May Day the old way

May Day treeYesterday evening, eight of us danced around the pitch pine in our yard, dressing it up with rainbow ribbons for May Day.  Did you know that the original Maypoles were not cut wooden poles, but live trees?  It makes sense to me, coming from people who worshiped among the trees, who honored and revered the trees. And so what better way to celebrate the full arrival of spring, the arrival of the May, than to celebrate the tree with an ancient dance?

Earlier, I had attached eight ribbons to a small metal ring, and then Sylvia tossed a rock-tied string over a branch so we could lift the ribbons to a good height for dancing. Margy went to a field close to where we used to live to pick forsythia branches to decorate the bottom of the tree. In this time of the earth awakening, we joined our life energy to that of the earth, that we might all be full of life and regeneration.  It was a magical moment to be weaving in and out between each other, with our bright colors, dancing on the earth, and finally surrounding the tree, hands joined in a circle.

After a rain-filled night, I took photos this morning. We keep hoping for more warmth…it is only in the 40s today.  But we’ve finally finished planting all the bushes. I set up the rain barrels (by putting in their spigots and re-attaching their overflow hoses), and yesterday I found smaller containers for storing a big bag of Kaolin clay (an organic product used for certain orchard pests). Tending and planting and tending.

When I pay attention to what is happening to our planet, I feel so much despair, I feel overwhelmed. I know it is better to plant trees, than to cut them down.  I know it is a good thing to tend this small plot of land.  But even with many of us planting trees, or protesting, or changing our lives, do we have the power to stop the destruction?  No, I think not.  But what came to me the other day was this.  If we are out there, planting a tree, putting our hands in the soil, watering a seed, dancing on the ground, or even lying in a hammock under a pitch pine, perhaps we can learn to hear the voice of the earth.  Perhaps she will see us there, and take pity on us.  Perhaps she will open our ears and hearts and guide us into regeneration and healing. This is my hope.May Day Pitch Pine

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Sacred Trees and Resurrection

When I was looking through some old family photos, I wondered, what is this picture of a tree?  Then I saw my grandfather Heie Johnson almost hidden up in its branches.  I don’t know where it was taken, or by whom.  (Any Johnson relatives know the answer to that?)

Heie Johnson in a tree – Version 2

1930s

I’ve been doing a lot of research about my ancestors, trying to understand their legacy in me, trying to understand colonization and the possibilities for a different way of being. I came across a story concerning the missionary efforts of Christians in early pagan Germanic lands.  It said,

The favoured method of showing the supremacy of the Christian belief was the destruction of the holy trees of the Germans. These were trees, usually old oaks or elm trees, dedicated to the gods. Because the missionary was able to fell the tree without being slain by the god, his Christian god had to be stronger.

This is a sadly perfect example of the colonization forces of Christianity–that part of its history which is about domination, conquest, and empire.  But since today is Easter, I wanted to go back to something I learned from Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, in their book, Saving Paradiseabout another force in the history of Christianity, a force that moved against domination on behalf of equality and interconnection.

They researched the visual world of early Christian worship, and what they found were beautiful mosaics: a deep green meadow under a blue sky, flowers, a tree with four rivers flowing from its roots spreading out over the land. There were sheep in the meadow and a figure of a man who was the shepherd of the sheep, with a kind and radiant face turned toward the people. There were men and women, all with radiant faces, each one holding in their hands a laurel wreath crown.

Each week as part of worship, after the readings and hymns, after the sermon and prayers, there was a communal potluck feast for all the members of the church. As people sat down together, those of the upper class were sitting next to workers and servants. Special attention was given to widows and their children, and to all the elders. At this holy communion meal, all brought what they had to share, and partook of its bounty together.

According to Brock and Parker’s research, this would have been the experience of Christians in the early centuries of Christianity. Most people were unable to read, but the symbolism of the images around them would be immediately apparent: the Garden of Eden, the original Paradise. The tree in the meadow was the tree of life described in the book of Genesis.  At the center of this early Christian worship was a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. He was the radiant man tending sheep, the Good Shepherd, a living presence in their midst. They believed that by his resurrection, he had restored the original paradise, and reestablished the presence of the divine spirit within the whole created earth.

The Christian community was meant to be the living embodiment of this resurrection paradise. In the midst of a world controlled by the harsh realities of the Roman Empire, they came together to celebrate a new earth, imbued with the beauty and grace of divine blessing. They were an oasis of care and connection. Their vision of radical equality undermined traditional social status, and they operated a vast social welfare program that offered livable options for the poor and enslaved. When someone became a Christian, they dedicated all of their material belongings to the community. Christians were not allowed to kill or become soldiers in the army. They were striving for life in Paradise.

One thing that Brock and Parker did not find, in the visual world of the early church, was any representation of Jesus being crucified on a cross. Early Christians acknowledged the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Many of them had probably seen actual crucifixions, since the Romans carried out this brutal form of execution in public places, to terrify the populace and reinforce their imperial control. But for the followers of Jesus, the church itself—their communal gathering—was not a place to be filled with images of torture and cruelty. It was the place to remember that love was stronger than empire, and that heaven was possible here on earth.

It was only much later—nine centuries later—that the church first created images of Jesus on the cross.  Brock and Parker asked, “Why did Christians turn from a vision of paradise in this life to a focus on the Crucifixion and final judgment?” In their book, they trace the complex changes—century by century—that could account for such a development. Their trail of clues led to the 8th century, when the Frankish King Charles the Great, better known as Charlemagne, attempted to conquer and annex the Saxon people’s lands along the Rhine River. (Some of my ancestors lived along the Rhine River.)

The Saxons had practiced a hybrid form of Christianity, a blending of the Christian story with their earlier pagan practices—Thor and Woden and Jesus were all acknowledged, and their worship was held in sacred groves of oak trees or around holy springs. The Franks justified their expansionist assaults by claiming that the Saxons were not true Christians. They cut down the sacred oaks, and deforested the whole countryside. They baptized the Saxons under threat of death. The Saxons kept rebelling decade after decade, but ultimately lost the wars. And, sadly, it was their descendants (also my ancestors) who eventually carved that first image of Jesus on a crucifix, and carried out the first pogrom against their Jewish neighbors.

Christianity, once offering hope for those persecuted by the empire, had become the official religion of empire.  By the middle ages, paradise had been relegated to the afterlife, and the communion feast had been turned into story of death and sacrifice and judgement. It was in the 11th century that Bishop Anselm of Canterbury created the “theology of atonement.” This interpretation of Christianity, still haunting us today, claimed that humanity’s sins had so offended the almighty God that it required the sacrifice of his son Jesus on a cross, to bear the punishment for all of our sins. (If you thought that this was what all Christians believe, did you realize it only started in the 11th century?)

Worship was no longer a communal gathering of peace and love, but became visually and ritually punishing, intended to stir up fears of future horrors. The priest at the communion table was said to be re-enacting the death of Jesus each time, and this sacrifice was an indictment of all humanity. This death-focused theology found its natural counterpart in the Crusades. While up to then, Christians had been forbidden to shed blood without doing penance, now the boundary line was drawn at the church doors. Soldiers were promised heaven if they died in battle killing Muslims, Jews, or heretics. And so the process of colonization continued.

Decolonization is about learning the stories of our history, and rejecting the beliefs and practices that involve domination, conquest, and subjugation.  But decolonization also includes uncovering the liberating threads we might find in the midst of the forces of domination.  The stories of the early Christians around a communal shared meal are stories that give me hope. The stories of the people of the Rhineland worshiping in groves of sacred trees give me hope.

And here’s a new question:  the Christian missionaries thought their god could conquer the old gods, because they weren’t immediately killed when they cut down the sacred trees. But maybe they just got the timeline wrong. Because now, after too many trees have been cut down over the last many centuries, we are all in danger of losing our lives.  The destruction of the forests threatens the whole planet. I think we need to bring back the sacred trees.

The picture of my grandfather in a tree gives me hope.  I think he knew that the divine was present with him in that tree.  And these days, my own worship includes planting young trees in this place I call home.

Read this book:  Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, (Beacon Press, 2008), I quoted from pp. 263-271, and pp. 224ff.

A Larger View

Reflections on death from one who has died:  As I was going through some papers in the basement, I found a newsletter article from the spring of 2002, written by my dear mentor in ministry, Rev. Victor Carpenter, who died last year in June.  I want to share his words for this coming week, his reflection on Easter and death and life.

Easter Week.  My attention turns to stories of death and the meaning of life. And not necessarily the Jesus story. Sometimes, that story, so overworked and layered with interpretations, shuts me down rather than awakens me.  Instead I commend a wonderfully imaginative perspective from a favorite novel, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.

The novel concerns a missionary and his family in Africa (actually in the area of the Congo.) One of their daughters, the child Ruth Ann, dies. She assumes the form of a serpent in keeping with Congolese beliefs. As a green snake lying on a tree limb she watches her mother and her sisters who, after many years, return to the Congo to search for her grave. What she wishes she could tell them is, “Listen! Being dead is not worse that being alive. It is different, though. You could say the view is larger.”

I love that interpretation! As the great scholar of religion, Huston Smith tells us, all religions teach that after death one is aware of who one has been and who one is and adds that one’s work is not completed. Those who teach reincarnation hold that the soul returns to earth to take up unfinished business. Sometimes many rounds are required to get it all done. As Ruth Ann says, “The view is larger.”

As for what that remaining business is I have only guesses. Probably something along the lines of getting rid of all the false and misleading ideas that have hung us up during our physical lives. Acquiring a larger view. Whatever brings us to that larger view is to be welcomed. Happy Easter.  Warmly, Victor

I am thinking of you Victor, and imagining you in that space of those who have gone on before us, waking up to that larger view. Tree and sky

Moments of Joy

Capisic Brook invisible cardinals

I saw a group of cardinals on my walk today! I haven’t seen them all winter, but as I stood still, watching the beauty of Capisic Brook, first one and then another and then more appeared in the distance.  You can’t really see them in the photo, but after the brook bends to the right, and then to the left–they were there in the bushes near the water. Then, as I was walking home, I heard a cardinal sing in the trees nearer my house. Joy!

I was thinking more about the fun wheel I created the other day. I put “Walk” as something to do under the element of fire, but really, my morning walks include all the elements. Fire is for the movement of my body, and sometimes, the bright sun rising.  But I almost always walk to the brook–which is water.  And I am connecting to the trees and the land and sometimes little animals–which is earth. Hearing the songs of birds, breathing in the invigorating air, well that is air.

Sometimes the walk feels like a chore–getting out there in the cold–it’s exercise, you know, good for me, I should do it, etc.  And my usual definition of fun is something I don’t have to do–no “shoulds.” But often, even usually, once I get out there, a walk is a doorway into moments of delight, moments like seeing the cardinals today, or finding turkeys in the street, or sometimes near the brook, catching a glimpse of a fox or a raccoon. Moments of surprise and moments of joy.

What might you do today to open a doorway into possibility, into moments of joy?

Wheel of Fun

Fun Wheel

Today, Margy and I made art together.  She was coloring Celtic goddesses, and I made this fun wheel.  It is on the model of a chore wheel–you know, where you spin the dial and know who is doing dishes, or laundry, or sweeping the floor.  Only this is for activities that bring joy.  Since that is not always my forte.  So this way, I can spin the dial, and have a suggestion for a fun thing to do.

I constructed a wheel out of cardboard and paper, and then I brainstormed a list of ideas for activities.  I decided to categorize them by the four elements–Earth, Air, Fire and Water.  Because I am a witch and that is how my mind works.  Plus it occurred to me that to care for ourselves, it might be good to have nourishment in all four elements.  Then I decorated with stickers.

We were listening to music while we made art! Plus I took a break to drink a cup of tea and play with Sassy… so that is air, fire, water and earth in one afternoon.  In the center is traditionally the element of spirit, and I thought to add new places, new ideas, new activities, and gratitude to fill out the center of the circle. Today, doing art is our new activity.

What I noticed:  in my original list of activities, the fewest were for water–I had to ponder that and add a couple more.  In my everyday life, most of the activities for earth and air already happen every day, fewer for fire and water.  What do you do for fun and self-care?

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Being Interrupted

One morning, I couldn’t find two handout pages from my Wabanaki Languages class. The day before, those two pages had been on the kitchen table, ready for me to work on them over breakfast. But at breakfast, not there. I looked everywhere. I am usually very organized, so when something gets lost, I go a little bonkers.  I looked in the basement, I looked in the junk drawer, I looked on my writing desk, I looked in the basement again. Nothing. We’d had our house cleaned the day before, so I emailed our housecleaner to see if perhaps she had put them somewhere.  I secretly wondered if Margy had moved them. (Sorry Margy!)

Finally, after more than an hour of this, I gave up.  There was no where else to look.  I stopped.  I sat in my room in the chair next to the window and wrote in my journal.  Writing in my journal is a form of praying for me.  Praying is a form of surrender.  I wrote, “How do I handle this? I give up. I can’t do my day as I planned it–the next Wabanaki lesson over breakfast and then, etc. I give in. Is there a better response than going bonkers? Is this some sort of cosmic interruption? What should I be paying attention to?”  Then I sat silently and breathed. I accepted the interruption. I got more quiet and breathed some more.

Then I quietly remembered that I had moved some health notes from the table the day before. And that is where I found my lesson pages, intermingled among them.

But I continued to sit, and I reflected on how much energy I used up being anxious and frantic about losing the papers. It was only when I gave in, and prayed, that the answer emerged, from quiet.  So I decided to fully embrace this cosmic interruption of my plans for the day. I let go of the projects I had thought about doing, and went into Margy’s room and we cuddled.  We decided to go see the ice disk in the Presumpscot River in Westbrook–that temporary, famous, huge, slowly spinning circle of ice that was mysteriously floating on the surface of the river.

We walked along the river and took photos.  We mingled with dozens of other people who were out to see this curiosity of nature. We felt full of joy.  I learned that this is what can come from embracing cosmic interruptions.  Joy. Maybe there is a cosmic interruption waiting to happen for you today?

Ice disk in Westbrook

Disappearing Moon

Lunar Eclipse half way – Version 2After a stormy snow all day long, the sky cleared long enough for me to watch the beauty and mystery of the lunar eclipse, in the crisp cold wind blowing through our back yard. I am not usually awake this late, but something called me out when I saw the sky had cleared.  I kept warm by shoveling the walkway, and I prayed for our troubled world. Actually, it felt like the moon itself warmed my body and soul.

What does eclipse mean?  It spoke to me of disappearing, the power of the hidden, the gift of letting go of any need to shine.  It spoke to me of the beauty of what is hidden.  As the moon became fully eclipsed, the foggy clouds also drifted in, and it was gone from sight. Hidden being, bless our aching world, heal our wounded hearts.Lunar Eclipse almost full – Version 2