Monday, February 27, 2012

Desert Dreams

There’s something about the desert. It calls you to notice the trivial and immediate – a grain of sand, a single drift. And it calls you to notice the huge and everlasting – the horizon and the endless sky.

Many years ago, I backpacked across the Kalahari Desert in Botswana with two friends. We had spent Christmas in the Okavango Delta, exploring the wetlands in dugout canoes poled by local guides. It had been a tremendous experience, an overload of sensation, with abundant heat, greenery, water and wildlife. We had camped and celebrated the season under stars whose reflections shone out at us as much from the water as from the sky.

Emerging from the Okavango, the desert assaulted us with its aridity and hostility. We found a lift on the back of an open-backed truck bearing the road crew for a band from Maun, at the edge of the Delta, down to Francistown near the border of Zimbabwe. From there we could catch a train back east toward Malawi where we were all working as volunteer teachers.

Between delays and breakdowns the trip took all day, starting at 4:00am. Sitting with my head covered by my African cloth (chitenge) against sun and wind, I peered out at what seemed like an unchanging landscape of grey sand. A scraggly tree or some bushes would break the monotony here and there, perhaps a small hill, but my impression was mainly of endless emptiness.

Speech was impossible on the back of the truck as the wind whipped our words away, carrying them off into the dunes and sky. All we could do was gaze out at the infinite world. I don’t know at what point the emptiness shifted, but I do remember finding myself slowly captivated by both the stillness before me and the stillness within me. The desert became a meditation, a place to empty my heart into earth and sky.

And then I saw it. Against the horizon at the edge of a silvery salt pan, a creature stood - watchful, waiting – an ostrich. The magnificent bird turned its head sideways to observe our rumbling truck. I remember the simple sensation of awe. I had so emptied myself by now, that the vision of the ostrich filled me,and showed me the wonder of all creation, of life against the starkness of empty world, empty sky.

I remember feeling like I could hardly breathe from the beauty of it, wished I could share it, then turned and looked at my two companions. And they were smiling too.

I don’t know what Jesus found in his forty days in the desert. But I know it’s worth joining him there.

During this Lenten journey, may we each find the beautiful detail of the sand crystals in our lives, and the expansive and endless horizon of the love of our God.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Ash Wednesday and a Campfire Truth

Surprisingly, Ash Wednesday always fills me with a sense of hope, for all that it calls me to reflect on eternity, on sin, and on death. When I touch the ashes, I’m reminded not just of the mistakes I’ve made, and the people I’ve hurt, but paradoxically of all the ways in which God has been present in my life.

At the end of September, I spent a weekend at Algonquin Park in Ontario, a wilderness site largely deserted by that time of year. I was there with good people who knew how to camp and how to build a fire much better than I ever could. That night we sat around a campfire and talked and joked and watched the wood turn to ash as all the stresses of our work and our lives burned away.

The smoke of the campfire traveled up into a cloudless night, and after a while a few of us walked out on the beach to look at the sky. A slash of stars burned down at us, sprinkling us with blessings, even as our little fire reached up toward heaven. The energy of a billion galaxies laid itself before us, because, quite simply, we had taken the time to look.

There’s a burning for God that consumes the heart and opens the spirit. The burning bush is no metaphor, nor the flames of the upper room. The energy of the universe exists in a God that fills us, heats us, and burns away our pain and sorrow, leaving only ashes behind.

I think of the ashes in my life, the mistakes made, the friendships lost. Call it sin, call it human failure, the truth is if we dare to live, we will err sometimes, miss the mark, and hurt others as well as ourselves. But ashes are the price of living.

We light our little fires here on earth, in our hearts and in our lives, reaching out for an eternal God who can open our eyes to invisible truths. God burns in us as we strive to live for peace, justice, compassion and truth. In our friendships and our care we start small flames of possibility and hope. Only this can strip away the trivial and hurtful - greed, arrogance, fear, jealousy, war, injustice, hate - and so open our hearts to the most profound, the most real energy of the universe. Call it love. Call it God.

Welcome to Lent.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

For Kieran: A Prayer Request for Valentine's Week

Andrea’s voice on the phone is ragged, fluttering away from exhaustion. It’s exactly a week since her son Kieran was airlifted to the intensive care unit at Ottawa’s Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO). I drove up with her husband Mike in the dark of that first night, making conversation, keeping time, while Andrea flew with Kieran.

No parents could love more than these two. They would give anything and everything for their five year old son. The rare and overwhelming seizure disorder that has complicated their lives since his birth and repeatedly hospitalized him has done nothing but bring into focus their love for him, even as they usually celebrate his upbeat and brilliant personality.

Seeing them love him opens up a pathway for me, a sideways vision of God. Faced with their anxiety, I feel helpless, inconsequential, and yet totally open to a palpable presence that alone can surpass the enormity of their worry. I am reminded of all the parents in the bible who threw themselves before Christ, before God, for their sick children. Sometimes it’s the only thing we can do.

Andrea tells me that Kieran is doing a little better. He no longer has the breathing or feeding tube. But he’s not eating, and can’t seem to concentrate. After a week he’s still spiking inexplicable fevers. He’s so bruised, they can no longer find a vein for his IV. He cries and complains when he’s awake, not his usual funny happy self. She hasn’t really slept in days. They don't have any answers. And she doesn’t know how much longer she can go on.

But she will go on. Whatever it takes, for however long it takes, she and Mike will be there for Kieran. Because this is true love and in the end, it’s all that matters.

If you have a moment this Valentine’s week, please send a prayer out for Kieran and for all those who suffer.

Monday, February 6, 2012


The soul cries 'Where is God?', and does not always hear the answer, or see the truth. But God lurks everywhere, in grieving hearts, sudden smiles, and resurrected friends; in burning bushes, broken hearts, birthday parties, late nights and early mornings. Those times when we gasp and see the eternal and the divine are not moments when God surfaces. They are moments when we do.