The big meal is twenty hours past, and the fridge is full of leftovers. Two of the eight around the yesterday’s table have already headed back to their homes and weekend activities. For the first time that I can remember, Advent isn’t starting three days after Thanksgiving – there’s a week in between that usually isn’t, and I’m at loose ends for its presence.
How to spend this week wisely? Instead of filling it up, I’ve decided to keep it open – keep the Advent activities at bay for the week and enjoy the time to reflect on what I’m most thankful for these days. It’s nothing grand, just the usual things. That’s okay; I suspect the same is true for most everyone else, too…
I hope your week is peaceful, your gratitude deep, and your life the richer for both.
In the 4th century BCE, the Pythagoreans proposed a radical idea: the Earth was not stationary, but moving. In the 3rd century BCE, Aristarchus of Samos proposed a heliocentric model of the solar system: the sun as the center point, and the Earth moving around it in circles.
Ptolemy proposed a geocentric model, and he worked out the math to accompany it. It was a complex system, but was the predominant one for hundreds of years. This was the model incorporated into theology – humanity as the focus of all creation, living on the unmoving center of the entire creation.
Fast forward to the 1500’s, and Renaissance mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus proposes the Heliocentric Model once again. Then come Kepler and Galileo. Based on what is mathematically simpler and more elegant, Kepler proposes elliptical orbits rather than circular ones; Galileo comes along with supporting evidence seen through his telescope. In spite of theological objections and suppression, the geocentric model is eventually rejected. In spite of preconceived notions, observational data and advanced mathematics displace Earth from the center of all things to its current position: orbiter around a sun, and one planet among billions.
Humanity no longer inhabits the immovable center of creation, and the universe does not revolve around humanity’s home. Such displacement isn’t the end of the world, it’s the beginning of a new perspective on a much larger reality – one that incorporates our particular species on our small planet without pretending it’s the only reason the entire cosmos came into being. As a species, it’s similar to the shift that children have when they realize that their parents had lives before and beyond their own.
What a wonderful, big idea: that the universe is about more than just one particular part, and that its mystery and majesty are not limited to human knowledge or imagination. God’s creation is not governed by human preference for circles rather than ellipses, but governed by its own internal structure.
I think going around in ellipses rather than living on an immovable focal point is endlessly interesting. I love the fact that I am a part of something so big, something that has made room for me and every other life form. Just because the world doesn’t revolve around any one of us doesn’t mean we aren’t valuable – it just means everyone else is valuable, too.
Einstein’s theory of general relativity didn’t mean that everything is relative – that nothing is sure, or that there’s no real way to value one thing over another. Einstein’s theory is that everything is connected, Related not relative. The Butterfly Effect and John Donne’s poem are both pointing to the same truth as Einstein’s theory: that everything is related to everything else.
One particular negative example comes to mind for me. Our friend Ben Suddard’s oyster beds were damaged by the run-off of all the chemical fertilizers used in towns twenty miles upstream from the bay. The connection wasn’t obvious, but it was real and powerful.
There are many examples on the positive side as well. But one of the most profound for me: nothing in creation is unrelated to the Creator. Perhaps that’s why one of the names for Jesus is God-With-Us…
It’s the run-up to Thanksgiving, and a good time to think about ideas and people who have changed the world in amazing ways – philosophers, holy ones, scientists, artists of all kinds, healers, and keepers of our world.
For the next few weeks, I’m taking a page from Kobi Yamada’s and Mae Besom’s book, What Do You Do With An Idea? (Seattle, Washington: Compendium, 2013). I’m going to give it some thought, be open to new directions and actions, and see where it all goes.
Why is it so hard to change direction when we realize we are heading the wrong way? Why is it so hard to ask for directions when we are lost? Why does turning around and turning back feel like admitting defeat?
And what is so horrible about admitting defeat?
The gift of simplicity is also the gift of clarity. If we are headed in the wrong direction, the easiest way to get moving in the right direction is to turn around. But it’s only children and wise elders that seem to be able to do this without reservation. And it’s only children and wise elders that delight in their change of direction, their turning around.
Lord, give me the strength to turn, turn, so I can come round right. And give me wisdom to find delight in it. Amen.
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
’tis the gift to come down where we ought to be
and when we find ourselves in the place just right,
’twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d, to bow and to bend we willnot be asham‘d.
to turn, turn, shall be our delight,
till by turning, turning we come round right.
[Simple Gifts, traditional Shaker hymn by Joseph Brackett]
Wiping down the tables. Sweeping up the paper scraps. Checking glue sticks and markers to see if they still work. Sweeping the pine needles off the back patios and keeping the chocolate mint plants in check. Wiping a nose, holding the hand of a toddler navigating a step. Such tasks weren’t the main focus of my work as the gardener of the learning library, but they were all necessary elements of the program. Practically anyone could do them, but it fell to Marcia, the children’s librarian, and me. Every summer for many years, Marcia and I returned to these most basic of tasks because they were ways to create a welcoming and engaging space for parents, grandparents, and children of all ages.
When we describe our program, none of these tasks are included. Goals, attendance, the garden-to-story-to-table pieces are highlighted in annual reports for the trustees and the greater library network; these crucial elements remain unrecognized. Perhaps because elements that anyone can do aren’t valued as highly as the elements that require special skills or education – writing curriculum, selecting meaningful stories, noting knowledge and maturity gained by participants.
Perhaps it’s because I’d rather be known for the complex things I accomplish more than the simple. If so, I’ve forgotten a couple of fundamental, spiritual truths:
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
’tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
and when we find ourselves in the place just right, ’twill be in the valley of love and delight.Simple Gifts, Traditional Shaker Hymn by Joseph Brackett
If I hadn’t been walking; if I’d hadn’t been walking to church earlier than usual for a meeting; if I had set a different meeting time; if there had been a noisy car passing. But I was walking past Ye Olde Tavern on November 13th at 8:33am, with no cars in sight. For whatever reason, the universe conspired to have me where and when I was that Sunday. When I heard a dull knock on a tree, I looked up.
[Birds of New Hampshire & Vermont, by Stan Tekiela; Cambridge, Minnesota: Adventure Publications, 2016, p. 69
In my whole life, I’ve spotted half a dozen of these startlingly large and beautiful woodpeckers – most of the sightings while hiking on wooded mountain trails. Yet, on a typical morning’s walk, in downtown Manchester Center, in the valley between the Green and Taconic mountain ranges, one appears right above my head.
After a few seconds, with a flash of feathers, this amazing moment passed – being in the right place at the right time is no guarantee of an extended visitation. But the moment was long enough for me to see where I was for what it was: a valley of love and delight.
I suspect that if I paid attention, every day would hold a right place/right time experience. Where and when else would such experiences be?
Tis the gift to be simple, tis the gift to be free…
I am free to walk with my face and hair visible – and without an escort. I am free to wear a hijab. I can commune with God and neighbor in a temple, synagogue, mosque, meeting house, or church; I can choose not to worship God. I can drive across the country without documentation beyond a valid license and car registration. I can run for political office. I can vote. All these things are available because I live in a place that offers civil liberties as part of the rule of law. This kind of freedom, this freedom from soul diminishing restrictions, is a rare gift that is too often under-valued or not valued at all by the ones who receive it. It’s in its absence that freedom is seen for its true worth.
There’s another aspect to freedom: what I’m supposed to do with it. Freedom from various things is in the news all the time, but freedom for acting in ways that show love for God, self, and neighbor rarely gets air time. How I use my freedom reveals how I honor the gift that it is.
I doubt there’s a better time to assess just how well I’m doing with my freedom than right now.
Tis the gift to be simple, tis the gift to be free, tis the gift to come down where we ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right, ’twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d, to bow and to bend we shall not be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight, ’til by turning, turning we come round right.
Traditional Shaker Hymn, Joseph Brackett, Jr.
Do no harm.
Tell the truth.
Clean up after yourself.
Take care of God’s creation.
The basics of a good life are not particularly complex. Jesus put it this way: Love God, Love Neighbor, Love Self. That’s it: six words that open the door to a beautiful, holy life. Why do we do our best to make it more complex, adding unnecessary and often harmful additions and provisos? If I had to guess, I’d stake my money on another basic truth: