Postcards from Peru: Machu Picchu

The sky is within reach – I can open my hand and slip it through the envelope into sacred time. We climbed above today, with the Andes supporting our bodies, allowing us to step upon their shoulders to peer between the high sun scorched rocks into the Sun Gate. Below us, a ways, and quite some ways beyond, down from the trail we have ascended, is Machu Picchu. The season of its purposes is hidden now, and upon its trellises and lawns, its bricks of temples and tombs, walk the remnants of pilgrims who over centuries sought meanings here. The guides tell us what they know. The mystery clings more deeply. Who was loved and who or what was sacrificed? What worker, centuries ago, paused to wipe the sweat from his eyes, his hands covered in red brick loam, fashioning walls from the rich earth– what did he dream as he stood in the thin air and saw, perhaps, as we did, a great brown hawk dive from a white cloud? The dreams seemed to have lingered here, the dreams of centuries, swept together in the morning mist to be burnt up in the heat from the equator. Did those men, before the day’s work, climb to the Sun Gate and whisper prayers for their wives, their children, their ancestors? Did women climb the steep cobbled steps, bringing incense from plants, food ground from pulpy stalks, water from the stone cisterns? Were their dreams lifted above the blue skyline upon the approach, heard by the great Pachamama, mother of all living things, and answered in the risen moon when the sun fell below the dark peaks?

To climb in Machu Picchu is to be in the presence of ancient dreams and memories of an empire wrought from the rugged mountains of the Andes. It is to know, in some way beyond the reason of the mind, that human beings found and created a mystery here. They found a sacred place above the rivers and valleys that unfold toward the sea, that kept them safe from surprise and attack. They created a city of temples and crematoriums, of food bins and political courts that held together two million (and some say twelve million) people in the fifteenth century. Their descendants and the neighbors of their descendants still carve lives of beauty and mystery in the crevices of the great shadows of mountain peaks.   Many of the New Age seekers in our present time wish to draw a line of mysticism through the craggy hillsides of Machu Picchu, but there is no definitive knowledge that these ruins housed more than the chieftain and priest who governed the Inca people – that Machu Picchu was something of an estate, perhaps a hub of social, scientific and political governance, and perhaps a place where the concubines of the leaders were brought for their services. And yet. And yet, to be in this place of exquisite beauty, with the high altitude making each breath meaningful, it is easy to draw the connection between the study of the stars that took place by the ancient astronomers, and the stars of our imaginations, the dreams of our destinies, the hopes of human life and felt sense of spiritual blessing.

Present day Manchu Picchu reminds us of the urgency of preservation. Our band of explorers were there to take in a World Heritage Site and consider the effects of climate change on the earth. We stopped in Manchu Picchu to see something tremendous, and in the mindsight of that awesome view, to understand a holy task in preserving not only ancient ruins of human endeavor, but also the deep reality of natural beauty. It does not really matter if the remains of Machu Picchu tell a story of human political and cultural activity alone or of mystical and spiritual practices. What matters is the apprehension of the profound beauty of the earth and the way human beings are woven into that story. As we enter into that grasp of reality, we become pilgrims, not only of anthropology or adventure travel, but as witnesses to a spiritual imperative to save the earth from degradation. We can stand at the Sun Gate today and make our prayers not to gods or goddesses who will bless us if they choose, but to the divine forces that knit together creation, perhaps as we might understand, organized by the Creator God of the universe, and ask that we might be so moved, so thrilled, so taken by the strength of this majestic place, that we would do what we can to preserve the earth, to remember those who have walked here before, and to leave a footprint for future generations to track, a footprint of care and concern for the wonders of this precious earth.

A little story about Drowning

From the shore, the ocean looked cool, clean and dancing with a mystery of light as the waves turned in the sun. I went in, ten years old, joyful, unaware I could not swim. To play in the waves is to play in the origin of creativity, the every recreating pattern of surf as it rolls over the shore, the foam gathering around your ankles as you walk forward, into the brace of salt water. I felt held and joy and I remember then and today, as every day that I have ventured into the ocean, the feel of salty brine covering my skin, my arms and legs, my head as I dove into wave after wave. When I was ten, I did not think about not being able to swim – I didn’t remember it, or it did not matter to me. I thought about catching a wave and riding it toward the beach. I felt bold and certain.

The wave I caught tumbled me over and over; I was under the sea; I was turning with the shells and pebbles going with the tide toward the shore. In a minute I realized I could not find the top of the wall of water; I could not breathe. I remember I began to kick my legs and stretch out my arms, pushing the panic down as I sought to rise. And then I remember someone’s arms coming around my waist and lifting me, lifting me above the surf, standing me on my feet. I was in about four feet of water, and the arms belonged to a young life guard who asked me if I were okay. I was. I really hadn’t known I was already drowning. I hadn’t known I was tumbling down toward the bottom of the wave, kicking my way there instead of upward, upward to the crest above the water.

Over the years, this has happened to me a number of times. I have plunged into a wave of life and while I wasn’t aware I was drowning, the life guards of my life saw me. They saw me and came and wrapped their arms around me pulling me to my feel. Oftentimes it was only when I stood on my feet in the swirling water of life and creativity, did I realize I had been drowning. I thank them: Elizabeth, Jeanne, Ginny, Terri, Jan, Diane, Shelly, Brenda, Cindy, Maryanna, Jeremy, Mary G, and others who came along side me. My children Laurel and Liam helped me breathe. Steve helped me breathe. My brothers helped me breathe.  Thank you for helping me breathe. Thank you for helping me to my feet. And I did take it upon myself to learn to swim.

The Catholic Spirit or Catholicism

We in the United Methodist Church have spent a month showing each other how divided we are in theological understandings of the Bible as well as in cultural understandings of what the work of the Christian life means.

I have been thinking about the Protestant Reformation and the major themes that undergirded the break off of priests and laity from the Roman Catholic Church of that time. We find in the pages of that story the themes of sexuality and doctrine, rules and freedoms also. We might do well to remember that Luther championed marriage equality for the clergy, and a reading of scripture that focused on Romans: that we are saved by grace through faith. Later, Wesley would pick up this mantra and go on to develop a systematic organization of spiritual discipline.

During Luther’s day, the sale of indulgences to insure people’s journey to heaven was in widespread use as well as the restriction of celibacy for the clergy. It is interesting to notice that the major motif in Roman Catholic theology during those days was salvation from eternal hell. The Christian tradition has understood hell in different ways, both actual and metaphoric, but in all interpretations the theme of separation from the community of love is prevalent. To be in hell is to be separated, cut off from the body of the beloved. Then, as now, people will do a lot to avoid that aloneness.

In today’s world, perhaps we are also seeing a wrestling with hell. We debate whether we should be cut off from one another, or if some should be cut off from the body, or if we find unity here on earth it might mean being cut off later in the afterlife. For champions of Wesley’s “catholic spirit” the latter cannot happen as we love each other even in our differences: because the commandment to love one another is the single surest way to create harmony and connection that extends into eternal life. But for others, the idea of a reckoning, a time when the wheat shall be separated from the chaff governs their understanding of heaven and hell. Therefore, to be in unity with anyone or anything that might be labeled as impure or against the will of God, is to face that reckoning later with the prospect of separation, being cut off. It is usually stated by those who hold this form of theology that the ones they are cutting off are surely going into eternal hell. Their form of evangelism is to save people from this destiny. These are two different theologies, two different views of what heaven and hell mean.

One of the problems we are also suffering is who gets to label whom impure or acting against the will of God. Even the most ardent Biblical scholars can see that the Bible is not of one mind on these matters. In some passages certain people or acts are called out. In other passages they are not or they are countered by admonitions that love covers us all. So, in the Wesleyan spirit, United Methodists have employed the quadrilateral to examine the moral life: Scripture, Reason, Tradition and Experience. We have engaged the many senses of our minds and bodies to interpret the present moment.

Yet, in this moment, there seems to be shift back by many into the doctrinal way of the Roman Catholic Church pre-Reformation. There is a return to an emphasis on sexuality as a major issue. There is a longing expressed to have a book of rule that makes the blurry lines of love into black and white. Instead of a wooing as a way of courting people into the great love affair with God, there is a measure of threat that should the rules be broken, eternal separation awaits.

I have found as a pastoral counselor for thirty years, that the rules of separation are often what people are healing from. People who as children or adults have felt cut off, unheard, unnoticed, unrecognized, or labeled unworthy. And as a clergy who has studied the Bible for thirty years, it has always seemed to me that the most fundamental witness of Jesus – in his life, death and resurrection – is that “I will not leave you alone,” or, in other words, I will not cut you off, I will not separate myself from you.

How strange it is, that we in the United Methodist Church wish to do just the opposite, from each other and to part of our body.

 

Mary L. Fraser

In Memoriam: Willows

They are cutting the willows down:

when I looked, only the strong trunks

like legs with no bodies.

Perhaps the weeping was too much,

the grief that watched the pond

overwhelming except for those ducks

who rested in its shade.

I have known a lot of ducks in my life,

mallard and wood and loon

whose nests were undisturbed by

mothers and grandmothers,

fathers and grandfathers

walking the shores folded

into the willows arms, remembering.

Someone who does not live here

decided the trees would have to go.

What will happen when the day comes

when they, too, will need those thin tangles

dripping from the sky to hold the loss?

 

Mary L. Fraser

 

The Music of Resurrection, Easter Sermon

Years ago, before coming to Iowa, before living in the mid country of rolling hills, heart aching sunsets and sweeping agricultural fields, I worked at a counseling center in upstate New York. A woman who suffered schizophrenia was an unforgettable client of mine. Brilliant and sensitive, this woman suffered occasions of hallucinations that were anxious and devastating. No wooded hillside, no deep flowing Hudson, no wisp of cloud pattern could ease her brimming mind when the disturbance came. It was not constant – which in some ways made her suffering worse. She had long moments, days and weeks of lucidity, and then the sense of crashing emotional pain and confusion. As we worked together, she brought a tremendous presence to the room, a presence of courage that I had not witnessed in quite this way: it was a courage to meet her life as mother and wife, as friend and daughter on a daily journey to calm herself and live with love amidst the pain. But one of her struggles was, from time to time, being gripped with an inability to speak of her feelings and thoughts. She would be silenced by her own anxiety. We would sit in the counseling room with her frustration thick but her voice trapped. Now, it happened that this woman was a marvelous cellist. So one time I asked her whether she could consider bringing the cello to the next session, allowing herself to speak through her music.

She did bring the cello, and on that afternoon, as she leaned into the instrument, the strands of deeply haunting music filled the space. She played for almost the entire hour. She played oceans of feeling and cascades of impressions. She was absorbed into the bow and strings. She played until tears ran down her cheeks and mine. It was the most powerful therapy session I ever conducted. And it seemed my role that day: to hold the rhythm of the music, to let my own experience of her instrumentality interpret a deep appreciation for her journey. To be a witness.

The Resurrection that we celebrate at Easter is like this music from silence. Ours is to live as witnesses. It is said that on the day of Jesus’ resurrection “there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone…” Matthew 28:2. Closed space, opened. When the woman played, closed space opened. Like the earthquake on Easter morning, there are shifts that change our landscape, shifts that, while one thing trembles and falls, pressure is eased, and the land holds us in a new way. When the cello sang, there were shifts and a new way of holding the inner life its musician lived. There was also a new way of sharing in the journey. Resurrection is closed space opening, shifts that hold in a new way, music from silence. Resurrection speaks of the life breath even when the mind cannot hold all that it means. This is the music.

You may sometimes hear this in aged persons with short term memory loss but who resume their youthful vigor as they tell the stories of their journeys or sing the songs that matter to them, that they have committed to a deeper memory. You may sometimes see this in small children sung to sleep by lullaby. You may hear it when walking along the ocean in the sound of the waves – the breath of the earth blowing across the deep. You may feel the shift at a birth, the ground moving beneath you. You may hear the music in the smile of the man you help build a habitat house. You may be overcome by the strings that call forth the lines of the song when you gather your family together and break bread.

The Resurrection is music from a silence weaving together our confusion and our beauty. Jesus was about a life that is healing and loving, a way that cannot be extinguished. He suffered a death by forces that seek to convince us there is no cello, no earthquakes that open up the sealed and death filled spaces, that wants us to believe there is only the scattered fragments of broken thoughts or painful memories or envious motives or greedy purposes or the unholy using of precious resources.

These forces visit us. They dress up like glamorous guests wanting to be at our table for dinner. The Resurrection is the piercing music that takes us from that type of feasting to a way in which we hunger and thirst, not for betrayal or injustice or unkindness, but for the water from God’s rock and the bread from God’s body. The Resurrection is the everlasting life of Jesus in his love and healing, in his beginning breath that blew in spiritual forces when the earth was formed, when you and I were formed, and which colors the tablecloth of eternal love, which plays the music of our connection to one another.

We rise because the truth of the universe is not organized in minutes of flesh but in the life like his that comes to us whispering our deepest purposes to love ourselves and each other. We rise because the music of his realm is not just here and now but forever and ever. Amen.

 

 

Sea Glass

According to the local newspaper, the rough waves here have been spitting sea glass onto the beaches like an underwater boxer losing his teeth.  I was out walking this afternoon as the blustery wind drove the salt air wildly through the trees, picked up fistfuls of sand and flattened my jacket against my breath. I could see many of the beach combers looking for sea glass. As I pushed my way forward through the fierce wind, I began looking too.   Then, suddenly, I thought to myself: why am I looking for the remains of someone’s drinking game or the result of someone leaving their picnic, wandering off perhaps, and simply not coming back until the sea threw its watery arms around the glasses and plates and dragged them out to sea?  Why am I interested in the remains of others foolishness?

Perhaps because the sea redeems it.  Just as it redeems us.  The ocean takes the remnants and softens the sharp edges, shines the hidden colors, and reveals a piece of beauty because the sea held it.  I think our lives are like that, those who come again to the ocean.  I think the sea of God’s heart is like that, taking our broken containers and forgotten picnics and softening their residue into pieces of memory we might collect as art.  I grew up along the Pacific Ocean but have lived much of my life in land locked places, beautiful valleys with a lush rumbling river or expansive farming country with big skies, brilliant mornings, and evening sunsets that break your heart. But when I return to the ocean’s edge I am aware of how the moon is pulling the tides of our emotions, every day, in a rhythm, and I am aware of how all the life on the planet depends upon this salty depth.  I am aware that my life becomes measured by the moments I stand on the beach again, even in the howling wind, and see how I have been softened and sanded by the weather of the years. 

The thing is: I am always asked to go forward in a new way when I come to the ocean.  There is some “come to Jesus” experience in this as though the Jesus I know lives beneath the waves and speaks to me in the tide: “are you living from your deepest self?” it asks me.  “Are you prepared to improve your life?” it wants to know. “Are you loving all you can?”  “Do you remember your fellow creatures, the planet on which you live, my life in the sea?” the Holy Spirit asks. 

So, today when I was watching the scavengers gather the sea glass, I realized, I have been a scavenger for sea glass too, not just today, and not just for these little pieces of broken bottles. I have been a scavenger for the pieces of my life, and the pieces of the lives of those I serve in my work, and the pieces of the lives of those I love as my family and friends. I have sought out the shapes and bits from the earth and its geography.  I am a scavenger of the sea glass that God has shaped, valued and created as a handiwork.  And because I collect these pieces in my mind and heart, I am being gifted with a great wealth of images and colors and beauty. It may be that in the market economy this means very little. But in the measure of the spiritual life I meet on these shores, I feel I am growing quite wealthy.

Meditation into Holy Silence

At the edge of this word
I would speak — sorrow
that I did not remember
whatever it was I needed to know
that I was uncertain I had listened
to what needed to be heard.
In myself I feel the tide pulling back into the wave
far out, I see myself slipping beneath the white curl,
on my skin is salt and a million plankton — the sea is red.

I had a dream — the other night I waa dreaming,
my mother was there saying, “go deeper, even deeper”
as I curled on the ground.
Perhaps beneath me was the ocean and the wave
coming to collect me, to take me into a new geography
under the language I have spoken.

Today it is as though time is standing still;
I am between the frames of motion:
one is the ground and one is the wave,
one is the dream and one is the window
within myself – whichever way I look
the invitation to descend, to go into, below, under
the hidden, beyond that, welcomes me.

I am losing language. My world breathes, here, now, breath, into the Great Silence.

Mary L Fraser