A reflection on Barbara Brown Taylors Book, An Altar in the World

an altar in the world


A reflection on Barbara Brown Taylor’s Book,

An Altar in the World

I was asked to lead worship at my church, the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara this week. We were celebrating our flower communion and I was nervous about leading this important service and about what to say that would tie this important ceremony together with my own thoughts and reflections. Both of our ministers are away this weekend on a trip with our youth group to visit the Hopi-Navajo nations. I felt a bit lost and a bit like an impostor when asked to create this service, consecrate flowers and lead worship. At the end of the day it went well. I have Barbara Brown Taylor and her fabulous book, An Altar in the World, to thank for the inspiration today.

I thought I would share it here with you on my blog – it’s a sneak peek into my personal life and how I strive to approach relationships with reverence.

The first two years that Brad and I were married, we lived apart about half the time. He was working in the Bay Area and I was teaching in Redding – it was not the most ideal situation for newlyweds, but we weathered the time as well as we could. We would take turns making the commute to see each other on weekends.

For the most part, the drive from Palo Alto to Redding paled in comparison to other drives I’ve taken – like following the Pacific Coast Highway, crossing the Rocky Mountains or passing through the Saguaro National Monument in Arizona. But in mid to late summer, there was one moment on the journey along Highway 5 that never failed to take my breath away.

I would come over a small rise and suddenly I would see acres of brilliant yellow sunflowers that seemed to go on forever. Each of their bright faces would be turned toward the sun – facing west late on a Friday afternoon but on Sunday morning for the trip home, facing east in devoted reverence and silence, stalks, leaves and petals swaying gently in the breeze.

The beauty of the moment returned to me as I was preparing for this service and thinking about what to say today. I found myself thinking: what is my relationship with flowers? What is the history and meaning of the flower communion and what relationship might there be between the two? I kept returning to that field of sunflowers and to the feeling of reverence it evoked in me.

Nature often inspires reverence in me – a desire to be still, to watch, to notice, to see and be unseen. I have been taking a wonderful online art class on color with Louise Gale. Our lesson this week was to look for yellow in our surroundings, you can see the collage of images I created above. I found buckets of sunflowers and daffodils at Trader Joe’s and yards full of blooming flowers I can’t name around my neighborhood. Among the photos I took were a lemon-yellow BMW and a golden yellow Jeep, a school-crossing sign and some long pipes waiting for workmen to bury them deep in the ground. There were numerous lemon trees laden with fruit, roses and daylilies, along with a faded yellow fire hydrant. Looking for spots of yellow, I suddenly saw yellow everywhere, I am sure my neighbors thought I was a bit odd – stopping randomly to take pictures of their cars and gardens. I wasn’t looking for anything special but as usually happens on walks, by simply paying attention, I found much to revere. In this instance, my moment of reverence came from a patch of small yellow wildflowers on the side of the road being happily raided by a honey bee who flew from flower to flower collecting nectar.

As I watched the bee, I wondered – who in my life has inspired the same depth of reverence I felt seeing the sunflowers or watching this busy bee? Rarely have I turned the same gaze of love and wonder that nature inspires in me towards another human being. There are many people I love deeply, many people I respect but what sparks feelings of reverence when it comes to relationships

I want to share with you an extended reading from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book An Altar in the World. I appreciate her perspective on reverence in relationships and how it has helped me to think differently about the role of reverence in my connections to others. She writes,

“Reverence for creation comes fairly easily for most people. Reverence for other people presents more of a challenge, especially if those people’s lives happen to impinge upon your own. I live at the end of a dirt road in the country for a reason. I can see my nearest neighbors house in the wintertime when all the trees are bare, but for the rest of the year we go about our business with no visual confirmation of each other’s presence. We like each other very much. We also like our distance from each other. I cannot speak for him, but I know that I have an easier time loving humankind than I do loving particular human beings.

Particular human beings hug my bumper in rush-hour traffic and shoot birds at me when I tap my brakes. Particular human beings drop my carefully selected portabella mushrooms into the bottom of my grocery bag and toss cans of beans on top of them. They talk on their cell phones while I am having a nice quiet lunch at Blimplie’s; they talk on their cell phones while I am waiting to pay them for my gas; they talk on their cell phones while I am trying to step past them on the sidewalk. Particular human beings rarely do things the way I think they should do them, and when they prevent me from doing I think I should be doing, then I can run short on reverence for them.

One remedy for my condition it to pay attention to them when I can, even when they are in my way. Just for a moment, I look for the human being instead of the obstacle. That boy who is crushing my portabellas does not know the first thing about mushrooms. He is, what, sixteen years old? With such a bad case of acne that it has to hurt when he lays his face on this pillow at night. His fingernails are bitten to the quick. He is working so hard to impress the pretty young cashier that it is no wonder he does not see me. But I see him, and for just a moment he is more than the bag boy. He is a kid with his own demons, his own bad skin and budding lusts. I do not want too much information about any of this, but I can at least let him be more than a bit player in my drama. I pay attention to him, and the fist in my chest lets go.

“Heavy stuff on the bottom,” I say, so that the kid looks at me. “Take it easy on the mushrooms, okay?” He cocks his head, grins.

“These things are mushrooms?” he says, hauling them out of the bottom of the bag. “I wouldn’t eat one of these on a bet.”

I admire Taylor’s ability to shift her focus, to soften her gaze and to see others with reverence. I grew up in a family of strong Southern women who rarely modeled looking at other’s with kindness much less reverence. Women assessed each other with critical eyes, taking in clothes, weight, hairstyle, status. It took me years to learn what it meant and how good it felt to look at others without the jaded filters of my past and to not feel judged or criticized every time someone looks at me. I have learned to stop and listen to someone’s story with my heart wide open.

Like Barbara Brown Taylor, I have chosen to see people around me today with eyes of reverence. Am I always successful? Not by a long shot. I struggle with impatience when others move too slow or hold up the line at Trader Joes. I get angry when I am in a rush, stuck behind the person going fifty in the fast lane or when the carful of teens runs the red light, nearly colliding with my car. My children have witnessed how bad drivers in particular tend to elicit an unsavory word or two from me. But on most days, I try hard to genuinely see other people and to acknowledge their existence.

The value of the act of reverence in my opinion is in the noticing – not just of nature and the glorious field of sunflowers facing the sun but also of each person that I connect with on a daily basis. It’s remembering those who have gone before me that have made my life possible. It’s also taking a moment today to revere the memory of Dr. Norbert Capek and his vision of a world united in reverence to beauty, to the dignity of all human beings and to love. It’s remembering also to revere ourselves, to honor our gifts and laugh at our mistakes.

I ended this reflection with the following invitation into a brief meditation. I invite you to do the same!

I would invite you now into a moment of silent reverence. Turn your attention to the flower in your hand (or garden) or a person in your heart. What do you see? What feelings or memories are present for you? And how can you take this feeling of reverence back into your daily life when you leave this service today?

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