I grew up within the four walls of many churches, without ever knowing, for several decades, that the real house of God extends beyond, in the expansive quilt of starry skies, the otherworldly elegance of birds, the chorus of wind through a forest of trees older than any living human, the roar and the stillness of seemingly endless ocean, the prose of soul-searching poets and philosophers and musicians, the tents of flesh of all colors, shapes, sizes and affiliations.
Intimate, holy presence, dwelling in all these rooms of one great house, yet never contained.
In every place, all across the face of the earth, where a vacancy sign advertises empty space - inviting habitation - the Holy comes and expands the rooms of his house. And who are we to say what that house must look like for him to set up an outpost there?
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My Papa taught me to appreciate stories, invoking curiosity in the world around me. I will forever remember him saying, more than once, how he often wished he could sit with strangers and ask, “Are you having a good life?” From him, in part, I credit the skill of asking probing questions, then sitting back and enjoying the person giving the answers. It wasn’t necessary to agree. In his company, I began to learn the gift of shared silence, of sipping tea side by side on lawn chairs, listening to the breeze.
And while we didn’t always see eye to eye, he helped expand my way of seeing. And now, I have his binoculars.
I asked Mom recently if she still had Papa’s old binoculars, and after some digging in the closet, she found them. When I first pulled them from their case, they felt holy somehow, an artifact of his life, bearing invisible fingerprints, so that in wrapping my hands around them, I nearly tingled at the memory of him.
My husband and I take them with us now when we go for walks by the lake, or visit the cathedrals of birds, in churches like the marshlands of Marymoor Park or Juanita Bay. This is where we went on our second wedding anniversary last week, and though I could see the birds and turtles with my naked eyes, I wouldn’t have known some of those birds far in the distance were Green Heron. I wouldn’t have seen the red stripes so clearly on the turtles stacked like dominos on logs in the sun or marveled at the way the stringy plumage of the young Great Blue Heron gently tossed to and fro, paper ribbons from his chest, as he caught and swallowed a fish.
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One morning this past week, I awoke to make myself a waffle and brought it back to bed. There I sat alone, cross-legged, with the window cracked and bathed in the praises of birdsong at the rising of dawn. These songs, they’re as ancient as the scriptures I love to read from, but their words are not in a language I speak. I simply receive. These bird choirs are as sacred as the cathedral choirs whose songs can move me to tears, and they preach the gospel to me through seeds of wonder sown in the soil of my heart.
In the church building where I worship most Sundays, we sing songs mixed with our liturgy. At the end of one song we stop, and then we begin a new song, and the transition has the same effect on my experience of worship as an abrupt change of conversation at the dinner table. I want the songs to flow into each other, one seamless conversation on related topics, deepening with each stanza. And no matter how it sits not-quite-right-with me within these church walls, I walk outside to the world and botch up most of my transitions between songs, treating them as separate entities instead of one, diverse flowing liturgy. I stop and pause, breathing deep the beauty of God in a row of trees raining soft pink blossoms, and then I continue on buried deep in my thoughts of rent and work and marriage and friendships and what we’ll have for dinner, rarely recognizing they’re connected by the same sacred thread.
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It’s taken a few decades, but I’m learning to attend to and participate in the liturgy of God in the world. On a crowded, stuffy bus ride, seated next to a lovely stranger who shares pieces of her life with me for fifteen minutes. In the conversation with a homeless woman who is also a regular customer where I work, where making her americano I am caught up in the sorrowful beauty of her piercing blue eyes and gentle smile. In the washing of a sink full of dishes for a friend, the listening to a deluge of rain pelt the pavement outside our apartment, the prayers lifted in the wail of sirens all up and down the streets where we live, the simmering of a pot of beans on the stove, the tickling of tummies and peekaboo under blanket forts, the running around with my friend’s little boys on my back and small arms wrapped around my neck, the warm satisfaction of a dog leaning his head against my legs as I stroke his ears.
It’s my husband’s laughter, too, which filters joy in like the street lamps streaming light through cracks in our bedroom blinds.
And I know in my being, I love the family of God and the many communities within these four walls; and I know, too, it is vastly more than can be counted in the walls of our churches, more colorful than our cleaned up versions of faith, more diverse than human presence alone.
If trees could speak - or maybe they do, but at a frequency our souls cannot hear? - what liturgies they would utter from the ages of history.
If we are silent, we just might hear the rocks cry out and be drawn to our knees in the dirt, joining them in praise.
If partitions would crumble and everyone were our neighbor, our brother or sister, the roof on these old man-made houses of God would blow right off and we could look out together and see the sun and moon and stars.
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I want to give credit where credit is due. This whole reflection came out of my picking up Barbara Brown Taylor's gorgeous book, Altars in the world. I'm only a few chapters in, but it's already awakening more of my imagination.
Linking up with Unforced Rhythms at Chronicles of Grace.