated meditation practice. As I move through a series of poses designed to strengthen and stretch my body, integrating breath with movement, I find myself to be present in the sensations of my body and breath. I finish my practice with a renewed sense of clarity and stillness.

Stillness might be described as fully participating and engaged in your present activity. A still mind isn’t void of thought. Nurturing a still mind involves clearing the chatter, the clutter, the worries, so that we may experience our authentic self and, often, allow insight and creativity to bubble to the surface. A still mind allows us to reflect, to visit our intentions, to cultivate gratitude, and to enjoy the present moment.

When I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer, my ability to tame the wild beasts in my mind was put to the test. In stillness, I was able to accept and soften to my new reality. I couldn’t rush through this one. I walked alongside cancer and found so many gifts and blessings along the way.

We don’t all have to practice Yoga to find stillness. We can enjoy quiet moments without the distraction of the computer or the television. Or notice the path under our feet on our journey through life, the rhythm of the breath, or the clear blue sky. Or, perhaps, even rest after accomplishing something great.

“We can make our minds so like still water that beings gather about us,
that they may see their own images, and so live for a moment with a clearer,
perhaps even a fiercer life,
because of our quiet.”

W.B. Yeats

The Fifth Day: The Creatureliness of God by Scott Zimmerman

I love nature.  As a child my nature was the ski slopes of northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Colorado.  Later, it became the rock outcroppings of Wyoming and the mountains of the Rockies and Sierra Nevada.  And now, in my middle years, it is the leafy, shady trails of southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas.  Whether on skis, bike, or boots I have spent countless hours immersed in nature.

And it never scared me, not once.  Not the time we were caught, exposed, on the side of Mt Elbert in a lightening storm; or on Long’s Peak holding on to an ice axe as Dan dangled at the end of our climbing rope and my dislocated shoulder was the thing keeping us from falling; and not when I sailed off the trail into the woods on my mountain bike and had to replace most of the front end of the bike.  It never scared me.  Because nature has no malice.

Malice is only present where people are present.  Malice is the desire to inflict harm on someone.  Nature does not have desires nor intent.  Weather happens because of fluctuations in atmospheric energy and moisture.  In dangerous situations, the trees, rocks and animals don’t take sides.

Malicious people scare me.  And my fear manifests itself as anger and a desire to fight back.  I abhor bullies and have found myself in the principal’s office on more than one occasion because of it. My loathing of bullies extends to Nicaragua, where an American landowner has finally allowed us to purchase some land on which to build homes for the plantation workers that pick his coffee beans.

This time though, I won’t end up in a principal’s office.  This time I have a chance to celebrate a group that made this a reality.  National Avenue Christian Church has a long history of finding ways to make the world a better place for others less fortunate.  This remarkable group has also opened its arms to me and my family, supporting us through these trying months as Kim fights to rid her body of cancer.  Your love envelops people no matter where they are, whether part of the congregation or in a tin shack on the slopes of a mountain in a poverty-stricken part of Latin America.

What I am slowly, stubbornly, learning is that bullies don’t have to be fought with fists; that the response to a cancer diagnosis doesn’t have to be anger.  What I am learning is that malice can be tempered with love.  Nature may not care whether dear friends die in an avalanche or that a mountain biker is injured crashing into a tree.  But people do.

I have a chance to see the village of Hilapo Dos next month when four of us will travel to Nicaragua to try an help with some of the construction going on in the village on the new property that you purchased.  I am excited to see Hilapo Dos, the mountain it sits on and the jungle that surrounds it.  I won’t be scared.  And I won’t be angry at the injustice (at least not as angry) but I will be awed by your generosity and your need to make the world better.

The Fourth Day: The Harmony of God by Brian Hom

As a songwriter, I often struggle to find balance between the competing notions that constantly pop out of my brain. I have tainted many good musical ideas by trying to pair several Right elements together into one Wrong song. I’ll have a big, complex story (or one that I insist on telling with complexity), and I’ll try to cram too many syllables into a simple, flowing melody line. Or I’ll have a funky, syncopated beat in my head, but the Chord Muse is taking her coffee break, so I get stuck in the old I-IV-V blues-shuffle-rut… AGAIN.

But there is one thing that always works for me – Harmony. Even the most atonal, grating melody can be transformed by a parallel song thread sung 1/3 up. Even when it’s not fancy, harmony works in any musical genre, from jazz to opera to pop. In fact, many of the most emotive songs ever written, the ones that move people to tears, take advantage of our ears’ natural desire for harmony.

The phenomenon is called an appoggiatura [AH-poh-gee-ah-too-rah], from the Italian word to lean. Thanks to NPR, I learned about the science behind this after Adele cleaned up at this past year’s Grammy Awards with her mega-hit Someone Like You. In short, our ears “expect” dissonant or competing notes to resolve themselves into a pleasing sound – so much so that when that resolution comes, the release can trigger an emotional reaction. It’s the reason that certain songs move some people to tears.

I am one of those people. There are many songs that will always make me sniffle. Either through an uplifting key change, a lyrical twist or even an appoggiatura, I am overcome. This is both a blessing and a curse, depending on my surroundings.

This same concept can apply to the things in this world that are seen instead of heard. Certain stories of joy, hope or sadness… often the deepest beauty is rooted in the transformation of something ugly. Something twisted becomes straight, a wrong is righted, despair gives way to hope.

I don’t know about you, but I joined National Avenue Christian Church because we make a difference – in many ways, in many places and in many lives. If you are here for the same reason, you’re in the right place. Go forth and seek out injustice, then find a way to change it. Offer a small comfort to someone in distress. When you discover dissonance in our world, add your own note to create a new, beautiful sound.

Find your voice, and sing out strong.

Be an appoggiatura. Become God’s Harmony.

The Third Day: The Fecundity of God

By Kate Murr

“We open to the ground of being,

The matrix of fecund emptiness.”

-From Sunday’s “Words of Gathering,” Bruce Sanguin

In college, I studied Earth Systems Science. I was extremely interested in the relationships between the Earth’s complex systems: its lithosphere (the unrelenting geophysical engine and its response to forces and stresses), its hydrosphere (including oceans and water systems), and its atmosphere. All of these together regulate weather, temperature, and conditions for life on this planet—and life, as it happens, plays a critical role, too. There’s even a hypothesis, named for the Greek goddess and Earth mother, Gaia, that claims Earth is a self-regulating system in which the biota (all life!) play an integral role. Usually and ultimately, Earth’s systems stabilize planetary conditions through various negative feedback loops, so, for example, when things get too hot, a system will respond by causing cooling. But sometimes these feedback loops reach a tipping point, and their characteristics change to form positive feedback loops, which amplify the effects of disturbances. (Another example of a positive feedback loop, poetically, is the onset of contractions during childbirth, which causes oxytocin release, which causes increased frequency and magnitude of contractions, etc.) Here’s the thing that stuck with me most when I learned about these tipping points in Earth Systems Science: no one wants to experience a runaway albedo event.

In order understand albedo events in the context of blog post about God’s fecundity (Tom Klein, if you’re not giggling like a little girl now, I’ll be shocked!), we must first talk about the development of the oceanic system; about the impossibility and profound connectivity of our five restless oceans; but, most importantly, about the impossibility of a single drop of water, ever—it’s potential to travel thousands of cycles through millions of years to collect as a drop of water. We have to discuss the impossibility that any water ever showed up on a molten, asteroid-blitzed, spacelump sphere that accreted from the cooling and heating cycles of a liquid core of magma into a hostile, young planet where belches from pressurized internal heat and/or continued massive impacts of the sort that may have chipped off the moon and released magma oceans generated vapor clouds resulting in million-year rains that evaporated, fell again, collected in shallow acidic oceans, eventually spawning stromatolites—photosynthetic bacteria colonies—that turned water, carbon dioxide, and sunlight into organic, carbon-rich matter and oxygen, which eventually rose to form an oxygenic atmosphere, displacing Earth’s initial methane greenhouse incubator, which caused cooling, perhaps freezing, perhaps a total freezing of the entire planet. Whew! What a lot of planetary history can be contained in an impossible drop of water!

The point(s) in history that Earth likely became a gigantic snowball demonstrate runaway albedo: as ice and snow covered the surface of the earth, the amount of solar energy that could be absorbed decreased and lead to more cooling. When we talk about global warming, we talk about the loss of ice cover (and albedo), and increased solar energy absorption, which leads to more warming. When the earth was frozen, scientists suppose, the forces that reversed the positive feedback loop came from within. The hot core of the Earth released carbon dioxide, which gradually built up in the atmosphere, trapped sunlight, led to melting of ice, warming, evaporating, revealing of land, led to further warming, led to photosynthetic action, led to life perpetuating life, led to fecundity and periodic swaths of dynamic planetary balance of the sort we enjoy today.

Occasionally, we enjoy periods of dynamic balance in our personal experiences, too. Except when we don’t. Sometimes we find ourselves caught in positive feedback loops, which can be ultimately productive, I’ll argue, but which can also feel isolating or unhealthy or destructively destabilizing or numbing, like being frozen stiff. What to do then?

Here is what I heard Matthew say in church Sunday: “The earth is filled with God’s goodness…The essence of the created order lies within us…. The goodness of the creative world lies within us.” If we buy it, if we buy that our physical fact—that all physical manifestation—is composed of the same spiritual fact of God’s goodness, then that seems like something. And if we can learn from the complex systems of other physical matter—like Earth, our dynamo home in (fecund) space—then maybe that non canonical, (possibly) gnostic Gospel of Thomas says something useful as well: Bring forth. (“Bring forth,” says the text that makes this Baptist-raised writer slightly sweaty to include in a church blog post.) “If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. Has anyone else noticed this statement everywhere for the past year or so? The aphorism continues with a statement I don’t regularly see, “If you do not have that within you, (then) that which you do not have within you [will] kill you.” I can’t actually hazard a guess of what that means. But given a Post-Freudian, Postmodern lens, I can sure think about both of these statements for a long time.

I don’t study Earth Systems Science anymore. I study poetry at MSU. I teach a class called Creative Nonfiction in which I routinely tell students that I don’t believe what they write (nonfiction, should, one teaches, aim for veracity). And the reason why I don’t believe them is that they tell stories in terms of universal generalities. I told a student last week, for example, that I didn’t buy his description when he wrote that he had discovered all the answers—further, his “ultimate identity”—as a result of his first experience with psychedelic mushrooms. Maybe he did, or maybe it seemed to him like he did, but what I read wasn’t his authentic voice saying so. As a twenty-year-old, he was using a “lecture voice” and sweeping platitudes to tell a tall tale. This spurred a perpetual conversation that we have in academia about the vitality of the personal story to make accessible “truths” that seem untenable.

What I am saying is that I am grossly unqualified to talk about the impossibility of a drop of water or about balance or God’s fecundity or creativity. (I wanted to write this post about a Louise Glück poem and about how my children reflect the goodness of creation when they say things like, “Can we turn this day into breakfast time?” or “My nose is famous: I’m paying more attention to my nose than the rest of me,” or “Let’s have an art sale—I know everything about money,” but somehow that isn’t what I wrote.) Besides, maybe it’s from the books, or from walking around in the world, or from something within me, but somehow I can just wrap my mind around the idea of the shifting physical earth and constant sea and surprising clouds all working together to make life impossibly full. I can wrap my mind around this, and so I do, and I find it encouraging that there is, at the center of it, a fiery core that’s an engine and a connected, relentless force for creation, destruction, self-regulation, and life.

“So the winds gathered together the waters of life. The waters were oceans and the dry land was earth…Color and goodness burst forth from the earth.” *

*From Genesis 1 translation and paraphrase by J. Philip Newell in Celtic Treasure: Daily Scriptures and Prayer.

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The Second Day: The Wildness of God

From Tom Klein

I lived in a small Iowa town and played in the woods across the street from my home with every free hour. Those woods contained coyotes, skunks, foxes, bears, poison ivy, and ninjas. They were dangerous. Even an experienced hiker like me could be lost forever if you made a wrong turn or went around “Dutchman’s Pond” on the left side. During the summer, my neighbor and I packed sandwiches and hiked from morning until dinner to explore rivers, abandoned railroads, and even a cemetery, if we walked all the way to the other side.  We hid from robbers, set up camp in an old tree, and buried valuable treasure so well that I’ve missed it since the day we buried it.

I grew up in the woods (which may be a surprise to those that only know me as a mild-mannered computer guy).  I played in the woods year-round and very clearly remember running home one day — going as fast as I could — as a storm blew in. The snow was drifting all around me and sleet stung my face. My fingers and toes were numb and I had trouble making it up the final slippery hill to my house. I did make it, though. I don’t want you to be nervous.

These images of storms, animals, and enemies chasing me were what ran through my mind when Laura started talking about the wildness of God.  I realize that my great adventures in the woods aren’t exactly what Laura meant but she did ask us to remember our first memories of childhood and nature — the strength of the crashing waves, the roaring fire under an open sky, and rain lashing our faces. To that list of incredible things, I’d also add a sunrise on a crisp morning like today, and stars that you can only see when sitting in a yard in Iowa or those amazing trees that grow sideways out of a sheer rock wall and are hundreds of feet tall.  Those are the moments when we become aware of the power and creativity of nature.

At this point in the sermon, Laura switched from external wildness to internal wildness — our own creativity and passion. Our church is filled with creative people — architects, poets, musicians, artists, actors, speakers, authors — and probably equally filled with people that are extremely creative, yet keep it hidden. I imagine there are even people that we would call creative who feel like they suppress their own creativity. What could we do as a community, as a group of friends, as a church if we could let loose a little more of our inner wildness? Or create what we really want to create, rather than what we should create?

If channeled creatively [desires, emotions, and creative urges] give rise to artistic expression, to action for justice, or to new birth in ourselves and relationships. – J. Philip Newell, The Book of Creation, 21

George MacDonald shared an image and it led me to the following thought… When a book sits on a shelf, its content is unknown and unused by anyone. When opened and read, it comes to life. The book didn’t change, our action to the book changed. Laura talked a lot about creativity, and that many times, we keep creativity suppressed and bottled up. Our creativity is just like the contents of the book.  The ideas, the goals, the wildness, and the desires are present, but they only become something if we let them out.  (Newell, 25)

As you can see, the sermon stirred up lots of ideas in my head, but I wouldn’t be genuine if I didn’t share my first thought after hearing Laura talk about earth, air, fire and water — the fact that it is September can’t be a coincidence:

In 2005, I went back to my hometown and walked through the woods. The vast movie-set in my mind sits on less than a few square miles and I didn’t see a single grizzly bear or ninja. I did still feel the excitement and joy that I felt as a kid, though, with the wind blowing the leaves down the trail in front of me. If those now-silly memories can still be so fresh and exciting in my mind, just think what I could do with the ideas that are inside now. How about you?

“And there was evening, and there was morning–the second day.” – Genesis 1:8

Creation . . . creation

Most days I am consumed with language. I teach writing, so I am continually talking about writing, thinking about writing, reading others’ writing, reading writing about writing. Or I’m writing. I pay attention to language, always, and the way language is presented.

One aspect of language that matters, especially the language of our faith, is capital letters. Of course we use capital letters to indicate the beginning of a sentence, or proper nouns. We are taught to always capitalize “I” (another topic for another time, perhaps). But when we talk about our faith (Our Faith), capital letters can change meaning significantly.

God     god

Belief     belief

Faith     faith

Miracles     miracles

Creation     creation

For all my adult life I’ve struggled with Belief. I don’t Believe. In God. Or god. But I do believe in plenty of things, like baseball and oceans and air so cold it freezes nose hairs. Maybe god had something to do with those things. i don’t know.

I don’t believe in Miracles like the parting of the Red Sea or the Ascension of Jesus. But I do believe in miracles like the grip of a newborn baby on my finger, or the way that seeds and sun and water can create vegetables out of dirt.

I don’t believe in Creation as in “on the first day God Created.” But I believe in creation that means something out of nothing (like writing, or birth). And I believe in creation that is the dirt we tread on and the air we breathe.

This past week Laura introduced us to the Celtic view of creation. If you’ve read this far (stick with me; I’m almost done) it won’t surprise you that I love the idea of creation being “the grand volume of God’s utterance.” I’m also taken with the notion that we should be alert to the “expressions of God in the mystery of Creation.”

Mystery. That’s an idea I can Believe in. Maybe I’ll begin to capitalize it from now on.

Saying Yes to Life!

In the second week of our series, The Art of Living, we thought about saying yes to life and as we took our queue from Patti Digh’s book, Life is a Verb, worship this week, centered around the joyous practice of dance.  Ashley Jones led our processional yesterday morning with a beautiful interpretive dance to the hymn, “Celebrate a New Day Dawning”.

During this series we will be posting some thoughts on the blog about the theme for that week as well as some actions that come from Digh’s book.  If you would like to have a copy of the book you can order it through Amazon by clicking on the link below.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/reader/1599212951/ref=sib_dp_pt#reader-link

Here is your homework for this week…

Mark Twain has said, “On with the dance, let joy be unconfined is my motto, whether there’s any dance to dance or any joy to unconfine.”  Digh encourages us during these days to explore joy through this practice:

  • Put on some music and dance like a five-year-old for two minutes.  [If you have a five-year-old handy, ask them to teach you how to dance!]
  • Then get out some paper or a journal if you have one, and write for three minutes.  Digh tells us to write without pause, without raising our pens from the page or checking for spelling or grammar and all those other things that inhibit the flow of ideas.  Just write for three minutes around this question:  What brings me joy?
  • After three minutes, read what you have written.
  • Now for three minutes, write a description of the dance that would best demonstrate that joy.  Be as detailed as you can in describing the physicality of that dance.  How would you move in the world to express that joy?
  • Then write for two minutes on this question:  What keeps me from dancing that dance?

It’s rather fun to think out our entire church dancing this week so in the words of an old song and via Stephanie Young in the Children’s Conversation yesterday, “I hope you dance.”

PL