Snow Day

I am pulling this one from the archives (February 11, 2010), with the assurance by the best meteorologists in the land that Thursday will be a snow day.  Enjoy it! 

Is there anything more magical than walking in the woods after a snowfall and being surrounded by the hushed, light-filled warmth of new snow? At least that is my favorite part of a snowstorm. Walking outside afterwards evokes a series of feelings in me – wonder, playfulness, awe, aloneness (so different from loneliness) and, at the same time, a sense of joy at being cocooned in God’s world.

I came inside after walking in the snow one night and played Claude Debussy’s little prelude Des pas sur la neige (“Footsteps in the snow”), which captures some of the other-worldliness I had just encountered outside. In searching for a link I found a lovely performance by pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, as well as a performance on the vibraphone that I just have to share.

- piano
 – vibraphone

Debussy’s snowy world is bit more isolated than I want to be though. I turned next to a composer whose music is also impressionistic and mysterious. In a setting by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, that great hymn of praise, the Te Deum. Pärt describes his music in the recording’s program notes: the Te Deum text has “immutable truths,” reminding [me] of the “immeasurable serenity imparted by a mountain panorama.” [My] composition sought to communicate a mood “that could be infinite in time—out of the flow of infinity. I had to draw this music gently out of silence and emptiness.”

It might not surprise you to learn that Debussy was famously dismissive of religion, calling Nature the only religion he needed.  Arvo Part, on the other hand, believes that “religion guides all the processes in our lives without us even knowing it.”  His embrace of Eastern Orthodox Christianity lies at the heart of his music.  Debussy’s snowy piece suggests a cold and pensive emptiness, perhaps even a sense of hopelessness. Pärt’s Te Deum may begin from silence and emptiness, but it is soon filled with the mysteriousness of God and our joy in that mystery.


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The Wisdom of the Thistle

AprilBerendsMy friend April is the best Christian I know. She is one of those people whose hearts are naturally compassionate, someone who will be there whenever anyone is in trouble. She will appear with food when someone’s hungry. She will gather a community when we are suffering a loss. She will sleep on the floor of the living room of someone she doesn’t know all that well when that person has lost her spouse and should not be left alone. She doesn’t even seem to wrestle with these acts of kindness, asking if she should, if she can, counting the cost; she just does them because it’s the way she is. (I really hope she doesn’t see this paragraph; I think she’d be mortified.)

One of the ways her thoughtfulness comes out is in her choice of gifts for people. She always chooses something they will like, and she goes out of her way to make sure that it’s fair trade, equitably sourced, or supports a good cause. Which is how I came to receive tea from Thistle Farms last Christmas.

For those of you who don’t know it, Thistle Farms is a social outreach project that supports the work of the Magdalene program, a supportive residential community of women seeking to transition out of prostitution and addiction into a healthy and free way of being. The women themselves work for the company, manufacturing products, packaging and selling them, learning a variety of work skills to support their future life.  (I love it that they mostly make scented beauty products, a clear play on the costly perfume that Mary Magdalene poured out on the feet of Jesus before his death.)

The striking thing about the community is that there are no residential counsellors. Instead, the women are given some staff support, but are trusted to figure out how to create a supportive community on their own. (This is probably one reason it works. When your whole old lifestyle has been based on you thinking that you are dirt, it must be transformative for someone to offer you radical trust.)

For guidance, they are given a set of twenty-four spiritual principles derived from — yes! — the Rule of St. Benedict. (Those of you who follow this blog will know that The Rule is a 6th century monastic rule — surprisingly brief — that is the foundational document of much of Western monasticism. It was written to allow people to live together in community and support one another in seeking Christ. ) The principles offer some good reflection material for Lent, when we are all Magdalenes seeking new life, so here they are. Pray with them, and see what change they bring into your life:

The Rule of Magdalene:

1. Come Together
2. Proclaim Original Grace
3. Cry With Your Creator
4. Find Your Place in the Circle
5. Think of the Stranger as God
6. Take the Longer Path
7. Make a Small Change and See the Big Difference
8. Let God Sort It Out
9. Stand on New Ground and Believe You Are Not Lost
10. Forgive and Feel Freedom
11. Unite Your Sexuality and Spirituality
12. Show Hospitality to All
13. Laugh at Yourself
14. Consider the Thistle
15. Listen to a New Idea
16. Lose Gracefully
17. Remember You Have Been in the Ditch
18. Walk Behind
19. Live in Gratitude
20. Love Without Judgment
21. Stay on Point
22. Pray for Courage
23. Find Your Way HomeUnknown
24. Leave Thankfully

(About the thistle (#14): the author writes that thistles are plentiful in the streets and back alleys where these women used to live. Though considered weeds, they are tough, durable plants that can survive drought and poor soil and produce blossoms of surprising beauty.)

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Ice and sleet

Glorify the Lord, O chill and cold, drops of dew and flakes of snow.                                         Frost and cold, ice and sleet, glorify the Lord, praise him and highly exalt him forever. (Canticle 12, BCP pg 88.)

What does that mean, anyway, “ice and sleet, glorify the Lord.”?

I’ve long wondered about that, and now suspect that my difficulty is in not really knowing what “glorify” means.  Or even “glory” or “glorious”.  They might be words that I use all the time without really knowing that they mean.  So lets see.

Full Definition of GLORIFY

transitive verb

1 a :  to make glorious by bestowing honor, praise, or admiration

b :  to elevate to celestial glory

2 :  to light up brilliantly

3 a :  to represent as glorious :  extol <a song glorifying romantic love>

b :  to cause to be or seem to be better than the actual condition <the new position is just a glorified version of the old stockroom job>

4 :  to give glory to (as in worship)

So, it can describe an action taken or to be taken.  But which is it in the canticle?  Does the Canticle mean that one attribute of ice and sleet is that they glorify the Lord?  OK, got that. Or is a call to ice and sleet to perform the act of glorifying the Lord – by being ice and sleet. By praying Canticle 12, am I summoning up ice and sleet so that they may glorify the Lord?   If that’s it; ENOUGH ALREADY.  You can stop doing that any time now.  Thank you very much, but I’m long past ready for something else to take up the task of glorifying the Lord.

Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 3-March-2015.

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To Go or Not To Go?

In short the answer is “Go.”

My response to everyone that has asked me has been the same:  “I could have stayed out there all day.”  The question was about Ashes to Go.

So here’s the deal.  The location we chose wasn’t the best – a Metro stop would have been much better.  The weather didn’t cooperate.  IMG_7816It was cold, there was lots of snow on the ground and most people hurried by on their way to their destinations.

But we learned some things.  The most important was that just standing there wasn’t going to garner any customers.  We had to be more aggressive – to lean toward people and ask, “Would you like to receive ashes for Ash Wednesday?”  Most people’s ears were plugged with ear buds and walked on by as that old song goes.  I’d say about a hundred of them.  But about ten didn’t. And ten is a good number.  Ten was enough to keep God from destroying Sodom, anyway.  When the first person stopped and said, “Yes, I would,”  my heart leapt.  Even just one person receiving ashes would have made me glad.  With even one “yes” I would have thought the same: “I could stay out here all day…”  Never mind the 99, as Jesus said (Matthew 18.12-14).

Other things to know?  It’s interesting taking the church out into the world.  It makes you think more about what you are doing and saying and what that might mean in the world that is not surrounded by stained glass…  What does this sacrament offer to that world? Will/do the words mean that mean so much inside the church mean/do anything outside of it?

IMG_7817I had decided the night before to just trust the words. Not to come up with a script in order to explain them. If someone asked what the ashes meant I was prepared to say that the church wants you to remember that you are alive, thanks be to God.  But nobody asked. Most just passed by.  Except for those those ten.  One woman, who didn’t speak English and couldn’t understand what I was asking (as I stood begging with a plastic bowl of ashes in my hands) took out her purse and offered two dollars – alms.  Irony?

Next year I would like to be out there all day.  But should we wait that long?

Happy Monday,


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Word of The Day: Blessed


Matthew 5:1-10 Feast of George Herbert, Priest 1633


Usually “blessed” is synonymous with “thankful.”  To receive God’s blessing is indeed a cause for thankfulness, but to be blessed or feel blessed is a much richer, broader experience.  Blessings come in a variety of forms, most often we think of those as events or actions which cause us joy or happiness.  However, there are moments in our lives when blessings happen because of pain, tragedy, and loss.  The blessings of God are there too, if we look for them.  This is beautifully said in the prayer, “A General Thanksgiving” in the Book of Common Prayer, page 836: “We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone;”  even this is a form of blessing.  How are you blessed by God in joyful moments?  Now take a moment to think about the times in your life when you have experienced or felt disappointment, pain, or loss…notice where, even in those moments, you were being blessed by God; and be thankful.


With God’s Peace and Blessings,


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I have played Chopin’s Berceuse for six different occasions, including three funerals in the past week. I wasn’t being unimaginative – it was simply the right piece for all six of those times.  I was asked to learn it for a dance program that took place last Friday and this quiet work became a gift to me as I mourned the death of someone who played Chopin beautifully, from the depths of his Polish heart.  And because I know there are no coincidences – that what we might call coincidences are simply those times when we pay attention to all the ways that we are connected – I want to share this piece with you, hoping that you will find it to be a balm for your soul, a comfort for whatever is afflicting you, a few minutes of quiet in the chaos of daily life.

Berceuse – a lullaby, harmonically simple and quietly rocking you to a place of dreams, a cradle song to remind you that you are in God’s arms, always.



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Polycarp and Purpose

imagesOn Monday, the Calendar of Saints celebrated the life and death of one of my favorites; I’d like to share him with you today as a way of entering the season of Lent. Saint Polycarp served as bishop of Smyrna (an important port in Anatolia) in the second century. He is believed to have been a favored disciple of St. John the Apostle, which means that he learned his faith sitting at the feet of one who had sat at the feet of Jesus.

He was in his eighties when the Emperor Diocletian began a persecution of Christians that took many lives. The time was rich for martyrs, and when, at the end of a previous one, the crowds began to call for Polycarp to be next, Polycarp refused to flee. Nevertheless, when his friends pressed him and pressed him, he agreed to flee to a farm, at which he had a vision of his pillow bursting into flames. He told his friends and explained that his meant he was, indeed, to die. His friends forced him to move again, but the Roman authorities found him and came to arrest him. They were shocked to find that their prey was a venerable and courageous old man, but they brought him to the governor. The governor was reluctant to burn such an ancient and revered man and begged him to renounce Christ, but Polycarp replied, “Eighty-six years have I served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who saved me?”

When they led him to the stake, Polycarp refused to be nailed to it, replying that “He who gives me power to endure the fire will grant me to remain in the flames unmoved.” So he prayed that God would find him “a rich and acceptable sacrifice.” The martyrology records that when the Romans lit the flames, the fire belled around Polycarp and refused to consume him. The Romans, however, who were no respecters of miracles, then sent a man with a dagger to dispatch him. He died in 156; the account of his death is the earliest surviving Christian martyrology.

Eighty-six years have I served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who saved me? What I love about Polycarp’s answer (apart from it’s sublime cheekiness) is the light it sheds on the nature of fidelity. Faithfulness to Christ IMG_0402(faithfulness to anything) is not a matter of one minute or one decision, but of the entire direction of our lives. Eighty-six years led up to Polycarp’s death, just as they lead up to the death of any one of us. The question is what we are serving.

For what are you willing to be spent? We talk a good line now about balance, moderation, health of body and of mind, but at least in our big cities (and I suspect elsewhere as well), we speak those words while running ourselves ragged in the service of work, home, hobby. And perhaps this needs to be so. We have a deep need to give ourselves away, and to do it for something that matters. The poet Galway Kinnell writes,

The bonfire
you kindle can light the great sky –
though it’s true, of course, to make it burn
you have to throw yourself in….

He goes on to add:

How many nights must it takeimages-1
one such as me to learn
that we aren’t, after all, made
from that bird that flies out of its ashes,
that for us
as we go up in flames, our one work
to open ourselves, to be
the flames?

And so, this Lent, I ask you two questions:

Look at your life. For what are you being consumed? (Not, please notice, what do you wish to spend yourself for, but what is actually the current thrust of your life and your time?)

Then, once you have an answer, ask yourself this: What does it have to do with the love of Christ?

Have a blessed and joyful Lent, and may it bring you both penitence and new birth,



Citations from Galway Kinnell, “Another Night in the Ruins.” You can find the whole poem in Body Rags or in A New Selected Poems.

In the course of looking for images for this post, I learned that someone is about to release a movie based on Polycarp. The trailer looks really bad.

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