Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sabbatical Journal: Entry #1

The drive from Salt Lake City to the little resort town of Moab takes you through big-sky vistas of red buttes spreading out for mile upon mile and soaring into surprising shapes, some narrow and blunt, some broad and sloped, all of them standing like stubborn soldiers in a war against time. Like everything else that takes the form of being, of course, they are losing that war, but so slowly as to win our admiration.

Snow-capped mountains line the distant horizon; they are impassive and imperial and glamorous, like celebrities or gods shining against the bright blue sky. I flatter myself by imagining them watching me as I drive across this enormous landscape, but of course they have bigger things on their minds. They converse with the sun, and whisper to the moon; they gossip about the Himalayas. I am nothing to them, just one of a thousand unremarkable ants making its way across their back yards.

If a mountain ever did deign to observe my progress, what would it see? A sadly unremarkable specimen: a middle-aged human sporting a week-old beard that has been overrun by grey hair. The man is hunched over the wheel of a mini-van filled with camping supplies; he pulls into a gas station and gets out to stretch. The mountain would observe a little paunch that the man takes pains to conceal by tucking his shirt in just so; he would observe a face wincing in pain as the man stretches his lower back.

If the mountain got to know him better, it would learn that he is a priest of a pitiably anthrocentric religion (“Everyone knows God is a mountain,” it would sniff).

This particular priest is, this very day, launching his first real sabbatical in 20 years of ordained ministry. I will be away from my parish for four and a half months, splitting my time between formal studies, conferences, and over 9 weeks of pure down time, beginning with this solo 2 1/2 week camping trip to Southeastern Utah.

I wanted to begin my sabbatical with silence, and prayer, and talking to the mountains, and listening to the earth.

While I’m in the desert I will be asking a lot of questions. I've made an inventory of them - and am happy to note that none of them have to do with my marriage. This is the only thing in my life that I have never questioned. My wife of 26 years is as beautiful as she is quick-witted and open-hearted. She is a psychologist who works with extremely difficult people; somehow she bears this exhausting work with grace and good humor. She is a wonder to me.

I will be away from her for most of this sabbatical time. I miss her already. She will join me for a month in New Zealand at the end of the sabbatical – a place we have both always wanted to visit. We can hardly believe our good fortune.

The air is warm on this mid-April day. Ponderosa pines and red bluffs make this look for all the world like a Western movie set. I turn on the air-conditioning in my minivan and fret about increasing my carbon footprint. I also feel guilty about the fact that as I drive I am simultaneously listening to my iPod and charging my Kindle and checking my Blackberry for a signal. I am embarrassed by all this but not enough to have left them behind. I plan on a gradual withdrawal.

This is what sabbatical is for, I think – to loose the bonds of our ordinary habits. I am eager to see what rises to the surface when the waters are more still. I dreamed last night of ominous panthers and friendly hounds. The night before I dreamed I was a god who could not decide what form to take. I briefly became a plump and complacent man, then said, no, not that. I then became glorious and strong, an Apollo, and I wondered, “How long can this last?”

Before I set off for my camp in the desert, I stayed at a wonderful bed and breakfast at Mt. Peale, Utah and inadvertently left my laundry behind. After 4 days in the desert I returned to pick it up. The hostess said, “You look like you’ve been reborn!” I said, “Not quite yet, but I’m making progress.”

I’ve been praying for Spirit to keep showing up. Please join me in that prayer.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Sabbatical Journal: Canyonlands

A few pictures: My campsite just outside Canyonlands National Park; my thanks to Louisville Institute, which funded this sabbatical; the bus station in Reno that I spent a night in when I was 17 years old, hitch-hiking across the country.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Breaking into Blossom

Sermon Easter 2009

Good morning and Happy Easter!

We got two pieces of good news yesterday. The first one has to do with that rule – you know the one – the rule that says that everything that tastes good is bad for you. Apparently that rule has been overturned! This is true: Scientists have discovered that eating chocolate improves your math scores. So that’s great news – but the bad news is that after you eat your Easter bunny, I guess today would be a great day to finish your taxes.

The second bit of good news is that scientists have also discovered the exact chemical reasons why bacon tastes so good. It turns out it’s some kind of complicated interaction of amino acids and enzymes or something. They said on the radio that this now replaces what used to be the accepted theory, which was that God loves us and wants us to be happy.
(Heard on "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" Sat April 11 2009

I liked the old theory better...

I know a lot of you were here two days ago, on Good Friday – seems like a long time ago now... With the 3 services and all that praying, I did a lot of kneeling on Good Friday. Then on Saturday morning I got out of bed and began to climb down the stairs and my knees almost buckled under me.

Now I get to add my knees to the list of creaky body parts that are going south.

My body's descent into old age and death feels closer and more certain with every passing Good Friday. So what do I do? I go to the gym, of course; I get on the Stairmaster to try to reverse this descent and the Stairmaster becomes a cruel symbol of the aging process – climbing all those stairs, and getting nowhere.

I don’t mean to get maudlin here but the other day I stumbled across some old pictures of my wife and me, from 25 years ago. We were newly married. It had been years since I had seen these photos and they hit me with such force - my God, look at how young we were! Somehow it seemed like a fresh revelation that we ever looked that good. Of course my wife hasn't aged a day but the contrast to my present condition was rather sobering, to say the least. Sobering like a cold shower after a wedding reception. Sobering like the first time they stopped putting all the birthday candles on your birthday cake because of the fire hazard.

So in light of all this evidence of our certain mortality, how could anyone possibly believe these ancient stories about resurrection?

When I was younger, back in the good old days when I knew everything, I used to think that Christianity was nothing more than a random collection of myths and fairy tales. It was so obvious: how could any intelligent person possibly believe such fantasies?

But then my understanding of belief shifted; I discovered a more subtle intelligence lying beneath the surface of my rational mind; an intelligence of poetry and sacred story and music and imagination.

It is not very interesting to me what your theory of Christ's resurrection is - what actually happened on that first Easter morning 2,000 years ago is hidden forever in the shroud of time and archaeologists are never going to uncover a long-lost surveillance video from the tomb to settle the question. All we will ever know is that whatever happened, it was an event of enough force that it inspired a self-centered and none too bright collection of disciples to recklessly spend their lives proclaiming the significance of this event to the four corners of the known world. That should give the most ardent of skeptics pause. But in the end we would all be missing the point if we spent too much time trying to figure it out.

Far more rewarding, if you dare, is to travel to that region of your soul where your thinking ends and your all your striving for sense and order is at rest. It is as if you are standing on a dock overlooking a calm and placid lake; it is a warm summer day. It feels like the lake is calling to you, inviting you, and you kick off your shoes and dive off the dock into the water of your deepest longings, your warmest currents; your dark and murky depths. This is the area where the sacred stories of religion live and make sense; they are like treasures sunk in the sea; you can only find them by diving in.

People who, like me when I was younger, criticize religion from the outside are like people who think they know all about the ocean but have stuck their toe in it – have never felt the thrill of the waves rushing over their feet; have never felt the dangerous undertow pulling them further out.

For some strange reason they think that swimming in these waters is beside the point – but that’s the only point.

The great Sufi poet Rumi said,

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.

50 years ago, a man and his traveling companion were driving through the Midwest and just outside of Rochester, Minnesota they pulled off the highway. It was coming on to twilight and they got out of the car to stretch their legs; looking up the man saw two Indian ponies in a pasture, trotting toward them.

Later, he would write a poem about these ponies:
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me...
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other."

One of the ponies, black and white, approaches him and nuzzles his hand:

"Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom."
-James Wright, from "A Blessing"
from "The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart", p.435

When’s the last time you felt like you were about to “break into blossom”?

They don’t come often, but some of us, if we’ve learned to swim in the deep waters, have these moments; these moments when the world seems to stop and everything comes to balance on this one still point of knowing: and we know what it means to be resurrected.

There is something deep inside us that knows all about resurrection – if it didn’t, the idea of resurrection would bounce off our brains like so many other impossible ideas.

No, deep down we know.

And deep down, we know we are not alone.
The Nobel prize winning poet, Juan Ramon Jimenez, wrote this:
I am not I.
I am this one
Walking beside me whom I do not see,
Whom at times I manage to visit,
And at other times I forget.
The one who remains silent when I talk,
The one who forgives, sweet, when I hate,
The one who takes a walk when I am indoors,
The one who will remain standing when I die.
translated by Robert Blye
in "The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart", p. 367

Deep down, we know what it means to be resurrected; we know it in our bones, in our flesh and blood. We can feel it, in our bodies. It is a secret knowing, discovered in the region of dreams and prayers.

This knowing begins to surface in the places we might least expect it – in our futility, our weakness, our woundedness, our dying. With every ache and pain, there is a cry for relief that comes from a place where we are healed; with every wrinkle that appears in the mirror there is a memory of timeless youth; with every bit of news of injustice and murder there is a protest that comes from the knowledge that the world should not be this way; that it doesn’t need to be this way.

We know this because in the deepest part of where we live, we have seen God’s Kingdom; not only have we seen that Kingdom, we have come from there; we are citizens of that Eternal City; and we know that this is where we will return one day.

In the midst of our brief and painful lives we feel the resurrection rising within us.

It starts in our woundedness: our aging, our disappointment, our despair; it begins in pain and protest against the dying of the light.

But it doesn’t need to end there. If we dare to lift our hearts; if we dare to lift our prayers of yearning to the Source of light and the Spring of love, a connection is made; the uncreated energy of the Holy One is awakened in our bodies comes alive; and we rise; we rise and our souls are lifted up; we rise and our wounds are left behind; we rise and we awaken to what we have known all along:
that God is alive;
God has defeated death.
We understand now, this ancient story that is written on our hearts;
We are in the garden at the empty tomb, and the tomb is ours;
we are standing, now, in the presence this curious angel, who is pointing the way to the resurrection;
we are present, now, to this risen Christ, who is wounded and walking among us;
And now we know because he is alive;
Alive within us!
And we stand –
stand up! stand up!
And we raise our hands
and we raise our voices; and we shout it to the morning;
and we shout it to our souls:
Christ is alive!
Christ is alive!
And so are we!

Praise be to God, Alleluia, Alleluia, the Lord is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Win Twins!

As the Hopeful Priest goes into sabbatical mode, he would like to leave his readers with these important words of comfort and good cheer:

*The Win! Twins! Fight Song*

We’re gonna win Twins, we’re gonna score!
We’re gonna win Twins, watch that baseball soar!
Knock out a homerun, shout a hip-hooray!
Cheer for the Minnesota Twins today!

We’re gonna win Twins, give it our all!
We’ve got the guys who’ll knock the cover off the ball!
Let’s hear it now for the team that came to play!
Cheer for the Minnesota Twins today!

Lyrics by Dick Wilson
(music by Ray Charles, but not THAT Ray Charles.)