The Psalms of Advent: Amen

December 16, 2022

“The world is not respectable; it is mortal, tormented, deluded forever; but it is shot through with beauty, with love, with glints of courage and laughter; and in these, the spirit blooms . . . .”  George Santayana

Twenty-one days ago, I began this series on The Psalms of Advent with the above quotation by philosopher Santayana because his words reminded me of the depth and width of the Hebrew psalms that contain all the joy and pathos, the wide kaleidoscope, of human emotions and give them safe space to be heard and received.  Over these past three weeks of Advent, we have been invited to listen to four different psalms, each one selected for worship on one of the four Sundays of the Advent Season.  This series has been a pilgrimage of sorts, seeking guidance, wisdom, hope, illumination, and inspiration from ancient voices singing ancient songs in Psalms 122, 124, 42, and 80.  Yesterday, I reflected on Psalm 80, which will be read in many Christian worship services this Sunday, December 18.  The entire psalm may be found here:  https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm%2080&version=NIV

While the psalms were, in fact, written by Hebrew poets for Hebrew people in historic, personal, and often specific Hebrew circumstances, they still speak to anyone in search of the Holy and who longs for an honest relationship with the Divine.  Often what Christians claim to be prophesies of Jesus Christ in these psalms are in reality prayers for earthly kings and human messiahs.  Yet, as a Christian, I do see the promises of Christ in these songs of and prayers for peace, humility, righteousness, service, sacrifice, salvation, light, and personal and corporate relationship with Yahweh, the great “I AM.”  The shepherd in Psalm 80 resembles the Good Shepherd of the New Testament, the One born of blue-collar parents in a rural town under occupation by Romans, the One who taught that to love is to serve and to serve is to love, the Daystar that never quits shining no matter how dark and bleak the times might be.

So in these final days before Christmas or whatever celebration we await together, we wait and watch and remember and hope and sing and shine and say, “Amen,” which means both “So be it” and “Yes,” yes to all of life because the psalms have taught us that we are not alone in this vast and often lonely cosmos.  Perhaps that assurance is the greatest miracle of all.

Thank you so very much, whoever you are and whatever you profess, for sharing this Advent pilgrimage with me, whether you followed daily or dropped in from time to time.  Thank you to those who let me know you were present; your encouragement and presence blessed me.  I wish each of you and all of us the wonder of the shepherds, the serenity of silent snow, and the glorious joy of the choirs of angels.

Amen and amen~ Rosemary

Photo credit: Pixabay

Thursday, Advent Week 3: Shine

The Psalms of Advent, December 15, 2022

You are invited to light a candle and join me as we reflect upon the final psalm selected for Advent, as designated in the Revised Common Lectionary.  I hope you will sit with this psalm and listen for the word that Spirit is whispering to you. Today’s poem, Psalm 80: 1-7; 17-19, will be used in worship in many Christian churches the fourth Sunday of Advent, the last Sunday before the celebration of Christmas Day, so it is appropriate that the word that draws me in is light

Psalm 80: 1-7; 17-19

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
and come to save us!
Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
O LORD God of hosts,
how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears
and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
our enemies laugh among themselves.
Restore us, O God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
the one whom you made strong for yourself.
Then we will never turn back from you;
give us life, and we will call on your name.
Restore us, O LORD God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
(New Revised Standard Version)

The entire psalm is divided into four parts that by now may seem familiar to us:
Verses 1-2 call to God for assistance, with the psalm’s refrain, used three times, found in verse 3.
Verses 4-6 compose an urgent plea as well as a complaint about God’s treatment of the psalmist’s people.
Verses 8-13 (not included here) describe God’s past compassionate care and the present uncomfortable situation.
Verses 14-17 renew the petition and plea with the final verses repeating the refrain: “Restore us, Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”

Shine.  Light.  Illuminate.  Beam.  Radiate.  Glow.  Enlighten.  Gleam.  We could string these words together and wind them around a Christmas tree, then bask in their healing power as shadows, fear, confusion, and uncertainty creep away.  The entire Scripture begins with a shining at Creation: “Let there be light.”  A column of fire leads the Hebrews through the dark wilderness to the Promised Land.  Yahweh’s presence shines so brilliantly upon Moses that Moses must wear a veil to protect the people from being blinded by his glowing face.  The psalms themselves call on, seek, and celebrate light while hundreds of years after the last psalm was written, the evangelist John writes of Jesus Christ:  “What had come into the world was the light of ALL people.  The light shines in the darkness . . . “  (1: 4).  A quick Internet check reveals that the word light is used anywhere from 272 times to 433 in the Old and New Testaments.

God, by whatever name we use to entreat, implore, praise, worship, scream at, dance with, weep with, keep vigil with, is Light.  Hannukah, Diwali, Advent, and other light-filled traditions shine with that truth.  We are recipients of Light, called to shine in whatever way, small or great, we can.  My prayer this Advent Season is that we all remember that the “light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1:5) and that we choose to shine with Love.

Shining with you ~  Rosemary

Candle-Prayer

“Light your candles quietly, such candles as you possess, wherever you are.” ~ Fr. Alfred Delp, martyred in Nazi Germany, age 38

In the small still shadow of a darkened morning
before the screeching of this broken world repeats,
I strike a match and set it to a stub of wick:
an offering of light being birthed yet again.

Before the screeching of this broken world repeats,
I breathe sacred flame-glow into heart, psyche, soul
an offering of light being birthed yet again,
a single, slender candle singing prayer.

I breathe sacred flame-glow into heart, psyche, soul,
imagine the brilliance of a hundred million candles
burning quietly on the edges of every dawn
before the screeching of this broken world repeats.

I strike a match and set it to a stub of wick,
my hope for this wounded world one fluttering flame,
a single, slender candle singing prayer
in the small still shadows of a darkened morning.

© Rosemary McMahan

Wednesday, Advent Week 3: Deep

The Psalms of Advent, December 14, 2022

You are invited to light a candle and join me as we finish sitting with Psalm 42 this morning.  You may find this psalm at https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm%2042&version=NRSVUE.  My favorite verse in all of the psalms is found in this one, where “deep calls to deep” (verse 7).  Within each one of us, at the core of our very being, is a Source that birthed us all, that unites us all, that loves us all.  That core goes by many names including heart, soul, spirit, being.  It is our private sanctuary, our Holy of Holies, where our greatest griefs, our most powerful fears, our most joyful experiences commune with the Holy.  Anything and everything is contained and deemed sacred and worthy here.

In this single psalm, #42, the psalmist experiences the myriad of emotions found throughout the Book of Psalms where deep communes with deep:

Deep desire: “My soul longs for you, O God” (vs.1);
Deep questioning: “When shall I come and behold the face of God?” (vs. 2);
Deep grief: “My tears have been my food night and day” (vs. 3);
Deep tension: “Where is your God?” (vs. 3):
Deep memories: “I remember as I pour out my soul” (vs. 4);
Deep joy: “with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving” (vs. 4);
Deep despair: “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” (vs. 5);
Deep faithful resolve: “Hope in God” (vs.5).

Yes, Psalm 42 underscores the barebone honesty where “deep calls to deep” with the conviction that in doing so, the relational connection between human and Divine never wavers.  There simply is no situation too deep for God’s presence, too barren of hope, which is why this psalmist, in the midst of depression and loss, can proclaim:

“By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life” (vs. 8).

As we leave this psalm of Advent, I wonder what is deep within you?  What is it that you thirst for?  Have you found satisfaction for that thirst?  In what or whom do you place hope when all seems buried in shadows?  How might these ancient words of an ancient psalmist touch you in the place where your deep calls to deep?

Blessings ~ Rosemary

Photo credit: Rosemary McMahan

Monday, Advent Week 2: Shaken

The Psalms of Advent

Greetings to you as we begin the second week of Advent and our communal journey to that which is life-giving and light-giving in this season of darkness, waiting, and anticipation.  You are invited to light a candle and join me as we unwrap the next Psalm of Advent, Psalm 21, verses 1-7, 13: 

The king rejoices in your strength, LORD.
How great is his joy in the victories you give!
You have granted him his heart’s desire
and have not withheld the request of his lips.
You came to greet him with rich blessings
and placed a crown of pure gold on his head.
He asked you for life, and you gave it to him—
length of days, for ever and ever.
Through the victories you gave, his glory is great;
you have bestowed on him splendor and majesty.
Surely you have granted him unending blessings
and made him glad with the joy of your presence.
For the king trusts in the LORD;
through the unfailing love of the Most High
he will not be shaken. . . .
Be exalted in your strength, LORD;
we will sing and praise your might.
(New International Version)

Psalm 21 is another royal psalm about a king.  It begins with grateful acknowledgment for all that the Lord/Yahweh/God has done for King David and any other of the numerous kings of Israel.  It is verse 7 that captures my attention in the midst of this abundant thanksgiving:  For the king trusts in the Lord; through the unfailing love of the Most High he will not be shaken.”

Shaken.  There is the word.  Certainly, kings and leaders of any type and nature have cause to be shaken, either by the events of the world or by rivalries.  If, in fact, King David himself wrote this psalm, he had much to be shaken about:  adultery and murder being two “concerns.”  Yet this king trusts enough in God’s love not to be shaken.

Shaken.  What a powerful word that applies not just to kings.  I think of the Ukrainian people shaken this past year by a neighboring country invading them.  I think of those Russian people shaken because they voiced their dissent and now find themselves in prison and their families in trouble.  I think of the victims of hate speech who are shaken by evil words thrust at them and shaken by what others, influenced by those words, might do to them.  I think of parents shaken when their children go missing; I think of those shaken by medical test results they never suspected; I think of the partner shaken by the unexpected departure of  the other; the person shaken by loss of income, and on and on.  I doubt any of us will get through this life without being shaken.  Yet, while the world and others might fail us, this psalmist claims that we will not be shaken by our unfailing trust in the Lord; instead, we will be grounded, come what may.

I am reminded of a season in my own life when I was shaken to the depths.  I clearly remember driving by a church at the time where the marquee posted a quotation by Corrie Ten Boom, a German concentration camp survivor (who watched her sister, Betsie, die there).  Ten Boom wrote, “There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still.”  There is NO pit SO DEEP that GOD (by whatever holy name we address God) is not DEEPER still.  That quotation became my lifeline.  It pulled me back to resurrection.

If seeking Light in the darkness is about anything, it surely is about hope, resurrection and new life.  It surely is about what waits at the end of the tunnel and across the empty desert.  It surely is about grounding in those times when we feel shaken.  It surely is about Advent.

Blessings ~ Rosemary

Photo credit: Pixabay

Tuesday, Advent 1:  Waiting and Watching

The Psalms of Advent, November 29, 2022

An interesting, and perhaps intentional, aspect about the Psalms of Advent is that there are really only seven of them appointed for this season of preparation.  When I first considered this blog, I assumed there would be a different psalm every day, but not so, according to the listing in the Revised Common Lectionary.  Each psalm is given three to four days, instead of leading to a new one for a new day.  I can’t say for sure what the reasoning is behind that decision, but I will speculate that it illustrates two things about Advent preparation: waiting and anticipation.

Waiting is what the majority of us do not like to do.  Instant gratification is our siren call.  We love drive-through anything and dinners delivered right to our door.  Asking us to wait is an insult to our well-beloved and hoarded time.  Waiting can be tiring.  We can only tread water for so long.  Yet waiting is also a spiritual discipline, no matter what faith we follow.  When we wait, we realize that everything isn’t about us and that there truly is little over which we have control, other than how we wait.  We can wait with patience and trust or with anger and frustration. Waiting with each psalm intentionally slows us down and gives us the time to attend to the words, to the poetry, to the imagery.  Waiting keeps us still for a time, and in that stillness we can listen.

What else happens when we wait?  We anticipate the outcome of our waiting.  Many times, we wait for something good to happen and that anticipation feels exciting; other times, we wait with a sense of foreboding–for a test result, a goodbye, a change of well-planned dreams, a releasing.  For the authors of the Book of Psalms, anticipation was almost a constant in their journey of what would come next.  A new king?  Another oppressor?  Land of their own?  A messiah? And so they waited, sometimes faithfully, and sometimes not, just like the rest of us.

In this season of darkness and shadows, what are we waiting for and what are we anticipating?  Can we observe how we are waiting?  The psalmist tell us “To be still and know that God” is God (Psalm 46:10).  Can we trust that God is in the waiting, in the watching, in the anticipation with us?  These are the questions I ponder this season, and you are invited to ponder with me or share your own.  I would honor hearing them.

Blessings ~ Rosemary

A Way to Be

March 2, 2022

In the Christian tradition, today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of the six-week period called Lent and is a day to ponder our own mortality.  Considering the last two years of perpetual Lent co-existing with the pandemic, it seems sometimes that pondering our own mortality is all we have been doing. And now, with the war in Ukraine and the possibility of that war extending throughout Europe and even beyond, Ash Wednesday feels redundant.  We get it.  We are all going to die.  Besides that, what can we really do about any of these trials and tribulations?

I have been pondering that question, and the answer I have received is twofold:  I can continue to create, and I can continue to pray.  I have read several bloggers recently who lament that they cannot write their stories, poems, essays because of the weight of this current darkness.  Yes, it is difficult because there are no words that can make any sense out of war.   Further, does what we write even matter?  But what I hear is, “Keep writing anyway.”  Keep creating because creating is an act of life.  Keep offering whatever it is you have to offer because the rest of us need to witness that faithful resilience. 

And I also hear “Keep praying.”  I admit that prayer is tricky and that I sometimes wonder if prayer “works,” but “works” is a human term, not a spiritual one.  Prayer is an admission, or humble realization, that there is indeed something/someone larger, more infinite, more caring than any of us can ever be.  However we choose to pray, prayer grounds us, roots us, in each other and in God (by whatever name we each call God) and in this crazed, white-water world, I need grounding.  I need to know I am not alone.

So, on this first day of Lent, when so many of us are tired, frightened, or at a loss for words, I offer a prayer.  God breathed God’s name with the two-syllable word “Yahweh.”  The country we currently hold in our hearts has a two-syllable name, Ukraine.  I breathe in “Yah” and breathe out “weh.”  I breathe in  “U” and breathe out “Kraine.”  I trust that the One Who is Bigger than Us will fill in the blanks.

I honestly do not know what else to do except to be, and “being” includes, for me, creating and praying.  I remind myself that the word Lent comes for an old Germanic word meaning “spring,” and with spring come new life and hope.  Winter cannot last forever.

“Being” with you this Lent ~ Rosemary

Morning Prayer

And this is prayer:
The black cat perched
on my lap this new morning
silky fur against one hand
the weight and aroma of the coffee mug
in the other
as we two creatures gaze
at Spring’s emerald leaves
clapping together
in the early breeze.
Only yesterday, it seems,
bare branches alone reached heavenward
but today hickory and elm wear veils of green
in praise before the Creator.
The cat purrs,
I lift my palms,
both offering our amen.

(c) Rosemary McMahan

Thin Place

Lake Guntersville

February 9, 2022

In Celtic Spirituality, there is an understanding that certain places become the meeting ground between heaven and earth, the “holy ground” of Moses before the burning bush.  Such spaces are called “thin places” because the division between the holy and the ordinary disappears and the time spent there usually is fleeting.  In a thin place, all of our senses are fully awake and we are aware of that present moment only.  Sunrises and sunsets, forests and mountain tops, oceans and streams are often places that become “thin” if our eyes and ears and hearts are open.  As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “Earth’s crammed with heaven.” In these holy moments, we recognize that we have received a gift of presence from Divine Love.  May we practice opening our eyes and our hearts in a world that often trembles. Blessings ~ Rosemary

Thin Place

A bald eagle lifts from her nest to roost on a pine bough
against a cerulean sky before thrusting herself forward
over the wide expanse of lake,
while photographers turn their massive lenses
skyward, laughing and pointing in flannelled
camaraderie. A pair of brown-haired children,
coats off and sailing like kites in their hands,
race along the path past them,
their bemused mother smiling as she struggles
to keep up. Behind, a young flower-laden
couple pose with hope-filled eyes while a friend
snaps pictures of a moment never to be reclaimed
and beyond, a seasoned man and woman perch
on a bare rock, tossing bread from a wrapper
to two fat geese waddling after each crumb.
Out on the water, weightless as dandelion puffs,
five white pelicans with long yellow beaks
drift on the current of a jon boat
where a lone fisherman stands erect,
silhouetted in black by the clear afternoon
sun, his line as straight and steady
as he is. In this simple moment,
like transient etchings, heaven dissolves
into the earth, earth evaporates
into the heavens,
past and future are shut out
while all creation does what it was created
to do, and I remove my shoes
to stand on holy ground.

©  Rosemary McMahan

The Return Trip

February 2, 2022

Counting Coats

If you have two coats, give one to someone who doesn’t have any.””  Luke 3:11

I consider the number of coats
I own. More than two.
Seven? Eight? Ten?
Not all coats, of course.
Some are jackets
a pink fleece
a purple raincoat.
In the checkout lane
the woman in a wind-thin
blue sweater
fumbles with food stamps
to pay for three packages
of cheap hot dogs,
a dollar short.
I turn to search
for a faster aisle
then stop and notice
the loaf of fresh bread
a bottle of good wine
that I am holding.
I pay for her hot dogs.
She turns her plain face
to me and blesses me–
not just me
but also my family
those I love.
When she leaves,
the clerk says
I’ve done something
wonderful.
I am grateful
no one is behind
me to hear her.
I blush, hurry,
leave
with a loaf of fresh bread
a bottle of good wine
and a blessing
held in the hollows
of my heart.

© Rosemary McMahan

Ever forgotten something at the grocery store, something that couldn’t wait, and so you had to circle back and make a second trip?  I found myself in that annoying situation a couple of weeks ago, grumbling to myself about the inconvenience and waste of time as I headed back.  As it turns out, though, I was meant to make this second trip.

I quickly nabbed the forgotten item, along with a bottle of wine (my condolence prize) and got in the checkout aisle.  In front of me, a woman was fumbling in her purse, trying to come up with another dollar to pay for three packages of no-brand hot dogs.  The charge was $6, and she was short the amount.  I noticed the aisle next to me was empty, and I almost moved there, when I looked at my own purchase—a loaf of freshly baked sourdough bread and a good bottle of Chardonnay.  The woman in front of me was now explaining that since it was near the end of the month, she was short on food stamps and was trying to make them stretch over the next couple of days, counting on cheap hot dogs to feed her and perhaps others.  She was about to settle on two packs when I offered to pay for all three.  She gratefully accepted.

I don’t tell this story to brag.  Six dollars is not much to me.  I am no hero.  I tell this story because this woman then turned and blessed me.  She offered a blessing for me and for those I love, for health and well-being, when she obviously needed that blessing, herself.  After she left, as I paid for my own items, the clerk told me I had done a wonderful thing.  No, I hadn’t.  I had done a human thing.

Whether you believe in God, Destiny, Fate, Karma, whatever, I believe I was sent back to that store to receive this woman’s blessing—not a blessing, be clear, that I deserved—but a gift of grace.  I think of her from time to time for she has become a kind of role model of humility and graciousness for me, and I whisper the blessing back to her.

Blessings to each of you, wherever you find yourselves.  ~ Rosemary

Photo credit: Pixabay

Wood Walking

Jan. 28, 2022

As the Covid viruses rage and mutate while people the world over tire of wearing masks, rebel against distancing, and refuse to concern themselves with others’ safety, I find myself dismayed by humanity’s loss of the Golden Rule, and I head to the woods.  I am not the first to do so “when the world is too much with us,” as William Wordsworth phrased it, so I take my path following the wisdom of others throughout the ages who sought Nature in times of turmoil. The mystery of the woods reminds me that God the Creator is still in control, that beauty and love always win the day.

Winter, as I learned last year during Covid, is a unique time to walk the woods.  With the leaves gone, each tree becomes vulnerable, exposing its true form in all its vastly odd shapes.  Nothing is growing where just short months before there was life, and barren rock formations rise up sharply against an empty space.  The birds are quiet; nothing skitters but a lone chipmunk or grey squirrel.  The wind whispers itself cold on my face.  Yet here I find delight.  I find peace.  Here I spot the Creator’s whimsy, the Creator’s smile, the chuckle and affirmation, in the midst of a trembling world.  Our souls were made for beauty; the Creator knows this, and in the woods, obliges.

Blessings to you ~ Rosemary

Wood Walking

The end of January, the weight
of pandemic and politics as heavy
as blizzard snow, I take to the woods,
down an empty path
made by sojourners before me.
The sky, a swath of painted winter blue,
a hard and vivid hue, is canvas to limb
after charcoal limb reaching upwards,
each turn of branch, each sliver of twig,
an intimate etching. A sparse yet green
Resurrection Fern holds tight
in mid-January in a wash
of pale winter sun while
a slender tree stands bare except
for a smattering of Turkey Tail fungi,
fringed in blue and gray, forming
a face on the rutted bark:
two eyes with brows, a nose,
a mouth. I nod and say “hello”
in passing.
Rounding the corner, I catch sight
of a kissing tree, or so I name it,
where a canker has formed and is
pressed hard against a lichen-
mottled limestone outcrop
in a touch of lips. I turn away
and walk, delighted by icy clusters of
long dagger-like icicles clinging
to the edge of a leaf-littered
ledge in 50-degree weather.
How can this be? A snake-green vine
encircles a tree and climbs upward
in embrace, too realistic to touch.
I step over slender roots scattered
upon the way like skeleton bones,
mindful not to break one. As evening falls,
multitudes of bare branches
in naked vulnerability
shift and weave themselves
into intricate netting that traps
the day’s last pink rays,
while God laughs in the garden
of delight.

© Rosemary McMahan

Don’t Let the Light Go Out

January 6, 2022

“Pointing to another world will never stop vice among us; shedding light over this world can alone help us.” Walt Whitman

In the Christian tradition, January 6 marks the Feast of the Epiphany, the moment that the Christ-Child was recognized by those beyond his small world and so made universal. Astrologers, we are told, followed a star that led them to the home where the Light was alive. Their gifts not only identified him (gold for a king) and frankincense (incense for a priest) but also prophesied the shadows in his future: myrrh, an embalming ointment, symbolizing his death.

“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” Desmond Tutu

In tragic irony, January 6, 2021, was the date chosen by those who planned and carried out the assault on the Capitol Building of the United States of America. It was the bleakest day of my life, and the images are seared in my mind as much as those of the crumbling twin towers. This assault came from within, from hatred and anger. This assault shattered my naive belief in the “united” states and threatened the gift and privilege of democracy while also marring a feast day that I have celebrated since a child, a feast day of Light.

“An age is called ‘dark’ not because the light fails to shine but because people refuse to see it.” James Michener

On social media, a woman commented recently that we should forget the assault, ignore its anniversary, because it overshadows both Epiphany and her husband’s birthday. “Overshadowing” is exactly why we need to remember January 6, 2021 because we continue to be overshadowed by lies, deceit, conspiracies, hate, and violence. We need the Light, however and whoever we perceive it to be, in the darkness of this present time where the King Herods of the world are intent on destroying anything or anyone that threatens their power. We need to be the light.

“Light. Light. The visible reminder of Invisible Light.” T.S. Elliot

The only action I know to take this day of solemn, sorrowful, and painful remembrance and this day of recognizing joy, light, and love in our world is to light candles, everywhere I can, to pay homage to the Light, to recommit myself to it, to light whatever candle of truth, peace, justice that may dwell within me.

“Light your candles quietly, such candles as you possess, wherever you are.” Alfred Delp

I had researched several more quotations about light to include in this blog, but instead will leave with this link to an old, and so relevant, song by Peter, Paul, and Mary: Light One Candle. Their words speak much more eloquently than mine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTRfVnygo1U

Light one candle for all we believe in
That anger not tear us apart
And light one candle to find us together
With peace as the song in our hearts

May it be so. Blessings ~ Rosemary

Photo by Ian Hutchinson on Unsplash