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Reflections in the Silver Cup


A few days ago, I visited a friend in Tse Daa Kaan, and while I was there, she handed me a clipping from the Gallup Independent, from December 23, 2017. "This is for you," she said. It was the "Spiritual Perspectives" column I'd written two years ago. I reread it this morning and thought it might be worth reprinting once again, as we come up to this year's Winter Solstice.


On the magnificent golden butte that overlooks the ruins of Chaco Canyon, ancient astronomers, ancestors of the Pueblo peoples, created a massive solar calendar. They were not only astronomers, they had among them highly talented engineers that were able to place three enormous slices of sandstone in perfect alignment so that, as Earth revolves around the sun, sunlight strikes a spiral carved on the foremost rock in targeted locations. It happens on the fall and spring equinoxes and on the summer and winter solstices. 


Long before I knew about this calendar, I imagined us little humans on our little clod of Earth moving inward and outward on a spiral as we moved away from the light of the sun on the summer solstice and toward the sun on the winter solstice. I didn't envision the spiral and the light in the configuration created by the Chaco astronomers; for some odd reason, I imagined our winter movement toward the light as if we found ourselves at the very center of a great inner ear, the spiral called the cochlea, moving outward from the darkness into the glorious light. And at the time of longest light—summer solstice—strange as it seemed, we moved along the spiral toward the darkness once again.


Important things happen in the dark. We sleep, and our bodies and minds are restored by an unseen magic. In sleep we dream and process daytime problems that have gone unsettled, sometimes for years. In the darkness plants germinate before they reach into the light. Bears hibernate, owls hunt, storytellers entertain us and move us in new directions. The lights we humans create—candles, lanterns, lamps—glow, visible in the dark.


Important things also happen in the light. We move our bodies. We do work. We create. Plants synthesize the sun's energy. Daytime animals move about. We rejoice in the light. We long for the light during the darkness of winter, for it is not only the nights that are dark but also, often, the days. Thus, people the world over celebrate the knowledge that, on whichever hemisphere we find ourselves in the season we call winter, our half of the Earth is once again returning to the light.


Just now, it is the northern hemisphere that tilts and returns to the light, beginning on the winter solstice, which was on December 21 this year. On that day, I found myself in the tiny town of Elk Horn, Iowa, where my daughter works at the Museum of Danish America. The museum celebrated our return to the light with a huge evening bonfire. In the Jewish tradition, there is a festival of lights, Hanukkah, at this time of year. During Kwanzaa, a celebration of African American culture held in the dark of winter, people light a candle every night for seven nights, and each night they teach a different life principle. The Christian Church chose to celebrate the birth of Jesus at this time of year rather than in the spring, when scholars say he was actually born, in order to celebrate a great light come into the world. We humans seem to naturally want to cheer ourselves through the remaining darkness of winter, reminding ourselves that brighter days are coming.


Speaking to his followers, Jesus once said that we—you and I—are meant to be the light of the world. I often buy tea from a company that prints a message on the bag tags. My favorite one reads, "Live light. Travel light. Spread the light. Be the light." From a tea tag—ways that you and I can become "the light of the world."


What would it mean to live light and travel light? To not have so much stuff, not be burdened by material things. To not use more of the Earth's resources than we need. To think before driving off somewhere, asking if we really must use up that gas and add to our carbon footprint. To be generous, maybe even until it pinches a bit. To be grateful for all things.


What does it mean to spread the light, to be the light? To let our first response be yes rather than no. To share good news. To listen—the greatest gift of all. To love, because love is what makes people blossom. To offer an experience if it might help and if it's wanted.


As the Earth turns toward the sun, let us, "Live light. Travel light. Spread the light. Be the light."

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Image courtesy Morgue File

This entry was first published as a Gallup Independent "Spiritual Perspectives" column on November 23. Reprinted here with permission.


My daughter had just turned eight when she decided after dark one night, for the first and only time, to run away from home. She was furious about something I no longer remember. Dressed in pink pajamas, she put on her jacket and boots, grabbed her school backpack, and headed out the door. There was a dusting of snow on the footbridge that crossed the small creek beside our cabin in the mountains, and I watched through the window as she brushed off a space, sat on the bridge, and dangled her feet over the water. My heart filled near to bursting with tenderness as I watched her grapple with whatever demon it was that sent her running from me. Now I only remember the compassion and the love, though at the time, I may have been angry, too. I'm aware of the decision to let her go so she could wrestle with her own feelings, but I never lost sight of her; I was ready to leap out the door the minute any danger appeared.


It wasn't long before she came back in. I don't recall what happened when she did—whether she was ready to be enfolded in my arms, whether we talked about what had offended her so deeply, though we must have. What I do know to be true is that it was her humanness, her vulnerability, even her deep distress, that evoked love and compassion in me.


Many of us were taught by parents, by churches, or by society that in order to be loved, we had to be practically perfect in every way—that it was our abilities, our strengths, our physical attractiveness, and our compliance with the rules that made us acceptable, made us loveable. But when I think of my experiences as a parent, a teacher, and a counselor, I know it is the humanness and the weaknesses in others that evoke my deepest caring for them. I think of it as the "Aww Factor." When I watch videos of baby animals or baby humans, when I look at them bumbling and stumbling about because there's so much they haven't learned yet, I feel immense tenderness toward them and I actually say to myself, "Aww."


I think it's like this with the Holy One, too—that it's our imperfections, our inability to get it "right," our failures, our foolishness—that arouses compassion in God. I think Diyin God is pleased when we do the right thing, when we fulfill our greater purpose in life. But it's when we stumble and fall that the Holy One comes to us, spreads wings like a mother hen and draws us in to comfort us, to help us get back on our feet. And I imagine God often saying, when we endure some self-created kerfuffle, "Aww."


In a week's time, Christians will begin to observe Advent, the waiting time that leads to the celebration of God becoming human. This idea of God dwelling with us in a body is not unique to Christianity. I think that is precisely because we humans have an innate sense of the Infinite One loving our humanness. In many traditions, the Holy Ones come to us as earthly beings—in ancient Egypt, in the Yeibichai, at Shalako.


In an interview on the podcast The Liturgist, Franciscan Father and author Richard Rohr, says, "God loves us by becoming us." This idea of the Holy One coming to us, becoming one of us, is the ultimate in tender love. It is the vital message that we do not have to be perfect or even come close to it to be loved by God, by other humans, by the animals in our lives. It is our humanness, our flaws, and our messiness that make us loveable. And it is our humanness—our brokenness and the empathy that results from our weakness, not primarily our strengths, our money, or our great skills—that we have to offer our fellow beings and our ailing Earth. Let us lavishly give to the world our untidy, beautifully flawed selves this season.

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