Archive for the ‘Psalms’ Category

Advent 1: A Blessing for Traveling in the Dark

November 25, 2015

Grace in the DarkImage: Grace in the Dark © Jan Richardson

Reading from the Psalms, Advent 1, Year C: Psalm 25.1-10

Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.
—Psalm 25.4

It was the second day of Advent when my husband Gary died, almost two years ago now. In the time that has unfolded since then, never have I had such a keen sense of the ways that light and dark dwell together, and how grace imbues the places that are most laden with shadows and unfathomable mystery. The season of Advent impresses this upon us with such intention, weaving its exquisite tapestry of stories and images that tell us of how God makes a way toward us even—and especially—when we cannot find the way ourselves.

Here on the threshold of Advent, what does it mean for us to lean into this season once again, to give ourselves to these weeks that show us with such specificity and care that there is no place where God does not desire to meet us? How will we move through these days in a way that allows us to receive the gift that comes looking for us, that asks only that we open our hands, our eyes, our heart to the Love that knows our name?

Here at The Advent Door this year, I will be offering blessings from my just-released book, Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons. As we enter into this season of mystery, it seems fitting to open with an Advent blessing that asks for protection and encompassing in the dark. May you know yourself enfolded by the grace that dwells in these Advent days. I am grateful to be traveling into this season with you.

A Blessing for Traveling in the Dark

Go slow
if you can.
Slower.
More slowly still.
Friendly dark
or fearsome,
this is no place
to break your neck
by rushing,
by running,
by crashing into
what you cannot see.

Then again,
it is true:
different darks
have different tasks,
and if you
have arrived here unawares,
if you have come
in peril
or in pain,
this might be no place
you should dawdle.

I do not know
what these shadows
ask of you,
what they might hold
that means you good
or ill.
It is not for me
to reckon
whether you should linger
or you should leave.

But this is what
I can ask for you:

That in the darkness
there be a blessing.
That in the shadows
there be a welcome.
That in the night
you be encompassed
by the Love that knows
your name.

—Jan Richardson

Circle of Grace

Within the struggle, joy, pain, and delight that attend our life, there is an invisible circle of grace that enfolds and encompasses us in every moment. Blessings help us to perceive this circle of grace, to find our place of belonging within it, and to receive the strength the circle holds for us. from the Introduction

Beginning in Advent and moving through the sacred seasons of the Christian year, Circle of Grace offers Jan’s distinctive and poetic blessings that illuminate the treasures each season offers to us. A beautiful gift this Advent and Christmas. Available in print and ebook.

Order the book

 

For a previous reflection on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday, click the image or title below.

Drawing Near
Advent 1: Drawing Near

Using Jan’s artwork…
To use the image “Grace in the Dark,” please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. (This is also available as an art print. After clicking over to the image’s page on the Jan Richardson Images site, just scroll down to the “Purchase as an Art Print” section.) Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Thank you!

Using Jan’s words…
For worship services and related settings, you are welcome to use Jan’s blessings or other words from this blog without requesting permission. All that’s needed is to acknowledge the source. Please include this info in a credit line: “© Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com.” For other uses, visit Copyright Permissions.

Advent 3: Home with Rejoicing

December 11, 2011


Shall Come Home with Joy © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Psalms, Advent 3, Year B: Psalm 126

Visiting with friends a few weeks ago, on the edge of this season. Talking on the porch as the almost-Advent evening gathers around us. One among us speaks of the great storm he has been going through for some years. “I believe in the providence and care of God,” he tells us. “But if you could just pray that God would take his foot off my neck.”

All around us, there are reminders that for many—and perhaps for us, ourselves—this is a season in which joy can be elusive. Economic pressures, broken relationships, disasters, violence, illness, isolation: these do not abide by a holiday schedule. And though God does not will the brokenness, still I want to cry out, on behalf of those who suffer in this season, “How long, O Lord?”

And alongside this awareness, Sunday’s psalm sidles up, offering its vivid images of rejoicing, restoration, return. The psalmist remembers what God has done for God’s people: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,” he exults, “we were like those who dream…. The Lord has done great things for us, / and we rejoiced.” But then time shifts for the psalmist, his remembrance of restoration past becoming a prayer for rejoicing yet to come: “Restore our fortunes, O Lord,” he pleads. “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. / Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, / shall come home with shouts of joy, / carrying their sheaves” (NRSV).

Perhaps more than any liturgical season, Advent possesses the sort of already-but-not-yet quality that the writer evokes in this psalm. Even as we remember and celebrate the Christ who came to us, the season calls us also to anticipate his promised return. This can be a difficult tension to navigate, especially when it may seem that Christ left so much undone in his earthly life and is tarrying overlong in completing his work of restoration.

The Advent season does not seek to explain away or release God from culpability for coming up with a cosmic design that leaves so much to be desired. Advent is an invitation, however, to stretch ourselves toward God’s sense of time, to reach into that realm where God has already brought about the healing of the world. We will see this divine sense of time with particular clarity next week, when the lectionary gives us the Magnificat and we hear Mary sing of God’s redeeming work as if it has already taken place with completeness. These days beckon us to stand with those—such as Mary and the psalmist—who can sing of restoration that has already been accomplished, even as we, so immersed in chronological time, know it is still to come.

Advent urges us to push at the limits of linear time, to tug at the place where the “already” intersects with the “not yet.” One of the ways we do this is by seeking to discern how God is calling us to participate in bringing restoration into reality: to learn to look at the world through the eyes of a God who has already somehow, in some realm, made it whole, and then to look for how God is asking us to help bring about that wholeness now.

We lean into God’s sense of time also by following the psalmist’s example of rejoicing, which is about so much more than a sensation of happiness. The rejoicing that the psalmist writes of is not so much a natural disposition as it is a practice, a habit, a way of being that does not depend solely on external events. The rejoicing to which God invites us in Advent, and in every season, is a rejoicing that goes deeper than the often contrived cheer that the marketers try to sell us in this season. This rejoicing does not involve ignoring the pain that is present in the world. It means, rather, seeing the world as it is, in all its beauty and its brokenness. It means choosing to resist being overwhelmed by the brokenness; recognizing and celebrating the presence of beauty and relationship; and developing a capacity for hope and working toward what we hope for—and what God hopes for in and through us.

As we seek to do this, we need all the blessings we can get—and give. A blessing is a kind of prayer that calls upon the God who dwells both within and beyond time. It is an invocation and plea that God, who promises restoration in the fullness of time, will see fit to infuse this present time with that restoration and healing. When we receive a blessing, or offer one, we stand at that place where promise and reality intertwine, and a space of possibility opens itself to us.

As you continue to journey through the days of Advent, whether these days offer delight or difficulty or some measure of both, may God stir up in you a habit of rejoicing, and bless you to bless those who need encouragement in this season.

Blessing to Summon Rejoicing

When your weeping
has watered
the earth.

When the storm
has been long
and the night
and the season
of your sorrowing.

When you have seemed
an exile
from your life
lost in the far country
a long way from where
your comfort lies.

When the sound
of splintering
and fracture
haunts you.

When despair
attends you.

When lack.
When trouble.
When fear.
When pain.

When empty.
When lonely.
When too much
of what depletes you
and not enough
of what restores
and rests you.

Then let there be
rejoicing.

Then let there be
dreaming.

Let there be
laughter in your mouth
and on your tongue
shouts of joy.

Let the seeds
soaked by tears
turn to grain,
to bread,
to feasting.

Let there be
coming home.

[To use the “Shall Come Home with Joy” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Thank you!]

Advent 4: The Advent Spiral

December 12, 2010

While the postings for this week are percolating, here are links to previous reflections on several of the lectionary texts for Advent 4 (December 19). Blessings to you!

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19: Door 19: The Inhabited Psalter

Romans 1:1-7: Door 22: In Which We Get Called on the Carpet

Matthew 1:18-25: Door 23: Doing Some Dreaming

And a Happy Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe:

The Day of the Lady

Righteousness Seeking Peace for Friendship, Possible Relationship

December 7, 2008

advent-door-blog2008-12-6
Meeting © Jan L. Richardson

Lection from the Psalter, Advent 2: Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13

In her imaginative work The Book of Qualities, writer and artist J. Ruth Gendler assembles an ensemble of human emotions and attributes. One by one she evokes their personalities with poetic detail, describing each with the skill of someone who is intimately acquainted with them. Among her cast of characters is Wisdom, who “likes to think about the edges where things spill into each other and become their opposites”; Despair, who “papered her bathroom walls with newspaper articles on acid rain”; Change, who “likes to come up quietly and kiss me on the back of my neck when I am at my drawing table”; and Devotion, who “braids her grandmother’s hair with an antique comb.”

Gendler’s impulse to personify these qualities places her in good and ancient company. For generations, humans have sought to understand and describe the emotions and characteristics that animate us by, in turn, animating them, personifying them as human figures. We have sought to do this with the Divine as well, exploring the aspects of God by singling them out and giving them form, life, and agency. This week’s lection from the Psalms provides a great example of this—more than one, in fact, for in Psalm 85 the psalmist offers us a quartet of God’s qualities that, in the psalmist’s hands, take dynamic form:

Steadfast love* and faithfulness** will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.

*sometimes translated as mercy
**sometimes translated as truth

The medieval imagination took this impulse to personify the attributes of God and brought it to full flower. In that period, characteristics of the nature of God became a cast of characters that ranged across visual art, literature, poetry, and drama. A number of these characteristics became known as the Virtues, often appearing in contrast to a series of personified Vices. Among the Virtues, four in particular were singled out as the “Daughters of God”: Mercy, Peace, Righteousness (sometimes known as Justice or the wonderfully poetic Rightwiseness), and Truth, our friends from Psalm 85.

These four Daughters of God became the subjects of a medieval allegory that took various visual and literary forms. They starred, for instance, in a 15th-century English morality play called The Castle of Perseverance, in which Justice, supported by Truth, debates with Mercy, aided by Peace. The subject of the debate is the soul of a man who has allowed himself to be taken in by a character called World, whose servants Lust and Folly dress the man in expensive clothes and lead him on misadventures. Ultimately, God sides with Mercy and Truth, and the man is saved. As Lynette R. Muir notes in The Biblical Drama in Medieval Europe, presenting the Daughters of God in the mode of a debate is a typical motif, derived in part from the work of theologians who sought to reconcile the seeming tension between God’s justice and God’s mercy.

We see the personified attributes of God moving also through mystical literature as well as the lives of the saints. St. Francis’ “Lady Poverty,” whom he called his bride, is perhaps the most well known example of this. Wisdom is among the most frequently personified qualities, often holding greater status than the other Virtues; her ubiquitous appearance and high status perhaps owe to the richness with which the Bible personifies the wisdom of God, as in Proverbs 9, where she appears as a woman calling her hearers to join in her feast. In the medieval period, Wisdom appears, for instance, in the visions of the German mystic Hildegard of Bingen, who in her work Scivias (Know the Ways) describes Wisdom as a beautiful woman standing on top of a high dome, crying out to the people of the world to come and receive the help of God.

Barbara Newman offers an intriguing approach to these personified qualities of God in her work God and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages. Newman observes that these characters, which medieval artists, writers, and visionaries depicted so often as women, made the qualities of God accessible to the imaginations of medieval folk and invited them to “participate in divinity” by embracing and embodying the qualities of God in their own lives. By appealing to the religious imagination, the dynamic and lively Virtues helped cultivate one’s devotion to the God who defies definitive description.

So where do we see the qualities of God at play in our own day, in our own imaginations? How do the infinite characteristics of God live and move and take form in our contemporary world? In art, in writing, in liturgy, in the daily living out of our desire to follow Christ, how do we see God taking shape around us and within us? Where do we witness the meeting places of mercy and truth, of peace and justice? In this season of celebrating the incarnation, how do we open our own selves to be a meeting place for the qualities of God?

Here’s one way I imagine it happening.

Saturday Morning, 10 AM

Justice and Peace meet at the café,
sit together,
hands folded around steaming cups,
heads bent over the paper.

They are not taking in
the news of the world
with sorrowing eyes
and the clucking of tongues.

They are instead planning their itinerary,
plotting their map,
looking for the places where
they might slip in.

Their fingers touch, release,
touch again as they read,
moving with the half-aware habits
that come only with long living alongside.

They have met, parted,
met again on countless mornings
like this one, torn and taken
by turns.

They put the paper aside
they brush away the crumbs
they talk quietly
they know there is work to do.

But they order one more cup:
there is savoring they must do before
the saving begins.
They lean in,

barely touching
across the table for
a kiss that makes a way,
a world.

In these Advent days, may we witness and work for the meeting of mercy and truth, justice and peace around us and within us. Blessings.

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Advent 1: When Night Is Your Middle Name

November 29, 2008


Let Your Face Shine © Jan L. Richardson

Lection from the Psalter, Advent 1: Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19

I am a night owl. I love the dark hours. Periodically I work on going to bed earlier, but it feels like entering alien territory, trying to make sense of a landscape and a language that I have a hard time fathoming. A friend, knowing my dark ways, once asked me, so what do you do at night? Oh, what there is to do at night! I read, I told him; or perhaps write, or pray, or soak up the quiet, or unwind in front of the TV. It is a time to gather up the threads of the day, a period in which interruptions are rare and intrusions are few, a space in which my soul can catch up with me. If I’ve spent the day around people, my inner introvert is in particular need of having quiet time before sleep. If I haven’t gotten enough solitary space by the end of the day, insomnia often ensues.

There is darkness even in my name. My middle name, Leila, means night in Hebrew. My parents did not know this at the time—the name belongs to a great-grandmother—but it proved a felicitous choice.

I’m inclined to think there’s a link between my fondness for night and my level of comfort with mystery. Perhaps because my path in life has taken some unusual turns, I’ve become fairly adept at living with a sense of unknowing. I have had plenty of occasion to develop skills that help keep me grounded as the conundrums of my life unfold. Being connected with a Benedictine community has been a great help in this regard. When you hang out with folks who are part of a tradition that’s been around for more than a millennium and a half, you learn a few things about taking the long view and about practicing in the midst of mysteries that can take years and decades and centuries to reveal themselves.

As we lean into Advent, however, I find myself wondering, what illumination might God be offering to me in this season? Are there any mysteries I’ve become too willing to live with, any space in my soul that needs to be brought out of the shadows?

It’s one thing, after all, to live with the mysteries that come with our human lives, to enter into the rhythms of the sometimes strange ways that God works with us. The older I get, the more I think of God as the Ancient of Days, the Holy One of the Long Haul, who seems so deeply fond of working things out over vast expanses of time. This is the aspect of God that calls us to trust, that challenges us to step out without being able to see what’s ahead.

It’s another thing, however, to become too enthralled by the shadows. Mystery has its own enchantments; without spiritual practices and habits of discernment to ground us, those enchantments can lull us into becoming overly comfortable with the shadows and the places of unknowing that attend our journeys. If I don’t know something, after all; if I’m endlessly willing to live in a ceaseless process of discernment that never leads to action, if I don’t see a place of brokenness in my own soul or in the soul of the world, then I don’t have to do anything about it.

That’s called denial.

So as we tilt into these Advent days—and nights—I find myself praying along with the author of the psalm for this Sunday. In Psalm 80 we find a communal lament during a time of devastation. As in the reading from Isaiah, the psalmist’s community struggles with its sense of God’s absence and anger, yet its members still cry out to God to turn toward them and come into their midst. Repeatedly in Psalm 80 the psalmist offers a version of the refrain, “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”

The psalmist and his community are not living in denial of their brokenness. They may yet have some distance to go in discerning and reckoning with their responsibility for their own pain, but they perceive clearly their desperate need for the God who can heal them. Once, twice, and yet again the psalmist cries out for God to illumine them, to save and restore them, to clarify God’s presence among and within them.

Let your face shine.

How might it be to carry this prayer into this season? Is there some corner of my soul that has lived too long in shadow? Of the mysteries I have been content to live with, is there one that God might be ready to solve? Am I ready to receive the clarity that might come? How will I meet the God who longs to shine God’s face not only on me but through me as well? How will you?

May we have the courage to turn our faces to the God who meets us in darkness and in daylight. Blessings.

[To use the “When Night Is Your Middle Name” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Thank you!]

Door 19: The Inhabited Psalter

December 19, 2007


The Inhabited Psalter © Jan L. Richardson

This week, the lectionary gives us a psalm of heartbreak and hope. Crying out to God in the midst of desperate desolation, the writer of Psalm 80 pleads with the Holy One:

Stir up your might,
and come to save us!
Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Reading the psalmist’s song of gut-wrenching hope, I’ve been thinking about Edward.

I inherited Edward. He was a friend and colleague of my sister when she lived in Atlanta. When I moved to Atlanta to attend seminary, Sally had already moved to another part of the country. When she returned to Atlanta for a visit, I met Edward. He became a blessedly unlikely friend. Totally disconnected from the seminary community around which my life revolved, and with a bit of a wild hair, Edward provided a unique thread of connection to the world beyond.

I went to church with him sometimes. An active member of an Episcopal congregation, Edward introduced me to the riches of Anglican liturgy. One of my favorite memories of being at All Saints’ Church is connected to an evensong service for which Edward played the organ, his creative spirit at play in a way that I imagine he experienced less frequently in his day job in the business world.

One year, during the Advent season, Edward gave me a book in which he had inscribed these words:

Stir up thy power, O Lord,
and with great might come among us;
and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins,
let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us…

I was unfamiliar with the words, but from his inscription I learned that the words came from the Book of Common Prayer; they are part of the collect for the third Sunday of Advent. It is an old, old prayer that, in one version or another, goes back centuries. I have a Book of Common Prayer whose long-ago text renders it in these words:

O Lord, raise up (we pray thee) thy power, and come among us, and with great might succour us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness, we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us, thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us…

Zowie. I love that version.

With roots in this week’s psalm, this prayer links us to generations of those who have cried out for God’s saving power. For millennia the Psalter has served as a wellspring for prayer, both for those who have prayed its verses as well as for those who, as in this collect from the Book of Common Prayer, have woven the psalms into new prayers that echo with the ancient longings that we humans have carried throughout our history.

The Book of Psalms, perhaps more than any other book of the Bible, carries our collective memory as people who have sought the presence of God in every circumstance. The psalms give voice to the full range of human emotion. Desire, rage, hope, vindictiveness, love, despair: nearly everything we are capable of, both exalted and base, is at play in its pages. The psalmist incorporates it all, with no visible fear that he will be judged for bringing his emotions into the presence of God. It reminds me of one of the desert fathers, Abba Poemen, who wisely counseled us to “Teach your mouth to say that which you have in your heart.” The psalmist did. A lot.

Because he (they) did, and because these words were gathered together in a book, we are inheritors of this remarkable body of poetry that has been a central sacred text for the ages, not only for Christians but for Jews as well. As prayers for both public worship and for private contemplation, the Psalms link us with all those, Jewish and Christian alike, who have prayed these words in solitude and in community across generations.

When I open a book that contains the Psalms, it often stirs particular connections with others to whom I am linked by those words. When I open the Benedictine breviary that the community of St. Brigid of Kildare Monastery uses, and pray the psalms contained there, I am mindful that I do not pray alone. Though I may be in solitude, I am praying in community not only with my oblate sisters and brothers but with Benedictines and other monastics around the world and across the ages who have prayed these same psalms that are at the core of monastic life.

I have a Bible that belonged to a beloved great-aunt, and when I read the beautiful cadences of the Psalms in the King James Version, I am mindful that she once prayed these same prayers. Her open Bible becomes a thin place, a space where the veil between worlds becomes permeable.

During the graveside service held last week for a family friend who influenced me greatly, the pastor invited us to pray the 23rd Psalm together (King James, of course, the version inextricably and beautifully bound with that particular psalm). The collective voice of the community gave me shivers; it tapped into a deep well of memory, and the voices lifted by the grave of that beloved mentor, friend, mother, and wife were not just our voices alone.

The Psalms are haunted. Generation upon generation, in dozens of languages, in every circumstance, the people of God have turned to them, have sung them, have whispered them, have wailed them, have chanted them alone and in community. The Psalms are inhabited, filled with the presences of all who have prayed them.

Whom do you hear when you turn to the Psalms? Who inhabits their lines? Who prays them with you?

Today, as I ponder this week’s psalm, Edward is especially present with me. He died more than a decade ago, a few months after I moved from Atlanta. He was altogether too young. In this psalm’s lines of desolation and desire intertwined, I hear the echoes of Edward’s voice. As he journeyed throughout long and thieving months of illness, Edward, and the community that surrounded him, lived the psalmist’s rhythms of heartbreak and hope. And heartbreak. And hope.

Stir up your might,
and come to save us!

O come to us. Come.

[To use the “Inhabited Psalter” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Thank you!]