A Single, Dangerous Step – Walking as a Spiritual Practice

Much has been written about the spiritual aspects of running – getting into a “zone”, overcoming physical challenges, somatically exploring places in our lives.  I suggest that, in our 21st century haste, we may be running past another, more ancient spiritual practice called walking.

Walking is one of the most basic of human activities, like breathing air or drinking water.  As people search for meaning in life or connection with the Transcendent, they discover that walking is one of the simplest and most rewarding of paths.

Buddhists have practiced meditative walking for centuries.  Created for people who have difficulty adjusting to sitting meditation, walking becomes meditation in action.  The walker is to be mindful of the experience of walking, aware of their actions and their surroundings.  There are a number of different kinds of walking meditation in Buddhism, each with its own style and intent.

Some Buddhist walks have turned into pilgrimages, like the pilgrimage tour of the island of Shikoku.  Created by the great Buddhist master Kobu-Daishi in the 9th century, it is a 750 mile trek around Shikoku, visiting 88 separate shines and temples.  Taken over a 45 day period, it leads the walker through the virtues of awakening, austerity, discipline, enlightenment, and nirvana.

Walking figures prominently in the Christian faith, as well.  Christ regularly walked the byways of Palestine, teaching his disciples along the way.  In fact, early Christians called the teachings of Jesus “The Way”.  One of the great passages of the New Testament which illustrates the life of the faith community is the Walk to Emmaus.  In Luke 24: 13-45, the writer describes in 12 verses the nature of the Christian life as one of pilgrimage together, travelers on the road of life where they encounter Jesus among them, who teaches them along the way as he had taught his apostles: “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” (Verse 27, NRSV)

Christianity has several versions of its own pilgrimage of Shikoku.  The best known is the Camino de Santiago in Europe.  It has various routes throughout France, Portugal, and Spain, ranging from 800 km long to an “easy” 227 km, but all the paths lead to the city of Santiago de Compestolo and its cathedral, where the remains of the apostle St. James is reputed to be buried.

But, as formative as these pilgrimages are, they are but walking-writ-large, all based on the notion of walking as spiritual journey, walking as a way to disconnect from the thousand and one distractions of everyday life and walk to a place where we connect to the Infinite, even if it is on the sidewalk of our neighborhood.

Some people walk with the intent of simple mindfulness, to experience the act of putting one foot in front of the other and breathing, taking in and considering whatever comes to their attention.

Some people walk with a specific prayer in mind, like repeating the Jesus Prayer to the cadence of their own steps, or repeating a simple phrase like “God and I are becoming one.”

Thomas Merton described in his biography, The Seven Story Mountain, how the monks would walk back to the monastery from the fields praying the rosary in unison, beads swaying to their steps.  The Trappists would not waste even a moment on the road, but use it as a means of prayer and unity.

I myself often walk with an Anglican rosary in hand, reciting the seven prayers of each section for specific intentions – my family, my faith, my community.  I soon disappear into that “thin place” of daily life, where I and the God of Creation are in communion.

Of all the people who have written or spoken about walking, be it Ovid or Thoreau or Basho or Muir, one quote that continually comes to mind for me arises from a surprising source: it is Bilbo Baggins from Lord of the Rings, who says:

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door.  You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

In its own way, that is a perfect description of walking as spiritual practice.  Walking as a spiritual practice is precisely not to keep your feet; it is to allow the Spirit to take us where She leads and not where we wish to go.  There is no telling where we might be swept off to, like Bilbo.

Bilbo went “There and Back Again”, as was the subtitle of The Hobbit, and he did not return as the same hobbit he was when he set out on his adventure.  The journey will change us.  T.S. Eliot put it well in his poem Four Quartets – Little Giddings V when he wrote,

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

We cannot be open to the mind of God if we stay safe on the path and keep our feet.  We must take that single, dangerous step in order to lose our feet.  Hopefully, we will come to know our beginning better at the end of our walk.

Look out your window.  Out there is a sidewalk or lane, and it is a world whereby, with a single step, we can encounter God’s Own Self.  All we need do is step out the door.

On The Sacredness of Whales

It is astounding to stand at the rail of a boat and suddenly have a humpback whale rise up from the water like a gopher rising out of his hole, barely arm’s length away. It silently elevates above the water’s surface, towering some 6 to 8 feet overhead – all gray, white and glistening – pauses for a fraction of a second at the top of its rise, then silently slides back down and disappears into the depths of the water.

Marine naturalists called this “spy hopping”, when a whale rises up to check out its surroundings. To C and me, we call it awe-inspiring.

We were on the Mega Nova, a 50-foot lobster boat that pulls double-duty as a tour and research vessel. Run by a marine research foundation, it helps pay for its research and educates the public about ocean wildlife, particularly whales. The foundation operates out of Brier Island, a tiny island only 12 square kilometers in size at the end of an archipelago that stretches into the Bay of Fundy from Nova Scotia.

It took us two solid days of travel by plane, car, and ferry just to get there. As we finally stood on the island’s bluff looking out to sea, I felt like we were standing at the edge of the world. I said to C in my lame pirate’s voice, “Arr, beyond here there be monsters…”

She rubbed her hands together and beamed with excitement. “Ooo, I certainly hope so!” she said.

The next day we were on the Mega Nova with about 20 other people, motoring into the deep water of the bay. It was relatively calm and a bit foggy, but the fog was lifting with the rise of the sun. We saw nothing for the first 30 minutes but flotillas of sea birds riding the waves.

I was surprised by the amount and variety of bird life living on the ocean. The tour naturalist described how most of the species we saw only live on the shore to nest, lay eggs, and hatch their young – the rest of their entire lives are spent at sea.

With no whales sighted, the guide decided to stop the boat and asked everyone to be silent, as we might hear a whale before we see one – sound can travel for a mile over calm water. Sitting in the boat with the engine cut off, the bay was preternaturally quiet. The entire ocean was soundless.

Suddenly, we heard a distant “whock!”, and both the pilot and guide leaped to their feet with a “Whoa!”, pointing to starboard. The engine coughed to life and we were off, following the sound – the guide said it was the sound of a whale tail slapping the surface of the water.

In a minute we spotted two whales in the distance, rolling up and down in the water side by side, blowing plumes of water from their blow holes. They seemed to be in no particular hurry and the boat pulled parallel with them some 200 meters’ distance. The guide explained that there is a protocol regarding boats encountering whales, and the tour boat followed the protocols to the letter: never crowd a whale.

C and I agreed later on that if this was the closest we would get to a whale in the wild, then the entire trip was a success. They rolled in unison alongside the boat, keeping pace and blowing plumes. You cannot imagine our surprise when the whales slowed down, turned to their left, and approached the boat to investigate.

They came up alongside as if to visit, and the captain cut the engines. The massive, 50-foot long humpbacks swam around us, under us, floated alongside the hull and blew a couple of plumes (surprise! plumes stink!). The whales hung with us for a good ten minutes then calmly went on their way. We were slack-jawed. Never in our wildest expectations did we expect to see whales this close up in their environment.

Yet, we had encounters like this for the next three hours.

Pods of whales approached the boat to investigate. Others swam alongside but were in a hurry to get wherever they were going and swam on. Even a mother and child stopped by to check us out. The mother floated some 20 meters off port as her baby – an infant some 20-feet long – played a game of swimming under the boat and popping up to the surface, then diving back down and popping up on the other side, back and forth for several turns. It reminded me of a puppy running back and forth in the yard. Then I remembered that we were watching mammals, not fish. Why would it be so surprising to see a mammal act like a mammal?

It was about at this point that C’s anti-nausea patch began to fail her. She suffers from motion sickness, and wears a patch on her neck to relieve the nausea. It had worked well all the way up to the island, but the rocking of the boat was too much for her. I discovered her sitting sphinx-like on one of the benches – hands on knees, staring straight ahead – and I knew exactly what that meant. I managed to get her to the back rail in time, and she said it was one of the oddest moments in her life, to be leaning over the back of a boat, vomiting while giant whales slide by below her.

We finally got back to shore where C recovered, and as we took the ferry back to the archipelago, I remembered the psalmist who sang why God had created Leviathan.

Oh Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all ;
The earth is full of your creatures.

Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
Creeping things innumerable are there,
Living things both small and great.
There go the ships,
And Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

-Psalm 104:24-26 NRSV

I now have a deeper insight into the phrase “And Leviathan that you formed to sport in it”. God created the whale not for our consumption or entertainment; our existence has nothing to do with the creation of the whale. God created the whale for its own sake; for God to enjoy the whale and the whale’s joy of its own sport.

According to the psalmist, God takes pleasure in the joy of all God’s creation – creation needs no other reason for being than that. Any and all other reasons are false or unnecessary. Creation’s worth, indeed our worth, resides in God’s joy about creation’s very existence. It strikes me as nothing less than pure love.

As I stood on the rocking deck of the Mega Nova, watching the whales sport in the vast bay, I felt the thrill of pure joy in God’s creation, and felt God’s Own Self within me. I appreciated like never before God’s love for all of us – whales, birds, people, all creation.

A very sacred moment, that.

Why Women Will Save the Church

I am convinced that the church will be saved by its women. It seems they are the ones doing the very things that will save us.

Women clergy and lay ministers are the ones doing the most creative things in the church today. They are engaged in much out-of-the-box thinking while still inside the box, essentially creating a new box in which the rest of us can live. Several popular examples come to mind.

Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest, created Thistle Farms, a sanctuary for healing women-survivors of abuse, addiction, trafficking, and prostitution. She writes on her website, “We believe that in the end, love is the strongest force for change in the world.” Thistle Farms has birthed a number of similar ministries across the nation, and inspired thousands of people to rethink the church’s role in the gritty work of social justice and personal redemption.

Sara Miles, a parishioner of St. Gregory of Nyssa church in San Francisco, is a former political radical and journalist who has given new life to the ancient practice of feeding the hungry. One day a week, St. Gregory’s sanctuary is turned into a large fresh-produce market. Where parishioners normally stand around the altar Orthodox-style for Sunday Eucharist, boxes of lettuce, tomatoes, squash, and eggplant are stacked in neat rows each Saturday. Poor people eager for fresh food line up around the block to get inside, while others stream out the side door, carrying home loaded grocery bags of produce. The remarkable thing is that most of the food is donated, and the market is operated by volunteers who are the very poor people it seeks to serve. Sara’s book, “Take This Bread”, is a best-seller and a textbook for anyone who is considering a ministry in food and hunger.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran priest and the founder-rector of House for All Sinners and Saints, in Denver, CO. Set up in a warehouse on the seedier part of town, it is a parish for those who some describe as “the marginalized of society”: transgendered, addicts, prostitutes, street creatures. Bolz-Weber says that HFASS is “a group of folks figuring out how to be a liturgical, Christo-centric, social justice oriented, queer-inclusive, incarnational, contemplative, irreverent, ancient/future church with a progressive but deeply rooted theological imagination.”

I find all these women incredibly inspiring. All of them have re-imagined church in a way I do not often see among men. I suspect their charism comes from their position as women in the church, women who spent much of their lives outside the salon of power, looking in through the window but not allowed inside. Forced to be creative, they discovered the freedom of The Outsider: someone not required to conform in order to succeed because they would never be allowed inside anyway. Freed from conformity, they have created incredible ministries.

Because few on the inside listened to them, the women themselves practiced radical listening, and heard the cries of the poor, cries which fell on many a deaf ear in the salon. As the women practiced radical listening, it produced radical love, radical sacrifice, and radical ministries.

All of the women above are pastors of growing faith communities; people are attracted to the authenticity of their lives and their understanding of the Way of Jesus. With each passing season, more and more souls are showing up at their front doors, looking for a place in the Kingdom they can call their own. I could list other women in my own diocese who are doing similar excellent, creative, holy work, but I won’t embarrass them.  All we need do it look around, for they are there, leading us.

There is a popular maxim in the business world that goes, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” I often think how we need to get out of the way of these women and follow them, as they are leading our church into its future. God bless ‘em all

Is Modern Life a Disease?

“We do not die as much as we slowly kill ourselves,” goes an ancient Roman saying.  By that, the ancient Romans meant that we often hasten our own deaths by the harmful ways we live.  Looking at modern life, it seems that not much has changed since the days of Caesar.

A science researcher named Stephen Ildari poses that many of the diseases that plague us are not natural.  Diseases such as depression, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, etc., are caused by high-stress, industrialized, modern life; a lifestyle that is incompatible with our genetic evolution.  Rampant in the modern world, his laundry list of diseases are virtually non-existent among current aboriginal peoples that still live in the quiet corners of this earth.

He is not alone in his observations.  Since WWII, biologists and medical researchers have observed that the fast-paced, stressful life of the industrial revolution, a period of human history barely 200 years old, is incompatible with the 2,000,000 year evolution of hominids. Some pose that, if we lived as simply and stress-free as many aboriginal people and combine that lifestyle with modern medical practices, we’d all live to be 120 years old.

Personally, I’m not so sure I’m ready to live to 120 years of age.  I’ve known too many people who were ready to move on by the time they reached their late 80’s, even those who still enjoyed a decent level of health.  That said, it is intriguing to consider that we have been way too eager to embrace a 21st century lifestyle that is high on speed, stress and achievement, and low on relationships, relaxation, and presence-to-the-moment. What have we gotten for our choices?  A lot of money to spend on doctors to cure our self-inflicted diseases?

One anthropologist poses that while most of us put in a 50-hour week to support ourselves, our hunter-gatherer ancestors worked 17 hours a week, on average.  Sure, not many hunter-gatherers had to make payments on a second car, but they didn’t need a car, or the need to work off the stress and extra weight from riding around in a car.  Ildari says that “exercise” is a foreign concept among aboriginal people.  “Exercise?  What for?”

This leads me to consider a book I’m reading called “Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus”. Written by two hip millennials, it is an examination of the challenges of being hip millennials in the Christian church.  Up to this point, they’ve been involved in pop-up church plantings. It was only recently that they discovered the Benedictine concept of stability.  Instead of churches being spiritual filling-stations where you drop by to fill up and get back on the road, they are places where people come to live, make connections, grow in faith together and be leaven in the world. It has struck them as closer to the Body of Christ they read in the New Testament that what they have been experiencing.  This is a new concept to the two authors, but we in The Episcopal Church simply call it “The Episcopal Church”.  I’m sure it sounds real familiar to Romans, Lutherans, and a whole bunch of other mainliners as well.

It seems to me that modern life can inflict many diseases upon us if we are not careful, physical, psychological, and spiritual. We can find many of the causes in how we live and the cures in how we decide to change.  It appears that the cures are all around us if we but stop, lay aside the new, and reconsider the old.  We will be healthier for it.


The Tsunami of Life & Following your Vocation

(July 3, 2016 sermon by Deacon Kevin McGrane, on Luke 10: 1-11,16-20)
   There are many things going on in today’s rich Gospel reading. It’s difficult to pick out one thing to meditate upon.
   For example, there are the 70 appointed missioners that Jesus sends out to the surrounding countryside. Notice that they are NOT the apostles, but a group of hand-picked and commissioned preachers/healers/teachers. IOW, regular people from the community. That’s one thing to consider.
   Another is how they were instructed to conduct themselves while on mission. They were to conduct themselves with modesty and reserve, being polite and unburdensome guests. No prima donna’s allowed.
   Another is that these people were granted power and authority by Jesus. They could cure, forgive, and preach as official representatives of Jesus of Nazareth. Their authority was supernatural.
   I want to go back to the very beginning of the reading today, though, and consider verse 2, which says, “The harvest is plenty but the laborers are few…therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.”
   This should speak to us this week, particularly in light of Rev. Peter Van Horne’s sermon last week and what he described as the “death tsunami” which is rolling towards much of the Christian church…the tsunami of people 65 yrs and older who will disappear from the churches, leaving a rather large leadership gap behind.
   I am SO SORRY I missed that sermon! I have never heard a sermon with the phrase “the tsunami of death” somewhere inside of it! That must have been so cool! I can just hear it now from an echo-chamber: “THE TSUNAMI OF DEEEEATH!”
   Peter+ is right, of course. We know that among most mainline churches, for every 40 clergy retiring, there are only 25 new clergy stepping up to take their place. You’ll notice the discrepancy between those two numbers.
   What to do? Well, don’t panic. We’re not dying. In a decade or so, the number of new leaders taking over will match the number of those retiring, and we’ll reach a point of equilibrium. Also, there will be an entirely new set of circumstances in the church…what that will be, I don’t know…no one does….BUT…
…there is a very important thing we can do, and we just read about it in verse 2 of today’s Gospel reading: we can pray for more workers and leaders to arrise from our community. And I, as a deacon, can do yet one more thing, which is the following…
   I am certain there are future priests and deacons and lay ministers sitting in this congregation right now. We all have a vocation based on our baptismal covenant; make no mistake about that! Yet there are some people here who have a vocation to an ordained life, and I am officially, publicly inviting you to answer your call.
   Some people here may think I am talking about someone other than you…as if I’m speaking to your child or that person sitting in the next row who is really involved in whatever ministry.
   Well, yes, them too…but, I’m actually talking to you.
   You may be thinking, “No. No way. I’m too old or I’m too young or I’m too married or I’m too single or I’m too you-fill-in-the-blank. At one time, I said the same thing. God answered and told me, “Not your decision. That’s between Me and the faith community. Your job is to answer the call.”
   A call to follow your vocation comes in many forms and most of them are not a voice from heaven. It’s not like the Tsunami of Death phrase…”This is God! You are called!” Nope. Usually not that way.
   Let me tell you about mine. I think I’ve described it before in another sermon once upon a time, so I’ll keep it brief.
   Catherine and I attended an adult ed class at Emmanuel called “We Believe”. It was something like an “Episcopalian 101” course, six weeks long. Deacon Susan Naylor gave the class on types of ministers in the church, and she described how deacons are, among other things, “ones who are sent”…sent by God and God’s community to preach, teach and model diakonia, sacred servanthood. I loved that. It really spoke to me.
   That same week, I watched a youtube of Bishop Smith’s sermon at the annual convention, and I was deeply impressed by his call for all of us to “go deeper, and go outside”. We are to deepen our faith in Christ, and take our faith beyond the walls of the sanctuary. Once again, I was much affected by his words.
   When I experienced these two events back-to-back in one week, I had this “Eureka Moment” and realized that I wanted to go deeper, go outside, and be sent. I understood this to be my call…and here I am, speaking to you today.
   No voice from an echo chamber spoke to me. No beams of light from a Technicolor sky shone down on me. But it was a life-changing moment never the less.
   One of the best parts of my journey is coming here and becoming your friend.
   Is today the beginning of your eureka moment? I hope so. I’m going to do my part and invite you; I pray that you do your part and answer. And I really am going to pray for you. We will start the Tsunami of Life together. With Christ with us, who can be against us? The harvest is plenty, the laborers few; we need many more laborers, and I believe you are going to be one of them.

Broken Windows and Broken People

It is against the law to feed the hungry on the streets of St. Louis. Hand a homeless man a PB&J and the police will ticket you. Kindness is illegal here.

I suppose the idea comes from the belief that the homeless are like stray dogs – if you feed them, they keep showing up at the back door. If you don’t, they go away.

It is more likely, though, that it comes from the policing theory called “the broken windows doctrine”, first described by the sociologists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. To quote Wiki, “The theory states that maintaining and monitoring urban environments to prevent small crimes such as vandalism, public drinking, and toll-jumping helps to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, thereby preventing more serious crimes from happening.”

Chief Dotson, of the St. Louis P.D., is a proponent of broken windows policing, and directs his officers to enforce minor infractions vigorously. Apparently, this also applies to panhandling by the homeless, and handing out free food by the charitable: come down hard on the homeless and the charitable, and they will go elsewhere, maybe even to the point of “going straight”. Neighborhood life improved.

What the chief and people like him don’t get is that broken people are not broken windows…not like he thinks.

Most anyone who has worked with the homeless will tell you that homelessness is not a lifestyle choice of the lazy. Their homelessness is the result of mental illness and/or severe depression often mixed with a series of bad breaks. Treating them like stray dogs or petty vandals does nothing to solve the problem of homelessness. Criminalizing those who try to help them only exacerbates the problem further: it poisons the relationship between the police and the citizens.

We may have driven the homeless out of our neighborhoods so we don’t have to see them or think about them, but they are still somewhere, festering, hurting, and abandoned by their own government.

I have my own broken windows theory, and it comes from Jesus, who said, “Whatsoever you do to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do to me.” The poor are broken windows; they aren’t the ones breaking windows.

Jesus did not treat the poor and homeless like stray dogs to be driven away. He did not treat them as petty criminals to force into conformity. He did not prosecute those who tried to show compassion and empathy to the poor among us. He treated them all like the children of God they are, and he taught us to do the same.

The enforcement of laws that punish the homeless is unethical. The creation of laws to punish the charitable is immoral. The city government must repeal the laws that punish its citizens for taking care of fellow citizens, and the police need to stop harassing both the poor and the charitable. I can’t imagine cops like doing it anyway. I know enough cops to know they probably cringe while doing it. Stop it now and let’s do something constructive, because this isn’t it.

The Strain of Fascism in America

There are many strains of thought and culture in this very large country of ours, like various strains of music found in a symphony.  One of those strains happens to be fascism, and we need to come to terms with it.

The fact that we are the birthplace of modern democracy does not make us immune from the fascists among us and their fascism.  If we define fascism by a few common markers, we can see how fascism has dogged the American ethos for generations.

While the idea of America is an egalitarian rule by majority, fascism is rule by an authoritarian strong-man.  America supports human and civil rights; fascism rejects them and rules by authoritarian fiat.  America believes in the equality of all people; fascism scapegoats minority people, declaring them the enemy of the common good.  America believes in discussion and consensus-building; fascism resorts to violence as a political tool to impose its will.   America has no desire for empire; fascism believes empire is its destiny.

The American civil war was much about fascism, wrapped around slavery.  When you consider the nature of the Confederacy, it neatly fits the definition of a fascist régime: authoritarian government, eschews human and civil rights, scapegoats and oppresses a minority, employs violence to impose its will, has design on empire.  So it should be no surprise that we find people in 2016 who embrace a particular strain of fascism – it is part and parcel of our history.

Fascism is rising again in America in the form of a presidential candidate.  He gives voice again to anger, the will to dominate, an unquenchable need for security, a willingness to resort to violence as a political tool, and a desire for empire.  Empire is always based on greed, and its two tools are theft and slavery.  The last time we allowed fascism to rise among us, 1.8M people were dead by 1865, and it took us over 100 years to recover politically, economically, and morally.  In fact, we are still trying to recover from it.  We cannot make this same mistake again.