Burning Bushes

radnor19 - CopyThis morning, the whole world is drenched and countless beads of water dangle from slender branches, mirroring sky. I can hear the chorus of droplets letting go, hitting rooftops, windowpanes, and puddles, the once-parched earth drinking them in saying “come.”

I have lived into every inch of winter, felt the cold, the wilderness, deep in my bones. Every day for weeks and months, I have longed for the green life of spring and every day I have heard “wait.” Last week, while the Bradford pears, dogwoods, and tulip trees were all in bloom, it snowed for hours on end with angry gusts of wind hurling snowflakes among petals. Yes, the trees are lit with whites and pinks, but my soul longs for the supple greens of spring, the sleek tips and curves emerging and unfolding as subtly as breath.

I come to this season with open, empty hands. I come, reeling from all the loss this work brings, weary but wide-eyed in wonder. I come, asking where is God in the filth, disease, and injustice of this world? I come, in greater and greater silence, waiting for a word, a sign, waiting like the dry earth waits for one shining drop of water carrying the song of descent and the vision of sky.

And all I can do is turn my open hands into living altars. I come forward with stones and petals and ladybugs found on carpet. I come bringing the names of the dead and dying, the names of those rotting in the jails, hospitals, and alleys of indifference. I come bearing birch bark sketched with the outline of lilies—a gift from the man who told me I could move mountains. I come carrying hot coals, leaping tongues of flame, saying “here.” Here is all I have to give, these specimens that will soon turn back into soil and smoke.

The lesson I learned last week in my waiting and watching on the trails of Radnor was this: the green grows up from the ground. Spring, resurrection, comes to us from the bottom up. Look down at the forest floor and you’ll find green life waking up around crumpled sheets of amber. Look at the tender blades and shoots coming up among the cork-colored grass of winter. Look at the seedling pushing 100x its weight in soil, pining for fresh air.

 . . . 

forsythiaOver the last week, I’ve seen burning bushes all around town: dark wispy twigs reaching upward, ignited in a torrent of yellow flames. Forsythias. Before I noticed the first one, my mind was tracing over all the things left undone, all the people left untended, but when my eyes hit the blazing petals, time screeched to a halt. I was riveted, transfixed, and the bush said “breathe.”

So now, in this sodden world, I calm and quiet my wandering mind. I listen to my breath, feel it move through my chest, my lungs, feel each molecule of oxygen glide through my body, out to my fingers, down to my toes. The mystics say God is as close to us as our own breath, so I breathe and tell myself that this is miracle enough. Yes, I breathe and I wait.

Moses and burning bush2It is said that Moses stumbled upon the burning bush after he led his flock “beyond the wilderness.” His eyes caught sight of a bush that was engulfed in flames yet not consumed. It held the voice of God, and on that hallowed ground, through the crackling of limbs and the dancing of sparks, God told Moses that God had seen the misery and heard the groaning of those who were oppressed and enslaved in Egypt. “I know their suffering,” hissed the Lord in flame. Together, they plotted, exiled shepherd and hissing bush, while the sheep grazed nearby without a care.

Yes, they plotted how to overthrow Pharaoh and free the captives. There would be miracles and plagues, and there would, most certainly, be blood. Rulers (and everyday people, for that matter) seldom give up their power over others willingly. The name of the spirit in the bush was “I am” and I can still hear that spirit whispering through petals of flame, “Yes, I am the one who parts water, burns bushes, and moves mountains, but there is a work far more powerful in which I am interested.”

In his book, The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales, Peter Rollins tells a parable called “Overthrowing the Emperor.” In this parable, there is a mighty emperor who has a dream where he hears a voice that says, “There is a heavenly power at work in your empire that can bring your whole army to its knees, a power that transcends your earthly reign.” Upon waking, the emperor sets out to find this power, turning his kingdom inside out. After months of searching to no avail, he overhears his servant speaking of an old, dying prophet who can uproot trees and part seas with a mere jester. The emperor sets off to find this prophet and finally finds him wasting away in a crowded shack reeking with the stench of disease. The emperor tells the dying man that he has heard of his God’s power and wishes to bear witness to it.

“Is that so?” replies the prophet. “I must warn you that the power of my God is unlike anything you have ever encountered. If you truly seek it out, it will break you into pieces and destroy your reign over this land.” “So be it,” says the emperor. “If what you say is true, then fate has spoken.”

Paul Aizpiri - CopyWith the last of his strength, the prophet beckons the emperor to approach his bedside. He reaches up and pulls the fine cloak down until the emperor is brought to his knees. And the dying prophet whispers in his ear, “Here is the power of my God: it is to be found in my rotting flesh, in my weakness, in the dirt and disease of this world. You have not seen this power because it is in the people you exploit and enslave; it resides in those you have mocked and killed, those who have suffered under your hand. The power of my God is to be found in the face of the widow, orphan, and foreigner; in the outstretched hand of the starving beggar; in the slave whose back is bent from years of labor. This weakness and vulnerability is the power of God that rises up from the ashes—a power that can overturn even the most powerful of empires.”

With that, the prophet dies and the emperor weeps, wordless and changed.

We are dangling drops of water, careening into puddles and mirroring sky. We are petals tossed in the wind with late-March snow. We are tongues of flame engulfed yet not consumed. We are seedlings heaving and unfolding through tons of cold, hard soil. We are careless sheep grazing nearby while we could be plotting liberation. We are people seeking miraculous signs, blind to the everyday resurrection beneath our very feet. Yes, resurrection (insurrection?) comes to us from the bottom up. And like the emperor, I am left wordless and changed.


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