Lament on Holy Saturday 2020 – by Naomi R. Wenger

(This essay is the second of two that together present some of the information that was to have been part of a day-long retreat on Holy Saturday, 2020, entitled “God in Deep Time: Showing Mercy to the Thousandth Generation.” This retreat was cancelled due to the Corona virus pandemic and related shelter-in-place order. It has since been recast as an online retreat experience. Both of these essays are available on the Hermitage Community Blog. This essay essay includes a confession and lament for Earth and the first,“Have you not heard? God in Deep Time,” provides some background on “deep time.”)


This year, when we have suspended our normal daily operations for a pandemic that is affecting millions world-wide and ending in death for thousands, we gather in absentia to mourn for Earth. While it seems like we have more immediate concerns, the viral pandemic we are facing is part of a continual roll-out of disasters due to human mishandling of our planetary island. While the arguments are too complex to spell out here (see here for more information), ecologically, the planet is poised on a knife-edge.

It does not take much imagination to take us into a downward spiral of disasters that end with much life on our planet wiped out. We are already aware of the massive extinctions of animal and plant species on Earth. We know about the immense challenges to the world-wide freshwater supply. We grieve with the continued burning of forests, both from natural and human-greed causes. We are concerned about the bleaching of coral reefs, the diminishing catch in the world’s fisheries, salinization of soils, and the effect of removal mining, fracking and oil extraction on the quality of all life on Earth. And yet, we still live our lives in comfortable bubbles. Perhaps the biggest symbol of “bubble living” is the buying of drinking water in plastic bottles that end up in our bloodstreams as microplastic residue and play havoc with our health. And that plastic which is so convenient for everything from shopping bags to house siding, is toxic waste of a greater magnitude than all the nuclear waste from our power plants. And where is God in all of this?

Today, on this day when nothing happens in the Christian church year – the day between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection – we wait to see if Christ’s death counts for anything. We wait with hope but without knowledge. We wait in darkness, hopefully the kind of darkness that makes us long for more of God. We wait. And we grieve. We wait. And we beat our fists against our chests – ah me! – how can we change our lives to endure this catastrophe? And, we must change our lives. There is no endurance without change. Just as the early disciples found that the Resurrection made all the difference in the world and they left their nets and places of business to spread the Good News, so we must leave our safety nets and find the good news that is ours to spread. And that may just cost us our lives.

Here, at The Hermitage, we have focused our attention on the issues of sustainable energy because of the gas and oil pipelines that cross this land. We are directly implicated in that industry, both unwillingly and willingly. But a healthy future of Earth depends on the sustainable production and consumption of energy, food, water, and air—all necessary supports to life.

If we continue to pursue the same kind of life we are all used to living, then the trajectory of what happens to Earth and all life is quite predictable. At some point in the future, great poverty will overcome a huge swath of human population. Then, the already-compromised food production and distribution channels will be beyond repair and the poor will be hungry. Already, the quality of water available to rich and poor alike is contaminated. And our air quality is now part of our “weather” forecasts as we daily determine if it is safe to be outside our homes or safer to stay inside. At some point in the future, but visible now, the biodiversity of the planet will be diminished to the point of impoverishing every ecosystem creating ever greater swings in the cycles of disease and death.

Environmental educator, Mitchell Thomashow, in an article entitled, “Environmental Learning and Covid-19” writes, “We don’t need lifeboats. We need resilient communities that can work together to provide essential needs as environmental contingencies impact our communities,” [Accessed 4/8/2020]. Here is a call to be part of just such a resilient community. Will you join in confessing your complicity, lamenting with Earth and pledging to make a change in your life for the next year? Will you come again on Holy Saturday in 2021 to see if the the death that you are asked to die—the small death to will and comfort—has borne fruit in you and for Earth? Please come, even if you fail, we need each other more than ever to learn from one another, to strengthen our resolves, to become the kind of people who show by how they live, how they love one another and the whole Earth.


Picture, if you can imagine it, a dump truck that is two stories high. Imagine an earth moving machine made to fill that truck. Multiply that vision by hundreds and watch as the boreal forest  in an area the size of the state of Florida is first clear-cut and then the land is scraped with the earth moving machine and dumped into the house-sized trucks for tranport to a processing area. Can you see the processing area with huge vats where the scraped earth is mixed with toxic chemicals and spun like a giant washing machine to release oil residue from the earth. Imagine the waste from these spinning vats being dumped into vast lakes, covering more than 85 square miles, about 1/10 the size of Lake Erie, containing more than 317 million gallons of contaminated water. Imagine the effects of this network of foul water on the fresh water of Alberta. Now, imagine that the bitumen, produced in this fashion is further diluted by naphtha, a flammable derivative of Natural Gas drilling that is a known carcinogen and, if released, a dangerous airway irritant.

This diluted bitumen, or diluted crude oil, is what flows in the pipeline under our feet at The Hermitage. In its natural state, it is harmful to the environment in which it is mined. The mining process further contaminates large areas of Alberta. And, when the pipelines rupture, as in the spill into the Kalamazoo River watershed in 2010, the oil contaminates other ecosystems as well. Imagine, too, that we have not yet discovered a clean way to burn fossil fuels. Every bit of the oil and gas used as fuel ends up contaminating our air, our waterways, and the ocean and weakening the life of every plant and animal alive on the planet.

If all of life is harmed by the mining and use of this fuel, why do we mine it? It is worth trillions of dollars for the oil companies which produce the fuel. While relatively cheap for the consumer to use, it creates enormous wealth for a very few and consequent power for those same few. And we consumers of this resource are left wanting more. Because we can have it. Because our way of life depends on it.

Can you imagine life without fossil fuels? You would have to go back to the days before kerosene lamps, before coal-burning furnaces, before gas stoves. And we don’t want to go back. Life was harder, then. People then could not travel the great distances we can each day, now. So much of life depends on fuel. And that’s just the way the oil companies like it. Pollute all they will, we will still clamber for more and more because that’s the way life is. Technology even runs on fossil fuels. Electricity is overwhelmingly produced by the burning of coal, natural gas and oil. Can we live without technology? Can we live without oil? Will we?

You are invited to use the following “Confession and Lament” as a guide for your confession this Holy Saturday.

Confession of complicity

from The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry

“The difficulty with mechanically extractable energy is that so far we have been unable to make it available without serious geological and ecological damage, or to effectively restrain its use, or to use or even neutralize its wastes. From birth, right now, we are carrying the physical and the moral poisons produced by our crude and ignorant use of this sort of energy. And the more abundant the energy of this sort that we use, the more abounding must be the consequences.” (p.84)

Psalm 51:3-9

“For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.”

Confession Litany:

For each item in the Litany, pause to identify and name your personal complicit involvement.

•We have tended to use the earth rather than live with it. Forgive us, O God, our complicity.

•We have often abused the land and its resources rather than treasure them Forgive us, O God, our complicity.

This “use and abuse” attitude has consequences; infertility, disease, weakness and now, a massive and measurable change in our atmosphere causing dangerous and drastic weather around the globe  Forgive us, O God, our complicity.

•We have sacrificed creativity for production and linked excess to prosperity  Forgive us, O God, our complicity.

•We have shared in pushing companies to provide cheap goods to assuage our voracious hunger for more; this has taken jobs away from workers here and created unjust work elsewhere in the world  Forgive us, O God, our complicity.

•We have acted to remake a landscape to serve our needs rather than recognize the work of the Creator in placing us in the just landscape for which we long  Forgive us, O God, our complicity.

•We have arrogantly argued that since we are better off, the earth must be as well  Forgive us, O God, our complicity.

•We have used our feeling of prosperity as the measure of our right to exploit the land, and contaminate air and water around the globe  Forgive us, O God, our complicity.

•We have lied to ourselves that if we preserve small areas of wilderness, the rest of the biosphere can be developed, stripped of resources and left to rejuvenate without recognizing that the natural process that gave us these resources takes thousands of years to repeat  Forgive us, O God, our complicity.

•We have willingly deprived ourselves of the spiritual richness of place by being so readily uprooted by the possibility of personal gain  Forgive us, O God, our complicity.

•We believe the lie that more and bigger is always better, though we experience the degraded quality of life that comes as a result  Forgive us, O God, our complicity.

•We have tended toward conservatism—doing what we have always done—rather than conservation—working to reverse the negative flow of misuse and waste of earth resources  Forgive us, O God, our complicity.

•We have left lights on, heat high, cars running, air conditioning low, water dripping  Forgive us, O God, our complicity.

•We have thrown away when there is no “away”   Forgive us, O God, our complicity.

•We have hoarded what could be useful to others  Forgive us, O God, our complicity.

•We have simply lived for ourselves while others go wanting   Forgive us, O God, our complicity.

Give us courage to use less, demand creative change and care deeply for what is already here. AMEN.


          We lament that our abuse of creation
Has brought lasting damage
To the world we have been given:
          To the world we have been given:
          Polluting streams and soil,
          Poisoning the air,
          Altering the climate, and damaging the earth.
          We commit ourselves
          To honor all living things
          And to protect them from abuse and extinction,
          For our world belongs to God.

From Our World Belongs to God: a contemporary testimony

Act out your lament. Choose one of these actions or one of your own devising.

  • Write your heartache for the planet on a paper and bury or burn it.
  • Go outside, lift up your hands, and keen. Keening is an ancient form of expressing grief by wailing high and loud.
  • Wrap your arms around a tree and hold its sadness.
  • Weep.
  • Lie face down on the earth with outstretched arms, listening for its heartbeat. Make it your intention to care for what you are embracing.

Declaration of Hope

We believe that the act of constructing a pipeline is not the last word for this land.
We believe in restoration.
We believe that the use of limited fuel from the earth will end.
We believe the wisdom of the earth will prevail.
We believe there is good work for Enbridge to do.
We believe in transformation.
We will work together to protect the earth.
We will be mindful of the generations to come.
We will change our lives so that what we do supports sustainable life on earth.


In a podcast on the Emergence magazine website, science writer David Quamman speaks of  the current viral crisis as an opportunity. He says: “I am not an optimist by disposition, but I’m stubborn when it comes to hope. I think that hope is not a psychological condition. Hope is an act of will. And therefore I think we have a responsibility to be hopeful that we can do things that will make the final result at least not quite as bad as it might have been otherwise.

Quamman continues: “And with this … hideous pandemic that we’re in right now, this scary thing that may take many, many lives, but in the meantime is also destroying people’s jobs, disrupting cultures and economies around the world, it’s a bad thing. The former mayor of Chicago, …Rahm Emanuel, … famously said, “We should let no crisis go to waste.” There’s wisdom in that, and I think that’s the case here. We should not let this crisis go to waste. We should use it as an opportunity to demand from ourselves and demand from our leaders substantive change, real, drastic change in the way we live on this planet, while we still have time.” [accessed 4/8/2020]

The insertion of this pipeline into the earth, the viral pandemic, and all catastrophes we may yet face in the coming year are possible catalysts for real change – change in our behaviors and change in the public sphere. May we all share this hope. For this is God’s world. It always has been. It will continue to be. It is not ours to use as we like. It is our place to tend this earth, to care for its creatures, to enjoy its wonders. Let us stop poisoning the land and our future by finding ways to let go of our way of life and embrace the way of life we find in the risen Christ—a life lived Godward and not toward self-fulfillment.

Hear the voice of the hymn writer, Carl P. Daw as you move through the darkness of this day to the hope of tomorrow.

How shallow former shadows seem beside this great reverse,
as darkness swallows up the light of all the universe.
Creation shivers at the shock, the temple rends its veil.
A pallid stillness stifles time and nature’s motions fail.
This is no midday fantasy, no flight of fevered brain,
With vengeance awful, grim, and real, chaos is come again.
The hands that formed us from the soil are nailed upon the cross.
The Word that gave us life and breath expires in utter loss.
Yet deep within this darkness lives a Love so fierce and free,
that arcs all voids and — risk supreme! — embraces agony.
Its perfect testament is etched in iron, blood and wood,
With awe we glimpse its true import and dare to call it good.

May you wake tomorrow renewed in body and spirit, when the “Alleluias!” resound.

Have you not known? God in Deep Time – by Naomi R. Wenger

(This essay is the first of two that together present some of the information that was to have been part of a day-long retreat on Holy Saturday, 2020, entitled “God in Deep Time: Showing Mercy to the Thousandth Generation.” This retreat was cancelled due to the Corona virus pandemic and related shelter-in-place order. It has since been recast as an online retreat experience. Both of these essays are available on the Hermitage Community Blog. This essay provides some background on “deep time” and the second essay, “Lament on Holy Saturday 2020” includes a confession and lament for Earth.)


As I was working on this essay, a children’s song kept going through my head.

My God is so BIG, so strong and so mighty,
there’s nothing my God cannot do.
My God is so BIG, so strong and so mighty,
there’s nothing my God cannot do .
         The mountains are God’s the valleys are God’s
          the stars are God’s handiwork, too.
God is so BIG, so strong and so mighty,
there’s nothing my God cannot do.

God in Deep Time We are going to focus on this “so BIG” God. If we understand the context of our lives in what scientists call “Deep Time,” we will begin to recognize that we no longer accept the Biblical writer’s, cosmology (what we sometimes refer to as “worldview,” though that term is too narrow when we talk about the universe). Rather, we all already have a cosmological consciousness that takes us outside what the Bible presents us. So, we will begin by looking at the conception of the universe that is presented in our Bibles. Then we will look at the cosmological picture of Deep Time. Finally, we will return to a text from Isaiah 40 to see if Deep Time can help us set our understanding of Isaiah’s words in our current context. The text from Isaiah is fruitful for reminding us that God is so much “bigger” than we usually picture God.


God in Deep Time

The Bible was written during a time when the earth was perceived as flat, bounded above by the heavens—where God dwells above among the sun, moon and stars—and below by the underworld— the place of the dead. This three-tier universe, limited on each side by the distances that humans had traveled by land, form the boundaries of what was known as “the ends of the earth,” in the mind of the Ancient Near Eastern writer. But, early in the second century after the birth of Christ, Ptolemy proved that Earth and the heavens were spherical and in motion. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Copernicus took up the idea again and proved mathematically, that Earth rotated around the Sun and not the other way around, as was assumed by the daily experience of seeing the “sun rise and set.” Declared heretical by the Church, which had finally been convinced of the “round earth” only after the great sea explorers of the 15th century ran into unexpected continents while trying to sail to China from Portugal, traveling westward. In another hundred years Galileo and Tyco Brahe assisted by Johannes Kepler reasserted Copernicus’ calculations and improved on them by actually observing the movement of the “heavenly bodies” through their newly improved telescopes. Then the Church finally, but reluctantly, capitulated by making space for scientific observation and inquiry but still holding fast to the worldview of the Scripture in its doctrines. This created a rupture between religion and science that has continued hemorrhaging to this day.

Unfortunately for us, those old ideas of the three tier universe, the centrality of Earth in the universe, the sun “rising and setting,” persist because of a theology that depends on these ideas as captured in Scripture. We find it hard to rid ourselves of the ideas that heaven is “up,” that we are at the center of the universe, or that what we can see is all there is. We are afraid of the mystery, of the sheer immensity, of what we cannot understand. And the ancient scriptures, based on an outdated worldview, echo our fears.

Pastor Paul R. Smith wrote a book entitled, Is your God big enough? close enough? you enough? Jesus and the three faces of God, a reimagining of the trinity through the lens of Jesus’ relationship with a God Jesus called “Father.” While I do not expect your views of God to change in an instant, I hope to open in you some different and maybe new ways of imagining God in deep time, or more properly, in eternity. We will be tackling only one-third of Rev. Smith’s project, “Is your God big enough?”by going on a tour of what scientists, theologians and artists show us about the cosmos and deep time, and then coming back to reflect on a passage from Isaiah.


Scientists tell us that the universe, or the multi-verse, or what I am calling today the cosmos, began 13.8 billion years ago with a “big bang.” Though they don’t completely understand how this happened, they can see and describe the detritus of that explosion in what we call the universe with its galaxies, novas, super-novas, nebulae, comets, solar systems, black holes, black matter and speckles of light. Details of the formation of the cosmos are scarce and difficult for non-scientists to understand. So, we rely on models and metaphors to help us understand what this theory means for “life on earth.”

God in Deep Time

Ilia Delio, the Franciscan nun, scientist, and theologian upon whom I will rely for most of my scientific information here, gives an illustration of the human being in this context using a picture of a set of encyclopedias – a 30 volume set she calls The Encyclopedia of Life. Imagine, she says, that you have just such a set of books, lined up on a shelf. Each volume of the 30-volume set contains 450 pages. Each page represents 1 million years. The front cover of volume 1 is the Big Bang – the Beginning. Somewhere in the middle of volume 21, Earth has coalesced into a ball of molten minerals and is cooling into its present form of molten core, mantle, crust, and a gaseous envelope of atmosphere around the planet. In volume 22, life, in the form of micro-organisms, begins on Earth. About volume 29 (and remember, the set, so far, has 30 volumes), we enter Earth’s Cambrian Period. This is the period of Earth history when the single land mass surrounded by a single ocean begins breaking up to form our present-day continents and when the first complex animals burst onto the scene in the ocean, in the forms of sea sponges, trilobites, and tube worms. Life continues to complexify through volume 29. Finally, in volume 30 on page 385 of our 450- page book, in the end of the Jurassic period, dinosaurs go extinct. Mammals, the most complex life form so-far, first begin to appear on page 390. Finally, on the last line of page 450 of volume 30 of The Encyclopedia of Life, the final two words are “human beings.”

Yes, the cosmos has been around for a long time. Humans, the most complex and self-reflexive of the life forms on Earth are such new-comers that our whole history takes up only the final two words in a 30 volume set of 450-page-long books, with each page representing 1 million years. Now, our understanding of God as eternal, without beginning or end. This means that God was there, at or in, the Big Bang, in Deep Time. Yes, God is that BIG!

Physicists are only beginning to understand how this universe is put together. One of the recent (20th century) findings is that the universe does not exist in a flat plane. That is, those planetary models of the solar system, that flat spinning dinner plate with marbles affixed on it, is most likely an anomaly in the cosmos. With clouds of gas and intersecting wave-like time/space formations, the universe looks more like Gene Roddenberry’s vision in Star-Trek, with time tunnels and worm holes connecting vast portions of the universe so that if you find the precise “doorway” you will move light-years in a single nano-second.

And what really knocks our socks off is that matter, the stuff of the universe, is really nothing but energy. Those points of light we see in the night sky, the emanations from other suns millions of miles from earth, are as “real” as the chair you are sitting upon. Because the chair is just light and energy held together in such a way that it can bear a load of other light and energy—You! You’ve probably heard the famous quote from Carl Sagan that you are made of star-stuff. This idea has been around for awhile. Take the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s 1970 hit, “Woodstock,” (written by Joni Mitchell) that keeps returning to this chorus:

            We are stardust, we are golden,
         We are billion year old carbon,
    And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

And, of course, the idea is older than 1970.

What bothers us and feeds our fears, is that what we’ve counted on as real keeps eluding our grasp. And theology has not been left out of this ephemeral soup.  Paul Tillich in the early 20th century, articulated the idea that God is “precisely nothing.” Now, this is a technical definition since the word “nothing” contains the word “thing.” Tillich was simply reminding us what the theologians throughout the ages had already said, that God is not material, is not “made of” stuff. While this is a true assertion about the nature of God, it has always been a dangerous assertion. Just saying, “God is nothing” set John of the Cross at odds with the Spanish Inquisition in the 16th century and shut down the possibility of that truth finding its way into the hearth of our hearts.

We like to think of God with hands, a lap, a heart, able to carry us and comfort us with human-like touch. But, this, in fact, reduces God to being conceived in our image rather than the other way around. Bearing God’s image does not necessarily mean that God “looks like” us, but rather that we are imbued with an ungraspable “God-ness.” In that, lies our greatness and the mystery that we can never, ever, appropriate God, but that, at the same time, God is entangled in our being (the technical term here is “interpenetration”). We humans are not great on our own, but only as God-bearers, do we have a measure of significance. (This is an essential point to grasp when we come to the next essay dealing with how we care for our Earth home. Our significance is derivative, not normative: that is, we only exist to mirror God not to be god-like in our power and use and abuse of Earth.)

At The Hermitage, every day and for each guest who comes, we affirm by name, that each one is the “bearer of God’s infinite life.” This simple assertion serves to remind everyone both that they are significantly known and that they are significantly dependent. I challenge you to look in the mirror each morning and call yourself by name followed by the assertion that you are the bearer of God’s infinite life. It may change the way you go through your day.


Now let’s read the scripture from Isaiah 40:21-31 and see if our new understanding of deep time can help us read the text for our time. I think Isaiah had and inkling of just how big God is.

Isaiah 40:21–31 (NRSV)

21Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?

The prophet begins with a series of questions designed to elicit wonder in the hearer. “What is going on here? Of what is the prophet speaking?” It is also an insistence that the hearers remember. This is a natural knowledge, not a learned knowledge, one that has been passed down from the “foundations of the earth.”The prophet is asking, “What do you know in your deep-down place of instinct and intuition, about God?”

22It is [God] who sits above the circle of the earth,
that] its inhabitants [appear]  like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain
and spreads them like a tent to live in;

In this verse, we clearly see the three story universe with God way up so high that people look like grasshoppers. If we read the old “three-story universe cosmology” into this, we can understand the point that the prophet is making. This God is as big as we can possibly conceive. So, in contemporary cosmology, perhaps God is igniting the spark of the Big Bang or God is siting at the printing press where our 30-volume Encyclopedia of Life is printed and is cranking out the pages of future volumes beyond our imagining.

23[this God] brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
24Scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when [God] blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

One can only hope…

25To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
26Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these [the stars]?
[The One] who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because [that one] is great in strength,
mighty in power,
one [of the stars] is missing.

Here is the prophet entering the cosmic starry realms that can be understood by someone holding any worldview. The prophet adds the personal dimension showing God naming the stars and taking a star inventory. This idea is later repeated in Jesus’ teaching when he says that God numbers the hairs of our heads and knows when a sparrow falls to the ground (cf. Mt. 10:26-33; Lk. 12:4-7). In the gospels, the teaching is about not fearing what others can do to you. Here, the context is similar, for in the next section we read:

27Why do you say, O Jacob,
speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?

This is a complaint from the people of Israel, telling the prophet that God cannot find them nor does God listen to their complaint. The prophet is not impressed and questions the integrity of their complaint using as proof that the God who calls each star by name can surely not have lost any of them.

The prophet then concludes this hymn with a repetition of the beginning:

28Have you not known? Have you not heard?
[Our God] is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He casts God in the role of eternal presence and source of all that is – Creator. But notice, the flat-earth worldview of “the ends of the earth” reenters here. We know to reinterpret this phrase to include the whole cosmos. We might say, “Our God was already present in Deep Time, 13.8 billion years ago at the Big Bang, and God fashioned even the tiny Earth and its tinier life forms with care.” That might have the effect on us that this phrase was to have on Isaiah’s hearers.

Then the prophet changes the direction of his vision. In the first part of this oracle, the focus is on the cosmic, the powerful rulers, the stars as signs of minute but distant and all-encompassing care. In this final section, the focus is on the interior person, inner strength, bodily stamina.

[God] does not faint or grow weary;
[God’s] understanding is unsearchable.
9[God] gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
30Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
1but those who wait for [our God] shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

In this section, the prophet repeats “faint” and “weary.” First about God and then about those whom God strengthens. God, who does not faint or grow weary, gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.

The admonition to “wait for God” is an encouragement to resist acting on one’s own power because, after all, even the young eventually succumb. Isaiah is not denigrating natural prowess or youthful energy. Rather, he wants his hearers to notice their dependence on God, because God is who God is. And knowing this is as natural as living on earth where “from its foundations” God has been known, heard, and revered. Then we discover that, to quote Ilia Delio directly, “The background of everything that exists is another existence. God is not something that can be proved or disproved.  God does not merely exist nor is God a Being among beings.  Rather, God is existence itself which means God can only appear in otherness, in that which exists…. Jesus shows that the infinite, transcendent One is infinitely near, so close that the lines between human and divine are often blurred.  We cannot grasp this God of mystery but God grasps us in our infinite depth; for the mystery we name “God” is the mystery of our awakened consciousness to ultimate reality.”

So, we “wait for the Lord” not because God is too slow or lagging behind, but so that we can realize the strength of God within us and we are “renewed” to fly with the eagle of power and dominion, run without weariness, and walk without weakness because our lives are interwoven with God’s very being. Our waiting, makes us aware of what is already there and has always been there, in Deep Time.

The hymn writer, Isaac Watts, captures a bit of what it is like to participate in the cosmos as a Child of the God of Deep Time:

            Were the whole realm of nature mine,
    That were an offering far too small,
     Love so amazing, so divine,
     Demands my soul, my life, my all.

“Give me a drink:” Longing for the Presence of Christ – Part 4

wide waterfall

—a Meditation by Naomi Wenger, Lent 3, 2020

This meditation is based on the Lenten Retreat given at The Hermitage on March 7, using the scriptures for the third Sunday in Lent for 2020. It will be posted over four days this week, Monday (3/16), Tuesday (3/17), Thursday, (3/19), and Friday (3/20). Each day includes a meditation and suggestions for practice. In this time when the whole world is focused on a virus, my hope is that you will be encouraged to keep thirsting for Christ.


We come now to the end of the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. In this section of the story, the woman is gone. She’s in her home place testifying to Jesus’ gift of “living water,” (that is, acknowledging her own deep truth and living from that place into the forgiveness of God). What remains are two scenes, one with the puzzled disciples and one with the townspeople. Read the story in John 4:31-42.

Jesus refuses the food that the disciples have gotten in town. Rather, he insists that he has other food—doing the will of God. I wonder if you have ever experienced the loss of appetite after a particularly enriching experience. 

Jesus explains this experience by inviting the disciples to imagine. Imagine, he says, that all of these green fields are golden and dry, ready for harvest. Just so, the sower and the reaper can work together in one field in God’s agronomy. He then points to the lunch they brought, “see,” he says, you brought (reaped) what you did not sow. It is the work of all the people who bring in the harvest that you carry in your hands. Thus, you have entered into the labor, even though you did not do the work.”

This is amazing. Jesus is expanding the labor of one to include the labor of all. He is at the same time contracting seasonal growth, making all seasons compress into the harvest. Have you ever held an acorn in  your hand? If so, you have experienced this kind of compression. You have held a tree, possibly a house or furniture, perhaps the warmth of a fire or heat for cooking. In that one small nut, lies not only potential but all that will become real out of that nut. I think that is what Jesus is teaching here. He also describes the timelessness of eternity. When there is no time, that is no “beginning, middle and end” to the story of life, then all things happen simultaneously, out of time. The sowing and the reaping are done together, so that all may “rejoice together.” This is a picture of the eternal kin-dom of God in which all is joy and only joy.

Jesus’ thirst is fully quenched by the true living water he had to offer.

The woman’s thirst was fully quenched by owning her own truth and receiving the gift of life from Jesus’ acceptance.

The townspeople’s thirst was fully quenched by hearing the word for themselves.

The disciples remain puzzled and thirsty. They are thirsty and hungry. They are blessed. They will be filled.

The psalmist tells of this experience in a different voice.

Ps 42:7–11.
7     Deep calls to deep 
at the thunder of your cataracts; 
all your waves and your billows 
have gone over me. 
8     By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, 
and at night his song is with me, 
a prayer to the God of my life. 
9     I say to God, my rock, 
“Why have you forgotten me? 
Why must I walk about mournfully
because the enemy oppresses me?”
10   As with a deadly wound in my body, 
my adversaries taunt me, 
while they say to me continually, 
“Where is your God?” 
11   Why are you cast down, O my soul, 
and why are you disquieted within me? 
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, 
my help and my God. 

Remember at the beginning of the Psalm, the writer was asking for a sip of water. Here, he is bowled over by the cataracts, the waves, and the billows that wash over him. It is no wonder that he asks himself, “why are you cast down?” God’s provision is abundance. Rather than a drink, God comes in the fullness of the waterfall and the ocean swell. Notice that the poet’s self-reprimand elicits hope and help from God.


Read John 4:31-42. Having one’s thirst quenched is to be satisfied. What satisfies Jesus? Why does that baffle the disciples? Does it baffle you? Jesus turns the tables on his listeners by calling them to participate in a harvest that comes before lunch. Why do you think he does that? What do the disciples learn? How do the Samaritans respond? How do you respond?

Pray with the psalmist. From the beginning of this Psalm, we have stayed with this psalmist’s desire for a “small drink” of God. Here, we witness the overwhelming experience of being completely bowled over by the presence of God. Notice that the psalmist receives the sound of the “waves”  and the “thunder of cataracts” as the song of God. Is it hard for you to experience God’s fullness? What would God’s song to you sound like? Write your reflections.

Psalm 42:7-8
7     Deep calls to deep 
at the thunder of your cataracts; 
all your waves and your billows 
have gone over me. 
8     By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, 
and at night his song is with me, 
a prayer to the God of my life. 

Read the poem, “Solomon says.” How does this thought from Meister Eckhart help you embrace  your union with God? 

Solomon says

Solomon says
all streams run
to the sea
and return to
their source.
These waters are
like our souls
that run like streams
to the One
who is
drawing them

(Mark S. Burrows & Jon M. Sweeney, Meister Eckharts’ Book of Secrets: Meditations on Letting God and Finding True Freedom)

Breathe a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the natural way God is continually providing “living water” and “drawing” you Home.

“Give me a drink:” Longing for the Presence of Christ – Part 2

clouds on a lake

—a Meditation by Naomi Wenger, Lent 3, 2020

This meditation is based on the Lenten Retreat given at The Hermitage on March 7, using the scriptures for the third Sunday in Lent for 2020. It will be posted over four days this week, Monday (3/16), Tuesday (3/17), Thursday, (3/19), and Friday (3/20). Each day includes a meditation and suggestions for practice. In this time when the whole world is focused on a virus, my hope is that you will be encouraged to keep thirsting for Christ.


Wallace J. Nichols has written that “Water is the most omnipresent substance on Earth and, along with air, the primary ingredient for supporting life as we know it. For starters, ocean plankton provides more than half of the planet’s oxygen. There are approximately 332.5 million cubic miles of water on Earth – 96 percent of it saline. (A cubic mile of water contains more than 1.1 trillion gallons.) Water covers more than 70 percent of Earth’s surface; 95 percent of those waters have yet to be explored. From one million miles away our planet resembles a small blue marble; from one hundred million miles it’s a tiny, pale blue dot. ‘How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean,’ author Arthur C. Clarke once astutely commented,” (Wallace J. Nichols, Blue Mind,  8-9).

We all know how important water is for life. In fact, we remember that after God dispelled the darkness with light, God focused several acts of Creation on water: a separation in the waters and then dividing the water from the land. Ordering the water was a significant act. In the second story of Creation given in Genesis chapters 2-3, after God makes a human and plants a garden, there is an interlude in the text that begins, “A river flows out of Eden.” The story goes on for four verses describing how this river divides and into what lands the successive rivers flow. Then the story of the garden and the human(s) begins again. Water is that important. It is used to identify people groups all through the Old Testament text. There are the people of the sea (Philistines), the peoples beyond the Jordan, the peoples of the great rivers (Tigris and Euphrates), etc.

Not only is water significant for our planetary identity, but each of us is primarily water. Nichols again: “When we’re born, our bodies are approximately 78 percent water. As we age, that number drops to below 60 percent—but the brain continues to be made of 80 percent water. The human body as a whole is almost the same density of water, which allows us to float. …Science writer Loren Eiseley once described human beings as ‘a way that water has of going about, beyond the reach of rivers,’” (Nichols, 10).

Jesus had a significant encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well near Sychar. She came to the well at midday to find that Jesus has stopped there to rest from a long journey. He was alone, the disciples having gone into town for lunch provisions. He asks the woman for a drink. She gets defensive (and political) and argues with him about his desire for water. He replies, If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water,” (John 4:10). Misunderstanding his reference to “living water,” she argues again that he has no bucket to get water to give to her. He then tells her that he is speaking of a spring that will well up within her, a spring of living water that does not dry up. “Sir,” she replies, “give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty.” 

What might it be like to have an unending source of water, to never have to trudge from the village to the well? She likes the sound of this offer.


Read John 4:5-15. Pay attention to the woman’s words. She is concerned with two things in the end, her thirst and the repetitiveness of her daily round. Jesus, on the other hand, is concerned only with God’s gift of eternal life. Can you recall a time when this crossing of intentions between what you want and what God wants has happened in your life?

Given what you know about water, does Jesus’ offer of a gift of spiritual water have any more significance for you?

Reflect on the following passage from Isaiah 55. With what does the prophet compare water? How is this like Jesus’ promise?

Isaiah 55:10–11.
10          For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, 
and do not return there until they have watered the earth, 
making it bring forth and sprout, 
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 
11          so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; 
it shall not return to me empty, 
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, 
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 

“All rivers flow into the sea, and yet the sea is never full,” (Ecclesiastes 1:7). Spend some time in prayer recoclognizing that there is room in you for a never-ending flow of “living water.” Ask to be receptive to this gift.

Conservation Gospel – by Naomi Wenger

edge of a forest

There’s a tree limb along the trail at The Hermitage that juts over the trail just at forehead height for me. For those taller, it might be neck height and some might be able to skim just under the branch without touching. Many times I’ve heard the suggestion that the branch should be cut. It is just too inconvenient, or someone might be hurt by it. The first objection to the tree branch is certainly true, it is inconvenient, in a way. The second observation may also have some merit, but as the average human walking speed is three miles per hour, it is not very likely that serious injury will result.

Every time I hear the suggestion to cut that limb, I demur. Partly because I love trees and their various forms are beautiful to me. I have also come to delight in that particular branch. It reminds me of some truths of which I need to be continually reminded.

As I enter the woods at that place in the trail, I must duck below the branch—I bow. That physical movement reminds me that I bow before the life of the woods. I don’t stride into the forest, master of it all, able to cut at whim. Though it is true, I could do that, I choose, by leaving that tree branch there, to acknowledge the tree and the forest as existing without my permission or intervention. I do not make trees. I do not make them grow. And, I do not make them with limbs that grow horizontally over a pathway. I am not the creature who spins sunlight into sugar. I do not provide homes for birds, squirrels, raccoons, insects and fungi. I have none of those special gifts. But, the tree does. In bowing as I enter the woods, I remember to respect all living things in this space—especially the tree with the jutting branch which does such important work.

If I bow as I leave the woods, I am reminded to be thankful for the gifts that a walk in the woods has given me. I have inhaled the healing air that the trees exhale. I have heard the wind in the canopy, the rat-a-tat of a wood pecker, the song of a wood frog or a bird. I have seen the emerald green of moss peeking through a mound of snow. I have marveled at the different kinds of fungus that grow on dead and dying trees. I have watched a pair of ducks take off from the swamp. I may have glimpsed three deer bounding away from the path. I see the architecture of bushes and trees—noting their strength and graceful beauty. I may have tasted the sweetness of the blackberries that line the trail. I may have pulled some sassafras shoots to take home for my morning tea. Or I might have found a brilliant yellow feather from a goldfinch on the path. There are so many riches to take away from my walk in the woods. So, I bow in gratitude as I leave. Grateful to the God who made all of these things that I can enjoy—even the tree with the jutting branch.

As I reflect on my humanness and that my usual inclination would be to “clear the path, make it easy and comfortable,” I am reminded that having to bow because of another creature is good spiritual practice. It is a practice that leads to a natural humility. I have enough practices in my life that counter a humble position. I defend myself when others point out that I’m wrong or that my way of thinking is only one of the ways one might think about an issue. So, to bow in order to enter a woodland, I am reminded that there is variety here, that there is more than one way to think about trails. I bow as a gesture of humility toward all that is not me. I bend to make room for other creatures to be as they are made to be. In the letter to the Romans, Paul exhorts Christians to “not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think” (Romans 12:3). I need a regular reminder of that injunction. Thank you, tree, for helping me remember my place in Creation is to be “with” not “over” all that is here with me.

The tree and its branch also help me remember that I bear the image of God. But, this image can so often be marred in me by my trying to grasp a “greater place.” In the Hymn of Kenosis in the beginning of Philippians 2, the writer reminds us: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
      who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
      but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
       he humbled himself” (Philippians 2:3–8).

This “emptied” quality in God is the quality that can show forth as God’s image in me. Can I walk in the wood as an emptied creature, letting the tree have its natural form? Or, do I need to change the form of the tree to suit my desires? There are good reasons to cut trees, trim branches, remove shrubs, pull weeds, or re-form a landscape. But, each time I bow to enter the woods on the trail, here, I am reminded to ask the questions rather than to assume that I know best or that my desire should naturally take precedence over the form of the tree.

A neighbor reminds me to “ask the tree, it will tell you what it needs.” To some, that may seem weirdly reminiscent of a fairy tale. But, I think what she means, in part, is that trees will tell us what they need by the way they grow and that if we listen to that “voice” we can learn both what the tree needs and what we may be able to give up for the sake of the tree. I live on this planet with all of the creatures God made to be here—large and small. My work is to listen to what God has made and so live at peace with all of Creation.

So, I will listen to the tree and be grateful for the lessons of humility and “God-bearing.”  Each time I enter or leave the woods by the tree with the jutting limb, I will remember that in bowing, I bow to the whole intricate mass of created things, and even more, to their Creator.

-Naomi R. Wenger, 2019

House Build Update – by Naomi Wenger

partially completed prayer chapel

Since 2017, we have been telling you of our desire to build a house at The Hermitage for expanding the resident community and providing housing for staff. We have also been asking you for donations to fund this building project. The journey toward building this house has seemed like a long one to us as we have painstakingly developed ideas and set some aside for what we believe to be better plans. In 2018, we announced that we were set to begin building in 2019. But, the planning phase has taken longer than we expected. We finally broke ground in August, believing that we were ready to begin. However, as we examined a plausible building calendar, we realized that we would be pushing very hard to have the walls completed and the roof on before winter set in. Since we are building with sustainable methods that will help us model how homes can be built for resilience in a period of climate change, the importance of not hurrying the project just to get it done is more significant to us than completing the project on a pre-determined timeline. So, we stepped back and we are now waiting for another building season to begin. In this waiting period, we are envisioning how we can use our own timber to mill siding and trim for the house and casting the net more widely for support for volunteers to help us complete this build. We now are planning to begin in earnest as soon as the ground thaws in the Spring of 2020.

For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.Luke 14:28-30

Tuesday’s lectionary reading from Luke 14 reminds us that first “sit[ting] down and estimat[ing] the cost” of building is a bit of wisdom Jesus used to measure the fittingness of a person to be his disciple. We feel the gravity of that wisdom as we set about building a house. During this waiting period, we have come very close to meeting the fundraising goal, set in 2017, of $270,000. We have just under $30,000 left to raise. Since 2017, the cost of housing materials, especially lumber and steel, have risen significantly and we may need to extend our goal upward before the project can be completed. So, we are using this extra time to continue our fundraising efforts and to find more cost-effective ways of building the house. These include asking folks to donate labor and help us build the house. To that end, we are looking for 50 volunteers to commit to come for between one and 14 days from May 18 through June 1 (including Memorial Day weekend) to help us complete the mass walls of the house. Volunteers will be mixing clay slip, combining the slip with straw, stuffing the muddy mix into wall forms, moving the wall forms, cooking, cleaning, and other tasks. All volunteers will be fed nutritious meals and we will house you, either at The Hermitage or nearby, if our rooms are full. Then, sometime in August and September, we will need volunteers again to help apply natural plaster to the interior of the house (unskilled labor), create an earth floor (unskilled labor), and do finish construction (skills required).

Counting the cost, for us, means more than having enough money to buy materials and hire professional labor for the job, though it certainly includes these items. It also means that we have the support of the whole Hermitage community to build a sustainable and resilient house that we hope will provide housing for folks for far longer than the St. Joseph’s Barn or The Hanby Center will be standing. Our hope is to build a home that will still be live-able in 500 years and that when the time comes to dismantle it, the materials will simply return to Earth. Of course, we have hard decisions to make as some of the close-to-the-earth products we could use for various parts of the house are out of our price range. So, some items, like windows, will be standard and will need to be replaced over the years. Our hope is that they will be replaced with more sustainable products in the future.

We are doing what we can now to build a house for a new millennium. Will you support us in this effort? If you have already given to support building this house, will you consider a second gift of money or, better, volunteer hours? If you cannot give more, will you consider telling someone you know about the project and asking them to support this effort? Your help is needed for us to be “able to finish” as the wise steward in the Gospel lesson.

For further information about the house, about volunteering or to give, contact David or Naomi Wenger at 269-244-8696. You can also donate online.

-Naomi R. Wenger, November 8, 2019

Playing Unconcernedly Among the Pawns – Naomi Wenger

Sometimes we wonder where God is. It feels as if God is absent or hiding. This happens both when we are distressed and when we are content. We feel bereft of a Presence we once knew. So, we may want to bargain with God. We ask God to “play our game” with us. We want God to show up, to find us a parking spot along a busy street, to take away every wound in our hearts. And sometimes, just sometimes, we experience God in those ways exactly when we need reassurance. But more often, we don’t. We either wonder where God is or we forget about God altogether because we have to tend our own problems if we feel no Divine support. During these Divine “absences” we wonder about God’s goodwill. We require sensed Presence as the only sign of God’s benevolence. However, that reasoning is flawed because it takes our experience of God as its starting place. 

The psalmist begins in another place altogether. In Psalm 139, the singer begins with, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.” God is in the fixed position, “home base.” It is the singer who moves away from God. 

“You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;  it is so high that I cannot attain it.” (Ps. 139:2-6) 

God is on the path of the Psalmist, knowing every move, every word, every thought. So, it is not God who is hiding, but the Psalmist who “flees from [God’s] presence” (v. 7), and “settles at the farthest limits of the sea” (v. 9). It is not God but the Psalmist who tries to hide in the dark even though there is no darkness in God (vv. 11-12). At last, the psalmist gives in to God, recognizing that God has even “formed my inward parts” (v. 13). So the psalmist understands that God has always been “there” even when the Presence is not felt and even when one is on the run from that inexorable Presence. 

R. S. Thomas, the Welsh poet and pastor, imagines this experience as a game of chess. He begins by inviting God to play, “Your move I would have / said, but he was not / playing.” He goes on to explain that his “game” is a bit loose on rules, “my game a dilemma / that was without horns.” Then the narrator is ashamed of himself for thinking that God would actually play his game because God’s “mind shines / on the black and the white / squares.” The poem concludes by admitting that the game is focused only on the capture of the Great Prize, “the one / queen, as though to hold life / to ransom.” While God, “if he plays, plays / unconcernedly among the pawns.” [“Play” by R. S. Thomas, from Collected Poems: 1945-1990, (Phoenix Books, 1993)] 

We want God to play by our rules or even just by some set of rules that make sense to us. But God does not play or does not play that way. If God plays, says Thomas, God is playing like a child “unconcernedly among the pawns” and certainly not according to some rule that we have devised. Thomas captures here the reality that God does not come at our bidding or play by our rules. Do we need solace? God does not give it like magic. Do we need a parking space? God does not provide one instantly. So, what does God do for us? for others? for all of Creation? 

God is always at work in the world, we need eyes perceptive enough and spirit deep enough to see it. And it is our daily practice of waiting on God that allows us that depth of vision. It is not assurance of God that brings us that depth, but the willingness to be plumbed to our depths for and by the presence of God as the psalmist was. What is deepest in you? The unfathomable Presence. So, sit awhile in silence. Wait on God who is shining on all the squares of your game, who eschews that big goal of the “capture of the one queen” but who is playing “unconcernedly among the pawns” of your life and the lives of those around you. We find God best in the ordinary experiences of life, not in the magic of a summer day without rain or the sudden appearance of that elusive parking spot, but in washing the dishes, finishing the report we worked so hard to craft, in serving others well, or in simply doing what we are given to do and being the person God has crafted to do that work

It is our presence that God wants, not our plans, our games, or our fixes for the world. God’s play among the pawns is more effective than our bid for the queen. The important move in the game of life is not that we are discovering or defining God, but that we are being found already in God’s gaze. We cannot “flee from God’s presence.” Our lives are fuller for recognizing that the elusive nature of God is not absence but only a more mysterious form of Presence. 

Naomi R. Wenger, 2019

Supplication: “God is Enough” – by Naomi Wenger

kneeling bench and cross

The Hermitage Way is a group of folks who commit to keep ten practices for a year at a time. This article is one of a series of articles on these practices. 

Practice 1: Those who choose to keep the Way commit to engage in a daily prayer practice. This practice will include silence, meditation on scripture, intercession and affirmation. Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer liturgies from The Hermitage or other sources may be used. 

Supplication: “God is Enough”

There are many words used for prayer: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication, intercession, pleading, etc. Some of our prayer, perhaps the greater part, should be simply acknowledging God. These kinds of prayers are adoration and thanksgiving; wonder-filled expressions of our awareness of God at work in the world. But, we often think of prayer as asking. That is understandable since the original meaning of the root of the word “prayer” (precarius is Latin meaning to obtain by entreaty or earnest asking) is to beg, to ask. So, it is appropriate that we pray for others or ourselves. We ask God to act in some way to benefit those we love and serve. This is called intercession or supplication. 

Supplication is a prayer of deep trust and awareness. The stories of Elijah in I Kings help us when we think on this deep kind of prayer. Elijah the prophet of the Lord, lives during a particularly troubled time in Israel’s history. King Ahab is a bad king, rebelling against God’s rule in his own life and leading the people astray. He is married to an equally bad queen, Jezebel, who opposes the worship of God and promotes the worship of the local god, Baal. God sends a warning to his people in the form of a drought, the ensuing famine and, probably most galling to Jezebel, a prophet who is listening to God.

During the famine, God sends Elijah to live with a widow in Zarephath, and to eat at her table. God supplies her with a never-ending oil jug and a bottomless flour jar so that they will not starve. However, during the famine, the widow’s son falls ill and dies. Elijah, never one to mince words with God says, “O lord my God have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” A rather direct question and accusation! Nevertheless, Elijah presents the facts to God, concluding his prayer with, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again” (17:20-21) thereby acknowledging that only God can change the circum-stance of death. This is a humility born of experience. And God restores the boy’s life.

A few weeks later, Elijah is sent back to Ahab with the news that it would rain again after three years of drought. Ahab agrees to a challenge between God and the prophets of the Baal. The prophets fail but God is revealed in a show of firepower. Elijah’s simple prayer of supplication is of interest, here, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord are God and that you have turned their hearts back.” (18:36-37)

The motivation behind Elijah’s prayer, “so that this people may know that you are God,” gives us the clue to Elijah’s target. He was not praying that the people would follow him, that they would give him a raise, or that they would make his life easier. No, he wanted them to acknowledge God; be aware of God’s powerful presence, worship God. God and God alone was Elijah’s target. It is important to not overlook the obvious point that suppliants trust that God will provide for their desires.

But what, you may ask, if God had not restored the boy’s life or burned up the sacrifice and the altar? This is a very important question because it brings us to the significant realization that the outcomes or the “answers” to the prayer are not the measure of God’s action. In our Elijah stories, God is acting through Elijah, through the widow, through fire, through weather formation, and Elijah is listening. Elijah is aware of God’s action. He recognizes God’s power.  He looks to God to do what God is already doing and will continue to do. He is part of the plan because he says, “yes” to whatever God does.

The ancient Chinese poet, Chuang Tzu, wrote:

  When an archer is shooting for nothing
  He has all his skill
  If he shoots for a brass buckle
  He is already nervous.
  If he shoots for a prize of gold
  He goes blind
  Or he sees two targets – 
  He is out of his mind!
  His skill has not changed. But the prize
  Divides him. He cares.
  He thinks more of winning 
  Than of shooting – 
  And the need to win
  Drains him of power.

Our aim in prayer is always God. Not knowing about God or getting something from God but God, God’s self. We may think our target is what we want, but in all true prayer, what we aim for is God. What we want is the motivation for shooting out a prayer, but focusing only on what we want can skew our aim at God dreadfully. To adapt the words of the poet, the need to receive drains our prayer of power. But to be open and even vulnerable to receive what is being provided, we need to fall for God again and again. If our prayer brings us to God, that is sufficient. God is enough.

“Fascination is the oldest form of healing” – by Naomi Wenger

              A few years ago, I was hiking in the Columbia River Gorge area of Oregon/Washington. After a two-day hike, I drove to many of the waterfalls along the gorge. I was tired from hiking with my pack on, my feet were probably sore, so at the last of at least a dozen roadside stops to see a waterfall, I stayed well back from the falls, choosing to look on from half-way there. Down the trail, where the falls were soaking onlookers, I noticed a flash of red. It kept darting into my field of vision and retreating. I focused my camera on the spot and saw the pure delight of a young boy in a red jacket daring the falling water to get him wet. He charged and challenged, roaring at the thundering fall, and then ran away with a sylph-like quickness to the shelter of a protruding rock. He got very wet. His joy at provoking the huge waterfall lifted my spirits. I can’t say it healed my aching feet, but I revel in the memory of his obvious delight.

              The old tales tell of a couple who left their homeland to find out where God would take them – “to the land that I will show you.” A shepherd stopped along a rocky path to watch a bush that was aflame but not consumed by the fire. “I Am” spoke to him out of that bush—a sound he may have missed if he was not fascinated by what he saw. A beloved woman watched as her friend was assassinated, then stood by as other friends lovingly laid his body in a tomb and rolled a stone in front of the entrance. She waited, wondering what would become of her loved one; what would become of her? On the third day, she was the first observer of that empty tomb at the resurrection of Jesus. Fascination.

              Carl Jung author of the title statement of this article, continued that thought elsewhere with, “the world is the oldest form of fascination.” When have you last been fascinated by the world? Daily rituals and sightings bring joy to our hearts. How many beautiful sunsets have we photographed only to forget exactly when they occurred? We “ooh” and “aah” over a delicious cake, asking for the recipe. We watch hawks soar, grin at young rabbits as they flop instead of hop, gawk at tiny birds who open gigantic mouths to be fed, and coax darting hummingbirds to our back yard feeders.  When we travel, the beauty in others’ faces or the colorful jumbles of market stalls invite our attention. It is no surprise that the things of the earth delight us. We are made for this planet home and we should find it interesting.

              But we can become so inured to its charms that we begin to think that the insects, the weather, the unwanted plants (eg. weeds), the animals that invade “our” space are “other” and despicable, and then disposable. When this happens, we have failed the exam. Our work is to live well in the home we have, at peace with all of the other creatures we live among. We are not commanded to be destroyers but to “tend and keep” the earth. The ready antidote to this failed attitude is fascination.

              I used to be extremely bothered when the spring invasion of ants began in my house. First at the back door, then in the dog dish and finally on the countertop. It was a regular routine and I squished and squashed ants until they outnumbered the minutes in the day I had to spare for them. I considered poisoning them by placing deadly granules around the foundation of the house. Then, I got curious. These ants were not all from the same colony—they were different sizes and colors. Some were uninterested in human food. Others were attracted to the fat in the dog food or the oily fork left on the counter. Cheese crumbs were giant treasures to the fat-loving ants. Other ants would apparently do anything for sugar. Some of the ants entered next to the back door. Some came in through the garage. Others have mysterious entry points. They only “talked” to the ants in their own families, completely ignoring ants that did not belong to their tribe. I did a little research and found out that most insects, birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles and animals eat ants. Ants are a food staple of my environment. They are also one of the necessary decomposers in the soil, helping to keep the soil fertile and garbage-free. Ants are great sources of protein and a food delicacy in parts of the world. With a little bit of fascination, I found that I was captive to a mistaken idea that every ant is a “bad” bug. In fact, ants are generally “good” and only destructive when there is already something damaging a structure, like excess moisture.

              I have found ways of protecting the dog’s food (put it in a shallow pan of water), discouraging the fat ants (never leave unwashed dishes on the counter) and the honey jar is now permanently on the counter away from the outside wall of the house. Ants come and go, preening their sleek bodies with their antennae, greeting one another with an examining embrace, and trekking far distances across the floor, looking for food. These helpful creatures are no longer my enemies but sources of entertainment. Sometimes, I still get frustrated by the sheer number of ants that can enter my house in a day. Other times, I can be still enough to let them delight me.

              Delight, attentiveness, fascination – these are doorways to healing rather than harming the world.

Freeing Hospitality – by Naomi Wenger

hospitality related word cloud

 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” Galatians 5:6

In the letter to the Galatians, Paul chastises the church for so easily falling away from the teaching they received that, in Christ, all have been made free of keeping the Jewish religious law. For, the Galatian gentiles have apparently embraced the practice of circumcision to prove that they “belong” to this new Jewish sect (that has not yet been named “Christianity”). Circumcision was the sign of inclusion for law-abiding Jews. Paul is eager to point out that there is a new way of living that does not require adherence to the law nor any external sign of inclusion. He calls it living “in the Spirit.” He criticizes the Galatians for starting with the Spirit (of Christ) and ending with the (Jewish) law, a backward movement. He reminds them that what “counts is faith working through love.” Neither faith nor love is concretely measurable. This leaves all judgment in God’s hands and frees followers of Christ to be open-hearted and open-handed toward all people, no matter their ethnic origin, their religious practice, or their gender. In Christ, he says, all are free.

Keeping Jewish law, particularly the religious practice of circumcision, is no longer much of an issue for Christians in the West. What issue or issues divide us? How would we write this admonition today so it would be an equivalent warning to us to avoid the same kind of misplaced energy the Galatians were giving to “keeping the law?” 

Each one of us will probably have to examine our consciences to find the “law” we are “keeping” that creates for us a container of inclusion or a wall of exclusion. For it is this sin, of excluding (or preferentially including) another on the basis of some “law,” that is at the heart of the message to the Galatians. This issue also resonates with our current experience in North America. There are folks excluded because of their immigrant status, gender, relative power status, socio-economic state, religion, and even their “fit” into what is expected as “normal.” Of course, we all want others to be “like us” because that is more immediately comfortable than the stew of differences we find in this heavily populated globe where we rub shoulders with the “other” more than we might like.

But, is it possible that we exclude the very folks we should be welcoming because they don’t live life as we do? What if they practice a different religion? Does that make them excludable? As I read the Bible, I see that the better practice is to welcome and include rather than to exclude. Jesus admonishes in the gospels not to fear what others can do to us (Matthew 10:26-33 and Luke 12:2-7). But we are to major in “love for others” (John 15:9-17).  We are more likely to be guilty of pushing someone out of God’s welcome than we would be “tainted” by their presence or practice when we welcome them in love. In another place, Jesus teaches,“Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40).

When fear runs amok among us, we shout down demons and decry other practices as antithetical to our faith. But it really has nothing to do with faith. Faith is not visible nor measurable; it is not what we do, but how we are. Rather, as faith is worked out in loving others, it is recognized as fruitful. We can be haters, fearing others’ practices, or we can be lovers, welcoming differences and growing stronger in loving as God loves in the process.  Protectionism breeds exclusion and expands the field of outsiders. Welcome invites inclusion and opens new avenues or new ways of apprehending the ultimately unknowable Mystery of God.

What I’m talking about is a radical hospitality that refuses self-protection or even the protection of some valued tradition, in favor of extending an open welcome. This is a hospitality that does not have rules but that allows each person to find the rule for their own life, trusting that God continues to work in the world and affirming that ultimately God is in charge of how the world is constituted.

Henri Nowuen, in his masterful meditation on transformation, Reaching Out, writes about this kind of hospitality.

“Hospitality means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend … Hospitality is not to change people but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. . . . The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adore the lifestyle of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.” — Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out, 51

I wonder if we have enough courage to weave this kind of hospitality into our daily lives? It is quite risky. It might even cost us friendships, the respect of family members, or our jobs to live this way. It will certainly be misunderstood or misconstrued. Jesus was maligned for healing, caring for the outcast, and loving everyone without exclusion. As we move toward Good Friday, we remember that this kind of hospitality could also have ultimate consequences. May we all aspire to give our lives to, and even for, loving as God loves, extending unlimited and freeing hospitality.

Naomi Wenger, March 2019