Oh this Song of Solomon! It sends me spinning back to the age of sixteen. Love as a gazelle leaping across the mountains. Love bounding across the hills.
But I am not sixteen, clearly. I am well past that kind of gooey fervor. I was truly in a conundrum about what to do with this romantic biblical duet until I was reminded to read Song of Solomon as a metaphor. It can be seen as a song between a man and woman (or, may I take license and say any two people in love) or God and the church, or God and an individual.
That was a way into the text. This would be a song between God and me. So I thought about writing this sermon, tried to do some sermon writing, and I waited for inspiration in my cozy little Dellwood bungalow, but, alas, no gazelles or stags. No cooing, no fig trees blossoming with their fragrance.
But then, I went to New Mexico. To Ghost Ranch. Onto Moab, Utah. And, without trying at all, God was all around me.
And I became drawn – riveted – to this key passage in the text for me. There he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattice.
While we’ve all had our wall moments, and we know that those take a certain kind of fortitude and faithful persistence, I want to talk about lattice. The beauty of lattice. The gaps between the wooden crosshatches. The air, the windows, the doors, the space popping through this non-wall.
There were so many lattice moments on my summer vacation. First, simply going to Ghost Ranch. That, in itself, is like me poking my finger through the lattice. About five years ago, when a team of Forest Hill-ians got back from Ghost Ranch – the Presbyterian Retreat and Conference Center in Abiquiu, NM, I was intrigued. More than intrigued. But there were pilgrimages to Israel and Greece, and I knew that Ghost Ranch was not going to slip into that line-up again very soon, so I opted to go on my own. Took a class last year in map making and this year in poetry. So, my first words of challenge to you are these: make your own pilgrimage. Get yourself on that plane or in that car or put on your good walking shoes and get yourself out of the door. Vacate your life. Purposefully plan to see a new world in a new way so that you can have new vision.
There are two things I love about Ghost Ranch. (Well actually, there are about thousand, but let me tell you about two.) First, the space itself. The red, the golden, the buffs of lavender. The sky, wide with a story to tell, always changing. The light dancing, bathing, dipping into, radiating on. I can see why Georgia O’Keeffe spent the majority of her later life there. Fled from New York City. Ghost Ranch. It’s an extraordinary place in an extraordinary state. God is, in fact, leaping over the mountains and bounding down the hillsides. If there truly is a lattice between us and God, the wooden slats are miles apart in NM. You can dive through the holes…God can trip and tumble into your life so very easily.
Second, when I go to Ghost Ranch, I chose to eat every meal at a different picnic table with a different person. Always outside. Not so much so that I can look at Pedernal and the alfalfa fields, but so that I can meet new people. This year I met Charlotte who became an adopted mom, Kerry who’s a minister in Hawaii. A painting teacher, a seminary student. A woman who read Neruda to me in Spanish. I sat down with strangers and stood up from the table with friends. That’s typically not easy for me. I’m relatively shy and my heart always revved up a bit when I approached a new dining companion. But that’s the thing, there is no way to get to the other side of the lattice unless you are willing to go to the other side of the lattice. It’s amazing what people will tell you when you just say, “Hi, why are you here?”
At Ghost Ranch, typically, you have classes in the morning, then a break until after dinner. After poetry, in those afternoons off, this year, I made a special effort to go to nearby attractions. One day I took the 45-minute trip to Christ in the Desert. A Benedictine monastery about 13 miles down a gravel road. How many times in your life do you get to chat with a Pilipino monk about Thomas Merton, chant with the clerics at their 3:30 prayer time then watched a storm barrel down the Rio Chama River Valley. For me, once. Once in a lifetime.
The next day, I went to Chimayo a missionary church built in 1813 which is said to have miracle healing powers. First I walked the lower grounds. Saw the outdoor worship space. The grottos. The prayer gardens. The thousands of pictures of healed people or people praying for healing. Looked at the crosses sewn into the chinks of the metal fences. Then I walked to the upper courtyard and sat one bench over from three women praying the holy rosary in Spanish. Maria, Amen, Maria, Amen. Though I did not understand it, I started to cry. Started to rock. Bowed my head. At one moment, an older woman looked at me and I her. And for that instant, she was my mother and my sister and my grandfather and I was her aunt and her dead child and the dog she had when she was twelve. I was not praying to a distant god. I was getting an answer. Yes, God said, I am here right now connecting you two.
I went into the sanctuary, then deeper into the small room that has the holy healing dirt. I crouched down and pinched some into my right hand. You are to put the dirt onto the parts of you that need to be healed and so, I first rubbed some onto some mosquito bites (which, may I note, dried up and completely healed by the next morning).
Then, I took some healing dirt and rubbed it onto my head and then I placed my hand on my heart, wondering if these two halves of me will ever be at peace in this one body.
I walked through the lower plaza again and near the fence that penned in a horse. For the first time in my life I felt a horse’s tongue on my hand. I felt a horse huff on my face. I watched a horse yawn, then heard his top teeth grinding against his bottom teeth. When I walked north, he walked north. When I stopped, he stopped. When I left, he kicked his hoof into the fence so that I would come back. And I did, of course. It is funny how you can say so much, speaking only with your eyes and your hands and your breath.
There was nothing there – at Chimayo — that was not from and of a loving God. A loving God calling out to me.
Near the end of the week, I drove to Santa Fe, where the Saint John’s Bible was on display in the New Mexico History Museum. The Saint John’s Bible is the fulfillment of a dream of Donald Jackson, who is one of the Queen’s scribes. In 1998, The Saint John’s Abbey commissioned Jackson – and his team – to create the first completely handwritten and illuminated Bible since the invention of the printing press. The seven-volume set was completed in December, 2011 and now pages are on display in various venues across the United States.
Imagine these huge bible pages. 2 feet by 3 feet. The visual beauty of the text. The perfection of the script. The dedication to the task. The modern illuminations, illustrations, to the ancient word. They somehow made the text more relevant. Meant for us now. Come, I could hear God saying, come. This is what I look like too.
I left Ghost Ranch – and New Mexico – thinking that I had seen and known God in so many forms, that I had diminished the wall between us. That my hand was reaching through the lattice rubbing God’s mane the same way I had rubbed the horse’s at Chimayo.
But little did I know that there would be Moab, Utah, home of Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. It’s nearly impossible to put words to the beauty of the Fiery Furnace or the light in Devils Garden. Imagine seeing 40 miles in every direction. Awesome. Annie Lamott used to say that there were only two prayers you will ever need in your life, thank you and help me. But in her soon to be published book, she’s added a third. Thanks, Help and Wow.
Utah is a wow kind of place.
I know some people go to these wide spaces and, because of they are vast and huge, the people feel tiny and limited. I feel completely opposite. I feel vast and huge and part of the beauty. Sister to the mountains, second cousin to the River.
In Dead Horse State Park, they mark the hiking trails with rock cairns. Rocks stacked on rocks. Cairns have been used historically to mark a path, to use a landmark, to adorn an important place, to show a burial area, as a form of art.
I love cairns, but I particularly loved them on this trip. So much so, that in the mid-day 103 degree sun, I made my own. It took about 30 minutes of hauling rocks, and balancing rocks. With each rock, here I am, I am here. Here I am. I am here. One rock was long and thin, like a paddle. I was able to suspend it near the top of my cairn like a cantilever. And on that outcropping, I placed a single small stone. I marked my place in the beauty. The whole act of making the cairn seemed like a prayer. To God. To the Colorado River 2000 feet below. To the forces that formed the Utah rocks. To my future. And to the past, all the years it took for that beautiful day to become that beautiful day.
All I can say is that it was the thinnest moment of a very thin trip.
Until I decided to hang out one morning at my cottage. I was out in the courtyard when the landscaper came with his son. The son was two and a half maybe three. Neither spoke English. The boy had brought his blanket with him and he and I started to playing peek-a-boo. That shifted to hide-and-seek behind the trees. Then we beat on the metal chairs in rhythm. When it was time to go, he said “bye” and I said bye and then he said bye and then I said bye and then we laughed falling all over ourselves with delight.
The next day I decided to hang out in the courtyard again, and around 9:30, my friend walked in, this time carrying a book, 365 stories for dormier, sleeping. He put the book on the metal table and we leafed through it pointing at different animals. Then we played peek-a-boo again. Then we beat patterns on the chairs. Then he plucked a pansy petal from the flower container and brought it to me – a gift, a wafer of love. I put the petal on my hand and blew it off and he squealed with joy. We spent the next few minutes blowing all kinds of petals from our hands. He especially loved to hold out his hand and blow the petal right into my face. I was showered with spit and laughter.
The next day, again I waited for my friend. He came with a toy truck, which we loaded with mulch and leaves and drove on the edge of the sidewalk. Then we covered it with leaves and put the truck to sleep. Shhh, he would say, shhhhh. Then, of course, we repeated everything we had done before. The hide-and-seek, the petal blowing, the plopping of stones into a metal bucket.
I know that this is going to sound crazy. But I got it. I understood the Song of Solomon completely.
This child, this nameless friend of mine, was like God. All he wanted to do was draw me out, play with me, have me hear the cooing of the doves, see the flowers in bloom.
God is constantly playing peek-a-boo with us. Revealing, hiding, revealing, hiding, giggling behind his curtain. God’s hiding is just so that God can be seen. Just so that God can pop out again each time laughing like it was the first time. There is no limit to God’s desire to play with us. None.
This is the truth: God wants to be found as much as we want to find God.
When I left that last day, my friend, sat on the slate near the parking spaces. He was looking at me. He never took his eyes off me. We did not play the bye, bye, bye, bye game that we had played the other days. He just said, “See you.” And I said see you too, knowing that I had seen him and he had seen me. And though we would never see each other again, the being seen would last a long long time.
So, back to the text. Yes, there is the frolicking robust Song of Solomon, and I want to tell you that there is also the amazing song of our own lives.
Get out, my friends. Vacate your normal life. Go into this earth.
Talk with strangers. Pray with strangers.
Rub your life with its healing dirt.
Illuminate the holy word in your ordinary living.
Mark your sacred spaces.
Put your hand through the lattice. Put your life through the lattice.
Know that God will come. Bounding, leaping, asking you to join in. Asking you to play. Playing peek-a-boo with you your whole life long.
Sing your Song of Solomon. Sing your life alive. And I promise you that God will be so close to you that all you will be able to do is arise. Arise, and follow God.
Thanks be to the God of Solomon, the God of Ghost Ranch, the God of Moab, the God of my sweet peek-a-boo buddy, and the God who is with us here today.