So here is the second sermon in my "Learning From Nature" series. The series will have to take a bit of a hiatus as we have Annual Meeting this Sunday. However, so far, I am enjoying it. I have decided to move slowly. Attendance is such that not everyone is in church every week and there are some key concepts here to help us consider how we can change how we relate to the natural world. I believe that most people--including myself--tend to believe that their (or our) connection to the natural world is closer than it is. This series is part of an effort to get us to think differently about our place in the ecosystem.
Another part of this process will include a couple forums--essentially one hour workshops after church--on March 3 and March 10 to think about the theology around this relationship. There will be a Pub Theology as well, riffing off the previous "Pub" when we talked about eco-anxiety. You are welcome to attend if you are around! IT is slow process to change our cultural norms and values. However, we won't ever manage it if we never start.
I started an asynchronous online graduate course in Environmental Policy today. The reasons were varied. However, the biggest one had to do with my questions about the role of the church in the environmental movement. I have been a minister for a long time. Over the years environmentalism has been a regular topic or lens for me. I have led workshops and outdoor worship. We have examined the topic in the context of transcendentalism and other nature theologies.
During all this time, though, I felt myself coming up against a blind spot. The fact is, I know a great deal about nature and spirituality. I have tons of practical experience with human beings and how they move through the world. However, I don't know as much about the science and economics around many of the problems and issues our planet faces.
This isn't a shock. I am a pastor. I live and work in a community where my role is to "walk" with people to help them make sense of their lives, the world, their relationships, and their feelings. My biggest resource--among many--is a very ancient collection of texts written by people whose philosophical and theological chops were strong but whose economic and scientific chops were...well...lacking. This isn't a judgment of them necessarily. They weren't destroying the planet nearly as quickly as we are, after all...
Anyway, as you know I spend a lot of time outdoors. My hiking adventures account for most of what is on this page. I have to say, when I am "out there" on a mountain or a local trail, I wonder how long it will be around. I wonder about the drastic shifts in weather. I want to know what is going on with Creation--church people use the term "Creation" frequently even though most of us are not creationists--and what I can do about it. Right now I am feeling the need to dip into a better understanding of the ecosystem and the dynamics that contribute to its health.
Yesterday I began a sermon series on these subjects. It is independent of the course I am taking but I am sure there will be overlap. As it currently stands I will preach a number of sermons on Sunday mornings, host a number of workshops, and set up some "Pub Theology" sessions to talk about what the church can do to help the environment. I feel like we have a role to play that we--houses of worship regardless of faith tradition--are uniquely positioned for. We deal with hearts and minds. To truly save humanity, we need to re-take our place in the network of living things. This has to start with a change in attitude and conversation.
Anyway, I will probably drop in here to wax lyrical on this subject from time to time. If you live in the area, check out the church newsletter. We would love to have you as part of this conversation!
PS This is Sunday's Sermon...
So the holidays are over...and that is OK with me. The first snow came over the weekend. It messed up some church plans but I will get over it. More pressingly, it is messing up my old bones which is making it hard to peel myself out of the bed, don my winter gear, and walk the dog for her accustomed four miles. It just didn't happen today. Even though I have done a great deal of hiking--much of it in the winter--it takes a while for me to recover these days.
That is the way with time. It rolls on ahead of us and we need to pace ourselves. We are different people from moment to moment. Through the years this long line of who we have been changes. With each change we are less like the person we were when we were born. We are less like the person our parents dreamed of us being. We are--even--less like the one we thought we would be. You know this...but it is worth pointing out sometimes.
That isn't always a bad thing, is it? Lost plans make us who we are. I remember in my undergraduate Anthropology class watching a documentary that followed two groups of children from elementary school well into their adulthood. In the first video all the kids said what they wanted to be when they grew up. By the end the rich ones had become just what their young selves said they would be. The others--working class mostly--went on some unpredictable adventures. Some stories were tragic. Mostly, though, they did things they never thought possible. In fact, they wouldn't even have had the words when they were young to describe the adults they became.
Anyway, the new year is an arbitrary date but--as we talked about during Advent--all holidays are arbitrary. I have plans for 2024. I bet you do too. It is hard not to look both back and forward at the same time.
Maybe you don't have a resolution. I don't. That is fine. However, in surveying 2023 I see good parts and bad parts. There have been times when I thought that I handled things well. There were times when it felt like whatever I did made things worse. This is normal. It takes a certain level of delusion or a high level of privilege to go through life thinking you are perfect, right?
So what are you thinking about for the future? For me, the "tiny step" involves trying to figure out what to do with this dog. She came to us the Saturday before Thanksgiving Sunday (which--for the edification of non-church people--is before Thanksgiving). Right after that was the chaos of the holidays and of our lives which took an entropic turn. It has been a long time since we had a dog. The last one was a husky, who was very different from the one we have now. I hope to figure out our relationship over the next year. Things will come out of that, I am sure. Not all of them will be good or successful. However, my wife tells me I am not happy unless I have seven projects going at a time. So there yah go...
During the Christmas season we went to the Worcester Art Museum and sat for a while in the 12th Century Benedictine priory they have just off the main hall. A jazz band was playing. The band was great but the acoustics were not. Anyway, I sat there for a while, recovering from all the mess of the month before. I thought of the things I hadn't managed to get done. Then I did my best to let them go. Most plans don't work out. What is left, though, is a life.
Whatever your plan is, I hope you commit to it. I also hope you take it easy. Otherwise you might break something. Right now I would like to go for a big hike in the snow. The dog and I look out the window and all I can see is the potential for adventure and stories. She probably sees squirrels and frozen poop. That ankle though...I need to take my time now if hiking ever gets to be a thing for me again....
Such is the way with the new year. It is a lot like the old one. Old injuries and burdens continue. However, maybe the dreams change along with our ability and our commitment to live into them.
We are well into the season now and at least some people are getting cranky. There are reasons of course, but it seems that many of us are falling into habits that need to be nipped in the bud. Of course the reason we are doing this is the same reason why it is a bad idea! It is the holiday season and people are trying way too hard to make it perfect.
Guess what? It isn't going to be perfect, so we all need to back off. We need to show some grace to ourselves and to each other. The picture in our head isn't going to happen. Still, if we chill out a bit what will happen will be better than what we can reasonably expect.
In our house right now we are having quite a few conversations about decorations. We feel like--for very good reasons--we are way behind and each of us has a different picture in our head of what each room would ideally look like. We are also stressing out about shopping lists and food. I also get to be stressed out about the various religious services and other church events that other people have vested with more wieght than they can realistically bear. If we--all of us--aren't careful, the whole season can become a narrative of disappointment. Who wants that?
This brings us to an important subject. We need to monitor ourselves and our mental health during the holidays. Part of this is self-care. Part of this is caring for others. Often we tend toward one. However we are social people so each circles back around. Anyway, here are some things to think about doing for the next few weeks and maybe beyond...
Practice forgiveness: This is as good a place as any to start. Yes, this means forgiving ourselves for not getting every single thing right. However, it also means forgiving the people around us even if they aren't quite measuring up. Everyone is in this together. Everyone is having a hard time. We need to practice a level of grace when we are out in the world. We need to do the same in our own head-space.
So the wreaths aren't as full and bushy as you would like them to be. Can you forgive yourself for getting them anyway? Can you forgive the harried worker who sells them to you? Hint: the answer should be "yes" both times. The holiday is not about the quality of the wreaths. The holiday is not about the stress you are feeling about them either. Take a breath. Figure out what is going on inside you. It probably isn't about what is setting you off, after all. One of the many themes of the Christmas story is that nothing is perfect but God still exists in the midst of those imperfections. This is a good thing to remember right now.
Get some exercise: We all need to step away a bit and give our bodies time to practice just being bodies. Sure, running about from task to task does burn calories. However, that is not what exercise is about. It is as much a mental re-set as anything else. We need that. We need to remember that we are alive and vibrant children of the Divine. Walking is good. So is going to the gym. If you are one of those people who can afford a Peloton and a place to store it...do a session a day. Part of what is making us cranky is that we are neglecting ourselves in favor of this extended and constantly extending holiday season. Exercise--whatever works for you--will give you perspective and energy you need.
Cut back on consumption: This one should be obvious...but it is hard to do. It also comes in two forms. We over consume during this time on things and on food. We should be watching both. No one is making us buy wreaths, or a tree, or an expensive scarf for Aunt Sally, or whatever it is we are stressed about right now. We also don't need to put everything in our mouths! Too much alcohol makes us depressed and can cause so many social problems when we act before we think. Too much food makes us sluggish and sad. If we do absolutely nothing different this season--if we just eat beans and vacuum occasionally--do you know what happens? Christmas still starts on December 25. Amazing right? In fact, the beans and vacuuming are optional! Time just keeps marching on.
Get Nerdy: Literally everybody I know has something they do that makes them happy. It can be reading a particular genre of fiction. It can be studying a specific area of history. We engage variously in video games, tabletop roleplaying games, model trains, carpentry, playing or collecting music, and knitting. There are more examples, of course. Yeah it's the holidays and we are busy. Yeah we are carrying around feelings that come from past holidays, missing people, and regular-old conflicts. However, we are also going to drive everyone crazy if we don't do the things that help us relax. Engage your passions, people! As with exercise, they help us to step away.
Embrace Imperfection: This is the big one, which is why I am circling back. Perfection is killing us. None of us are going to get there this season. Honestly, trying will make it worse. Advertisers, our families, our friends, and society in general are attempting to get us to be perfect. We--yes all of us--are expecting perfection from everyone else. I mean, what a small and petty way to live. Perfection is the enemy of the good. We cannot let perfection win. So yeah...stop trying so hard. Stop feeling bad about when things go south a bit. Stop expecting more of others than we are able to sustain for ourselves. We are doing good and that is enough.
I guess what I am saying today is that I am very much in favor of a slacker Christmas. Let's step back a bit and just do things in there time. If time runs out...well...it wasn't meant to be, was it? That is OK. This time really isn't worth getting ourselves messed up over. It isn't worth messing up others or our relationships with them, either.
I am leaving you this video as well. Abbie Barnes is a young hiker and mental health activist from England. She produced this video during the plague and addresses many of the same issue from a mental health perspective.
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.
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.