God Comes Down Like Rain

This is a series of Advent reflections on a different word each day. The prompts are from Advent Word, an offering of Forward Movement, a ministry of the Episcopal Church.

Journey to the Manger – Rain

Rain falling on grass

Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord;
his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
like the spring rains that water the earth.

Hosea 6:3 (New Revised Standard Version)

It is a cool, gray day here in the hills of East Tennessee, a day heavy with the promise of rain, so today’s word is a timely one. Living in a region where the winter holiday season is more defined by rain than snow, I find rain to be quite an apt descriptor of the season of Advent. Apparently, I’m in good company because several authors of the Hebrew scriptures use rain showers as a metaphor to describe the coming of God.

Ah, a gentle cleansing rain shower …

Obviously, rain is water. Water is necessary for life; we can last for some time without food, but we can’t survive very long without water. We’ve heard a lot about water lately, more specifically the lack of clean drinking water in many places. Many parts of the world are experiencing drought conditions. People affected by these understand longing for relief all too well.

The prophet Malachi writes “But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” (Malachi 4:2a) As rain waters the parched earth and allows the fields to produce, God’s arrival among us brings joy, healing, reconciliation, and life. Those same rains can really shake things up, as we who live in storm-prone parts of the US well know.

… or maybe not

The “spring rains” Hosea speaks of can be a harrowing experience; damaging spring storms can leave us feeling uprooted, displaced, and wondering what happened. In a similar way, God’s appearance is often disturbing, causing sudden, radical change. The uniting of heaven and earth in the Incarnation brings a major paradigm shift. God comes down off the mountain and lives among us; now no longer only a transcendent and distant figure, God is intimately present.

An encounter with God deeply changes us, whether it is like the gentle rains that water the earth and provide sustenance for us or like the mighty storms that uproot everything in our lives. Zechariah’s, Elizabeth’s, Mary’s, and Joseph’s lives were changed when God suddenly appeared in their lives. Many of those whom we call “saints” were likewise radically changed after an encounter with God. The early followers of Jesu were said to have turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6). God’s entry into human existence changes everything!

Questions for Reflection

What does the idea of rain mean to you in the context of Advent?

How has an encounter with God changed you?

Have you experienced the presence of God as a gentle, healing rain?

Has an encounter with God felt like a storm that left you unsettled and feeling uprooted?

Creating a Sacred Space

OMGs! I’m supposed to have an altar?!?!

One of the positive effects of the COVID pandemic has been an increasing awareness among many religious folks of the need for developing a personal spiritual practice: daily prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, and so forth. One of the first questions many people who engage in a personal devotional or ritual practice ask is how to create a sacred space, more specifically, how to set up an altar. If you go online, you’ll find that there are as many ways to build an altar as there are people who use them for their spiritual practice. Orthodox Christians will often have a corner or cabinet in their homes filled with various icons, while Catholics may have a space dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary or a particular saint. For some Protestant Christians it may be a space set aside for daily Bible reading and prayer. For my mother it was always the living room sofa early in the morning before getting ready for work. Many neo-Pagan practitioners have a variety of altars or shrines dedicated to one deity or another or to their ancestors. While some people have a space dedicated to devotional practice, others will use the same chair they watch TV from. For some that space may be the car, bus, or train on the way to work; I’ve played recordings of morning prayer from various sources during my 30–45-minute drive to work on several occasions. The takeaway from this is that there is no one correct or proper way to do this, so if you’re getting hung up on “the rules” you can breathe easy and concentrate on finding something that works for you.

Some General Principles

What religion or tradition are you practicing?

This may seem obvious, but it bears thinking about. Are you practicing Gardnerian Wicca, Russian Orthodox Christianity, ADF Druidry? If that’s the case, those traditions may have very specific guidelines for setting up your altar and you should follow those. But what if your path isn’t as clear? What if your practicing eclectic witchcraft or, in my case, Christian Druidry? Following on that, what element is dominant in your religious practice? Are you an eclectic Witch with an emphasis on Alexandrian Wicca? Are you a Christian doing Druid things or a Druid doing Christian things? Taking some time to ponder this question may help clear up any confusion. In my case, I’m a Christian doing Druid things; to complicate things a little more, my Christianity is a mashup of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Celtic. What follows will be from this perspective since that is my experience and I cannot presume to speak for someone with a different experience.

Why do you want or need an altar?

When I first started exploring Wicca, I was tied up in knots when it came to doing rituals or magical workings. I was so scared of setting up my altar the wrong way or using the wrong color of candle or any number of things that I didn’t do anything for a long time. While decorated altars, candles, wands, athames, incense, and the like are great tools for focusing your prayer or ritual workings, you don’t need any of it. Everything you need is already within you. Don’t get so caught up in the external trappings that you don’t actually do anything. I’m a visually oriented and artistic person whose best experiences of church involved lots of color, symbols, as movement, so these things are important to me in my own practice. In fact, creating the physical space for my work is a key part of my practice. Other folks find all my stuff distracting. My partner actually commented that I have “way too much shit.” If you fall into that category and just having a quiet space is enough for you, then that’s all you need and you’re good to go. If you’re like me and find the visual aspect important, that’s great, too. In either case, please read on.

Where will you have your altar?

I have a room that I can set aside as a sacred space, but I’m aware that’s a luxury a lot of people don’t have. Regardless, here are some things to think about.

  • Is there a dedicated space for a permanent altar setup? This can be a table or cabinet in a corner, or a shelf in a bookcase?
  • If you live in a small place where space is at a premium, if you like to go out on a balcony or to a park, or if you travel a lot, you can create a “portable altar” by keeping a small box that is easy to carry around with you, a wooden box with a hinged top or a cigar box work well for this. It’s actually possible to use something as small as a mint tin or a small sewing notions box. If you’re crafty, you can use decoupage, paint, a wood-burning tool, etc. to personalize it. I keep a cloth, some LED candles, a small standing cross, a set of small icons, and a vial of holy water in mine.
  • It would be great if we lived in a society where everyone accepted everyone else unconditionally, but unfortunately that’s not the case. Maybe you live with others who might not understand or approve. I live in a hotbed of red-state fundamentalist evangelicals who are convinced that everyone who is not them is practicing devil worship, even other Christians. What they think of Druidry or witchcraft is pretty evident, so I understand the need to be somewhat careful with how open you can be. In that situation you might want a set up you can hide. This is easy to do by using a cabinet with doors or even a trunk or storage ottoman.

What’s important to you?

Everyone has different emphases for spiritual practice, even those who follow traditions with specific rules. When exploring what items to place on your altar, keep in mind those things most important to you.

  • Is devotion to a deity, saint, local spirit a priority in your practice? If so, you may want to place statues, drawings or paintings of and/or symbols associated with them on your altar. Some people have several altars, each dedicated to a different being or purpose.
  • If your altar has a devotional focus, you may want to think about using objects that help you focus your prayers and/or other offerings. Such objects might include candles, incense, water, journal, prayer book, bell or chimes, or a singing bowl.
  • Are there particular symbols that are symbolic of your faith? For example, Wiccans may want a pentacle, Druids an awen symbol, and Christians might want a cross of some sort.
  • Other items might include some sort of altar cloth and seasonal decorations or symbols. This can be anything and it’s fun to think outside the box. For altar cloths, I’ve used tablecloths, table runners, decorative towels, and placemats. Seasonal elements can include flowers and other plant material, a cornocopia in the fall, gnomes, Tarot cards or saint cards. Again, it’s fun to think outside the box and let your creative impulses run wild.

What’s the purpose?

Altars can be permanent with changes made according to season or they can be temporary, like a memorial altar to honor ancestors at Samhain or All Souls. They can be dedicated for a specific intention and dismantled when that intention is satisfied. If you’re setting up a space dedicated to praying and/or making offerings for a special intention, you might want to do a little research into colors, crystals, incenses, and so forth associated with that purpose.

What does this look like?

What follows are some photos of my space as it currently exists. These photos are from shortly before the Fall Equinox (Alban Elfed or Mabon).

My primary altar

This is my main indoor devotional altar, constructed on the top of a shelving unit with drawers that I use to store supplies. On the wall in the top center is an awen symbol I made using a grapevine wreath from a craft store and three feathers. Under the awen symbol is a Celtic cross. The four pictures are saints that are important to me. On the top left is Hildegard of Bingen, Holy Wisdom is on the top right. The lower left is occupied by an icon of my personal patron, St. Francis of Assisi. And on the lower right is a print of Brigid.

The centerpiece of the altar is a diptych of the Theotokos and Christ Pantokrator. An icon of the Holy Trinity sits to the right. That icon changes according to the season or occasion. My communion cup and plate are beside that. At the very front I have a vessel of holy water and a smaller bowl with salt, both symbols of purity. Other than a lot of candles (I may have a problem), there are seasonal decorations, in this case a cornucopia and a fall floral arrangement. I’m using a red tablecloth as an altar cloth. Not in the picture is a stand holding my prayer book and a Bible.

Directional Altars

The elements of Air, Fire, Water, and Earth are an important part of my spirituality and figure prominently in my devotions and rituals. Each element is associated with a direction – Air/East, Fire/South, Water/West, Earth/North. A quick search will reveal many concepts and objects that correspond to each element. My directional altars are small shelves I’ve hung on the walls in the four corners of my room and have at their center an icon of an Archangel surrounded by various symbols and objects I associate with that direction. [Disclaimer: I have the Archangels in different places than the “traditional” directions; basically, I swapped Raphael and Gabriel because their traditional placement doesn’t make sense to me.]


Starting in the East, this altar represents Air. Among other things, Air is the realm of communication. It also represents wisdom and intellect. At the center is an icon of the Archangel Gabriel, who most often shows up in the Bible delivering messages. I have a feather and several musical items: egg shakers, a tuning fork that belonged to an aunt, and various music-themed prints hanging on the wall around the shelf (including an image of St. Cecilia, patron of musicians).

I have a small owl figurine as a representation of the sacred hawk of dawn (because I found a hawk yet), the animal associated with the East in Revival Druidry. There is also a yellow-ish dragon, yellow being the color corresponding with Air and because I have a thing for dragons. I have a large singing bowl on a shelf in an adjacent bookcase.


Moving clockwise around the room, we come to the South, the realm of Fire. The Archangel Michael centers this altar. I have a representation of the Sun hanging above, an incense burner, two stones – citrine and sunstone, and a playful little lizard who never made it out to the garden this year. A red dragon and a stag, the Druid animal association, round out this altar.


Continuing on, we enter the realm of Water, the West. The Archangel Raphael, the healer, is here. In the West, Revival Druidry calls upon the Salmon of Wisdom who swims in the sacred pool. A glass fish and a fish windchime made by one of my aunts represent her. I have a couple of seashells, a piece of rose quartz, and a blue dragon. The moon lamp was not originally part of my plan for this space, but after thinking about it, it makes sense because the Moon is associated with inner working and intuition, both qualities of Water.


The North is the realm of Earth, watched over by the Archangel Uriel. Druid symbols include a couple of oak leaves, an antler, and a black bear figurine. There are also a couple of small stones and buckeyes, along with a green dragon. Hanging above the shelf is a pyrographic print of the Celtic Tree of Life. On a table underneath (not pictured) I have a small statue of Cernunnos and a print of the Green Man.

Some concluding thoughts

Sacred spaces are very personal, and there are myriad ways to construct one. The important thing is that your space, whether permanent, temporary, camouflaged or otherwise, works for you. There is no right or wrong way. What I’ve shared here is fairly elaborate, but I’ve only recently been able to do this. I used multi-function, camouflaged spaces and kept my supplies in a box in the closet or in a drawer for a long time. Experiment and play around. You’ll soon find out what works.

One final pic – my Nerd Shrine, just for fun. My collection of Star Wars, LOTR, and Harry Potter knick-knacks with Marvin the Martian front and center.

Bright blessings and may peace be with you!

Tarot for the Year

It’s 2022, and 2021 ended in a chaotic state with new, more contagious variants of the COVID-19 virus that has dominated our lives since early 2020. December 31, 2021 also brought the sad news that one of our most beloved celebrities, Betty White, died peacefully at the age of 99, far too soon for many of us. On a more personal front, I’m still dealing with a wounded foot that has been part of my life since mid-2019. I had surgery right after Christmas to remove a small bone that was putting pressure on the wound from inside, preventing it from healing. As a result, I’m bringing in the new year on the couch with my foot elevated. Perhaps the most disturbing thing is the weather. It’s January 1, and the temperature was in the mid-70s today. Tonight, we are under severe thunderstorm warnings and a tornado watch, when ordinarily we would be concerned with wind chills and the possibility of ice and snow.

Even with all that’s going on, and there’s a lot going on, I decided to spend part of today reflecting on the coming year. I don’t really do resolutions, but I do try to determine a direction for the year. For the past several years, I have used tarot to help me focus my thoughts and discern pattens of behavior and thinking that are helping or hindering me. I go about this in two ways: a Tarot card for the year (both universal and personal) and a more specific spread to explore ideas about the coming year.

The Year Cards

The year cards use the Major Arcana, the cards representing archetypal images and large-scale life events experienced by most people. The specific card is chosen by adding the individual numbers in the year for the universal card. For the personal card, add the number of the month and day of your birthday to the year.

Universal Year Card – VI. The Lovers

Rider-Waite-Smith Lovers Card

Love is in the air! The numbers in 2022 add up to 6, The Lovers in the Major Arcana. This card is all about relationships, communication, and heart, a generally positive card. This is a good time for relationship building. Theresa Reed at thetarotlady.com says, “If you are considering getting involved with someone for love or business, this is a hell yeah!” Of course, there’s also the chance that wedding bells may be ringing for you this year. Go with your heart!

My personal Card for 2022 – V. The Hierophant

Rider-Waite-Smith Hierophant Tarot Card

By adding the month and day of my birth to the year and doing the necessary reductions, I come up with the number 5, corresponding to the fifth card of the Major Arcana, The Hierophant. This card (to me, anyway) absolutely SCREAMS establishment, hierarchy, tradition. While many see these ideas as repressive, they also represent teachers, advisors, and counselors, as well as an established framework for working through issues. Maybe it’s time to turn to tradition and established rules, or maybe working with a teacher or a counselor is in order.

Follow Your Heart, but … Rules?

At first glance, these two cards seem to contradict each other, forcing a choice between one or the other because surely there’s no way to combine the two. Right? Well … for me, the two cards complement, not contradict, each other.

I have resisted following established traditions and practices because “I need to do what works for me.” Following my heart has taught me a lot, but it falls short when I need to address an issue and I don’t have the resources for it. In those times, I find comfort in established practices and approaches. This is true in all aspects of my life. So this year, the key for me is rooting myself and building a solid foundation, so that I can follow my heart.

The other aspect of my yearly divination addresses this in more detail. I did a seven-card spread with my year card, The Hierophant, as the starting point. More on this in the next installment, although I’ll tease you with a photo of the spread.

Bright Blessings and a happy, prosperous, and healthy New Year to you.

John Barleycorn Must Die!

There were three men came out of the West, Their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow John Barleycorn must die.

They’ve ploughed, they’ve sewn, they’ve harrowed him in, Threw clods at Barley’s head,
And these three men made a solemn vow John Barleycorn was dead.

They’ve let him lie for a very long time, Till the rains from heaven did fall,
And little Sir John sprung up his head, And so amazed them all.

They’ve let him stand till midsummer’s day, Till he looked both pale and worn,
And little Sir John’s grown a long, long beard, And so become a man.

They’ve hired men with the scythes so sharp, To cut him off at the knee,
They’ve rolled him and tied him by the waist, Servin’ him most barbarously.

They’ve hired men with the sharp pitchforks, Who pricked him to the heart,
And the loader he has served him worse than that, For he’s bound him to the cart

They’ve wheeled him around and around the field, Till they came unto a barn,
And there they made a solemn oath, On poor John Barleycorn.

They’ve hired men with the crab-tree sticks, To cut him skin from bone,
And the miller he has served him worse than that, For he’s ground him between two stones.

And little Sir John and the nut-brown bowl, And he’s brandy in the glass
And little Sir John and the nut-brown bowl, Proved the strongest man at last.

The huntsman, he can’t hunt the fox, Nor so loudly to blow his horn,
And the tinker he can’t mend kettle nor pots, Without a little Barleycorn.

(John Barleycorn Must Die, as performed by Traffic)

It’s the beginning of August, and here in East Tennessee, we’re experiencing what has become a typical summer with temperatures in the nineties and high humidity. On many of these hot, sticky afternoons we get treated to a brief, sometimes fierce thunderstorm. These afternoon storms cool things down for a brief time, but the heat and humidity are even more intense after the clouds break up. It’s also around this time that I start seeing posts on social media from friends sharing pictures of produce harvested from their gardens. The beginning of August has been associated with the early harvest, particularly grains, a staple of human diets since the introduction of agriculture.

There are many traditions associated with harvest, including thanksgiving celebrations throughout the fall. One song associated with the harvest is The Ballad of John Barleycorn, or John Barleycorn Must Die. The song has appeared in different forms over time, with the most famous being a version by Scottish poet Robert Burns, who is perhaps best known to us as the writer of Auld Lang Syne. In the song, John Barleycorn experiences horrific abuse at the hands of various tradesmen, eventually resulting in his death. The horrific treatment of John Barleycorn is a rather bloody allegory for the cycle of planting and harvest. For there to be a harvest the seed must be buried in the ground, else it remains only a seed. It never grows and is of no use to anyone. When the seed is buried, it grows and becomes food, drink, and any number of wonderful and useful products that help nourish and sustain us.

Not so hidden in the allegory is the idea of sacrificing oneself for the greater good. The idea of personal sacrifice, even to the point of physical deprivation and death is part of many religious traditions throughout history. These sacrifices lead to a rebirth of some type that carries some great benefit. Stories from many religions speak of a deity who actually dies, or suffers pain and loss, and is reborn. We have Osiris from Egypt, Dionysus/Bacchus from Greek and Roman mythology, Odin from Norse legends, Siddhartha from India, and many others. Most familiar to modern Americans, Christian or otherwise, is undoubtedly the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus in the gospels.

In John’s gospel, Jesus uses the agricultural metaphor to describe his own approaching death:

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. John 12:24

Jesus even uses wheat and grapes to describe his body and blood as a sacrifice, expressed in the Christian Eucharist. Though not as graphic as The Ballad of John Barleycorn, Jesus’ declaration expresses the same idea: that a personal sacrifice is necessary. Though this verse from St. John is not at all painful, we know that Jesus experienced incredible levels of abuse, physical pain, and humiliation before he was ever nailed to the cross, just like poor John. In fact, Robert Burns’ version of the ballad turns John into an almost Christ-like figure. And, like Jesus, John Barleycorn triumphs in the end.

Sacrifice is a necessary part of living, and sometimes sacrifice involves suffering. In order to have a functioning society, we sometimes need to sacrifice our individual desires for the good of the community. It’s this last idea that seems to be disappearing from our society. American life has become characterized by selfishness disguised as personal freedom. We are threatened by the idea that we need to accommodate other people, especially those who look, think, act, worship, and love differently. We’ve become a society where each individual is a law unto themselves, where being asked to sublimate our own desires in favor of the common good is anathema. The events of the past few years have made it abundantly clear that many of us are completely comfortable with throwing out the Golden Rule and turning Jesus into some kind of weird god of nationalism, wealth, and power, willfully ignoring Jesus’  teachings of love of God and neighbor.

Regardless of your beliefs, our current mode of behavior isn’t sustainable. Community cannot exist when everyone is out for themselves. What would society look like if we followed the advice of the prophet Micah? What if we truly did justice, loved mercy, and walked humbly? (cf. Micah 6:8) What if we really loved God with all our being, and our neighbors as ourselves? I suspect it would be radically different than what we’re living now.

Lughnasadh 2020

Sing the World Whole Again

It’s been almost a year since I’ve posted anything. It’s probably time to get back to it. I’ve had a lot going on, most of it good stuff, that I hope to write about.

On June 10, I had the privilege of offering a reflection and prayer at the Interfaith Pride Service in Knoxville. Beginning with the songs, How Could Anyone and How Can I Keep From Singing, we explored our fear and our sadness because of how our society demeans those of us who don’t fit some perceived normality. Sadness soon turned to determination as Juniper Stinnett, Youth Coordinator at TVUUC sang an original song asserting our right to be who we are. That was immediately followed by members of the Knoxville Gay Men’s Chorus singing Not My Father’s Son, from the musical Kinky Boots, detailing one character’s journey to breaking free of his father’s expectations, finally being free “just to be me.”

One young person spoke of the day in 2008 that a man walked into TVUUC and started shooting, and how that experience has shaped her life up to this point. Another young person spoke about finding love in a UU church community after giving up on finding acceptance in a religious setting. My reflection was on how the four elements of Air, Earth, Fire, and Water can inspire and empower us.

Following a beautiful ritual where everyone exchanged flowers as a sign of hope, the choir sang We Will Sing the World Whole Again by Mark Burrows (listen to it here). The piece starts out with individual singers speaking hurtful phrases that many of us have heard. “You aren’t welcome here!” “You’re going to burn in hell!” “You’re an abomination!” “Don’t break the law and you won’t be punished/have your children taken away!” Just when it seems this cacophony of hate is going to triumph, we hear an individual voice: “We will sing,” gradually joined by the rest of the chorus until the hateful words are silenced. The refrain is We will rise from the senseless pain and violence. Fear will fail and love will win. And a new song will echo in the silence. We will sing the world whole again.”

A tenet of my spirituality is that our words have power, and that speaking something brings it about. That’s why we sing about answering the call of love, and defiantly shout “Love has already won!” We proclaim in song that “War is over, if you want it,” not because we have moved past war, but because that is the world we want to bring about. We boldly state, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes” because we are called to realize Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of Beloved Community.

We sing to make the world whole again.

Bright Blessings!6DF87F78-46B7-4EDD-84E3-DF41F3A0A784

Everything Is Holy Now

Sunset at Norris Dam (Norris, TN)This month, the Unitarian Universalist congregation I serve as Music director has been exploring the idea of embodiment. We’ve talked about sex, tattoos, body art, and birth and death. This Sunday, we’ll explore the many ways we think of healing. One idea that I have come to appreciate over the past few years is the thought that we embody the divine, that the holy is not something “out there,” but rather within us and expressed by us. We often speak of our sanctuary being made holy by our presence, and a pivotal part of our weekly worship is creating sacred space through the physical mundane acts of candle lighting, writing, blowing bubbles, coloring, and moving around the room. The greeting, Namaste, is an acknowledgement of the divine present within the person being greeted, an idea echoed in some Christian circles as, “The Christ in me greets the Christ in thee.” (For some reason, I associate this one with John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.)

A song that has become a favorite of mine is Peter Mayer’s Holy Now. The lyrics chronicle a journey from the divine being separate from us, somewhere distant and other, to a realization that everything is holy, even the air we move through every moment. The song moves us from “a world half there” to swimming in a sea of the divine.
Viewing everything as having a bit of the divine spark changes our relationships with the world and everyone and everything in it. If the same divinity present in me pervades all I perceive, holding onto hatred becomes self-defeating. If we acknowledge the divine, in part, as “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” we come to the realization that those people we most despise (including certain politicians and former online “news” editors) share a connection with us, and instead of hating them and hoping for their failure, we look for ways to interact with them constructively. This is definitely not the past of least resistance. In fact, I believe it’s our greatest spiritual challenge.
I invite you to take some time to find that divine spark, beginning with yourself, then branching out. I recommend the recent remake of Cosmos, with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, if you need a starting place. It’s available on Netflix. Also, give Holy Now a listen. Here’s a link: https://youtu.be/KiypaURysz4.