BLACKBERRIES & OTHER DISTRACTIONS

pop over here BLACKBERRIES & OTHER DISTRACTIONS   The Rev. Brian Backstrand 1-18-15

More about the author When it comes to the life of faith, one of the questions that haunts me concerns the holy and the ordinary and our ability to perceive:   What do we see? What do we see of the holy?  What claims us, arrests us?

The other night in the midst of a cold spell, after feeding the cows I walked up the hill to our home and found myself praying with arms open and uplifted under a starlit sky with the western star blazing and the moon already up high. It was a powerful moment of the holy for me, but I must confess that quite often this kind of experience would be totally by-passed,   ignored, crowded to the sidelines of perception and so rendered invisible or innocuous.   What arrests me usually is the ordinary in place of the marvelous; the to do list instead of the deliberate pause;   the opaque instead of the transparent; the dull and the jaded in place of the dazzling presence.

This past week I had the privilege of driving across the state of Wisconsin to the Dekoven Center in Racine. I arrived in high gear. It had been snowing and the roads were slippery and even the door was locked when I made my way up the steps to Taylor Hall where our retreat was to be held. Dinner was just beginning. I was late.   I was harried and hassled and there was no room in my spirit for receptivity. But then the retreat progressed. We worshipped with Evening Prayer. We listened to the first presentation by Dr. Steven Peay about thin places—that is, those places where earth and heaven touch—and I begin to slowly thaw and relax.   Slowly my spirit began to be fed by the presence of quiet and holy talk and reflective space.

 

The question of the Gospel that comes to me this morning is this question of perception.   Nathaniel is given to stereotyping when it comes to perception.   He sees Jesus as a product of his region: Can anything good come out of Nazareth? he says. But Jesus’ perception of Nathaniel—Behold an Israelite indeed in whom is no guile—puts things on a different plane. Nathaniel’s perceptions change one hundred eighty degrees when with great hyperbole and enthusiasm he says Rabbi you are the Son of God. You are the King of Israel!   And then Jesus widens the perceptions and the context when he in turn states: Truly I say to you, you will see heaven opened and the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.   It is a question of perception.   What do we see? And what do we expect to see?   When it comes to the holy and to the presence of the holy — what is it that we expect to see?

 

The boy Samuel expected that a voice in the night would only be the voice of the old priest Eli.   The Lord calls and Samuel dutifully goes to Eli because he perceived that the only reasonable location for that voice would be Eli calling him for one thing or another. The text says: Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. Receptivity. Attentiveness. A willingness to think outside of the box of the ordinary.   Three times Samuel hears the voice and goes to the priest until a moment of insight happens to the old man. Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.   What do we see?   What do we hear?   What do we know?   What do we expect?

 

I have a memory of a thin place in Alaska that takes me back to 1979.   I don’t talk about it much because I do not want to hem in the experience much with words, but suffice it to say that walking along the Indian River trail beside a rushing stream just outside of Sitka Alaska in the quiet made this place a thin place for me—a place where the Spirit and the Holy came to meet me and somehow a window to the holy opened as I stood alone on the trail, arrested and claimed.

But Dr. Steven Peay, our retreat leader, pointed out that thin places are not always exceptional places but very often are located about us all along. Dr Peay began as a Congregational minister and then made an abrupt shift and spent 18 years as a Benedictine monk after which he sought the middle ground of Episcopal faith. He is now the new Dean of Nashotah House and is a breath of fresh air.   His presentations focused on creativity and the relationship of creativity to the life of faith.   And one of his tenets was that heaven is a lot closer than we might at first surmise.   Heaven and earth can touch.

I came away with some wonderful perceptions and one of them comes from Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,

And daub their natural faces unaware.

ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING, Aurora Leigh

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was raised in a religious home, the eldest of 12 children. She began writing from the age of six and her mother saved her early work.   She was educated at home and was frail.   Her intense ability to see and to perceive illustrated by this quote of earth being crammed with heaven is in stark contrast to her own life. She was often in pain from an early childhood disease that plagued her ever-after.   She had intense head and spinal pain.   Later she battled tuberclerosis.   She campaigned for the abolition of slavery and wrote through the pain for the rest of her life. Her marriage to Robert Browning was not approved by her father who disinherited her.   The couple moved to Italy in 1846 and she would write there for the rest of her life which ended in 1861.

Here once more this invitation to encounter the holy.

Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,

And daub their natural faces unaware.

The life of faith is an invitation to take off our shoes.   To take another look at the ordinary.   To listen to the voice of God like young Samuel for a third, perhaps a fourth time until we get it right.

It is holy ground that we are seeking.   That place where we like Nathaniel of old might see heaven opening and angels both ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

This is the invitation of Epiphany, the season of light. The season of perception and insight. The season of looking in our life experience and in our life story for those places where earth and heaven truly touch.

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