Transformation: Learning from Worms during Lent

Note: Today’s blog is written by guest writer, Pastor Sarah Clark.

Jesus will take our weak mortal bodies and transform them into glorious bodies like his own… -Philippians 3: 21

I like to tell people that I got worms for my birthday…. because it’s true. I did, just not the gross kind of worms! My husband Brian gave me composting worms for my birthday – a 37 gallon bin of dark dirt and many hundreds of (maybe even a thousand) red worms. And now, these worms are happy to call the north-west corner of my basement ‘home.’

I know that composting worms aren’t a normal birthday present. The guys I share an office with remind me of that every time talk of the worms comes up. But I really like my worms. I like that during the week I save all my coffee grounds, veggie scraps, and egg shells in a big Tupperware container.

Then when Saturday rolls around, I take all of that gross, slimy, smelly stuff and I feed it to the worms. I open the bin’s lid, dig a hole, fill up the hole with the week’s gross collection, cover it all up with dirt again, and then top it off with some brown oak leaves from the tree in my yard. In some very strange way it’s satisfying.

The worms don’t say much. They don’t ever say thank you. They don’t cheer every Saturday when I open the lid. But I know they’re content because every week I see baby worms crawling around… eating the previous weeks’ blueberries, spinach leaves, and carrots. And each week, there’s more rich, black dirt for me to use in my garden this spring. Talk about transformation.

Transformation. From disgusting leftovers to rich, wonderful soil. From moldy refrigerator scraps to fertilizer for this summer’s tomatoes. This time of year is a time of transformation. From dark winter to warm, bright spring. From brown to green. From death to life. Lent is all about transformation… and I’m so glad that Easter [Lutheran Church] is talking about transforming at worship, and church school, and confirmation, and book studies, and Chick Talk [women’s group], etc.

‘Transformation’ means that there’s hope for us. If a bin of worms in my basement can transform slimy onion skins into fantastic soil… how much more hope there is for us… who will be transformed by the promises of Jesus Christ on a sunny Easter morning!

Jesus will take our weak mortal bodies and transform them into glorious bodies like his own… -Philippians 3: 21

Sarah Clark is an ELCA Pastor and works at Easter Lutheran Church in Eagan, MN. She graduated from Luther College in 2005 and Luther Seminary in 2010. Sarah seriously loves the Current (a radio station), good food, and the BWCA in northern Minnesota.

Worms in the photos from Julie’s garden.

Until next time, Amen!

New Beginnings

The one who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”–Revelations 21:5

Click to enlarge--Butterfly near fountain at Eagan's Central Park--photo by Julie McCarty, 2011 All rights reserved.

The other day I was walking at Eagan’s Central Park and stopped to take pictures of this butterfly in front of the fountain. We had a little dance going: she would move her wings, I would, quick-snap-the-picture, while in the meantime she moved before the picture was complete. After awhile I tried to predict her next move, but I was mostly one step behind the lovely flying creature. 

Butterflies always remind me of new life, new opportunities, new chances to try to be something different or become a better person. How the caterpillar goes from one stage to the next inside its cocoon is certainly mysterious–and so it is with us humans, although we often miss the many ways we grow and change, even as adults.

In the book of Revelations, John has a vision of a new heavens and earth. He is told by God, “Behold, I make all things new.” Although this passage is about the coming kingdom at the end of time, it is also true that God brings about newness in our own lives, our own time–if only we let him. When we say “thy kingdom come,” we mean not only in some distant future in heaven, but also in the sense of bringing God’s will and compassion to life in the here and now.

School will be starting soon–or has already begun–in many places throughout the country. Sometimes I think that the starting of a new school year is more of a “new year” than January 1. New teachers, new books, new clothes, new classes–a new start on life. Even if you are not in school, many activities that were set aside for summer come to life once again in September.

What newness of life does God want for me, for you, at this particular point in our lives? What concrete steps might we take to cooperate with God’s desire for our lives? What single choice might I make this day to bring about a better world, at least in my little corner of it, just for today?

Click to enlarge--Open Butterfly--photo by Julie McCarty, 2011. All rights reserved.

Living Water, Holy Spirit, and Solitude at an Iowa Stream

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.'” Now he said this about the Spirit which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.  (John 7:37-39)

Wolf Creek--photo by Julie McCarty--Note: click on photo to enlarge

Flowing water fascinates me. When I was a little girl, my best friend had a house with a creek flowing near her house, and we would play for hours within and around the water.

Jesus tells us that he is the living water that satisfies all our deepest longings. The Spirit is flowing in Christ, flowing through him to everyone around him.

What surprises me when I read this passage today is the part about the water of the Spirit flowing out of those who believe in Christ. In all the times I heard this passage proclaimed at church, I never noticed that part. Here’s what the footnote in my bible says:

Jesus is the true water of life, who turns the symbol into reality. . . Believers become channels of life to others, through Christ’s Spirit given at Pentecost after he was glorified (crucified, risen, ascended).    –From the Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV.

Not only was Christ both human and divine, his human side was a channel of the Holy Spirit–and we, too, are called to be channels of the Holy Spirit, flowing out to give to others in abundance.

Today I am offering you a gift that relates to this meditation: a 2 minute escape from your present work into the environment of a flowing, modern day stream named Wolf Creek. This is a very short video I took on a recent trip to our favorite country getaway in the rolling hills of northeastern Iowa, the “Morning Mist Cabin” owned by Larry and Jo Thein. (Thanks to them for letting us share it, and thanks to my husband Terry for his techie expertise in getting it setup on YouTube.)

As you watch this video, you might want to just enjoy the ability to getaway for a moment from the busyness of daily life, taking in the sights and sounds of God’s creation in nature. You might consider Jesus, the Living Water, and how the Spirit is the water that flows through you to others. Or maybe you just want to wait and see what the Spirit might inspire in you this day.

Note: You can enlarge the picture using the little box with four arrows in the bottom right of the picture to enhance the experience of “getting away from it all,” but just be aware that the picture won’t be as sharp. Move your mouse to see how to reduce it again. 

Until next time, Amen! 

Sumi Painting, Chi, Creativity and the Spirit

 

In the past year or two I have been digging into my artistic side by taking watercolor classes. Last fall, I signed up for a workshop called “Sumi and Soul” by Yuming Zhu, a professional artist who was born in China and currently lives in Seattle, Washington. I received so much from the experience that I signed up for another two-day workshop this spring with the same teacher.

Artist Yuming Zhu at Sumi painting workshop, 2011, Bloomington, MN--photo by Julie McCarty

Painting in the Chinese or Japanese way is quite different from the European style. In sumi painting, one holds the brush differently, and uses materials that more closely resemble ink and tissue paper than oils and canvas. Rather than painting with just your hand or arm, it is more as if your whole body is painting, from your own “center of gravity” someplace deep in your body. The philosophical or spiritual underpinnings are different as well, something the teacher mentioned in a gentle way, here and there, without harping or preaching.

Julie trying out Sumi painting at Yuming Zhu's workshop at the Bloomington Art Center in Minnesota--2011

My experience of the workshops with Yuming was very positive. As a writer, I am often too tense or perfectionist, which blocks the flow of words onto the paper. The Sumi workshop helped me to view my writing in a different way, to open up myself to letting the creativity flow more freely without fear of making “mistakes.” This fear is a real block to creativity, and “Mary Francis” (what I call the “good little Catholic girl” inside me) needs to let go of these fears.

 One of the many things I learned about in this workshop was the Chinese concept of chi, a word that means something like “energy” or “life force” in English. Here’s what About.com says about chi:

Ch’i (also spelled Chi or Qi) is a fundamental concept in Chinese philosophy and culture. Found in Chinese traditional religion but especially Taoism, Ch’i literally means “air” or “breath,” but as a concept it refers to the energy flow or life force that is said to pervade all things. (Read more here or also here.)

On the second day of Yuming Zhu's workshop, students arrived with energy--photo by Julie McCarty, 2011

The concept of chi intrigues me. Because I follow Christ, the idea of chi made me think of the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit moves, creates, and breathes in us. In fact, in the original bible languages, the word “spirit” is the same is the word “breath.” It was “spirit” that God “breathed” into the first human in one biblical Creation story.

 
Too often, Christians think of God as rigid, stable, unchanging–and I’m sure there is certainly the element of stability and permanence in the best sense in the Divine Being we Westerners call “God.” I don’t deny that truth. However, on the other hand, the Spirit is called Creator Spiritus, the divine Spirit that Genesis tells us “hovered over the waters” during the creation of the cosmos. This Spirit of God is alive, dynamic, moving, active. Jesus compared the Spirit to the wind: you do not see it, or where it is going, but you know it it there.
Yuming Zhu's painting demo, Bloomington Art Center workshop, Spring, 2011--photo by Julie McCarty
I wonder what would happen if Christians of today took Creator Spirit seriously, that person of God known for movement, action, creativity, and breath. Would the Creative Spirit bring about something new? Something beautiful? Something prophetic, that is revealing truth and compassion?

I wonder, dear reader, what good things might the chi within you or me, our inner energy, want to create today? What newness of life might the Spirit of God want us to bring to birth this week, this year? How might we live the Resurrection of Christ, that image of energy, bursting out of the tomb, right here, right now in this moment?

Note: To view artwork by Yuming Zhu or find workshops, visit his website http://www.yumingfineart.com/about.htm  or on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/mypainting

The Veil Torn in Two–Removing Obstacles in the Spiritual Life

After the long winter, it was good to see the ground again, even if the grass was flat and brown. One recent Saturday, when the only snow left was a couple of mountains near our driveway, my husband Terry spread the snow out across the lawn to speed up the melting. He said he wanted the exercise of shoveling and, after all, it felt good to get outside in the fresh spring air.

Secretly, I thought it wasn’t necessary, but I understood well the desire to be done with winter. Besides, I knew there were flower bulbs underneath that giant snow pile by the mailbox, and I thought perhaps we might see some blossoms a little bit sooner if the thick veil of snow was removed.

We were in for a big surprise: the very next morning, little shoots were peeking out of the soil. I still can’t get over it. How can a bulb that is several inches beneath the surface, and just the day before also beneath a couple feet of snow, push its way to the surface in less than 24 hours?

This experience made me think of the many obstacles, like mountains of snow, that sometimes block spiritual growth or the deepening of our relationship with God. We may have certain behaviors in our lives that are sinful, or bad habits that keep us from our maximum potential. Soft addictions (see my March 24 post) may keep us occupied in ways that prevent us from having the time for more productive activities or more attentive prayer lives.

But it is not God’s desire that anything keep us apart from the divine presence. In upcoming days, Christians throughout the world will be meditating on the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We read in Matthew’s gospel that at the moment when Jesus released his spirit and died upon the cross

 . . . the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised(Matthew 27:51-52).

This curtain was the veil that hung between the general worship space of the temple and the Holy of Holies, the place where the Ark of the Covenant with the Ten Commandments was kept. The Holy of Holies was the place in which God dwelt in a special way–so special that only the High Priest could enter this sacred room, and then only on one day each year, on the Day of Atonement.

Some Scripture commentators write that the tearing of the veil of the temple at the time of Jesus’ death symbolizes the end of the Old Covenant and the beginning of the New Covenant. Another interpretation–the one I like best–is that Christ’s sacrificial death transformed the way we humans relate to God. Christ removes the obstacles between God and us.

Christ is our high priest whose own sacrifice “tears the veil away,” making it possible for us to approach God directly in prayer. Christ removes the many obstacles in our lives that keep us from growing in love and service.

The more these obstacles are removed, the more the light of God will shine on us, so that each of us will grow into creations as beautiful as the flowers that bloom in spring.

Until next time, Amen!

P.S. If you are receiving this in e-mail subscription, it is always allowable to forward it to a friend. –Julie McCarty, author of the Spiritual Drawing Board, https://spiritualdrawingboard.wordpress.com

No Man Is an Island: Praying for Japan

 

Cherry blossoms
In Japan, cherry blossoms symbolize many things, including beauty and the transitory nature of life. (Click once or twice on the picture to enlarge it.) Photo by Radu Razvan Gheorghe--Dreamstime.com

 

As I write this, Japan is dealing with the aftermath of the recent earthquake/tsunami and experiencing the agonizing wait-and-see regarding damaged nuclear power plants. All the world watches and prays with them.

 As it so happened, just after the disaster hit on the other side of the world, I was reading a book that quoted this famous passage written by English poet John Donne (1572-1631):

 No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; everyman is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine own were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for who the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

 This reflection is but a portion of Meditation XVII, found in Donne’s book called Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, written while John Donne was confined to bed with a long illness. He would listen to the church bells calling people to gather for prayer. Sometimes the bells signaled a funeral–whose funeral might it be? Would the person who lay dying know the bells were calling people for a funeral? John Donne even wonders if perchance the bells are tolling for his own funeral, but is too sick to comprehend that the bells are for him.

 While pondering the meaning of the bells and the human condition, he comes to the awareness that we are all interconnected by the fact of our human nature. When one suffers, we all suffer. The suffering is not identical, of course, but when one suffers, we all feel the effects. When one rejoices, we can rejoice with them. We are not isolated, unfeeling robots, but rather members of the one human family.

 In Donne’s meditation, England is the “island” that appears separate from continental Europe, but is not really alone. When I read the passage the other day, I thought of the islands that form Japan, seemingly separate from the rest of Asia, but now, in our day, an important culture and piece of the bigger global community. Here is a more modern version of the passage:

 No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Today, we remember the people of Japan in our thoughts and prayers: O God, be with all those who suffer pain, grief, confusion, and the exhaustion of natural catastrophes. Guide and strengthen the arms of those who rescue and minister to the needs of others. Give us the courage to do what we can to support and comfort all those in need. Amen.

 

 Note: Reuters News Service has a list of relief agencies serving in the crisis in Japan. To view this list and donate, click here.

 Selected sources consulted for this post:

 Link to the source of cherry blossom photo:

 http://www.dreamstime.com/free-stock-photo-flower-net-rimagefree84837-resi1238037

 

 

Waiting for Spring

Waiting for Spring 2 -- Photo by Julie McCarty 2011

 

I took this photo a couple of weeks ago in Lebanon Hills Regional Park, a place not far from my home in Eagan, Minnesota. We’ve had more snow than usual this year, and on this day, the sun was out (on and off!) and there was a temporary thaw underway.

It may be difficult for people in warmer climates to imagine the joy I felt walking outside in weather like this, but it was exhilarating. The milder temperatures of the day allowed me to take deep breaths and walk freely across the crunch, crunch, crunch under my feet. Lebanon Hills is such a huge area of woods, meadows and lakes that I felt the wonder and happiness I often feel when submerged in a nature walk.

The canoes in the picture, the little naked patch of land, and the water sitting on top of the frozen lake remind me that spring is coming–even if it seems like winter lasts forever. Little by little, the daylight hours are growing longer, something that gives me renewed energy.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the church season called “Lent,” a word that comes from the English word for “spring,” the time of year when the days lengthen (Lent, lengthen). Just as the warmer temperatures melt the snow, we allow God to melt the places in our hearts that are harsh, icy, or cold. We focus more intentionally on spiritual things to make room for whatever growth the Spirit wants for us. We die to sin in order to be ready for the springtime of resurrection.

On this day, I wish you a good Ash Wednesday and a very blessed Lent. Until next time, Amen!

P.S. If you want to see a larger version of the photo for your own meditation, try clicking on the picture.

Sunrise over Eagan, Minnesota, USA

Every day God sends us beautiful images in the nature all around us, but I often miss these gifts because my mind is too occupied with planning, working, worrying, and a host of other things.

Sometimes, as I am writing, I pause in my work and look out the window. On the day I took this picture (see the header image above) the sun’s rays were painting a lovely work of art. I know from past experience that such a view is fragile and easily lost. I dropped everything, grabbed my camera, and now I have something that reminds me of the simple-yet-awesome works of God.

What you do not see in this picture is that I live in a very ordinary suburb (okay, it’s a nice suburb, but not really unusual as far as suburbs go) with very ordinary things going on beneath this sky: commuters are packing their cars and sleepy teens are trudging toward the bus stop. Houses form a haphazard pattern on what was once a huge area of farmland, a place where once the woods met the wild prairie lands.

These other things are not shown in the photo so that we might focus our hearts and minds on something other than our own doings for a moment: to observe the great beauty in this world, even in the midst of what can seem at times a real drag of work, day in, day out.

I believe God is immanently present to us, in our hearts, our work, our play, and our relationships. I also think that sometimes we need a sunrise like this to help us remember that God is also transcendent. The light in the sky reminds me that there is something beyond my own petty worries and obsessions. Whatever the sorrow and suffering in life—and there truly is a lot of that—God still loves us and wants to bring us to something better, something filled with love and beauty.

For reflection: Did you ever see a simple work of nature that warmed your heart, perhaps on the most ordinary of days?