Whether walking in the woods, on the shore, or over the rocks, I try to pay attention. I am always astonished!
Category Archives: A Pilgrim
It’s morning on the bayou. The porch is cool and pleasant even though the temperature is already 79 degrees at 8 A.M. I suspect the “cool” is attributed to the fans. Fans on the bayou in late Spring serve two purposes – cooling and mosquito repellant!
There is, however, a bit of a breeze this morning. I hear it and see it as the leaves rustle, and the otherwise glassy bayou surface occasionally convulses and shutters. The bayou is up, filled with murky water from the recent rains and runoff, and flowing at a good clip. The spring rains came late and lasted longer this year – through May and into June. I spent several hours yesterday mowing. I have enjoyed mowing since I was a kid. For me, repeatedly making the square, focusing on the line between mown and not-mown grass is calming – almost sedating. I must say it is a bit easier now with the riding lawn tractor than it was back then with the simple, little 22-inch push mower. I see images of myself bent at the hip, focused, and determined to move the mower forward.
The receding water level has left areas, usually dust dry, soggy and squishy – ideal for getting stuck. I am extra cautious remembering last year when I got “too close,” and the lawn tractor slipped leaving me stranded on the muddy bayou bank. The 4Runner and a long, heavy chain saved the day.
When I first came out this morning the birds were in full flight and voice darting here and there to a cacophony of birdsong – tweets, warbles, chirps, screeches, and caws. Not so much now! Perhaps the wind has stilled their flight and voices – yielding to a higher power. Yielding to a higher power – that seems to be easier here on the bayou while immersed in silence, solitude, and the ordained simple, exhausting tasks of “chopping wood and carrying water,” which is according to Brother Lawrence in Practicing the Presence of God, finding God, the Holy, in the ordinary tasks of our days.
I am often drawn to the “monkish” life feeling immense contentment, peace, and joy in silence, solitude, and simple work while observing the awe and wonder of the beauty, complexity, simplicity, and horror of our natural world. I have sometimes felt the “monkish” life” to be a calling. Yet I question – calling or escape? I suppose there is a balance to be had.
Being here on the bayou, this “monkish” life, feels like a return to all that is true and real in life – me, the presence of God, work, and rest. Wow! Where did that come from? Though drawn to the silence and solitude, I know that even as an introvert I am a social being. I enjoy personal interaction with others just not a whole lot of folks at one time and not all the time.
In the natural setting of the bayou, it is not difficult to discern, feel, and commune with God – to practice His presence. But out there in the world, it is not as easy. I get caught up in the activity, the business, the people. In practicing the presence of God in the world I seek to experience a greater awareness of God’s presence in people, all people – created in His image – as I live, work, and rest with and among them.
That’s me, and perhaps humankind as well – a paradox, a jumble of contradictory qualities and traits. I suppose living with and within my contradictions while seeking a sustainable, functional balance that allows me to grow and mature into all I am and was created to be is the stuff of life and the spiritual journey. Whether on the bayou or in the world may I live in the realm of all that is true and real for me: me, the presence of God, work, and rest.
These words from Thomas Merton”s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, some of my reading on the porch, seem to be germane to my musings:
Solitude has its own special work: a deepening of awareness that the world needs. A struggle against alienation. True solitude is deeply aware of the world’s needs. It does not hold the world at arm’s length.—-Thomas Merton
In these uncertain, sometimes surreal, times as we continue to navigate this uncharted coronavirus, so much in our lives is different. I strive to maintain some constancy and familiarity with my daily walks. Walking is one thing I can continue to do without violating any stay-at-home orders or wearing a face mask (I can’t seem to keep my glasses from fogging up!) all while accommodating the social distancing rule. So, I walk, and I walk some more!
I tune into Pandora on my phone and take off. Occasionally I dial in my Disco Station particularly if I feel the need for a brisker, aka workout, walk. Most of the time I opt for the quieter, soothing sounds of Relaxation Radio or Enya. Of late, my walking is more about seeing, reflecting, pondering, processing, and meditating. The exercise, albeit a good thing, is not the primary focus.
As I walk, I look up, around, and down practicing wakefulness in the moment, resting in the rhythms of connection to myself and my surroundings. I see the squirrel perched precariously at the tip-end of a tiny limb. How does it not break! I see and hear the dogs barking and jumping at the fence as I pass. I don’t think, I hope, they can’t jump over it! I see the steadfast sky, serene and majestic in its brilliant blue or ominous and quarrelsome dripping gray. The stalwart lilies and irises turn their vivid, multicolored faces to the sun. I see the sap rising in the trees oozing out in variegated green leaves of all shapes and sizes – a gorgeous contract against the blue sky. I feel the warm, spring sun tempered by a slight, cool breeze. I delight in seeing the youngsters on their bicycles and scooters.
I reflect. It is all so good, so joyous! I ponder the contrast between the vibrance and beauty around me and the devasting reality currently engulfing our world – sickness, death, hunger, uncertainty. Added to this is the personal grief and loss with the recent death of my twelve-year old great-niece. The angst is palpable! I walk. I process. I embrace the both/and of my realities. I walk meditating. Borrowing from our Buddist friends, I lean into the sharp point, feeling the pain and losses for myself, my family, and the world. Yes, at times the tears do come. I breathe exhaling the pain. I breathe in the serenity, comfort, and peace that surrounds me. I keep walking.
This morning as I walked, I thought about Jesus and how much he and his disciples walked. I imagined their sandeled feet steadily walking the dusty roads, cobbled streets, and lush gardens. I wonder what their walks were like. I kept walking!
I found myself feeling a bit out-of-sorts, disgruntled, unsettled this morning. Maybe it’s cabin fever after eleven days at home trying to do my part to “flatten the curve” on this COVID-19. Perhaps it’s the general uncertainty and angst surrounding this public health crisis, or it could be my incredulity regarding the remarks made yesterday by one of our state leaders. My plans were to clean out the pantry closet. Nah! It’s a pretty day outside, so I opted for yard work. Nope! The wind is blowing the pollen around like crazy – an allergy/sinus event just waiting to happen – and the ground is very wet. I wanted to work in the yard not play in the mud and get sick. So back inside. Maybe I just need to be still and quiet!
I did just that, closed my door and settled into my comfy reading chair. After some quite, focused breathing, and meditation I picked up A Year with Thomas Merton. Turning to my marked spot, I read:
“Silence, then, is the adoration of His truth, Work is the expression of our humility, and suffering is born of the love that seeks one thing alone: that God’s will be done.”
This was in the chapter entitled “Truth is Formed in Silence, Work, and Suffering” written in Merton’s journal on November 12, 1952. I suppose I needed that reminder in these uncertain times. Now on to my humble work. The sun has come out so perhaps the ground is dryer and more amenable to the spade.
I recently started participating in a book study. It is a diverse group of good folks –christian, atheist, agnostic, whatever — each on a journey of personal spiritual growth. Like me, they seem to be pilgrims, seekers, and heretics – awash in questions and doubts, deconstructing former concepts and beliefs, constructing personal truths and unique spiritual paths, — staying the course with authenticity and integrity in our often chaotic intersections with the world we live in, the life inhabiting that world, and the Spirit/God embodied in both the world and its inhabitants.
We are studying Rob Bell’s What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Much of our first discussion centered around Jane Fonda’s remarks made during a 2007 interview with Rolling Stonemagazine, “I could feel reverence humming in me.” Do you have a sense of “reverence humming” and “What is it?” My response to that question was to share a bit of my winter hike expereince. Hiking along an ice and snow laden trail I was bent, literally and figuratively, on keeping my eyes on the trail, following exactly in my hiking buddy’s footprints, and cautiously testing every step for firmness. I finally had to stop and straighten my aching, bent back.
As I looked up, my breath caught. The towering, red-rock canyon walls glistened in the bright, cold afternoon sun. They jutted straight up into a flawless, cobalt blue sky. “Wow, look at that!” was all I could utter. As I stood there taking it all in, I was overwhelmed with feelings of wonder, awe, gratitude, humility, and reverence. My heart was full and overflowed as tears filled my eyes. That, for me, was “reverence humming in me.” It was an experience I will never forget, and one which I frequently recall on hiking trails and elsewhere as I remind myself to “look up.”
Since that experience 28 years ago, I have (I think, I hope, but maybe not?) become more open, receptive, and settled to and into the various sounds, rhythms and vibrations of “the hum.” Never used the word “humming” to describe it, but I like Ms. Fonda’s analogy. “Hum” seems to give some substance to an otherwise intangible, indescribable feeling.
Where does the “humming” come from? For me, at this point in my journey, it comes from a sense of awareness, connection, and gratitude. A keen awareness of the mystery, the miracle, the love, the grace, the wisdom and truth of the of Spirit of God present in our world. A profound sense that I am connected to it all — a part of it, a product of it, a participant in it. And grateful for it all!
Here’s and idea! Let’s all “hum” in concert!!
I don’t know if it classifies as binge watching, but I watched all ten episodes of Netflix’s new series, “Messiah,” in four days. Pretty much a record for me! I have been mulling over various aspects of the program since then (over a week) and can’t seem to clear my mind of it so I just need to say what I think.
I have read several reviews of the program and most of them pan the series citing numerous flaws from ambiguity,poor story lines and character development, to “no deep theological grounding or specificity.” Some of these I agree with and some I do not even while acknowledging that I am by no means schooled as a cinema critic or theologian. I do believe that the program made some salient points regarding the coming of the Messiah – both first and/or second – and our receptivity – historical and/or future – of the Messiah.
The overbearing question throughout the series seems to be, “Who is he? Is the stranger, dubbed Al-Masih (the Messiah) by his followers, the Messiah, Jesus Christ, returned?” “Who is he,” is a centuries old question beginning when Jesus asked Peter, “But who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:15; Mark 8:29; Luke 16:15). Folks through the ages have answered that question in a variety of ways and will continue to do so. With regard to Netflix’s “Messiah,” I believe perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Maybe the more relative question is, “Who are we; who am I?” Can we see ourselves in the characters portrayed in “Messiah?”
Are we the prostitute, paid by a high-level government official to seduce Al-Masih as a means to discredit him, who upon experiencing his gentle confrontation of her life, “How can you be the person God intended if you are not honest about who you are?” and hearing, even in the wake of her deception, the truth of God’s love for her walks away repentant and changed. Are we the agent who deceptively witnesses this encounter and walks away changed – to the point of quitting his job. Are we, am I, like these two — truly changed when touched by the love of God?
Are we Jabril, the young Al-Masih follower who stays true to his belief in Al-Masih even as Al-Masih has seemingly abandoned them in the desert at the Israeli border? Through injury, thirst, and hunger Jabril is sustained by his belief and the dreamy appearances of his deceased mother who had told him, “God has a different plan for you.” It is Jabril who courageously leads the remnant of followers into Israel, and some critics speculate that he is the real Messiah. Did Jabril’s touch revive the apparently deceased Qamar? Or, perhaps Jabril is not the Messiah but simply a true disciple and as Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works…” (John 14:12 New Living Translation). In all our claims to be Christian, are we, am I, like Jabril, a true follower of Christ?
Are we Pastor Felix Iguera who was disillusioned with church and ministry to the point of dousing his church with gasoline before it was miraculously saved from a tornado? Iguera experiences a roller coaster of despair, confusion, doubt, and hope only to succumb to his own weaknesses and family frailties. Claiming to be a humble servant and wanting only what God wants, he takes the reins and arranges for AL-Masih to appear on his millionaire, televangelist father-in-law’s show claiming “this is what God wants” Al-Masih agrees, but when he walks away from the appearance Iguera is again in confusion and despair.
When the story breaks that Al-Masih, by his own admission and hard evidence, is a mortal man, Iguera returns to his church and in what seems to be an act of lost faith he does indeed burn it down. This brings me to a question of our faith. If the true Messiah, Jesus, is not the literal Son of God, does that negate his message to the world? Does that mean Jesus was not God’s anointed? Is our belief in Jesus as God’s Word to the world based solely on our belief that he is the literal Son of God? Are we, am I, Pastor Iguera?
Are we Aviram, a hard-nosed, tormented, vengeful, often brutal Israeli agent, who is intent on catching Al-Masih and exposing him as a fraud? Aviram is unwavering in his purpose even as he is shaken by Al-Masih’s knowledge of his past bad acts. He flirts with belief yet remains hard-hearted. Not until he is facing imminent death and tormented by his sin, his “failure to choose goodness,” does Aviram say, “I’m sorry,” as the plane crashes. Are we Aviram — tormented with shame, hardened, and unable to accept God’s love?
Are we Eva Geller, the CIA agent, sparing with Aviram, and equally determined to debunk Al-Masih and uncover his real intent? Eva has issues. Her identity is in her work. She has a strained relationship with her father, grief and guilt over her late husband, is distraught over not being able to have children, and is sensitive about her mother and her Jewish heritage. In her own words to Aviram, “I am as messed up as you.” She too is shaken by Al-Masih’s knowledge of her past which further solidifies her efforts to find “the truth.” Even as she finds evidence of “the truth” of Al-Masih’s identity and suspects that the U. S. government shot down the plane carrying him back to Israel, she appears to continue to run from the truths of her personal life and emotional distress – she remains a lost soul. Are we Eva?
Yes, “Messiah” has spawned questions and controversy among viewers and critics. Of course, Christ, the Messiah, has stirred questions and controversy for centuries. Ultimately the question “Who is He?” is only answered by each of us individually in our own unique way based on our beliefs. In regard to the question, “Who are you/Who am I?” I am drawn to Al-Masih’s words, “How can you be the person God intended if you are not honest about who you are?” Honestly, answering that question is not easy. “Messiah” offers numerous character mirrors. Do we see ourselves in them, and what can we learn from them?
It is January 3, 2020, and I can’t seem to get started in this new year. Perhaps this is due to my still processing the last of 2019. I checked my sister out of the hospital on August 19, 2019 and took her to our family home (where our parents once lived) located on Big Cypress Bayou outside of Jefferson, TX. The plan was to spend about three weeks there caring for her as she recovered from a partial foot amputation. Unfortunately, the healing did not go as well as hoped and three weeks turned into three months!
Outside of her foot not healing and my missing my home and wife, who did come and stay a few days a couple of times, it was a different and mostly good three months for me. We visited, reminisced, watched television, and each had ample time to ourselves. I spent a lot of my free time on the porch rocking, reading, journaling, writing poetry, and simply watching in awe the natural world surrounding me. My journal entry from October 14th sheds a bit more light on the experience:
I’ve chopped and diced vegetables and the soup is simmering in the pot. It is marvelous sitting on the porch. The heat has finally – I hope – moved away and the cool air is welcomed. Actually, it is raining with a steady chorus of drops making their “pits, pats, plops” on the tin roof. Drips are becoming steady ropes of water running off the roof’s edge. The river is pelted and puckered with raindrops. The rain and gray sky meld to form a haze surrounding the trees across the water. Quite calming and restful!
Yet, I feel a bit anxious and unsettled. Perhaps ambivalence might be a more apt description. I have been here for almost two months caring for my sister following a partial foot amputation. The healing has not gone as well as hoped, and she is still under doctor’s orders to put no weight on the foot. I have kept busy with her care, meal preparations, laundry, cleaning, and mowing. I have pressure washed a 10’ X 60’ porch and the front of the house. I have dusted, vacuumed, or mopped everything in the house. I have cleaned and reorganized much of the huge pantry and the bedroom walk-in closet. I have taken down, washed, and replaced every curtain and drape in the house – at least all those that could be removed.
I have rewired and configured the TV antennae and cables. We now get 25+ channels instead of the previous eight to ten. And, yes, I must admit that I have watched more TV in the last two months than I have in the last two years. I have played too numerous to count solitaire games on my computer (no internet or cell service down here) to the point I believe the program is duplicating games. I have mowed two acres of grass sometimes going over the taller areas two to three times. I have used the weed eater trimming the tall grass on the riverbank until my elbow hurts.
I have made four trips home to Tyler for personal appointments and commitments and two trips to Henderson for doctor appointments. All totally about 1000 miles on the road. I just returned from three days at home catching up on paying bills, household concerns, and social and civic commitments.
Why the ambivalence? Using Brother Lawrence’s words, “to chop wood, and carry water” along with the quiet, serenity, and solitude of the surroundings seems to have precipitated some shift within my being as I feel more centered and settled. As I ponder on that for a bit, my thoughts return to my reading of October 3rd:
I find more and more the power—the dangerous power—of solitude working in me. The easiness of wide error. The power of one’s own inner ambivalence, the pull of inner contradictions. How little I know myself really. How weak and tepid I am. . . . Everything has meaning, dire meanings, in solitude. And one can easily lose it all in following the habits one has brought out of common life (the daily round). One has to start over and receive (in meekness) a new awareness of work, time, prayer, oneself. A new tempo—it has to be in one’s very system (and it is not in mine, I see).
And what I do not have I must pray for and wait for.
—from A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals (October 25 and 30, 1965, V.309-10)
Perhaps therein lies the basis for my ambivalence. Perhaps I fear losing it all upon returning to “common life (my daily round).” Perhaps my 2020 is to be a time for “a new tempo.”
Note: In light of the violent events of this past week, my thoughts have returned to the subject of violence in our society and this post that I wrote months ago but never published.
It is odd indeed that though I sit here in the peace of my private sanctuary, the quiet disturbed only by the hum of the ancient furnace and the tick of the clock, my thoughts keep going to “Violence.” Now why is that? I know, yet I have not succumbed and given “power and time” to my experience and restive thoughts on the subject. I suppose I must do that now if I am to know the peace of this place.
Several weeks ago I went to the movies. I rarely go to the movies, but I wanted to see “On the Basis of Sex,” the dramatization of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s journey into law and the beginning of her herculean efforts toward securing gender equality in our society. The movie was good; I highly recommend it. However, before I could watch the movie I was subject to a barrage of awful, loud previews full of angry, hateful, vindictive, and violent characters in multiple scenes of gun battles, fiery bomb explosions, sinister death plots, and human hurt and tragedy. “Cold Pursuit” is cold indeed, and “Serenity” is anything but serene. I was particularly aghast with the final words of the female lead in “Miss Bala.” She said as she cocked her gun, “in the end the bullet settles everything.” REALLY!!
It would appear that evil, crime, and subsequent violence are ever more the focus of our entertainment avenues regardless of modality—film, the printed word, video games. I could site a few James Patterson or David Baldacci works, but I won’t right now. I ponder the oft-posed conundrum, “Do our movies and literature (I use that term loosely and hesitantly.) reflect our society’s ways and mores, or do they influence and direct them? Yep, it’s the chicken and the egg question –which comes first?
Maybe it’s like garbage? For example: There is some garbage on the street, and we fail to pick it up and post “No Littering” signs to let everyone know that littering is not congruent with our values. Consequently, the littering continues and the garbage piles up. We become accustomed to the garbage – it’s unsightly mess, it’s putrid stench. It’s now the norm. Everyone expects it. What is there to do? Well, thankfully we saw the inherent harm in open garbage piles/pits and collectively sought to finds ways to safely dispose of it. Kinda, sorta! It is still an issue we must continue to address.
Just like our garbage, our societal violence is a moral issue complicated even more so by issues of mental health, socio-economic status, race, and stunted emotional growth and expression just to name a few. We seek to stem the tide with police action, punishment, and some limitations on guns and gun ownership, yet the incidence of violence continues to be alarming in our country. According to the Gun Violence Archives, in 2018 in the US alone there were 57,084 incidents of gun violence resulting in 14,712 deaths and 28,170 injuries. Of this total 3,501 were children and teens under 17 years old. Not included in these numbers are the 22,000 suicides by gun in 2018.
Back to the movies! I don’t think debate or a philosophical ponderance over what came first societal violence or movie violence is particularly helpful at this point. More important questions are Where do we want to go from here? and How do we get there? I think we all know what we want, at least I hope we all want it, and that is a peaceful society where differences are settled through understanding by way of conversation and compromise. Sorry, “Miss Bala.” We want words and moral action, not bullets, to have the last word. That’s the end game. Maybe a first play would be taking a moral stand against violent entertainment. Yes, violence is present in our society, but does that mean we want it reflected and glorified in our movies and literature. And what does it say about our society when we turn to violence for entertainment? With our violent “entertainment” are we flirting with the old acumen, “garbage in-garbage out,” and contributing to the perpetuation of that which we do not want?
I know our movies are not the root of our violence problems, but couldn’t we do something to start shoveling up the “garbage” and posting “No Littering” signs? Maybe some violence pruning? In gardening we know that if too much is pruned off the top of a plant, the system is disturbed and it will die if not tended to properly. Let’s prune some things — our violent entertainment — off the top. Maybe the pruning will weaken our system of societal violence while we continue working to remedy the root causes of our violence problem. Let’s use our words to speak up about and against specific media—movies, books, video games – that portray and glorify violence. Cast your protest against violence at the cash register and ticket booth. Refuse to partake of the “garbage” and encourage others not to. Let your local cinemas know of your opposition to violent movies. Use your social media – Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, etc. – to broadcast information on unacceptable violent content and urge “friends” to join you in protest. Organize a flash mob during the local screening of a violent movie. Call your governmental representatives and urge them to pass sensible gun legislation.
Above all, let’s practice non-violence in our daily walk treating everyone with dignity and respect.
In her recent Baptist News Global piece, Hidden pencils, urgent warnings and instructions Mary Oliver left the Church, Carol Davis Younger offered a lovely tribute to poet, Mary Oliver, and an insightful exhortation to the church to approach “Scripture – and our world – with the holy curiosity and expectancy Oliver did when she went to the woods and to the shore.” As Younger shared her experience with Upstream, I caught my breath and embraced the mutuality of our stories, our experiences, and perhaps our feelings – Mary Oliver’s, Younger’s, and mine.
I too became better acquainted with Mary Oliver through her collected essays in Upstream. I was drawn to the book, so much so that I paid full, independent bookstore price for it. Something I rarely ever do! I had admired Mary Oliver as a poet and was curious as to her prose. Being a woods wanderer and stream jumper, the title Upstream, and its connotation of going against the flow, which I often do, piqued my interest. The cover photo looked like a place I would enjoy. I fully understand Younger’s response to the essay, “Power and Time.” As I read the essay, I felt that I was personally being both affirmed and admonished. I am keenly aware that my creative self needs solitude, a place apart, without interruptions. Oliver buoyed my spirit with her affirmation of this then promptly admonished me for being my own primary interrupter.
But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? –Upstream, page 23
For me it says that I need to attend this civic meeting, that I should give my wife more time and attention, that I must do my share of home maintenance. Returning to the creative work often finds that the spark of an idea has dimmed and the flow of words has dried up. In the creative work we can be, and probably are, our worst impediment.
Oliver tells me that the “machinery of creativity” can’t be controlled or regulated. I believe it! More times than I want to recount I have awakened in the wee hours of the morning with an idea or a string of narrative going through my head. Over time, I have learned it is best that I go ahead, drag myself out of bed, and write it down for I will not be able to sleep if I don’t.
For me, as perhaps for Anderson, Oliver’s most unsettling words are:
The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time. — Upstream, page 30
I most assuredly will join Anderson as a “candidate for future regret” as I see a bouquet of withered buds of exciting ideas and plans that failed to blossom because I did not nurture them with power and time. I suppose my task going forward is to recognize the tiny buds of creative thoughts and ideas and give them their needed power and time. I suspect it will be an erratic path even in all my efforts to “keep my eyes on eternity,” reject the responsibilities that have claimed me, and discard the “many heavy coats” that burden.
My prayer, with a bit of assist from Mary Oliver, as I move forward is:
In my wild and precious life
May I stay forever in the stream.
May I pay attention and find my devotion.
May I be astonished at the profound simplicity of our natural
Even as I marvel at its intricate complexities.
May I be humbled by its majesty.
May I revere the fruit of the earth-the grass, the flower, the tree.
May I respect the creature — the minuscule and the mighty.
May I glorify the Creator of it all and be grateful.
May I hear the silence that calls to me.
May I feel the rippling waters.
May I stay forever in the stream.
Whether with voice or pen in hand, may I tell about it all.