And just like that...here we are....
It is Sunday afternoon and I am sitting on the couch, watching a youtube video of a dog sleeping in front of a fire. The dog looks pretty darn content in their massive bed that features a prominent LL Bean logo, so I can only assume it is an advertisement for dog beds, and LL Bean in general. Thanks algorithm! We got a puppy the day before Thanksgiving Sunday (which is the Sunday before Thanksgiving if you are in church) and I have been looking up vids to help her get settled. The dog on the video is some kind of labrador retriever. The puppy is half-lab. Maybe she will take some lying down lessons...
Of course it isn't Thanksgiving anymore. Advent started this very day! I have to say that it took me a bit by surprise this year. We had that extra Sunday--November 26--which our church went ahead and cancelled. However, I didn't rest exactly. There was that puppy,...and work...and the usual drama of life that left me almost completely unaware of the looming crisis of December holidays.
What snapped me out of it was an invitation to a party on December 1. This important date is, of course, the beginning of secular Advent. We mark the first of December by opening the first door on our calendars to get our daily chocolate or scotch, or whatever the person who gives us the calendars chose this year. Anyway, a clergy friend held a party on December 1 to kick things off and I had to bring something. This meant that--between dog walks--I was forced to turn on the Christmas music and make my first fruitcake of the season. This bake included the very last of the cranberry compote from Thanksgiving dinner. The loaf I saved and "tested" for the party was pretty OK. I hope people liked the other one.
I don't have much to say about the holiday today. However, I wanted to check in. Advent is one of my favorite times of year and I try to give it the respect it deserves by not lurching directly to Christmas. It is ironic, but being a church person means less Christmas, not more. I like it that way. It keeps everything in its time.
That said I have some Advent "gifts" for you. Don't get excited! They are all virtual. Also, it includes the "Yule Dog" which I didn't make and don't really endorse in any meaningful sense.
So here is the link to my "fruitcake" recipe. I use it every year and give them away as much as possible. Then I stop when I feel like it. That moment usually arrives before Epiphany. Also, below you will find my "Advent prayer" from this morning. It is really kind of a meditation, but whatever. We had our annual sanctuary lighting today--which involves lots of readings and open flame--then we had communion. The meditation here closed communion, which was fine.
So the video of the dog by the fire continues. While I was writing this, the bottom half of a person came in with a classy LL Bean log-carrier, stoked the fire, and returned to pet the dog and drop off their snowy boots. The boots, of course, are those super-ugly-and-uncomfortable "Bean Boots" that were the bane of my childhood. I bet the dog is named after the Chesapeake Bay. I remember lots of "Chessies" growing up. This is the sort of set-up they would like. It kinda makes me wish I had a fireplace...and a scratchy wool blanket...and that it was snowing.
OMG! The "dog owner" is back wearing LL Bean slippers and stoking the fire with a bespoke fire poker! This is about as much excitement as I can handle on a Sunday afternoon in the rain.
Anyway, here is the prayer. I need to walk my dog, who is named after a mountain in New Hampshire, which is totally different from being named after a bay in Maryland...
Advent Prayer 2023
It doesn't start with a star
It doesn't start with hallelujahs
It starts with stumbling through
It starts all too frequently with loss
the rocky road to nothing
Then we begin
with a moment of desperation
on our knees
With crying out and wondering if
if our cries will be heard at all
And then it starts
with the hands that lift us up
brush us off
feed us, even, and walk us into the day
We may be too tired to notice
these hands but
they are there
Each caring hand
the hand of God and
the human hands
of human hope
We shudder to turn these hands to violence
We resist using them
for selfish ends
Advent does not begin with a star
or an angel
or a hymn
but begins with us
in communion with humanity
Advent begins as stillness
In the chaos and
then the stillness grows
This morning I started my pies. You probably know why. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and there is lots to do. We have hosted for years and--as the primary-but-no-longer-sole cook--I have a system. With certain exceptions, the preparation for the meal goes in reverse order of consumption, which means desert first.
Anyway, my son--who will be ultimately responsible for this dish--brought home a splendid butternut squash and some sweet potatoes from the farm where he works. My task this morning was to reduce them to a puree for later assembly. I have the Christmas music on. It's somebody's attempt to reconstruct the Grant's Department Store albums on Spotify. I am mindful of the peeling and the roasting. I am making a list of things we forgot to get in the first (and second and third) run to the grocery store. Johnny Mathis is singing O Holy Night. I am inhabiting the holidays...yet I am also not.
I am not entirely feeling festive this year. You see, it is a dark time in the world and it seems weird in some way to be grateful when so much is going to Hell in a hand basket. The holidays are like that. Even in times that seem somewhat better than this one, there is conflict. There is pain. There is the fact that not everything works out the way we would hope.
Thanksgiving was the big holiday in my family of origin. It is built into me to be a "Thanksgiving person" like some are "Christmas People" or Halloween people". It is my personal high holy day, regardless of the ambiguity. It was also something we faced with seriousness and intention every year. Christmas and other holidays were an afterthought compared to Thanksgiving. There certainly was a good way to celebrate it which, of course, was our way.
As a child visiting my grandparents, every year the various activities were exactly the same as the year before. My grandfather, who fought in the Second World War and spent two years in a German prison camp, made sure that it all went off with precision. The morning started with farm-chores. Then there was the obligatory family football game. Then we would get all dressed up--we boys wore blazers and ties--and filed into the large dining room that was only used for special days. Then we would sit in our assigned seats. Each seat was the same each year unless a new addition set the chart in disarray. The food...it was the same to. There was never a variation to the menu, from the enormous turkey that my aunt and mother would cook to the tomato aspic they let my grandmother prepare so that she would stay out of the way.
It was–-and still is…if somewhat reformed–-a ritualistic day leading toward a ritual meal. It is, for many people,
like a Communion Sunday at church. Like at church, there is an element of worshipfulness. There is the air of the sacred though we may not know why. Nan Merrill, who is one of my favorite liturgical poets, writes in her Mandalas and Meditations, "Who will open their hearts to the/blessings of love? Who will surrender their lives/to be guided by the spirit? Who will invite the Most Holy into/the heart's abode? These are the sorts of question we ask ourselves, or we are encouraged to ask during this season. Regardless of what holiday floats our boat, when the moment comes, we try to turn away from our regular tasks and challenges. Our goal is to love and be loved; to let in "the Divine" whatever that means to us.
Of course, when we look up from our mundane activities, we don't really let them go entirely. We are human beings, and we make sense of our world through stories. Some of these stories are small and personal. Others are set in the larger context of society or the environment. However, each story comes with its ups and downs. Each story comes with risks. The reason is simple. Stories have different interpretations and different points of view, so conflict is inevitable for most of us during this time. The classic is the Thanksgiving table battle with Uncle Bert or whatever. Realistically, it can happen at any time when we are trying so hard to get along.
In fact, when I look back fondly on those childhood holidays with my grandparents, I wonder if their regimented nature had something to do with those differences of opinion. Time, distance, and marriage had set every faction in our extended family on different trajectories. My funky northern liberal parents didn't always strike the right chord as some of the more staid and conservative--and also beloved--relations. The same could be said going the other way. Again, we were trying but sometimes we were also trying if you get my drift.
Now, my family is not atypical. These experiences of real conflict and tension tempt us every year. After all, everyone knows what is going on as we gather around the table. This year there are wars in Ukraine and the middle east that have generated strong opinions and feelings. They have had repercussions for many people at home with the rise of antisemitism and hatred of Muslims. There is hunger and fear outside the walls of our relatively tidy holiday-houses as well. The gap between rich and poor grows. Our own democratic institutions seem weaker than at any time in our memory. There are a plethora of personal battles being fought within each of us every day. In other words, there are storms brewing. We shouldn’t be surprised when the chaos slips on into our carefully created rituals of the season.
Which means that each year we attempt to hold these things--the good and the bad--in tension. At least we should do this, in our own way. Otherwise our gratitude is empty. There is darkness that needs acknowledgement for Thanksgiving to make any sense. When we think of a time where gratitude abounds, we consider the unambiguously happy moments, like weddings. However, we also think of funerals. I have officiated a number of them lately. There by the graveside we struggle to hold on to a memory. Still, we also tell a story of gratitude in the midst of sadness and unfinished business. It is in these moments where we hold things in the balance. It is in these moments when we are being the most authentic humans we can be.
Now, there is actually a way to celebrate what we have and to mourn what is missing at the same time. It takes courage, like so many things, but it's worth trying. An act of thanks in a time of oppression and evil--in a time of crises and conflict--is an act of resistance. It is a moment where we contemplate the vastness and decide that "the Man"--those principalities and powers of our society--isn't going to get us this time. We are stating that in the midst of struggles--whatever they may be--we will be broad-minded and open-hearted against the forces of fearful self-interest.
There is strength in looking at the vastness. There is strength in prayer, which is really what we are talking about.
There is strength in understanding our role as part of the ecosystem writ large. This practice encourages us to set aside our own issues. Nan Merrill's translation of Psalm 146 tell us to "Put not your trust in riches, in illusory things that fade away. For when our day comes to depart this world, at that very time, we carry only the love imprinted on our soul." That is what all this holiday-making--all this risk taking--is about.
Or, at least, that is the goal. It requires some practice. It also requires some higher order thinking to say “yes, I am grateful…but”. We are grateful but…not all is right in the world. Not all is right in our lives. We are grateful but…when we look over this broken earth, the blessings are imbalanced. Though we may be pleased with what we have, we see that there is work to be done.
This “yes, but” is as much a “yes and” approach familiar to anyone who has ever done improv. For in our gratitude, we are motivated to action. This is an essential element of the move, actually. So many people want to escape during the holidays. So many center their own narrative and miss the opportunity to reach out. Thanksgiving in particular is susceptible to this. As is perhaps inevitable in a secular holiday with a religious theme, our “attitude of gratitude” has too often been an act of self-congratulation masquerading as humility.
For example, as children we learned the holiday’s creation myth--all that stuff about the Pilgrims and the Native-Americans gathering together in peace--as history. At best it is a white-washed mashup of complex events in the midst of a clash of cultures. That “First Thanksgiving” myth was--and still is--used to prop a distinctly American theology. It is used to privilege and elevate the story of European Americans and legitimate colonialism in the so-called “New” World. Now, theoretically, we know better. Still, we feel the impact of this story and of how we learned it every day.
Here is another example. It is also hard not to veer into self-congratulation in a celebration of the ability to lay out a table of more food than we can eat. When we do this, we are celebrating our riches in gratitude for a harvest that we did not bring about. We celebrate our ability to store up food for a winter that–thanks to the trappings of our suburban society–will not be a time of scarcity for most of us, after all.
We don’t want to be like that. We also know that we don’t have to be. There is a way--through honest prayer--to be grateful and still acknowledge the depth of pain in the world, in our bodies, and in our hearts. There is a way to atone, somewhat, and commit to the struggle. There is a way to bring about a better life and a better world that we can celebrate next holiday season.
Every year I share a prayer by Theodore Parker with the church. It is called "Trials". It may not be the best prayer ever–At least artistically–but it is an authentic one. Parker was a transcendentalist,
and a Unitarian minister who was ostracized by his fellow Unitarian clergy because of his radicalism. He had personal struggles, too. Many of those struggles had to do with his health. He died young at 50 years of age, right before the Civil War.
In this prayer he mixed his gratefulness with the reality of his situation, facing imperfection and acknowledging responsibility. In it he speaks into where he feels he has failed. He notes the suffering he has endured but…he still ends in thanks. He still finds reasons for gratitude.
For all the trials of my earlier day
I thank thee that they all have been
That darkness lay about the rugged way
Which I must tread alone. For all I’ve seen
Of disappointment, sorrow, pain, and loss
I thank thee for them all. And did I sin,
I grieve not I’ve been tried; for e’en the cross
Of penitience has taught me how to win.
Yet of ills as child or man I’ve borne--
My hopes laid waste, or friends sent off by death,--
Remorse has most of all my boson torn
For time misspent ill deeds or evil breath.
But yet, for every grief my heart has worn,
God I thank thee still, trusting with a hearty faith.
So that is where we are this year. In a world of trouble and pain. We live in a world in need of our humility and our strength. We live in a world in need of our joy and our gratitude. We need to give these things even in the face of all that has happened and all that will happen in the quest for the just and peaceful Kin-dom.
Today, I am done with the squash. I have the turducken almost thawed out. I am making plans in future days to eat both of these dishes and more besides until they are gone. We will not wear ties to dinner tomorrow. Things will be more casual. Maybe--for a little while--we might talk about religion and politics until we can't deal anymore. Then next week, having been grateful for the many things we should be grateful for and having acknowledged the hard truths--or as many as we can--we will turn back to the dream of making a better world. After all, we will have Advent to remind us, right?
May we see the imperfect world and resist despair by giving thanks for the victories, the love, and the tools for the new journey that empower us to good work and enable us to move forward once again.
I spent a couple hours today cleaning out the church office. I organize in piles. I like to be able to lay eyes on all my stuff--papers, liturgical gear, easels and so on--so I know where everything is, and I do not forget certain items exist. My favorite tool in this way is a bookshelf. The titles are on the spine. After a period of repeated use, I know the color and size of each book well enough that I don't need categories to find them again. An open shelf is a horizonal pile. I love them.
However, this piling doesn't work quite as easily at work. There just aren't enough shelves. Also, I am not one of those ministers with a spacious private office to retreat to. I have a desk in the corner of the shared workspace, but I haven't sat at it since before the pandemic. The way we work has changed. The church office is no longer a buzz of activity. Over time, piles--vertical ones--have taken over the desk. In this case they were piles I didn't really need.
Anyway, I got to cleaning my desk along with the stacks on the floor and the other two desks that share the space. One of the desks is for an intern if we ever have one again. The other is for a church administrator. After the departure of our beloved admin Felicia, we need a new one of those as well. Since it has just been me in the office--along with drop-ins from lay leaders--all surfaces are about the piles.
Cleaning isn't easy for me. As I went through the stacks of paper, I found references to old ministries that are no more. We used to have an active youth group. We had a D&D group for kids. We had multiple Christmas Eve services, plays-in-worship, fall fairs, rummage sales, and casual hangouts after worship at a local bar. Some of these things are long gone. Some need attention and could be revived. In any case they are memories. I greet them with panic, nostalgia, and sometimes regret.
Most of the regret, though, is saved for failures. Not all programs had long runs we can look back on with pleasure. There are as many false starts in the piles. Usually, they are things I thought might have potential. However, they fizzled out. Usually there was a marked lack of energy or interest. I don't blame others, but I do blame myself sometimes. I ask myself if Maybe I pitched it in a different way I could somehow have made them more compelling.
At home the attic and the basement are filled with things like this. There are plenty of problematic reminders. When I survey the boxes in the corners of the house, I see happy things...sometimes. However, most happy things aren't shoved away from sight. Just as often I see signs of old failures, conflicts, and dark times. We carry that stuff around, particularly when others see the same moment in a more positive light. I ask myself if this is this the day I rent the dumpster and start chucking things out. Maybe it is just another day I can't deal.
I know of plenty of people who say they aren't like this. They claim to move through life without attachments. Memories and garbage are in the past and they are unaffected or forgetful. Good for them, I guess. When I walk through life, I know there are many paths we can take. We hit the crossroads and we pick our way through the choices. Sometimes we luck out and sometimes we do not. Just as in any walk, the path can be hard. The goals can be elusive or disappointing. Yes, the story of the struggle and what we learned may give us strength for the next journey. That said, things may have sucked and we have the right to remember that as well.
Perhaps others don't wonder about the roads we turned from, but I do. Just maybe you do, too. In our lives we pick things up, or they stick to us. We can reach our destination covered in common burdocks or--even worse--ticks. Maybe you know the stress of old detritus. We carry it farther than we should.
So back to the cleaning, if we can manage it. In the fall I think of the rebirths to come in the spring. That potential rebirth drives us to go through the piles. We need to prepare the ground for the next crop. A clear desk gets us on to the next job. Man, though, it is work, isn't it? We don't just become a new person. We don't just rise one day clean and unburdened. Before the resurrection there is a bottleneck, we must find a way to squeeze through. If you are doing this work, I see you. I hope you have someone helping you carry the load. There are moments when we need someone or something to give us a push or a yank.
I sat at my desk today and looked out the window for the first time in a long time. It was nice to bask in the November light for a moment, watch the traffic go by, drink my coffee, and read an old copy of the Christmas Pageant from long ago. Maybe there are some good dreams in the future. Maybe there is more cleaning to do before Advent. Maybe there will be emptying in winter to make room for something new. Maybe we lay down some burdens for the new thing. We shall see.
I hope you all fill your dumpster this year. Let's make a pact to get the garbage out. Cleaning is tough work to do by yourself.
A couple months ago I had to admit that my sabbatical is over. All the signs are there. I am not zipping off to go climb mountains. I am not writing for my own enjoyment. I am not in some expensive training. I haven't made a video in some time--though I did experiment with Tik-Tok and might go back...I guess.
Mostly it is work now. Church work is good work, of course, and I love being a pastor. Still...my energy is going into that work instead of where I have put it for discreet blocks of my time over the past year. Now it is going into programs and preaching prep. It is going into integrating what I have learned about myself and about the ministry. Honestly the spare time that I could use for writing is spent staring out the window or watching TV. My brain is full. It needs time to digest.
Still, things did happen over the summer. There was a great deal of hiking in July. It was carefully scheduled and arranged between floods and rain. Some of the hikes were epic and grand. Others were pedestrian and brief...but better than being indoors. Allison finished her NH 48 4,000 footers in July...and I have only one left. I will say that I didn't do much filming on those hikes. Again, my brain is full enough and I just wanted to experience them. I didn't even really take many pictures.
August--thanks to rain, work, and family commitments--did not center around the trail. We did take a road trip, though. We went back out to the Midwest where we moved after college so that I could go to seminary. The seminary was in Chicago, where I got my Master of Divinity and later my Doctor of Ministry degrees. It is also where Al decided to become a social worker.
That isn't where we went on this trip. We went to Detroit and its environs, where I interned long ago. The reason was to participate in my friend Shane Montoya's installation at the Congregational Church of Birmingham. The area has changed over the last 20 years, for good and for ill. It was, however, wonderful to see friends and to inhabit old haunts where we once belonged a lifetime ago. In between we hung out with my farthest flung brother and sister-in-law with stops in State College PA both heading out and heading back. Then to Newport and New Bedford to see our eldest who lives and farms on the south coast. Life does, indeed go on.
Now we are back. I am getting back to church and preparing for the big fall opening as I have for two decades at Eliot Church and half a decade elsewhere before that. However, it is hitting differently this time around. I have become a creature of habit. I hit the gym more than I did before. I still get out on walks whenever I can. My garden is the best it has ever been.
Every day there is a project. I harvest, plant, and re-pot frequently. Occasionally I mend things. This is new. I have never been a handy person. Now I sometimes repair, re-string and play cheap instruments at the shed table where I take care of garden needs.
The church has a great deal to figure out. I do too. Not the least of these "figuring" has to do with this Sabbath Walks blog. I do not know what it will become. I have many potential posts, though...if I can find the time. Some are about hiking. Some about the garden. Some are about the spiritual life. Some about folk music. I guess we shall see won't we? I have to do some emptying first.
Hiked on May 28, 2023
We were dreading this one a bit. Owl's Head Mountain is on New Hampshire's "48 4,000 footers" list. To climb it you must walk nine miles into the forest and then turn back around. The views are scant. The footing is just OK. Also--since some of the trails are unmaintained--there is the possibility to get turned around or lost. It is an exercise in perseverance. It is a test of your physical endurance and your ability to move about in the forest. The reward is...well...you get to bag the peak.
For me, this hike came at a moment of transition. I know I talk about this elsewhere, but I have a great deal going on. Much of it is life-stage stuff. Our eldest is in the process of moving out. Middle Son--who was the subject of many unschooling posts in my previous weblog--graduated from college the day before Owl's Head. Our youngest was in Kentucky competing in high school debate nationals. Also, there are vocational concerns for me. My rapidly-ending sabbatical has been about transitions. What will happen to the church in general? What will happen to the church I serve? In spite of plenty of thought and study...I don't know.
Anyway, what a great time for a walk in the woods. Nature, too, is in flux. Even without the brutal destruction of ecosystems. Change is in its nature when left alone. Out in the "wilderness" we can look around and see that living things grow, live their assigned cycle, and die.
The natural world reminds us that we are a part of it. We are presented with the fact that the continuous transition we witness and experience comes from being part of a whole vast organism. Our failing is when we lose track of this organism and start believe that we--the constituent parts--are the beginning and the ending.
This hike was hard. When we got back, my legs--relieved at having to walk no more--cramped up for a solid 30 minutes. Sometimes you choose a high degree of difficulty because the the challenge reminds you that you can do hard things. By doing these things in isolation--away from the high stakes areas of love and regular life--we can get the practice we need. We can develop the confidence that perseverance and problem solving bring. We can look back and recognize that--while no true mountain is the hardest mountain we climbed--we did the deed. We realize we can keep going on with hope even when we do not know the way.
That was Owl's Head. It was a reminder that we are part of something much greater than ourselves. It was a reminder that--in this time or trail--I (we) can push on to whatever comes next. In the video we get lost and I lose track of time. However, I am glad we did it. I will be thinking about walking through that epic tree tunnel long after specific views on prettier, easier hikes are forgotten.
This past month has been a working sabbatical. Most of the the time has been built around discernment, both for myself and for the church. It has been about programming, training, and "next steps" in the constantly changing landscape of church and ministry. I will not lie. It has been stressful at times. Who knows, really, what will come next?
During this time I have been expanding my outreach options. I revived my podcast; removing it from its old location and resettling it on the same platform with a few more "bells and whistles" that are probably not noticeable to the casual listener. I also began making more complicated and longer-running Youtube videos. Both the podcast and the videos are on the "Sabbath Walks" theme.
There are a number of reasons to do this and it is probably worth taking a moment to let you know what those reasons are. So, for convenience and clarity, here they are...with headings.
Personal: The fact is, I like the process of filming and editing. I like interviewing people as well. As with other things I enjoy--like walking or preaching--the activity takes me outside myself. It forces me to concentrate and create. There is a problem to solve and a clear product at the end. Other than worship, much of my work life is set around things with no beginning or ending. That is the way of nurturing community. I know this, but sometimes it is nice to make something.
Also, these particular activities help me to mark a particular moment in the life I share with others. There is a great deal going on both at work and at home. We are all in the process of changing and growing. While I sat and edited the long "Seed Starting" video--I have learned something about the editing process since--my youngest told me that these will be nice to have and look back on. After all, life moves forward. Maybe the slow pace of videos on gardening and hiking will be important to us when we are at a different phase.
Professional: This process obviously impacts my professional life. These skills are not what they taught me in seminary! Back then we were preparing for the 20th Century church. We even paused every once in a while to look back to the 19th Century with its battles both intellectual and literal. I remember being vaguely discontented much of the time. We were prepared for a world that was already over, but people didn't really believe it.
These are different 21st Century skills. There are plenty of areas for growth as we realize some of the "old ways" left the stage a while ago. In this case, I am learning about sound, picture, lighting, and technology. Also, I am learning different ways to put together a story. Since the life of a clergyperson has a lot to do with living into and interpreting stories--personal and scriptural--this is no small thing. We can become stagnant, after all. The new techniques and new lenses have influenced how I use the many remaining familiar tools of my trade.
Congregational: This interest of mine is not new. I have had some kind of weblog for decades. I have made YouTube videos for years. Most of these were of sermons or the performance of various iterations of our music ministry. If you want to know who took this work seriously, just look at who is in the music vids. Otherwise it seemed that most people thought of this as a "hobby" that detracted from more sober activities.
Then March of 2020 occurred. On March 11 we decided to cancel in person church for March 15 of that year. Yep. That first online-only worship service was exactly three years ago today.
Things changed then, didn't they? Our little side-ministry gave us the ability as well as the confidence to pivot immediately. It took us minutes to form the plan that became the foundations--or the spine, or the trunk--of church life for the next 18 months. Within a couple days we had our first service "in the can" and ready to go live that Sunday morning.
We kept learning through that period, but we did not scramble. We didn't need to. Now we have moved back to "normal" and it is easy to forget what we did.
However, we should not forget. It was our finest hour.
These podcasts, videos, and blog posts are insurance against another time where we need them. Yet they are more than that. They are an imperfect window into what will come next. Increasingly, in fact, we will find that spiritual seekers will start their quest online rather than in person. These interactive technological tidbits are our front door.
Spiritual: Yes, I am doing this for spiritual reasons, too. Partly the needs are my own. However, I believe that the sharing of my own quest and questions helps to enrich a ministry. Each "platform" connects to the others in order to form a whole:
In person worship feeds our souls in real time and brings us together as a community in ways that are just not possible otherwise. Our services and events are designed to create both formal and informal settings to gather, to explore life's questions, and just to hang out without the demands of a busy world.
The Sabbath Walks Podcasts are designed to augment this experience. Most of them are under half an hour long. The goal is to put them on headphones or a speaker in order to connect once again to the spiritual element of life. We can take time for these topics while driving to work, or cleaning the house, or (even) hiking or walking around town.
While The Sabbath Walks YouTube videos are relatively new, this technology has always been a popular extra for us. We used to share the musical performances quite a bit in the before times. Most of them did double duty as hymns during the plague. We reached the peak with weekly worship. Now I am trying out some other topics and styles. Each is an attempt, though, to reach out and show how the spiritual interacts with our everyday existence.
Finally, we are steering our way toward workshops and walks. These will be--and have been--in person. There are many ways to worship and be worshipful. The "future church" whatever it may be, will need all the ways we can muster.
That is all for now. Feel free to explore the links to our online resources. In the next few days I will try to curate them a bit for another post here. I have no illusion as to how often they now are or ultimately will be visited. The various counters and measuring sticks tell me that even when they get "liked" in a Facebook post, they aren't always interacted with.
They are there, however, for when you need them. Perhaps that isn't today. Just remember that they might help you out some time. The Sabbath Walk isn't just for Sunday, after all.
This blog is mostly about hiking. Other posts here are about gardening, music and tabletop roleplaying games. It is about "Sabbath Walks." By this I mean it is about finding ways to consciously involve the spiritual in what sustains us outside of the regular paths we occupy. It comes from an urge to find ways to form dialogues with the transcendent outside of what we think of as the "traditional" institutional ways. I think we often get lost when we try to do this alone. We want to have a spiritual life. We want that level of meaning in our lives. That, however, is hard to do. The topic isn't valued, after all. The sea we swim in every day is about money; who has it...who doesn't...how we make it...and how we make it for other people.
The Man wants us to work until we think that is all there is. It wants us to identify with how we make money over the other facets of our lives. This makes that spiritual dialogue a challenge. Also, I maintain, the Man does not want us doing these things in a community of faith. This has left congregations with a choice. Synagogues, mosques, and churches can be either counter cultural (pointing to a richer identity for humanity that includes a just and inclusive vision of the future) or co-opted (keeping people docile and in the place "society" has chosen for them).
I bring this up because I am a preacher by trade. Readers know this because I don't make it a secret. It is how I make my money and it is how I fight the Man. I am Team Counter Culture. However, I do not make church-stuff explicit here often because the co-opted faith is what most people know. I do not want my affiliations to get in the way of people's path here. People have ideas about religion; some gained by hard experience. I know that we can seem manipulative, judgmental, or just silly. However, I am trying hard not to be any of those things. I want what I write and talk about at Sabbath Walks to be taken seriously with openness as much as it can be.
All this is to say that I am breaking my rule--for a moment--to share this sermon about worship in the church.
This year I am off and on sabbatical and so is the church. We are thinking about what we can do to adjust to the post-modern world around us. To this end the Eliot Church, which I serve, asked for a prose copy of this sermon about a very churchy topic. If it is your bag please take a moment to read it. I will post some links at the end for further context. If you aren't into it, then you can move on judgement-free.
The Quiet Mystery
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot
February 12, 2023
to infant light
before the cross, the tomb
and the new life –Denise Levertov
So, it turns out that human beings haven’t really changed all that much over the centuries. We still find our inspiration both inside and outside the temple of tradition. In our reading today from Luke Chapter 2, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem; the holiest of holy places in their world. They took him there for the rituals of purification for Mary and circumcision for Jesus.
They brought two turtledoves with them as an offering, just like in the famous Christmas carol. However, before they could make the offering, Simeon and Anna–Important religious figures in their own right; folk prophets, if you will–do a bit of an end run around the religious authorities. They provide their own blessings for the child
Then…Mary and Joseph still head inside to make it “official”
In spite of all they had witnessed–The angels, Zechariah being struck mute, the star in the sky summoning the magi, the shepherds' amazing stories, and even the presence of these two freelancers on the temple grounds–in spite of all the assurances that their child was unique and special, they still swung in to get the blessing done by the priests on duty before heading back to Nazareth. Perhaps cousin Zechariah himself was there performing the priestly duties, we don’t know.
Now, this phenomenon still happens from time to time. It even happens in our small “low protestant” church. We get inquiries for weddings. We get requests for baptisms and child dedications, too. We host or perform memorial services both here and by the grave for good people who do not claim to "believe" whatever it is they perceive us as believing.
Now, they are usually wrong about what we stand for. The truth is, they don't really care all that much, anyway because they are not looking for community in the long term. However, they are looking for meaning…in our church. At least in the one specific instance that brought them to us; the specific instance of birth or death or marriage.
They come to us because the Eliot Church building is a place that tradition has set aside for finding that meaning. They are not seeking a church nor a congregation. They all, though, seeking…a temple.
Now these days we get fewer of those people visiting, and there are reasons for that, some of them are even good reasons. Still, the urge is out there. There is something in the human mind that seeks a place with sacred connection.
Sometimes--as we have discussed before-- that place is out in the world somewhere. However, sometimes, it is right here where we still gather on the morning of the sabbath day. You see, the thing that congregations still do best–better than anyone else–is create a ritual landscape that carries meaning on a communal rather than an individual level. This is what the temple seekers who visit us are looking for.
When human beings are seeking a place to gather in their own community (whatever that may be) for the spiritual work of community–of formally witnessing life's passages–people are drawn back to the temple that our congregation inhabits and maintains for at least that one moment.
At the very beginning of this service I read a passage from Presbyterian minister Richard Dietrich, "How do we express reverence? We create communal responses in order to offer our awe...we create rituals around the seasons of the year, around the seasons of life: birth, coming of age, growing old, dying. We create things" and then we are loyal to them." People still get married in and buried out of churches, synagogues and mosques. These are places created by their predecessors. They dedicate their children even if they are not sure what they are dedicating them to.
Now, they also receive the meaningful and unconventional blessings of families and self-appointed prophets. In fact, “in house” in our congregation we offer a lot of those blessings ourselves. We bless each other in non-official ways. If Simeon and Anna were alive today, after all, they would still be part of a congregation and great people regularly on the temple steps.
All this means that the urge to worship more formally still exists–and it means a full house on Christmas Eve–but what we are doing right now doesn't have the draw it used to. Regular sabbath morning worship doesn’t have the draw anywhere like it used to. The problem, I think, is that for consistent participation and communal belonging as Human beings, we need to see ourselves–our lives and our understanding of the world–in the sabbath moment. We need this in both the old ways and the new ways.
This is where we have that problem of perception. For while–as the Eliot Church–we do see ourselves in both worlds, I think it is safe to say that in certain quarters of our society what we do on Sunday morning can be considered a bit…unfashionable, unproductive…and Quaint. Of course we know this for we also spend most of our time living in the present with its pressures, needs and biases. This old stuff from the past that looks to the future can feel like a waste of time when there isn’t some “temple need” on the horizon.
Why, after all, would a rational human being want to sit in a room for an hour to sing hymns, hear some poetry and listen to someone talk about it? We do not receive any gifts of productivity by being here. The era of the church as a networking site is long gone. There are more convenient ways to hang out with each other.
However, most of us here do this regularly...and we miss it when we can’t. Of course we also know that the answer to these questions is in the questions themselves. We are drawn to the hymns and the prayers and the poetry. We even appreciate that perceived inconvenience which pulls us from the rat-race for a moment that sets our sabbath intention. Each week we look around the sanctuary at people who do not mind stating with their presence that they, too, appreciate these things.
To be drawn to the temple for more than the holidays and major observances is to make the big picture a priority; to ground ourselves in the tested structures of the past. We talked about this last week. To be in the temple is to prepare for…whatever comes next in our lives.
We worship together in this place in order to experience the spirit in the quiet of our hearts. Also we worship in this space together for no less a task than to share the inner motions of our souls; to feel the call of the Divine in the thoughts and actions of fellow inhabitants of creation.
Jacob Trapp tells us that "To worship is to stand in awe under a heaven of stars, before a flower, a leaf in sunlight, or a grain of sand...it is an inarticulate silence yearning to speak. It is the window of the moment open to the sky of the eternal.” That is what draws us here and that is what compels us; to create a style and opportunities for worship that reflect not just where we have been and not just where we are now but also the world we want to bring into reality.
So now, in our shared sabbatical year, maybe we need to take some time to work on the way we worship. Maybe we need to ask ourselves how we are achieving this balance. Like Mary and Joseph we understand the importance of those old foundations in the new thing that is beginning.
This doesn’t mean doing anything rash, for timeless ritual–those abstract conversations and perceived inconveniences; that amateur singing and timely reflection–is what draws us here and draws those others who occasionally darken our doors. However, what we do need to do is think about inclusion; from where we place the coffee pot to how we preach, pray and sing.
People need to see new words and ideas in the old forms and a wider variety of faces in the front of the sanctuary. They need to be met where they are, not commanded to conform to the pressures and perspectives of the past.
In our lives outside these walls we are post-modern. We adapt to the context we live in and find ways to welcome the new, to accept and love people for who they are. Yet the church still can appear to be rigid and unresponsive to those changes. How do we find ways to reflect our adaptability?
This sabbatical year is a good time to experiment with these things. In fact, we have already started. There are lay readers and guest preachers who change the sound and look of who we think a worship leader can be. We have experimented a little with different forms and rituals, too. Still..there is more to do.
As you know, I am a big fan of inclusive language, for example. During my time away from leading worship I will be looking at some of the words we still use in this place. How can we broaden the Lord’s Prayer so that everyone can see themselves in God? How can we find and sing hymns that speak to our own experience? How can we pray our prayers, responsive or otherwise in a way that reflects our own broad theology?
We must also ask how we include people whose busy lives do not fit the time or form of Sunday morning. We are not going to “win” a battle against youth sports and family ski trips. People are busy. They feel the pressures of the lives they–we–have fallen into and a change of lifestyle or schedule that frees up Sunday morning is too much to ask for a first step. Our job is not to close doors through our perceived judgment and disappointment–and that is how many see it–but instead to open doors that they can find their way to enter. Therefore, we will be thinking once again about Dinner Church, Sabbath Walks, and Pub Theology. We need to find a path for ourselves to understand that these are not “add-ons” we do as well as worship, but forms of worship themselves.
Denise Levertov, in her poem Primary Wonder, writes about being burdened by the worries and cares of the world. However she ends saying, “And then once more the quiet mystery is present to me, the throng’s clamor recedes; the mystery that there is anything, anything at all, let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything rather than void.”
In this post-modern world we need to find ways to make steps into the temple that are easy to access for those who come after. If we do this, then they, too can feel the mystery that we have come to experience in our own lives. So let us take a moment in silence now to think about those steps Let us consider where they make us stumble and where they make us dance.
Hiked on February 14, 2023
This was a spontaneous hike. Thursday's weather looked hideous as usual and I wanted to see the sun! I decided, therefore, to hit Route 2 and head over to the High Ledges Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary on a Tuesday to catch the view. I had been saving it for a perfect day...and this was pretty close. The loop I chose was around 5 miles and featured an undulating landscape with a small mountain, a fire tower, a valley, and some hills. The snow was fairly compact to start and then it got loose as the air warmed it up. This made footing a bit of a challenge...and I brought out the micro spikes.
I could use the workout though. There has been quite a bit going on. The church is wrestling with some big questions. Finally, I have a few weeks of sabbatical starting soon. I will give thought to the church's questions then and add in a few of my own....
Lately I have been thinking about life-changing moments. Specifically those times when we make a decision to leap into the abyss and become a miniature or occasional "knight of faith" in the old formula of Kierkegaard. There are times when our lives change because of something that happened to us. However, when we are able to exercise of free will, our moments of decision change the trajectory of who we are, how we are perceived, and maybe who other people are around us.
These decisions aren't always drastic. This is a good thing. People can wait their whole lives and miss the turning points if they believe that our choices only come in large sizes. Sometimes we hardly notice them at the time. Either way we make them, don't we? They are the beats of our lives. Looking back they are the decisions we mark to say that life was different afterward...in some way large or small.
I remember deciding to become a minister at the foot of Doubletop Mountain in Maine when I was 19. It wasn't momentous at the time but there I was...and here I am. I just went for a walk in the evening and decided that--given my interests and my emerging skill set--the parish and I would be good for each other. My ministry outlived the campsite we stayed at. It seems to be a much bigger deal now.
A short time later I met my future wife at a meeting of college activists. In an uncharacteristic fit of optimism, I thought I would like to get to know her better. Turns out I didn't make much of an impression on her at the time...but here we are three decades later.
There are decisions that change our lives in smaller but still-lasting ways. I remember the first time I played the ukulele in the middle of a sermon. Everybody was surprised. These days--many music ministries later--it isn't a big deal anymore. The same can be said for Dungeons and Dragons Club and the "Snow Posse" (sidewalk shoveling) youth group events that grew into something for a few years then seemingly faded away. Those youth are grown up now and some keep in touch. I am always pathetically happy to see them when I can. Two of the gamers now help me teach their parents in "adult" D&D. Maybe it didn't fade after all.
Each of these decisions and many others started small and even commonplace. What grew out of them was a life. I feel like there will be a few more decisions like that soon. Maybe I will make them. Maybe someone else will. Right now with the church it feels like many, many big decisions are coming down the line. However, it will be the small ones that lead to another and another that will determine our future.
I say all this now because hikes like this are a series of small decisions. This week on a Tuesday I decided to get up and get going. I decided where to go. There were all kinds of micro decisions that helped me to focus on the day. How would I get there? Would I do both the out-and-back to the tower or just the ledges themselves? Was this a good use of my time? How would I deal with the vagaries of weather?
Also, on this trip, I decided to do some more extensive filming. It has been a while. Many of you are aware of my interest in 21st century communication. This weblog is part of that. My podcasts are as well. For a long time I was into making youtube videos of sermons, church news, meditations, music and--during the plague--entire worship services. Sometimes this meant collaboration. At other times I worked on them by myself. I got into it through a series of small decisions that brought me joy. A series of small decisions may bring me back...or maybe they come to nothing. It is too early to tell.
If we use the model of "Sabbath Walks" that I write and talk about here and elsewhere, all of these endeavors--these choices made and sometime pursued--fall into the category or "frame" of dialogue or creativity. On this hike, for example, the choice to film meant stopping and starting; recording sections of trail, talking to the camera while imagining future viewers, editing after getting home while re-living the excursion, and improvising a soundtrack. I had to make decisions about equipment. If I keep doing this there will be more decisions to make as some things may need replacing.
There are many little steps. After all to even get to the point of recording there was research. There were skills that could use some improvement through repetition. That said, I am learning. While this decision may not lead to anything more, it just might...probably in surprising ways. After all, nobody thought the skills I learned from my "hobby" would help hold online worship together during the early months of Covid. Ultimately we found somebody more skilled. Of course, nobody thought that the skilled person we found would be a beloved former member of the D&D Club and the Snow Posse who had moved away. Decisions keep on rippling out, don't they?
Anyway, I have included the video. I think it is pretty good for a first attempt! I also started a Sabbath Walks YouTube page that you can subscribe to to get notifications. Just click on the video above and hit "subscribe." I may decide make more of these moving pictures. We shall see. Both I and the church are looking for ways to communicate. Perhaps this is the way.
Here is to your decisions and dialogues. I hope you have found something to bring the sabbath "walk" to life regardless of what it is or how you go about it. Many blessings on your travels until next time. I will see you out on the trail.
Hiked on February 2, 2023
Somewhere along the way of this project, it appears that at least a few people got the impression that I am particularly rugged or outdoorsy. I am not of course. I am just a suburban dad transitioning to empty-nester with a bad back and sore knees. I prefer a room and a bed--preferably my own--to a tent or sleeping platform. It is just that I find the Transcendent in nature, and that helps get me through the week.
I have been doing some workshops on Sabbath Walks. I have been pitching them as "mindful walking" workshops because the word "sabbath" appears to make some folk uncomfortable. Maybe it is because "sabbath" is a religion-word. I like it better, though, "mindful" is way too broad.
Anyway, It is at these events--and the conversation around them--that I have noticed this disconnect. People will come up me to say it is all very interesting...but they cannot go on a big hike. Usually this is for physical reasons, which I totally get. The only issue is that I am not talking about hiking. I am talking about walking and even that has more to do with sitting. The process is all about perspective and intention. Are you paying attention to the world around you? Are you letting your experience influence your understanding through reflecting on your context? Then you are more than good.
Actually I haven't gone on many big hikes lately. Work has gotten in the way. So has the weather. I do get out every week but all of my Sabbath Walks in 2023 have been in Massachusetts. It is a good thing that we have so many great opportunities to get out in nature here! Yes, it will be hard to cultivate "likes" in the same way when the views are less dramatic and the physical effort may also be. That said, I have enjoyed immersing myself in the land close to home.
Some of the best hikes lately have been repeats. I trundled up Mount Watatic again and again. The Graces and the Crow Hill Ledges still stand out. One of the best walks I had was my usual four-mile round-trip stroll downtown...but at night. This made all the difference.
What I really want to talk to you about though, is the Assabet River Wildlife Refuge.
I have to say that I only recently really clued into its existence. I went over there because the weather in New Hampshire was turning dangerous and I also had the need to find something more accessible for a group Sabbath Walk in the spring. As I mentioned earlier, people think that these walks need to be challenging. They do not. I was--and am--searching for places where a person could walk a few feet to find a pretty place to sit. If they wished, they could move on for a more challenging workout...but they wouldn't have to. When you are in a group you need both "easyish" and "hardish" options, so everybody gets what they want or need.
Now, on this hike I had expected to see wildlife...and I did. What was surprising, though, was the large amount of evidence of previous human habitation! Many of the trails were unusually wide and there were patches of old, cracked pavement in places. Also, right where I parked was the foundation of an old tavern dating back to 1700. However, the most remarkable thing was the proliferation of immense concrete bunkers tucked away in the forest. Each had a massive metal door that was barred and locked like some dystopian Hobbit hole. Since my trip I heard from friends who had been in one. The description seems to fit as they appear bigger on the inside. The one they visited was vast, cold, and oppressive.
Now, I later learned that there were 50 of these bunkers in the park. Therein lies a story. First, of course, this land was wilderness. Then it was occupied by native Americans. Then, as Europeans came to this continent, it was a neighborhood for a long time. That is where the old tavern came in. Later Henry David Thoreau would pass through to visit friends. In fact, it stayed a agricultural community until 1942.
Then, as the Second World War heated up, the land was seized by eminent domain. The people were moved. There were about 100 of them and they claim their compensation was 10 cents on the dollar. Their houses and the tavern were destroyed. In their place were those big bunkers, to store ammunition for Fort Devens. After a while this annex was sealed off and abandoned. Finally, in 2005, it was opened to the public. When I told this story in church and asked if anyone had been there only my eldest son raised his hand. His high school cross-country team ran there. Otherwise it is a new park to pretty much everyone I know.
As you walk along its trails today there is all this evidence of the past. There are so many layers of humanity. Some of those layers tell peaceful stories of life lived in the usual ways. Others tell stories of fear, displacement, and violence.
Now, the story of this refuge can be read as a parable. With any good parable we have choices to make about how we approach it and where we see ourselves in it. We can imagine ourselves in the position of The Native Americans, or the early colonists, or the neighborhood right before the war...all of them swept away. Perhaps instead we could see with the eyes of those massive bunkers stubbornly demanding our place in the midst of the wilderness. They are solid, powerful, obnoxious even…but largely irrelevant to the world moving around them.
Or…we could see ourselves in the refuge, itself; adapting to our current context to serve current needs and connecting to the ecosystem that sustains us. Whatever we choose--and at times we have probably felt ourselves in all these categories with more besides--this walk reminds us of the fullness of time and the power of creation to alter our understanding of what "truth" is.
It is a thoughtful place for a walk, or a sit, or a stand. I spent a couple of hours there. Then I went to a bar and wrote the beginnings of a sermon--here is the podcast version--with this story as its inspiration. That is what is supposed to happen on a sabbath walk. There should be a physical and mental challenge, then a new insight gained and a dialogue created. We make sense of our reality through reflection, after all.
\My step counter says I walked 8.5 miles and there was much more to explore. I will definitely be back there soon.
Thoreau actually wrote a poem about travelling though this area. The Old Marlborough Road exists as a road outside the preserve, but inside it continues as a perimeter road to the park. I hiked it. It was mostly quiet, with a few strollers and fat bikers. Anyway...here is the poem. It isn't necessarily one of his best, but it helps to give life to the people who used to live there. Also the page describes the area a bit. In my sermon I said the refuge is in Sudbury and Wayland. Of course it is actually in Sudbury and Maynard. After twenty years living here my geographical references are still those of a Mainer. By way of reparation, the link is to a Maynard historical site.
Update: I finally got around to making a video of my most recent hike here. So if you are interested...here it is!
Hiked On January 12, 2023
One of my mentors in ministry told us that on his sabbath days he would put his canoe on top of his truck and drive it through the middle of town. Sometimes he would take his canoe fishing, which is what everyone assumed he was doing. Sometimes he would just paddle around and go home. Sometimes, though, he would drive his canoe to Bangor for a bagel and a coffee with friends...and maybe a trip to the seminary library.
He told this story to convey four things. First, that the people of Maine are all pantheists at heart. As a Mainer born and raised I can confirm that this is true. Second, that people may not always respect your "off" time but will do their darndest to respect your sabbath time. Third--and this is where the canoe comes in--in a town of pantheists, a canoe on your truck means you are fishing...and fishing is sacred. Finally, the lesson was that you are best off leaving the parish come sabbath-time. That way folks will not be able to get in touch with you as easily. Also--more importantly--you will be away from the things that draw you back to your labors.
I thought about that yesterday as I tried my best to tie up loose ends in the morning and hustle out the door for my weekly sabbath hike. "Weekly" is a New Year's goal. Unfortunately, though, I was already on "Plan D" as plans A through C were left in tatters. Mostly the problem was weather up north, but the skies in the Bay State weren't looking so bright either. Little flakes of snow on my windshield indicated that perhaps the northern storm was going to make an appearance after all. Also, my hiking buddy, Andy, couldn't get out of a meeting. So I was left figuring out how far I wanted to travel to hike in the snow by myself.
The solution was to leave New Hampshire and Maine well alone and to stay in my adopted commonwealth. A slick and wooly drive down Route 2 brought me to the somewhat obscure Mount Grace State Park and a snow-laden hike up its eponymous mountain, then over to Little Grace, and finally back to the lot.
Mount Grace isn't a bad name, but it is a bit unusual. The legend says its name comes from King Philip's War when the daughter of Mary Rowlandson died after being captured by members of the Narragansett tribe. Theoretically the mountain is named after this daughter. It is a romantic notion and ties into one of the major historical moments in and around the Pioneer Valley where the mountain resides. However, there is one glaring problem. Mary's daughter was named Sarah...not Grace. So the name of the mountain remains a mystery. That said, it is a powerful idea to ascribe to this mid-sized monadnock. Somebody in some way found grace here. Maybe we still can.
If you want to be alone in Massachusetts, drive west and go hiking in a snowstorm. There will be no people to bother you. The trail started out relatively flat but that changed quickly. It was quite a bit more elevation than what I experienced the week before. That, of course, was what I was looking for. It was the only part of Plan A that remained. Then the trail went on up along some power lines to the rather impressive fire tower. It was snowing heavily at this point so no view was to be had. Alas! Pictures indicate it is quite nice. I will need to come back some time.
I did get startled a bit. When I turned around to descend the tower my long-suffering water bottle came loose and fell about 40 feet. It hit every available truss on the way down making a dramatic noise as it did so.
After finding the water bottle that had submerged itself in the snow, I turned south along a row of power lines that marked the shoulder of Grace and continued on to the smaller peak. Little Grace also theoretically offers views. Every once in a while the snow would blow and eddy away. Then I could peer down into the valley where a number of farms were perched looking for all the world like landscape illustrations in the Saturday Evening Post.
One thing worth noting is that--while this is indeed part of my "easyish" hiking list--there were a couple elements that made it challenging. First, there was that snow, which made both visibility and footing rather sketchy. This can be remedied by choosing a better day! However the next thing cannot be fixed so easily. The trails are arranged so that if you decide to climb both peaks and loop back to the parking lot, you will be climbing up pretty close to the end.
On a traditional morning climb you go up and then down. This trail rolls up and down quite a bit, which might not be everybody's cup of tea. In the end--according to my imperfect calculations and because of some diversions I took--my total elevation for the day was around 1,500 feet. The feet came in installments across the miles instead of all in one massive climb, but that is more than a number of mountains on the 52 With a View list, including the "starter" peaks of Willard and Pemigewassett which I, at least, found easier than this. You can make it...but I confess to swearing a bit when I hit the last climb of consequence.
The loop took me down the side of Little Grace and back around to the parking lot. It was a journey of small views, evocative precipitation, and unsure footing. However, I am glad I got out. Once again, for the second week in a row, I had the place to myself. I do not doubt that the pantheist in me appreciates this. I feel like I am keeping the spirits company on a cold, wet, lonely day. They certainly appear to be keeping mine.
The word "grace" has a number of meanings. In common usage we usually think of dancers or athletes, or people who are particularly well-spoken or well dressed. Perhaps those cues are why we tend to think of wealthy people as graceful even when we do not have much evidence to go on. Also, being gracious is what you try to do when someone else is being a boorish. These are all social, societal qualities. However, in the church where I spend my time, grace indicates the unmerited favor of the Divine. For Universalists--and I serve a congregation that is, among other things, Universalist--this grace is extended to everyone.
The old-man funny, curmudgeonly, front-door thing to say now would be that grace was hard to feel on a day with heavy snow and no views. I certainly didn't feel graceful...but I won't go there theologically. There was plenty of grace to be found on these two mountains. In the dynamic display of nature going about its business all I saw was grace. Sure, I saw and felt a whole lot of nature, too. Yet the fact that both were present is not coincidental.
I do not love winter hiking, but I love this grace that is sometimes hard to immediately locate in people and in the institutions people make. Yeah we all have it, or have access to it anyway. It is "freely given" and I don't mean in some reductive Christian sense. Grace is just present all the time for all of us. Mostly we don't experience this presence. It takes time and the cultivation of relationships to see and feel it around us. It takes the growing of love between each other and within ourselves. This wild morning reminds me of the blessing of grace. Maybe it will help provide the charge forward for another week.
I suspect that on those trips to Bangor my old mentor also snuck some work in on his sabbath day. I get that too. After my hike I spent the afternoon wearing out my welcome in a number of warm dry places where I could write. The draft of this post was one thing. Another was the draft of my sermon for Martin Luther King weekend. The morning reminded me that finding grace in ourselves and each other is more than an attempt at personal wellness. It is instead an important attitude on the path toward justice. Grace leads to love and love to trust then on to community...or at least that is the direction the sermon went.
May we all find ways to be this kind of graceful; not pretty and charming but bold and challenging as we expand and strengthen the web of connection--the world community--that surrounds us.
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.