Seminary Musings: Connected to the Other through the Stars and Soil

ImageFriends,

On this Day of Epiphany, and before my next term at school holds my time hostage once again, I wanted to take a moment to share some of the emerging thoughts that have been personally prominent these past few months.  As we take time today to reflect on the legendary Three Wise Men, kingly magis who had deep knowledge of the links between the Divine and the cosmos, may we too ponder how we invite our celestial neighbors to inform our sense of awe of the Grand Story in which we continue to participate. 

I returned to seminary with an understanding that I needed a framework of academy and community to speak into inklings and intuitions that I have based my vocational experiences upon.  My work of the last 10 years has been based on ideas that promote living on behalf of the Other and the Future as a way of delving into a meaningful life that furthers the peace of heaven on earth.  These reflections have led me to actively engage our urban neighborhood in a call to see our local urban forest as both “other” and the future in that there has been a traditional treatment of this land that is akin to oppression, misalignment, marginalization and fear.  My hunch over the last many years has drawn connections with how we treat our native landscapes and how we treat one another.  It is no longer a surprise that this particular Southeast Seattle forest is also one that is stymied by outdated models of conservation and policies that have prevented and prohibited access by the City’s most diverse and traditionally underserved community.

This is all to say, the intersection of urban place, the environment, and how this all informs our spiritual identity has been driving my academic pursuits, and will continue to be the lens from which I look at my learnings and studies.  I would like to share with you all my “Theological Anthropology” paper that was assigned for one of my courses last term.  Yes, this is a vulnerable display of my academic blunderings, but my desire is to stay transparent with my Waymarkers community in what I’m learning, and where, I (and this on-line community) is heading in the future.  I would love to hear your thoughts and reflections on this paper!  With that, please do read on with great grace for my professional attempts.  Perhaps a bringing along cup of tea would assist in the softening of the reading!  And may this be an invitation for us all to be like the Three Wise Men, and continue to look up to the stars as guidance for our journey on the soil of this good earth below.

 

 

 

A Theological Anthropology: Loving Your Neighbor Well Through the Land

  

Different faith traditions from all over the world uphold the basic tenants of The Golden Rule or the ethic of reciprocity.  Echoes of this wise code, from Hinduism (“Treat others as you would yourself be treated.”) to Native American spirituality (“Live in harmony, for we are all related.”), carry a similar semblance of the demand that people treat others in a manner in which they themselves would like to be treated (Princeton University, Ethic of reciprocity, n.d.). The intrinsic morality that is bound in this maxim, as delivered by YHWY in Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD,” contains essential attributes of the way humanity is called to live in connection with the Creator through kinship with others on this planet.  The triune nature of the Trinity makes God’s self known through diversity in relationships with the other and revelation through Nature, and subsequently models and informs how one lives wholly and well in intentional relationship with other people and things.  It is through the mutual respectful engagement of all living things—be it neighbor or nature—that a justice-oriented response to living occurs; one that discovers and responds to the goodness of God through the integrated presence, and subsequent love, of the other and the natural world. 

The Western Judeo/Christian ethical standard to love one’s neighbor as one’s self demands that one exists fully and well when in relationship with human beings and other living things for it is in the exposure and experience with others that God is encountered.  With the call to love one’s neighbor as much as one’s self, there is an inherent challenge to enter into a degree of relationship that removes the other from a place of isolated alienation to a place in the community, even to the extent of being the one who literally lives next door.  By use of the glaring call within Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:29, Guitiérrez (2000) courageously claims that love for God is activated by loving the neighbor, particularly the wounded or needy (p. 149).  Guitiérrez dares people of faith to see the neighbor as someone other than the like-minded person with whom one shares similar dreams and passions, and adjacent real estate in a suburban cul-de-sac.  He states, “The neighbor is not the one whom I find in my path, but rather the one in whose path I place myself, the one whom I approach and actively seek” (Guitiérrez, 2000, p. 153).  Based on an intentional relocating of the other, or relocating to become neighbors to the other, one can shift objectifying macro-perceptions to the personal, integrated stuff of one’s very own lives, and lean into the dynamic lifestyle of transforming Other to Neighbor to Self where the self-preservation with which one is born is willfully desired for all who live and exist.  

This justice-oriented approach of integrating the other into one’s daily life finds theological grounding in Jürgen Moltmann’s (1993) ecological doctrine of creation.  The monotheistic standpoint of God resulted in a historical perception of a God that was disconnected from the created world, but maintained a powerful presence as ruler and owner of all therein.  Moltmann (1985) states, “As a result, the human being—since he was God’s image on earth—…was bound to confront his world as its ruler” (pg. 1).  As dominator, the human being could be excused from a relationship with all of creation and move into roles of objectifier and oppressor.  This role as ruler, which again allowed the human to relate to a monotheistic God, justified actions against anyone other-than-himself and an exploitative use of the earth and its resources.  This way of understanding God clearly has ill effects on the globe and its community; therefore Moltmann (1985) offers a Trinitarian perspective of God that binds all of humanity and creation in a relationship created for the common good:

If we cease to understand God monotheistically as the one, absolute subject, but instead see him in a Trinitarian sense as the unity of the Father, the Son and the Spirit, we can then no longer, either, conceive his relationship to the world he created as a one-sided relationship of domination. We are bound to understand it as an intricate relationship of community.

(p. 2) 

The Trinitarian nature of God provides a relational model that mandates a knowledge and understanding of the other, and a relationship that results in a bond from stranger to that of neighbor.  

This transformational process is made available because of the incarnational nature of God and the Christian’s call to embody Christ.  The nature of God is relational as seen in the Trinity; therefore we are bound to understand God in relationship with community.  Barsness (2006) understands this relational encounter as hallowed when he states “Our relationships must be held sacred, for it is the nature of God to reveal himself incarnationally” (p. 45). It is in relationship with others, where Christ is embodied, and where humanity becomes the Imago Christi.  So, when care is extended for others, it is Christ caring; when forgiveness is offered, it is Christ forgiving; when reconciliation is engaged, it is Christ healing and reconciling through the embodiment of the human experience.  To dispense God’s healing and wholeness through encounters with others, to be present to their pain and needs requires a physical presence to those wounded places and people.  Martin Buber (1970) would say, “God is present when I confront you. But if I look away from You, I ignore him. As long as I merely experience or use you, I deny God. But when I encounter You I encounter him (p. 28).  It is in this call to the genuine encounter with another human being or life with nature (Buber, 1970, p. 57) that Moltmann’s (1985) doctrine of creation and Guitiérrez’s (2000) liberation theology weave together into a critical challenge for humanity in the 21st century; the future of fecund life on this planet will be determined by the ability to extend justice and love for neighbor to include the rights of the earth and the greater community of things with whom life is shared on this planet.  Indeed, to be an image-bearer of the Imago Christi involves loving respect for all of God’s creatures.

Moltmann (1985) states, “The dignity of human beings is unforfeitable, irrelingquishable and indestructible” (p. 33).  To see the human in a state of inherent goodness transforms how one views the other and has vast implications for how relational engagement ensues.  To stand with an understanding of created dignity invites one to seek out the Divine in one another; we are challenged with the beauty of truly encountering the Imago Dei in others in our neighborhood.  Furthermore, this posture of dignity has implications for the planet and beyond.  Aquinas says: “God wills that humans exist for the sake of the perfection of the universe” (as sited in Fox, 2011, p. 28).  This same inherent goodness can be applied to the natural world, which also participates in worship and adoration of the Creator God.  Aquinas also stated:

Because the Divine goodness could not be adequately expressed by one creature alone, God has produced many and diverse creatures so what is wanting in one in the representation of divine goodness might be supplied by another.  Thus the whole universe together participates in the divine goodness.  (p. 28)

This is a celebration of the diverse order of created things and underscores the importance of a relational view of the diversity of the Trinity.  This perspective also recovers a sense of the sacred in local neighborhoods and the greater landscapes beyond by acknowledging the inherent goodness and revelatory means of Creation.  However, implicit in the genuine encounters available with the other on a sidewalk or forested trail, is the need to rediscover the vastness of God’s immanence beyond our world.  There is a need to recover a sense of this grand divine cosmos, a whole in which all of humanity participates as image bearers of God.

The Imago Christi participates in this elaborate perspective as well.  Cultural historian and spiritual ecologist Thomas Berry (1987) is explicit in placing his vision in the lineage of the Cosmic Christ, which is written of in John’s Gospel (Christ as the ‘light in all things’).  He writes:

If Saint John and Saint Paul could think of the Christ form of the universe, if Aquinas could say that the whole universe together participates in the divine goodness more perfectly and represents it better than any single creature whatever, and if Teilard could insist that the human gives to the entire cosmos its most sublime mode of being, then it should not be difficult to accept the universe itself as the primordial sacred community. (p. 38)

 

This is a clear and grand picture beyond the anthropocentrism from which the Christian consciousness needs to depart; a move in this direction not only affirms the dignity of humanity, but that of the other, which includes the vast and great cosmic community of which our planet is a part.  This is a bold movement from seeing God as the absolute subject, which increasingly stripped God of his connection with the world (Moltmann, 1970, p. 1).       

The effects of a monotheological thought regime has wreaked havoc on the marginalized and on our planet.  In fact, it could be argued that geoengineering (the intentional large-scale modification of the earth and weather patterns by dominating humans) schemes have become uniformly disastrous as we see the heart-wrenching effects of damming and deforestation on our planet and within our communities (Jenson, 2013, p. 11).  McFague (2002) provides a helpful theological framework of traditional models of the God-world relationship and why these models result in thought patterns and behaviors that are detrimental to the earth, the greater community of things, and ultimately, even personally.  She suggests a critical shift to the agential model by asserting that the world is God’s body (p. 40).  To understand this in light of Buber’s (1970) life-with-nature relational sphere allows one to fully accept and engage the natural world as revelatory (p. 58).  While Buber would have understood this relation to be with individual animals, rocks, or elements, this intentional awareness of the potential of a genuine encounter with the natural world is evidenced when he writes, “something lights up and approaches us from the course of [its] (the tree) being” (Kramer, 2003, p. 52-53).  During an I/Thou encounter with a natural thing, there is the unique particularity of the thing that “speaks;” this is relational evidence that the created world emanates from the Creator.  The resulting effect of Buber’s (1970) relational sphere with the natural world and McFauge’s (2002) agential model offers freedom to live fully and transformational into local neighborhoods, thus affecting global trends. 

            To divorce God’s presence from the created world has had profound effects on the human and community experience.  The resulting disconnect from nature can be seen the world over; while it is evidenced in the power-over posture that has resulted in geoengineering sciences, it is also evident on local levels in how traditional cities have been designed with little access to Nature in mind.  “People with less access to nature show relatively poor attention or cognitive function, poor management of major life issues, poor impulse control,” says Frances Kuo, a professor at the University of Illinois, adding that humans living in a neighborhood stripped of nature undergo patterns of social, psychological, and physical breakdown similar to those observed in animals deprived of their natural habitat. “In animals, what you see is increased aggression, disrupted parenting patterns, and disrupted social hierarchies” (Louv, 2013, n.p.).  One cannot live the designed life of wholeness and health without engaging the natural world.  There is a profound link between how one engages creation and subsequently treats the other, and their neighbor.

The resulting negative psychological implications of removing access to nature in urban communities has been noted and strong voices are now coming to the table to encourage urban leaders and designers to re-imagine how to integrate natural and wild landscapes into cities and neighborhoods.  Richard Louv (2013), the author of the renowned book Last Child in the Woods, also contests that genuine encounters with the natural world will have profound effects on our communities on neighborhoods.  Note his list of the seven comprehensive effects of access to nature on communities: improves psychological health, may help reduce domestic violence, natural playgrounds may decrease bullying, encountering other species help children develop empathy, greater biodiversity in cities can increase social and family bonding, and more nature in one’s life can offset the dangerous psychological impact of climate change (Louv, 2013, n.p).  There is something physiological that occurs within the human when exposed to the unpredictable environment; the body, mind, and spirit positively reacts when experiencing the earth beneath their feet and the euphoric effects impacts not only the individual, but also the community for good.  Creation is designed to be revelatory and provides not only the environment for a genuine encounter with God, but also is the context for where people engage others in a sacred space of dialogue.  Jones (1985) speaks to this socio-wilderness dynamic when he says:

Without the occasional abrasive brush with the unexpected, human life soon becomes a mere matter of routine; and, before we know where we are, a casual indifference and even brutality takes over and we begin to die inside. The shock breaks open the deadly ‘everydayness’ that ensnares us and brings something awesome and terrifying to our reluctant attention: the believer’s name for that ‘something’ is God. (p. 84)   

Clearly, there is something of the essential goodness of God that is bestowed on God’s creation for the effects of natural environments to have such profound effects on a person.  To not have exposure and experience with nature can lead to the brutal posture that objectifies and exploits the other.   To see the inherent goodness in nature and its intended presence in the lives of humanity leads to a therapeutic stance that acknowledges how the surrounding landscapes can participate in the healing and wholeness of individuals and communities.  The mysteries of God will be better accommodated when we recalibrate God’s creative landscape to include planet earth and every creature that lives here.

Our neighborhoods are never singular communities, but are actually a mesh of myriad overlapping networks. We all belong to many different communities, from the diffuse (i.e. a professional association, or an online message board), to the intimate (i.e. a family, or a group of friends).  In consideration of the paramount impact of how a landscape informs an individual and how they connect to the other in their community, there is an emerging theory called “Placemaking” that aims to create a balance of uses in public spaces that serve the many communities at once; in this way a landscape can serve as a therapeutic response to the needs of a neighborhood.  A single place can’t do everything at once, so “Placemaking” prompts us to look for convenient and clever ways to make limited space serve multiple functions.   De Botton and Armstrong (2013) have suggested that by balancing ones need with those of the people by which one lives, one finds their place, literally and figuratively, within a community of neighbors.  By inviting the presence of a place to participate in the lives of communities for a common good, there is an acknowledgment of something profound and beyond human-limitations that is unleashed: God moves back into the neighborhood!

 The challenge of loving and caring for one another well in the 21st century requires one to recover a primordial sense of the vast mystery of God and apply that energy to paying attention to the earth.  Our love of neighbor needs to be extended to the greater community of things on this planet and our neighborhood needs to considerably broaden to include our universe as well.  Historically anthropocentric views have concerned Christians with the redemption of this world alone, and have disconnected the very nature of a connected, covenantal God with the diversity of his inherently good creation.  Nobel Peace Prize two-time nominee Ervin Lazlo (2011) attests that “seeing ourselves as separate from the world fuels selfish and irresponsible tendencies: we are only responsible for ourselves, and not for ‘foreigners,’ ‘competitors,’ and ‘others’” (p. 117).  In bringing the care of the earth into the folds of reconciliation, there is acknowledgement that human-centric modern history has caused great harm to marginal people groups, and environmental injustice to a host of living beings on this planet, as well as a severe disconnect from the goodness with which the earth was designed, and how that endowed goodness was created to participate in the whole person and health of a community.

In returning to a grand sense of awe before the God of the Universe, God’s relationship is placed with humanity into the context of billions and billions of galaxies.  This profound placement of the Great Mystery has immediate effects on how we engage and encounter the other and all living things.  “The experience of our connection with each other and the universe would inspire solidarity among people and empathy with all life on earth” (Lazlo, 2011, p. 124).  While God is intimately present as one’s neighbor on the front porch, to allow God’s cosmic vastness and presence in creation will inspire a critical mass that espouses values of sustainability, peace, and personal and social responsibility.  In this way, the embodied life of God is seen on earth.  The wisdom of the ethic of reciprocity, or The Golden Rule, unleashes love and empathy for the other and transforms all life on earth into one’s very neighbor. 

 

 

References

 

Barsness, R. (2006). Surrender and transcendence in the therapeutic encounter. Journal of

       Psychology and Christianity, 25(1), pg. 45-54.

Berry, T. (1987). The earth: A new context for religious unity. In A. Lonergan and C. Richards (Eds.),

       Thomas Berry and the new cosmology. Msytic, CN: Third Publications. 

Buber, M. (1970). I and thou. New York, NY: Touchstone.

Chaney, A.J.B. (n.d.). Ethic of reciprocity. Princeton University. Retrieved December 4, 2013, from

       www.princeton.edu/~achaney.

De Botton, A. & Armstrong, J. (2013). Art as therapy. London: Phaidon Press Limited.

Fox, M. (2011). Some thoughts on Thomas berry’s contributions to the western spiritual tradition.                                                                       In E. Laszlo & A. Combs (Eds.), Thomas berry dreamer of the earth: The spiritual ecology of

 the father of environmentalism (pp. 16-31). Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.

Gutierrez,G. & Nickoloff, J.B. (2000). Gustavo Gutierrez: Essential writings. New York, NY: Orbis.

Jensen, D. (2013, September/October). Dead end: on killing the planet in order to save it. Orion

       Magazine. 32(2), 11-12. 

Jones, A. (1985). Soul-Making: Desert way of spirituality. San Fransisco, CA: Harper and Row.

Laszlo, E. (2011). Berry and the shift from the anthropocentric to the ecological age. In E. Laszlo & A.

Combs (Eds.), Thomas berry dreamer of the earth: The spiritual ecology of the father of environmentalism (pp. 16-31). Rochester, VT:            Inner Traditions.

Louv, R. (2013, November). A momentous week for the children and nature movement: Big pediatric

       and public health news and a boost from the interior. The New Nature Movement. Retrieved from http://blog.childrenandnature.org/.

Love, R. (2013, August 22). Restoring Peace. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

 http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/people-in-nature/201308/restoring-peace.

McFague, S. (2002, March 13-20). Intimate Creation. The Christian Century, 36-45.

Moltmann, J. (1985). God in creation. Norwich: SCM Press Ltd. 

 

 

 

 

A Sacred Journey, Part 3-Coming Home, A Strange Return

Friends,

I’ve been blessed by this invitation to guest-blog at A Sacred Journey and share some of my thoughts and reflections on pilgrimage and Iona.  Today’s post is the last of my three-part series as the “Pilgrim in Residence.”  In this piece, I share what I have sifted down as the essential impetus for going on pilgrimage, but a value that can only be confronted upon returning home.  We leave searching for something great and beyond ourselves.  We return to find that much of what we had left in search for, is found just beyond our doorsteps when we engage and live on behalf of something other than ourselves.

I invite you to read, and reflect with me on the gift that pilgrimage both brings about for our souls as well for the greater communities all around us.

Click on the image below to be taken to the NEW POST at A Sacred Journey.

Godspeed!

Mary

homeboots

Great Impressions

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Richard Twiss (1954-2013)

There are some souls you come across in your life whose imprint they make on your own is more than the hands you hold every day.  Richard Twiss (Taoyate Obnajin: He Stands With His People) was such a soul.  And today, as the world cries, dances and drums their response to his death, I am humbled and challenged by the deep and lasting impression Richard made on my life.

A personal sense of what it means to live on behalf of something began to form soon after I first met Richard at Seattle Pacific University in 2004.  His story and teachings from the perspective of a First Nations person silenced and stunned me, and implored that I reject the insidious ethnocentric ways of our culture and Church.  His dancing prayers displayed an understanding of the Creator for which I had always yearned, but never found within the four-walls of our standard sanctuaries.  Richard’s visceral understanding of all actions, decisions and hopes being born out of a respect for future generations shamed my consumer-lifestyle.  The deep joy of living forward from this place took hold of me!

I had the wonderful opportunity to facilitate a Native Expressions of Faith workshop for Seattle-area church and lay leaders at Seattle Pacific University in 2007, where once again I was able to work alongside this tremendous soul.  As I danced with my prayers and my feet kept the drum circle’s beat, I recall feeling the clarity and formation of a personal mission statement that has informed my vocational call and way our family lives our life: to live on behalf of Other and the Future 

I bow to you, Richard, in deep gratitude for the life you walked along the path of the Waymaker.  I am forever changed because of your response to the Creator.  May the Spirit brood over your family as they continue their journey on this side.

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Our prayer table for Richard

Cookie Love

My mom has many glib witticisims that she pronounces as truths; a couple of her most favorites (which I heard often growing up) are, “Pretty is as pretty does,” and “When you think people are looking at you, they are not.”  These were pretty harsh statements for a self-centered adolescent and she even had one more that could trump this lot and go straight for the Ego jugular: “When you are feeling out of sorts, bake cookies for others.”  Considering the emotional landscape of a teenager, you can imagine, I baked a lot of cookies!

The amazing, magical thing that always happened-whether I was sad, depressed, lonely, dejected, or vulnerable-was that this process of baking cookies and giving them away truly sorted me out!  I could be in the most dispirited of states and as the baking ritual commenced, I could feel myself lifting.  My mind would initially focus on the chemistry of the cookie (1 tsp baking soda, 1 cup sugar, 4 cups flour...) and then center on the recipient.  My thoughts were no longer wallowing in self-proclaimed pity, they were reaching out to someone else, and to another’s story, who needed an extra dose of sweetness in their given season.  The cookies created a shared moment that acknowledged another and put life back in perspective.

When my husband, Joel, and I first moved into our home (referred to often and simply as our house numbers: 2809), our block was a sinister sea of unknown stories whose sailors stayed inside, anchored in fear and addiction.  Surrounded by averted eyes, gated windows, and stupefied souls, I could feel myself becoming fettered by the fear that kept our neighborhood silent and shut-in.  My mom perceived this movement away from the eager excitement of a new homeowner and, prayerfully, unfurled her time-worn truism: “Mary, it is time to bake cookies…this time, for your neighbors.”  My spirit knew it too; I began to bake.

After plates of the sweet offerings were assembled, Joel and I headed outside, praying against the cowardice and consternation that were creeping into our souls.  Mutually inspired by the life and work of Dr. John Perkins, we believed we were called to live here, we had felt God’s leading to make our home in Seattle’s Rainier Valley.  And to be quite honest, our naive, privileged ambitions began to crumble at our feet in the face of the very real-and now next door-presence of Other. What remained was the very real question of how were we going to live through and past the fear and BE neighbors to these people who didn’t give a damn about us and our enthusiasm.  Brandishing our cookies like swords, we decided to meet the fear head on and start knocking on doors and introduce ourselves to the neighborhood.

Behind each answered door were stories of sordid suffering and profound human resiliency.  Doors peeked open, chains were released and eyes were filled with skeptical curiosity; every face seemed etched with the same bewildered question, “Who are these crazy people delivering COOKIES!?” And yet, we were invited into our new neighbors homes where it was clearly evident a guest hadn’t crossed the threshold in decades.  We were invited to sit on a settee and offered dark drink and twisted delights in the company of anonymous tattooed faces.  We received blank, baked stares in exchange for the no-strings-attached-cookies and we received the very clear message that the suggested packed gun would be unloaded on us if we didn’t back away with our “f*cking cookies.”

After delivering the last plate, we returned home with less fear and more knowledge of those who resided in this neighborhood.  We didn’t know what would come of this culturally foreign gesture, but we did now know our neighbors’ names and they most certainly knew ours.  And that is one of the first steps to loving, folks.  For you cannot know what you cannot name…and you cannot love what you do not know.  The baking had already begun to sort things out: I had no time to cower behind closed doors, I had a neighborhood to get to know!

…………………….

My oldest son, Orion, was wisely “invited” by his teacher (whom we love and adore!) to have a home-day this week in response to a recent situation where he threw a rock-laden mud ball in the face of another class mate-ouch!!  Our charge was to spend the day together working on what it looks like to be a caring friend.  Orion was querulous about staying home; and I…well, I did what we always seem to do in these situations: I became my mother and said, “Orion, I think it is time that you bake some cookies.”

The ritual had begun; we baked heart-shape cookies and read 1 Corinthians 13 until it became our mantra. “Love is patient.” (1 tsp baking soda) “Love is kind.” (1 cup sugar) “Love never fails.”  (4 cups flour)   Orion made construction paper heart notes to accompany the plates we were assembling for our now-common neighborhood cookie delivery.  Orion knocked on the familiar doors of our neighbors homes and greeted each of them by name as doors swung easily and happily open.  As I hung back, wanting him to own every second of these moments, I heard him say how grateful he was they were his neighbors and wished each of them a Happy Valentine’s Day.

Door to door we went.  We had one last plate to deliver; it was the same house that eight years ago a gun was almost aimed at us for doing this exact same thing.  Our Laos neighbor, Manichanh, flung the door open with a hug and gave Orion kisses for his sweet gift.  Without hesitation, she grabbed her gardening gloves, and began to unearth some of her urban daffodil bulb bounty to gift us in exchange for our delivery.  With our cookie basket now filled with soon-to-be flowers, we returned home to plant this generous neighborly token in our garden.

As we planted each bulb, we continued our 1 Corinthians 13 mantra: “Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” I scanned my eyes up and down our block while my son dug in the earth, planting very real “seeds of love.”  I raised my eyes and sighed a prayer of thanksgiving for each of my neighbors, whom I know and love.  And I quietly laughed in response to my mom’s deep wisdom she taught me so long ago.  For it is both cookies AND love that never fail.  Never.  Ever.

Living in Fear

We all live in fear to some extent or another.  There is a spectrum of this emotional response and absolutely, there are situations and contexts that warrant this self-preserving stance.  If we were to do a broad-stroke generalization though, what is the typical object of this fear?  I daresay that the average common characteristic of these fiends is difference.  Think about it: when someone or something is different than you, something inside bristles a bit and puts you on defense.  And perhaps there is a good evolutionary reason for this.  Because, very likely, a million years ago difference would have denoted danger and you could’ve tried to eat my kids or kill my clan!

Please understand, I am not making light of very real, very tragic events and circumstances that absolutely generate fear.  My heart cries with what I read about in the news and cringes when I hear gunshots and wailing sirens in my neighborhood.  These situations should spur us to live with vigilance and a keen eye for safety. To a very real degree, our lives and the lives of our children, depend on it.  But what I am interested in exploring is the kind of fear that causes us to dig our chin deep into our chest when passing a stranger on the sidewalk, that compels us to close our curtains to the chaos of our community and has us not knowing the very name of our next door neighbor.  I think it has everything to do with difference and those unknown, misunderstood behaviors of Other that cause consternation instead of a courageous, compassionate response.

One day, not so long ago, I was playing in front of our house with our children.  While they think nothing of this (to them the front of the house is appealing because we live on a hill and they love to take anything with wheels down our front sidewalk), this has always been an act of resistance for me.  For good reason, there were times when I hid behind our curtains, double bolted every lock and wished that everyone on our block was like ME.  But I’ve found over the years that this kind of hiding response doesn’t necessarily increase safety; it feeds the fear and kills the community.  And so we play out front of the house.  I’ve intentionally planted curb-side gardens so that I have to be outside, out front, present to my neighbors and praying for opportunities to engage those who are unknown and different than me.

And then she walked up the hill.  Lunging is likely a more accurate description-all the same, coming towards us was a stranger, someone unfamiliar and not at all like me.  I shielded a shy smile with my shoulder.  My boys, called out to her in a vigorous greeting and asked her for her name.  She slowed her pace to a stop. There was a very strong something in me that immediately wanted to hush them, to swoop them under my wings and whisk them away from this now pending encounter with this foreigner…because…I was afraid.  I inhaled.  I exhaled. And I reminded myself of something I firmly believe: The Spirit resides in (I would say even thrives in) that grace-filled gap between being afraid and being known.  That is a space that only the Holy can handle, hold and heal.  It is a place that, while scary as hell, I want to be; I’m challenged here to see, to hear and to know Other.

Her name is Manichanh and she is an immigrant from Laos*.  I’ve never seen her before because she rarely leaves her home, which is just five down from my own.  She occasionally does exercises on our dead-end street when most people are at work and the roads are quieter.  She lives with her six year old grandson, Alexander, who also doesn’t play outside; indoors, TV and video games offer safety once he returns home from school.  I ask her if she ever goes walking in our neighborhood woods, “There are trails in there now, you know,” I gently offer.  Manichanh emphatically shakes her head no, points to the woods and firmly states, “Bad. Scary.”  I take a deep breath knowing that I’m about to step into the gap: “Want to take a walk with me in the forest?” I ask.

Two strangers stare at one another.  We have nothing to rationalize an excursion such as this other than the fact that, plain and simple, we are neighbors and I’m struck with the value that that still holds even in our isolated, urban existences.   And I believe that our woods are healing and are active participants in a great agenda for God’s common good.  So, this seems as good a place as any to engage my new neighbor.  For a reason greater than us, she agreed.

We-Manichanh, myself and the children-approached our woodland trailhead.  She grasped my arm.  I laid my hand over hers.  This time I didn’t hide my smile, and as we entered the woods together, these woods that once truly were a place of which to be legitimately afraid, she exhaled.  We walked for a time in silence largely due to our language barrier, the children ran ahead and about, bird song lilted in the leaves of the waving trees.  We clasped hands and completed our walk, a walk that took us so much farther than simply through the woods, it took us through the gap and to the beautiful place of being known.

When we made to depart from one another, Manichanh brought her palms together at her chest and bowed deeply, while murmuring a phrase repeatedly.  I asked her what she was saying and she said it was like a ‘thank you’ but her native words carried a depth of gratitude that our mere thanks simply cannot touch.  I knew she wasn’t just thanking me.  With her words and gestures, she was responding to me and the woods and The One who upholds us all, with a deep seat of gratitude.  Both of our fears were relieved and in its place stood relationship.

The next morning I discovered home-made Lao cuisine on my porch.  Manichanh’s grandson, Alexander came over later for a play-date and a romp through the woods with my boys.  These are the kinds of blessings that arise from living in fear, living close enough to the edge of what is known that reliance on the Spirit is critical to get through to the other side.  And the other side is where the goodness resides, folks–therein lies the beloved community, where all are known, all are welcomed, and all are gloriously different.

The Spirit is calling: “Come!  Step into the gap with Me!”  Will you go?

*Mentioning Manichanh’s ethnicity is important to describe the dynamic of this story.  In this context she represents Other to me and I, and the forest, are Other to her.

Other and the Future

Woodcut of a pilgrimage (c.1490)

This post initiates me into the blogosphere universe and I find that I am both excited and apprehensive.  Like that of any new journey, the excitement comes from a seat of knowing that there has been much preparation and direction to get to this point and the time has now come to cross the threshold (into the blogging world, that is).  The tension to the thrill is held by trepidation; I mean, what if these words, thoughts and stories mean nothing to all of you who inhabit these virtual landscapes?  This nagging fear of the unknown, quite honestly, slows my poised fingers as they hover over the keyboard.  There is great risk when one travels with transparency and journeys out from places of comfort.  But, I have a strong sense of solace knowing that without these steps away from what is known and familiar, that which is HOME to me will never expand and challenge me to continue to become all who I am intended to be.

And that is really quite it; that is what I have been thinking about, reading about and talking about for years: in what ways are we intentionally living (for the sake of metaphor, insert ‘journeying’) out our lives so that when the pilgrimage cycles commence and begin again, we are engaging in this dynamic cycle of calling, departure, arrival, to—ultimately—Home again. It is this sense of Home that is compelling to me.  Of course we have our structural residences, but I’m talking about the conceptual framework of this internal habitat. What is it that is so familiar and comfortable that it is like home to us? What does it look like?  Who are the neighbors?  Who lives and visits within the walls?  What meals are shared?  Who do we encounter on our Journey that is brought into the hearth of our Home and how does this simple act of hospitality create a culture of common good?

One of the ancient principals of pilgrimage was that the pilgrim was journeying on behalf of something.  Whether that was a prayer, a petition, in penitence or even traveling in place of someone who couldn’t make the trek themselves, there was an elemental understanding that the journey was taking place on account of something, or someone, far greater.  This positioned the pilgrim to travel in such a way that employed a keen eye and an astute ear; no longer were there such things as trivial events and random people.  The value of fellow pilgrims and strangers alike was considered great, so much so that every encounter was acknowledged as a source of wisdom and possible enlightenment.  The significance of ‘the Other’ was recognized as a sacred way marker and seen as a critical component to a journey well made.

So here it is, and this is the hopeful intention of Waymarkers: the blog.  Our lives are a pilgrimage.  Each of us has been called to journey thoughtfully and intentionally through our days.  We are asked to see the sacred all around us, but specifically in those other than ourselves.  What exactly does this mean?  It really is as simple as it sounds: anyone OTHER than you.  This includes those that don’t look like you, act like you, live like you, or think like you.  We are called to see them, travel with them, and yes, even live on BEHALF of them.  This process of linking Other to our self begins the transformational unfolding of Other becoming Neighbor, and ultimately, in practicing the universal command of “Love your neighbor as yourself”, becoming your self.  For when this conversion occurs, we suddenly cannot look away from the injustices and pain experienced by those other than ourselves, for it is now happening to US.  We now journey forward on behalf of a common good for ALL.

And how does the Future fit into all this?  The Future isn’t now and it certainly isn’t what was, so why concern our self with it at all?  Well, in a very real sense, the Future is Other to us. Our modern Western culture certainly has made great strides in our era, but a monumental failure was its inability to assimilate indigenous people’s capacity to see forward and understand their behaviors had long-term implications.  This ‘seven-generation sustainability’ concept has its origins with the Iroquois people. This ‘Great Law of the Iroquois’ maintained one should think seven generations ahead (a couple hundred years into the future) and decide whether the decisions and actions they made would benefit their children, and children’s children, seven generations into the future.  This is a call and a challenge that we need to heed today; this view transmutes the Future, and our ecological concerns, into today and makes it a ready companion to our every action.  It becomes our neighbor.  It becomes our self.  It becomes our HOME.

There it is folks.  These are the foundational themes to this blog.  Am I excited about thinking aloud with you all around these topics?  Absolutely!  Am I scared that I may not get it right and my own personal stories of living on behalf of Other and the Future might not be your version of virtue?  Yes.  There is that tension mentioned earlier again…but my hope supersedes this.  I pray that by inviting you into my HOME you too will help hone me. That by saddling up together on this journey of life, we will see one another and our stories as sacred.  That by living forward in ways that see the Future as important as today, we will all seek out that which is the common good for us all.  And we will get lost; one most certainly does on a trek that carries with it much treasure.  In these times of uncertainty, in these straying seasons, may we return to our God-given travel mates—Other and the Future—and ask them for guidance.  May they be our way markers that point us all towards HOME.

Golden Seeds

Bigleaf Maples (Acer macrophyllum) group together in a large forested stand in our backyard. Their presence cools us in the heat of summer with their shade, and their branches provide endless childhood delights. And in Autumn, their yellow and orange hues transform our home’s sunlight into gold.

As temperatures drop and wind commences its more forceful seasonal blows, these large leaves flutter and float through the sky, downward falling only to be lifted once again toward the trees; a dance that seems to speak to the leaf’s own uncertainty of where now to call home: the woods or the earth?

My children squeal with delight when the Bigleaf Maple relinquishes her seeds, dispersing them through the air with the aid of extremely well designed membranous wings. We stand together in our yard, scanning the sky for a sighting of these swirling seeds, watching their twirling trajectory from tree to terra. The boys run pell-mell, hands outstretched in hopes of intersecting this annual planting. They intuitively appreciate these ‘helicopters’ and attribute to a captured fruit the most coveted of names: favored toy.

In the midst of their laughter, I watch these seeds twirl and tumble through the air looking for places to settle and create a new stand of trees. I can’t help but wonder if our own patterns of living (as we leave our ‘parent plant’ to find our own home in the understory) sometimes look like the zig-zag pattern of these in-flight whirlybirds. I wonder if our lives are like the seeds—feeling the lifting and carrying of the winds combined with the curious uncertainty of where we may land. We whirl and wait, waiting to fall to a special, sacred place of the earth where we can burrow, take root and unfold in all we were created to be.

I wonder, if allowed to root, if allowed to grow, OUR gifts would be that which someday grows to create a golden hue in the lives and homes of Other?