Lenten Walk Series 7 (Mountain)

My spirit soars in swelling praise as I rise in altitude.  I come before these vistas as approaching the Lord’s table; the nourishment of sky and terrain feed my soul.  The cry of hawk and eagle are hymns directed by the whistling wind.  It is within the sky-blue walls of this sunday school classroom where these sainted sierras show me the grandeur of God.  Here, surrounded by and in the mountains, I find my many-steepled sanctuary.

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O tall mountains
of confidence in God,
you never surrender when the Lord tests you!
Although you stand far away from me
as if in exile, all alone,
you remind me that 
no armed power is strong enough to best you.
Your trust in God is wonderful!

-Hildegard of Bingen2013-02-21 18.01.29

The mountain opens its secrets only to those who have the courage to challenge it. It demands sacrifice and training. It requires you to leave the security of the valleys but offers spectacular views from the summit to those who have the courage to climb it. Therefore, it is a reality which strongly suggests the journey of the spirit, called to lift itself up from the earth to heaven, to meet God.

-Pope John Paul II2013-02-21 18.02.49The pale flowers of the dogwood outside this window are saints. The little yellow flowers that nobody notices on the edge of that road are saints looking up into the face of God. This leaf has its own texture and its own pattern of veins and its own holy shape, and the bass and trout hiding in the deep pools of the river are canonized by their beauty and their strength. The lakes hidden among the hills are saints, and the sea too is a saint who praises God without interruption in her majestic dance. The great, gashed, half-naked mountain is another of God’s saints. There is no other like him. He is alone in his own character; nothing else in the world ever did or ever will imitate God in quite the same way. That is his sanctity.

-Thomas Merton

Lenten Walk Series 6 (Fire)

We walked our prayers along a Big Sky catwalk on this night.  The children had all fallen asleep and we left them in grandparents’ care while we went to crunch our way through the chilled, still winterscape.  What was immediately evident was the sensory experience of our supplications.  Every prayer was unleashed on a ribbon of breath while the cold night air stung our every lung.  With every step there echoed the crunch of Montana-high-country snow, which has its own taste and scent, too.  Everything seemed so still.  So absolutely frozen and lifeless.  Yet, it only took the mere twinkle of a star to remind us of how much dynamic movement there really was going on all about us: our very own earth planet was in cycle, as was the celestial sky above.  Every tree contained a dormant energy of growth and renewal.  So this became our prayer:

That when our lives appear stagnant and still, we know you are moving, O Lord.
That when we feel cold and dark, we know that You are our internal life-force.
That when we feel nothing moving in our dreams, You are there to light up our inspirations.

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And then we came back to the warmth of our Big Sky home and were immediately struck by the presence, warmth and dynamic movement of the fire within the hearth.  Its dancing, hot flames were in contrast to Winter’s silent setting just beyond the door.  This fire, this energy was a display of exuberance and reminded me of Annie Dillard’s wonderful words:

If the landscape reveals one certainty, it is that the extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation. After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness…. The whole show has been on fire from the word go. I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames. 

Lenten Walk Series 4/5

Gratitude for legacy and heritage have been on our praiseful lips these past two days  as we have made our way to Big Sky, Montanta for a week of skiing with family.  We overnighted in Butte, MT the birthplace of both of my parents and a landscape both sets of my grandparents intimately knew and loved.  My paternal grandfather, Knute Plate, immigrated from Sweden to Butte and worked the mines here in what is known as the “richest hill on earth.”  And, my maternal grandfather advocated and proponed any project or proposal that would keep this motto socially and theoretically true.

2013-02-18 20.45.03One of the projects in which my Grampa, Don Ulrich, was critically involved was the restoration of Blacktrail Creek, which runs through the mid-line of Butte.  This stream corridor, highlighted by the majestic presence of the nearby Continental Divide, had suffered adverse affects by “channelization” (or the straightening of the stream), livestock overgrazing, highway construction, and other urban development.  A primary restoration goal of this project was to improve public access and use of the stream corridor as well as 2013-02-18 20.45.49improving ecosystem function and biodiversity habitat.  The restoration resulted in a healthier stream and made a valuable natural resource more accessible to the public.

The pedestrian trail was renamed the Ulrich-Schotte Nature Trail and is now a two-mile segment of a Greenway system in Butte.  Named after my grandparents, Don and Kathryn Ulrich and their dear friends and civic leaders, George and Jennie Schotte, The Blacktail Creek Restoration Project was completed in 1998. These visionaries believed that this landscape could be more than what it was.  They believed that they didn’t have to be content with the status quo: a sickly stream that was a regular dump site for neighbors’ trash.  Over the years, the project grew from a stream restoration project to include a recreational trail used by thousands of area residents and visitors.  This grand vision resulted in something that would serve the greater community, humans and creatures combined!

Considering the stewardship work that we are currently about in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, I2013-02-18 20.48.11 was struck anew with the realization of all my grandfather did on behalf of Other and the Future.  In this context, he spoke on behalf of the healthy biodiversity that hung in balance depending on the health and well being of this stream corridor.  He had the insight and clarity of mind to foresee that healthy and vibrant ecosystems would result in a native, beautiful landscape that would mutually enhance the health and well-being of Butte’s people and generations to come.  It became clear that we do this work in our lives out of a great 2013-02-18 20.47.34hope for the future, but also because of the legacy and heritage of my family’s DNA.

This was an ideal, which Grampa had to champion with both shovel in hand and policy papers in the other to get the City to support this intrinsic value proposal.  But I understand now that he had a vision that was rooted in justice.  It would be socially irresponsible to allow that stream to dry up due to the City’s mismanagement of resources.  It would also be a 2013-02-18 20.46.39holistic loss for both the creature’s depending on that landscape for life, and the inherent health benefits that would be available to the people if allowed to enjoy this native feature.  Peace is the presence of justice, Martin Luther King Jr. once said.  And the peaceful place that is experienced along this vibrant stream attests to the justice advocated on behalf of systems greater than our own.

For the past couple days we have been walking segments of this trail.  We have offered prayers of thanksgiving for our heritage and ancestors, the lives that link us to a lineage of justness and action.  It has also caused us to reflect more on our own “legacy work”–that great work of making an impact on something greater than, and beyond, ourselves.  We prayed that our children would be impacted by a need outside of themselves that would cause them to cry and subsequently stand up and fight for a better way.  We prayed that they too would continue to walk in our heritage’s path of faith, always looking to the mountains, from where comes our help (Psalm 121:1), for the vision to reimagine a better way on behalf of something greater than themselves.

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Lenten Walk Series 2

Today’s prayer walk was under cloudless skies, which is a rarity for Seattle in February.  And instead of 10 prayerful feet, it was simply my own and Anna’s.  Funny thing how as soon as you draw your line in the sand around an intention, circumstances immediately set themselves up against it.  I’ve learned to identify this as the Pilgrim’s Path, others may call it Murphy’s Law; be it as it may, the boys were unable to get in on the practice today.

Whatever laws were against our family participating today in our Lenten commitment, Anna had clarity of purpose and firmly directed our route.  These pictures represent the prayers for our community, on Anna’s Spirit-led route.

————–

Creator of every country, color and kind,2013-02-15 20.49.31

Forgive us when we see difference instead of commonality.

Forgive us when we we react in fear of Other instead of celebration of diversity.

Give us the eyes to see the intrinsic beauty of cultures other than our own, and develop in us a posture of learning, 2013-02-15 20.48.51gratitude and respect.

Guide us away from judgement, misunderstanding and offense and bring us to the holy grounds of community and neighborly care.

Amen.

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We pray against fences and barriers of all types.2013-02-15 20.46.28

We pray against the fences that keep people out…and the ones that keep far too many others in.  We pray against the chain-links that mark something that some may have, but others may not.  

We pray for the sense of safety that can only come from you, O God-that people so desperately need-because there is so much fear in the world and in our own neighborhood.  

We pray against the violence that fences are 2013-02-15 20.47.34want to proclaim through graffitied messages of hate, intolerance and territory.  Bring peace and freedom to those who rally against the barriers in their lives; may their fists shake their confines with justice, and not bloodshed. 

Amen. 

 

Pilgrim’s Path: Bringing Home the Boon

It is a strange thing to come home.
While yet on the journey, you cannot at all realize how strange it will be.
-Selma Lagerlog (1858-1940)

We’ve been home now for a little while; our Easter arrived and our journey through Lenten landscapes appeared complete.  With celebrations and feasts, we marked the homecoming of our pilgrimage– grateful both for the cross and the completion of the journey it represents.  But it soon became clear, perhaps a day or so into the return into the daily rhythms of the Eastertide calendar, that the time apart had changed us.  The intentional space created by a journey of abstinence or abundance had not only left a mark on our lives, but elbowed out new permanent places in our spirit.  So, while home once again, the hearth is not how we left it.  And it will stay in a state of  strangeness until we are able to assimilate our learnings and experiences into stories of transformation and actions of justice.

The one thing the pilgrim returns home with is wisdom and the responsibility to share the truth gleaned from the profound pilgrimage.  The story that we bring back from our journeys is the boon. There is a universal code of sorts, which requires the pilgrim to “share whatever wisdom you’ve been blessed with on your journey with those who are about to set out on their own journey.”[i] The challenge and bitter truth of coming home from a pilgrimage is that we soon learn that what is a pearl to us is mere pennies to others. How can we even begin to describe the depths to which our soul has traveled?  Ultimately, it is our changed life that must tell the story of our journey; no picture slide show or souvenir will scratch the surface of the truth found at the sacred center.

In Joseph Campbell’s popular book of essays Myths to Live By, he described something pertinent to our theme of sacred journeys: “The ultimate air of the quest if one is to return, must be neither release nor ecstasy for oneself, but the wisdom and the power to serve others.”  This parallels the belief of the ancient wisdom teachers that the ultimate answer to the sorrows of the world is the boon of increased self-knowledge.[ii]  Interestingly enough, this responsibility resonates with Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  It seems clear that the great value of a pilgrimage is to return with a knowledge of self that will enable one to engage the world’s needs in an authentic and passionate way.

Because of the journey to the sacred center, and the perils experienced to get there, you are transformed.  And because you have changed, so will your home. You have encountered the Holy-experienced God in a fresh new way-and as a result of your epiphany and your struggle, you will not relate to your world or those in it as you did before.[iii]  Your challenge is to now live into the new edges of your life, inhabiting the new spaces created by pushing through the trails of your inner-soul landscape.  These are the places where dynamic opportunities lay for you to share your wisdom and bring back the boon of your journey.

————-

Since you have been home from your Lenten journey, have you had the opportunity to share with anyone about your experiences?  Have you identified the ways in which you have changed?  What were the waymarkers that truly transformed you?  In what ways can you continue living forward out of these places of transformation? 

————-

Set up waymarks for yourself,
Make yourself guideposts:
Consider well the highway,
The road by which you went.
-Jeremiah 31:21


[i] Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage, (Boston, MA: Conari Press, 1998), 216.

[ii] Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage, (Boston, MA: Conari Press, 1998), 217.

[iii] Sarah York, Pilgrim Heart: The Inner Journey Home, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001),149.

Arrival: Holy Week

We ride into our beloved Jerusalem, the sacred destination of our wanderings these past many weeks.  Here we will shout our hopeful hosannas, weep with unexpected sorrow, and celebrate our ultimate Answer.  As we look about this place of our arrival, do we feel compelled to echo the behaviors of Jesus as he walked through the expectant streets towards Calvary?  What do you feel when you look across your living landscapes, when you touch your city’s wealthy and impoverished walls, when you are carried away in the lofty cathedrals?  Do you feel joy? Do you pray?  Do you weep?

Jesus, you wept for the city you loved – in your words and actions the oppressed found justice and the angry found release…. (prayer heading used on Iona)

The traveler has important tasks upon arriving to their final destination.  Because the entire journey has been intentionally marked and prayerfully pondered, so must the arrival.  This is the time to surround yourself with prayers, poems and hymns that anchor your place and provide the touchstone for this final experience.  Phil Cousineau speaks to the essential task of “feeling the thrill of completing your pilgrimage…If we remember that the word thrill originally referred to the vibrations the arrow made when it hits the target, than the pleasure is compounded.  There is joy in having arrived, moment by moment.”  We have come far on this Lenten pilgrimage; we have sacrificed, we have given, we have changed.

There is deep value in going through this seasonal process for what began in our winter, has now come to completion in our spring.  With fresh, vibrant colors surrounding us, we too see the contexts of our lives with fresh new eyes.  We hear with a new kind of clarity.  With this sense of lucidity, comes both gratitude and responsibility.  The appreciation for the lessons learned on the long journey translates to a new sense of obligation, a fresh response of advocacy.  We have come to love more deeply in this season and like Jesus, we weep with the depth of this love for Others and we know we cannot return to pre-pilgrimage ways.  We have been changed by the wintery road, and subsequently, so will be our home-lives.  New growth has sprung from the soil of the sojourn. How to respond to our changedness may seem overwhelming; in these moments we must pray and pray according to the lessons learned.

Today I share with you a beautiful Holy Week prayer written by the Iona Community’s Neil Paynter.  These beseeching words seem a fitting response to the Lenten Labyrinth where we have seen and witnessed the pain and suffering of our deepest selves, which is the pain of so many others.  May this prayer be yours today as you anchor into the ancient and present meanings of these most holy days.

—–

Visionary God, architect
of heaven and earth,
unless we build in partnership with you we labor in vain

Help us work to create cities
modeled more faithfully
on the plan of your Kingdom –

Communities where children are respected and encouraged
where young people can express themselves creatively
where the experience of old people is called on
where the insights and gifts of all God’s people are fully realized
where shared gardens and plots bloom in once derelict places
where all cultures and traditions are honored and celebrated
on soulful, carnival streets
where gay couples can dance to the beat of their hearts
homeless people are received with loving arms and open borders
news vendors cry Hosanna!
All are fed and loved and set free…

O God, our maker, open our eyes to new possibilities and perspectives,
organizations and projects, structures and outlooks…

Help us to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem:

to break down the barriers in ourselves that
prevent us from reaching out to neighbors and making peace;
to rebuild communities based on understanding and justice,
illuminated with the true light of Christ.

Amen

-Neil Paynter

Pilgrim’s Path: Roadside blessings

This is the great moment, when you see, however distant, the goal of your wandering.
The thing wich has been living in
your imagination suddenly becomes a part of the tangible world.
-Freya Stark

In a few weeks time, thousands of people from all over the world will gather outside of Boston’s city-skirts.  Individuals committed to a cause, a question, a challenge, with hundreds of miles of distance carried in their limbs, will congregate, and celebrate, in this  community.  Lithe, strong bodies will arise before the sun to lace up shoes and participate in the consummation of months-yes, even years-of training for The Boston Marathon.

While it is no Delphi, to argue that this notable race isn’t a sacred shrine would be to miss the enormous effort and journey it has taken everyone to get there.  The rewards of participating in this race are immediate and life-altering, as are the hours of sacrifice it took to reach the point of being able to simply look at the starting line.  And while the last 26.2 miles may seem to others the beginning and end of a great race, this really is the final stage of a pilgrimage that one was called to long ago.  For one doesn’t enter into the rigorous training and sacrificial lifestyle of marathon-preparation without carrying a deep and heavy question about something in their life.  And the pilgrim-runner inevitably carries this question or concern with them every single training mile and all the way to the starting line.  The race itself sets the stage for the soul-stirring vision and provides the sacred encounter, which can replenish the runner’s life.

In what feels like another life-time ago, I had the great opportunity to participate in Boston’s 100th marathon.  It wasn’t necessarily something that I set after, per se.  As it often is with the great seasons of life, it calls to and names us, even before we are significantly aware.  I had started running with a bit more focus while living abroad in Sweden.  After a handful of minor successes at small neighborhood races, I was encouraged (by my mother) to consider training for the Stockholm Marathon.  With youth and unfettered responsibilities on my side, I was able to train and prepare well for this race.  I wanted to participate in something that would give me a real, temporal perspective of the Apostle Paul’s words to the church in Corinth: Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever (I Corinthians 9:24-15).  When an athlete decides to run a marathon, he or she commits to serious training. Why would it be any different with my spiritual life?  I was reminded of the many stories in my faith tradition that involved transformational journeys, all of which included a road of some sorts and an encounter with the Almighty.  I wanted this training to transform me.  I wanted to be touched by God and be changed in return.  I wanted the milage put in on the road to be full of meaning.

I crossed the Stockholm Marathon’s finish line with a time that qualified me for Boston’s heralded race.  I shook my head in both confusion and surprise as my father this time, nodded his head emphatically:  You’ve got to run Boston, I recall him saying, This is a chance of a lifetime!  What I thought was the end of my running race, that which I imagined was the source of divine inspiration for me, turned out to be just the beginning of a greater pilgrimage towards knowing myself and subsequently, knowing God.

Drizzled, fog-filled back-country roads became my training ground.  I found mountain’s foothills and ran repeats up and down their curves to ready myself for notorious aspects of Boston’s course.  My dad would drive me 20 miles east into the North Cascade mountain range, drop me off, and meet me at home. I ran in the mornings.  I ran in the afternoons.   I read articles about running.  I studied maps of Boston.  And I dreamt of my finisher’s jacket.  My time, my energy, my life was focused and centered on preparing well for this event, and I believe I truly did what I could to make ready the road.

—–

The morning of Boston’s finest race had sparkled with diamond dew and turquoise skies.  My strategies to gain ground had worked, my stamina was strong and I was on the clock to PR this race and qualify again for the following year.  I was doing great by mile 20.  The almost half mile ascent up the infamous Heartbreak Hill began.  My feet kept a steady pace, my heart and spirit felt strong and determined: this is what I had trained for all those miles up and down Northwest woodland roads.  I crested the mighty climb!  The rest of the race was downhill; the finish line was almost palpable!  Soon enough I would be drinking beers and eating an amazing pasta dinner somewhere in the city with my family-I could almost taste the joy of that delicious finish line!

But then, at the high descent point, blew a wind so strong, that even my down-hill pace was slowed and swayed by its force.  And this easterly gust, being channeled by narrow streets, carried with it a chill for which I could never have prepared myself.  My once wet head, a mixture of both hot sweat and hastily poured road-side water, was quickly drying and taking with it my body’s crucial temperature and energy reserves.  I didn’t have additional layers and I was getting so cold.  Soon enough, I recall not being able to feel my hands and feet; that sensation moved through my extremities as I began to navigate the tunnel my vision was presenting me.  I was staggering.  And suddenly, alongside me came an upholding embrace and a warm, gentle voice offered me their top long-sleeve layer and gloves.  Somehow, while still running, I was helped into these items, and this loving arm stayed around my side until my vision began to steady and open up again.  When I turned to thank this benevolent fellow runner, there was no one there.  I mean, yes, there were thousands around me, running past me, not seeing me, but there was no one who had just just stopped and gambled away their race time on ministering to me.

Bewildered and blessed, I tried to keep running and just finish the race.  My personal record was shot, as was my chance to run Boston again the following year, but I knew I still must cross the finish line.  As I did, my state must’ve been like a siren, as medics immediately brought me to the first aid tent.  I had hypothermia and had I not had these great layers and gloves, I could’ve been very badly off, I was told.  My body lay wrapped in emergency blankets for what felt like hours processing this experience.  My heart was warmed by the memory of whomever-or whatever-it was that covered and comforted me on the road.  My spirit was stirred by that service; I knew that God had brought me through the race and I now began the work of pondering the wisdom of the finish line.

That ultimate sense of wonder within the experience is what drives so many people to engage in these rigorous trials.  Father Stephen Canny, an Irish priest who leads a parish in Santa Rosa, California, believes strongly in the effectiveness of pilgrimage.  He has climbed Croagh Patrick, a popular pilgrimage site and storied mountain in Ireland, three times himself and has seen it work wonders on the devoted. “You are more alive after you have overcome something difficult,” he says.  “You’re changed by the mountain and the fact that you have confirmed your faith.  It’s a remarkably effective way to answer the question, What is my purpose?”

Tomorrow, Palm Sunday, marks the beginning of Holy Week for Christians around the world.  In the accounts of the four Gospels, Jesus road into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, whilst the gathered crowd waved the branches of palm branches and laid them on the ground before the mounted Christ.  An incredible journey had brought Jesus to this point, this final stretch of dusty road.  His riding into the sacred city proclaimed his purpose, and people blessed him with shouts of Hosannah.  His entire life time–nay, all of time–had led him to this pivotal point in the Greatest Story ever told.  He would climb the most important hill in humanity’s history in the upcoming week.  And it would be a heart breaking hill.

But because of this great ascent, and the cross at the crest, we have the potential of knowing our uniquely created purpose in ways that only can occur through a cosmic lens!

——

This week, as we move through the last leg of our Lenten journey, reflect on these questions as a means of bringing you to your place of pilgrimage, your Easter-place:
What sacrifices have you made to get this far?
What has the inward experience been for you while you have traveled the outward road?
What are your recollections of images of humbleness on your journey?
The call that has brought you thus far was the call to pay attention to the sacred source in your life.  What is your response?