This afternoon we'll be crossing the Hudson River on the Bear Mountain bridge, which may be the most scenic part of the walk so far. The Appalachian Trail crosses the river at this same point.
Reading in the library yesterday, I liked John Dominic Crossan's description of the kingdom of God as "a kingdom of nobodies."
I'm still spinning a bit after this past weekend. A frustrating missed turn (no street sign), then getting caught in the rain again. And Heather's walking stick was stolen from outside a library. After that, though, things improved dramatically. Saturday night we were invited to stay inside the church we stopped at, and as we left the Sunday service we were invited to brunch by Adam and Paulette, followed by an afternoon of canoeing and swimming at their cottage on the river. They then took us right to the church we planned to visit Sunday night. It is a big one, but the people were very welcoming and friendly. The service was for younger people, with a rock band leading worship (quite good, in my opinion), an energetic and engaging preacher, and a strong emphasis on community. Lots of people there were interested in our walk, too. People must have prayed over us five or six times.
And then Dave took us home with him. A high energy guy, enthusiastic about everything, with a pretty startling conversion story. And a hiker. He was a wonderful host and we stayed up till eleven talking, then got up early because he was headed out for a day hike. He took us along and dropped us a day's walk down the road, leaving us with a very generous gift (and a pair of hiking socks).
So a very good weekend, though a little unsettling for me. Just so many unexpected changes of plans and new places and people (very different from each other) so quick in succession. It's made me feel more appreciative of Heather, my constant friend through all this. A sense of groundedness not in place or plan or mission or possessions, but in the solid relationship that grows with us on the journey together. We've also been taking time to talk about some of the things that have caused friction between us in the past. Finding ever more value in the enduring relationship between us, when everything else seem unstable and changing.
Which of course only imitates (hopefully) the enduring relationship with God who goes with us on our journey, through all changes. The relationship where we can truly find security and groundedness. That's a theme I've written about before, especially during walks. It feels even more real to me now.
I wonder if Jesus was teaching this when he called his disciples to leave everything and follow him, giving up everything that made up their lives and having to find themselves again in relation to him. Because that's all they had left.
That also brings up the distinction I was thinking about while walking this morning. That Jesus did not say he would follow us; we're called to follow him. He's always around ("I am with you always"), but we're only with him, knowing his presence, when we walk the road he was (and is) on. "If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also." (Jn 12.26)
It was good to talk to my dad on the phone the other day (sorry I missed you, Mom!).
p.s. the answer is Newtown, CT.
We really enjoyed our day off in the rectory (just visible in the picture), getting clean and rested. Heather finished the last chapter of the novel she's been writing with her mom. And we both spent some time reading a book on healing prayer by Francis MacNutt. I was impressed by how he presented healing as multi-dimensional (physical, emotional, spiritual, relational) and as a complex matter that requires great discernment and patience. It's not just about being bold and having enough faith. There can be many reasons that a person is not immediately healed; this is not a reason for discouragement or guilt. What is then called for is further discernment and continued prayer to find God's will and healing in the situation.
I like that. It makes me more willing to pray for healing for people (such as those who come to retreats) and more interested in learning how prayer can help free people from certain physical, emotional, and spiritual problems that are dominating their lives. I know there are others at Plow Creek who are interested (and experienced) in this as well.
MacNutt wrote well of Jesus' desire for people to be liberated from those things that oppress them, including physical and emotional illness. I wondered, though, if in his focus on healing he overlooked the other forces that oppress and dominate us. For example, a person can be freed from a physical limitation only to run right into the economic and political (social) pressures that just as powerfully dominate the lives of people with no physical disability. In my experience, these forces tend to be even more pervasive and difficult to overcome than disease in our day. Jesus also offers liberation from these forces, as I've written often enough, though it requires not just prayer but also a radical change of life to find freedom.
I also wondered whether a strong focus on healing prayer can lose sight of Jesus' main purpose and message. It's not just about demonstrations of God's power. Jesus even seemed to move away from healings near the end of his ministry, as he turned toward Jerusalem. There, in complete weakness on the cross, he would demonstrate what love really meant. Showing us that full freedom comes through faith, through complete dependence on the love of God, even to the point of death. Healing can also point to this (when it's done as Jesus did). But, as Jesus demonstrated, there are even more clear and powerful ways to encourage full dependence on God. The way of self-sacrificing love.
As Paul wrote at the end of 1 Cor 12: "Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? ...But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way"—love.
When we left this morning, I mentioned this, and thanked Todd, Sarah, Tom, and Amy (and their parents) for the love they showed us the past two days, taking the risk on two strangers off the street. We were well-cared for and generously provided for, and embraced as friends. We also hope to demonstrate self-sacrificing love out here on the road, to be available for encounters like this last one, to prepare ourselves to have something good to offer the poor in retreats in the future, and to try to be examples of radical trust in God.
When we walked into town last night, we were looking for a church with a Wednesday evening service. I thought now that we're pretty well accustomed to daily life on the road we should focus a little more on meeting and engaging people. So I inquired at a likely church. No service. I met the pastor's son-in-law, though, and we started talking. Next thing I knew we were invited to dinner at the large old rectory, where three couples live (and three young children). Great discussion over dinner and coffee, by candlelight as night fell. About our story and walk, and their work here, parenthood, also interests in contemplative prayer and healing ministries. Now I'm interested in the possibility of healing prayer as part of our retreat work...
The connection was so good with the young couples—Todd and Sarah, Tom and Amy—that they invited us to stay last night and today as well. We're all delighted to have found each other.
The imagery of Psalm 131 was just right for my mood today:
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a child quieted at its mother's breast;
like a child that is quieted is my soul.
We went into the weekend knowing that we were running out of supplies for the first time. But Sundays are usually interesting, since we meet many people in church on those days, so we weren't sure what to expect. The church we ended up at was a large one (and rapidly getting bigger). Many of the songs were familiar, which was a comfort for me. But the preaching sounded mostly like positive-thinking, self-help advice—very popular these days, which may be why the church is doing so well. I had also noticed that they had installed a full-service coffee shop in the lobby. My spirits were sinking.
Then we went to a discussion afterwards, and it turned out to be a commentary on end times prophecy and current events in the middle east. Not a subject I'm much interested in. But I perked up at the end, when the teacher mentioned that the U.S. would also be part of the "beast's system" and we would have to choose who to give our allegiance to (God or country). Not something we expected to hear in a church with American flags posted everywhere.
We chatted with Steve, the teacher, a bit after the class, and then Heather asked about the showers she had seen in the bathrooms. So Steve took us to meet an assistant pastor who we talked with at length, including respectfully sharing my opinion of the sermon (and then he offered us a complimentary iced caramel latte!). During this discussion, Steve decided we're an interesting couple and invited us out for a burger, and we talked for a long time about his struggles at the church. (He didn't much like the sermon, either, or the direction the church was going.) He came away feeling excited and encouraged about his role there, though not very optimistic about how they would respond. The momentum of a successful, wealthy church is hard to question or resist.
After returning to the church for a shower, we left feeling good about our visit. And clean and well-fed. But we knew we might have to start fasting the next day. I was impressed about how calm Heather seemed about it.
It rained as we walked through the city of Hartford, and we hadn't had dinner (there wasn't much left anyway) when we approached a church to find shelter for the night. But there were two men in the parking lot. One was the pastor. We briefly explained our walk and asked to sleep outside his church; then he asked for a reference, so we had him call Louise Stahnke at Plow Creek. After talking with her (and then his wife), he invited us to his home. And offered us dinner!
And then his wife brought out warm, homemade, blueberry pie.
Nick and Angela Davis were wonderful hosts. Truly a godsend. It was the first real test of our faith on this walk, a difficult one, and God answered us so richly through Nick and Angela. We had a good talk this morning over breakfast. And then they surprised us by offering a generous gift of money, too. We were so relieved and grateful. I left a thank-you note behind, reminding them of Jesus' words, "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me... as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me." (Mt 25.35)
I sent this to my brother-in-law for his birthday Saturday:
And we're living a bit on the edge at the moment, since our money and just about all our food ran out today. Still feeling encouraged after a good weekend, though, and hopeful. Praying hard.
On our walk this morning we stopped by a small lake, sat by the shore in the sun, and prayed. We're into the "psalms of ascent," which I believe were used as pilgrimage songs when people journeyed to Jerusalem for religious festivals.
These lines from Psalm 124 stood out for me this morning:
We have escaped as a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped!
Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
We're taking a very short day today, to give Heather's sore ankle a rest. And we did get a good night's sleep last night, out of the rain, in a church vestibule.
It was an odd scene when we introduced ourselves to the priest at the church. He didn't want to send us away with storms threatening, but he also was nervous about "getting in trouble" with church members if they found out he let us sleep there. To make matters worse, there was "perpetual adoration" going on in the prayer chapel, so people would be coming and going from the church all night. The priest finally decided to let us sleep inside in a vestibule that wouldn't be used that night. But he told us to be very careful not to be seen. We thanked him, found some cushions to soften the stone floor, and slept well.
I thought about it this morning, though. About how the eucharist was on display for people to adore, but we were carefully (even fearfully) hidden away. About how people feel so good about gazing on Jesus in religious symbols or imagery, but when he appears as "one of the least of these" we don't want to look.
Perhaps that's because it's so easy to admire and adore a religious image, then go our way feeling edified. But when we come face to face with Jesus in "the least of these my brethren," someone who is in need or suffering because they are following Jesus (who himself lived in need and suffered), someone who has run afoul of society (as Jesus did), we have to do something, something very difficult. We can't just admire and feel edified. We have to take a risk and involve ourselves, or else turn our backs on them.
And we may even be faced with the much greater challenge of following Jesus ourselves into the way of need and suffering.
Whew! We made it to the library, happy to be in out of the rain. Hope we can find a dry place to spend the night.
Following on yesterday's thoughts, I've been thinking more about how to help people in a way that does not direct their attention to me—admiring how good or loving a person I am—but directs their attention to their own value and, hopefully, inspires them to love. This seems easier on the road. People we meet are frequently inspired to acts of kindness and love, and they seem to feel good and encouraged (about themselves) as we leave.
But it seems harder to help in this way when we are the ones offering material things. Often those receiving the aid end up feeling more dependent (on us), less confident, perhaps more discouraged about their own lives. Recognizing this, relief groups have shifted their efforts to find ways of "empowering" people. Helping them to see their own strengths and to learn ways of helping themselves, so they become more self-confident and independent. This seems to be a step in the right direction, but when I think of Jesus' life and teaching I wonder if he wanted us to become more self-confident and independent. In a way, the goal of "empowerment" even seems to go directly against Jesus' teaching that we lay down our own power, becoming less dependent on ourselves and more dependent on God.
Thinking about the way Jesus himself offered physical help to people, I was reminded of what he frequently said to those he healed: "Your faith has made you well." This directs attention back to them, to their activity or participation in their healing, encouraging something good in them. But Jesus does not point to some ability or strength that they possess, neither does he encourage independence or self-confidence. What he points to is their faith. Their own relationship to God, their dependence on God in their need. (And this is not just nice words; he could not heal them if they didn't come in faith.) Jesus way of helping both drew out and encouraged the spiritual good in those being helped.
I'd like to help people in a similar way (in the retreat work, for example). Offering help that requires a spiritual good from people for them to receive it (faith, taking a risk for what is most important in life), and then directing attention to that spiritual good and encouraging it. So they come away, not more dependent on me or admiring me, but more aware of the good in their own relationship with God.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.I happened upon this famous prayer (a good one to use on retreats) while reading Thomas Merton's Thoughts In Solitude in the library yesterday. And the day before that I was reading Man's Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl. That book also seemed relevant to the retreat work we envision. Drawing on Frankl's own experiences in Nazi concentration camps, it emphasizes the ultimate human need for meaning and purpose in life, especially in times of great suffering.
Since the retreat we attended in Boston, I've been thinking that good retreats are not merely a break or escape from our lives, but a chance to reflect and listen to God and find deeper meaning and purpose in our lives. This would seem especially important for the poor and suffering. And I wouldn't want our guests to focus their attention primarily on the the nice place we have in the country, but on the value and importance of their own lives (their lives with God who is calling them), which deserve our respect and attention and care.
That's from Psalm 119, which we've been chanting our way through during our prayer times. Last night God's love came through Carole, one of the librarians in Chepachet, who asked about our walk then later invited us to her house. It was a lovely place to spend the night. And she got up early to make breakfast for us this morning, eggs, sausage, cantaloupe, the works.
It's always a joy when people are so eager and happy to share meals and conversation with us, to have us under their roof. I can't help but believe that it is a good thing for them to be filled with God's love in their welcoming.
We met quite a few people over the weekend. There was the woman who shouted us to a stop on the street, asking what we were doing. She was very impressed by the freedom of our walk, and wondered if we had the means to support it, or if we were just "fooling ourselves." Heather replied, "I guess you could say we're sponsored by God." And when she explained that various people along the way helped us just when we needed it, the woman promptly decided to offer us $20. We hesitated, because she seemed that she didn't have a lot of extra money, but she insisted. In the short conversation that followed, she admitted she had a problem with alcohol. But I couldn't help but be impressed by her willingness to sacrifice for a couple strangers she met on the street.
We slept outside a church that night and met many people at the service the next morning. The reading was the story of the good Samaritan, and I thought the preaching was pretty good. The pastor spoke of the difficulties of dealing with the many requests for help from strangers, but emphasized that the parable challenges the kind of self-protective analyzing that the priest and Levite demonstrated, and urges self-forgetful love towards the needy stranger. Good words. But, while the many we met after the service were polite and approved of what we are doing, none reached out to us beyond that. A few people even knew we were sleeping on the pavement at night. I left the church feeling that the woman we met on the street the night before understood the story of the good Samaritan better than those who had just heard it preached (or preached it) in church.
God cared for us very well the rest of the day, though. Someone had told us there was a gorge nearby, and we had decided to take the day off, so we spent the afternoon at Blackstone Gorge. Very beautiful. Trails through unspoiled woods along the whitewater rapids, with rock cliffs rising up at points. We found a quiet shady spot and didn't see anyone else all afternoon. Washed ourselves in the river. It was just what we needed after four days on the road.
Then we went to a different church that evening. The singing was exuberant, but the narrowness and arrogance of the preaching made me cringe. Afterwards, though, Danny and Danell Paniss invited us home for dinner, and we spent the night with their family (four kids and a foster child). Unlike their preacher, they were very humble and made us feel right at home. We talked much about our backgrounds and the reasons for our walk. Heather thought it may have been good for them to hear of Christians outside their narrow denominational community who take their faith seriously and live in a way that they find inspiring. We certainly felt loved by them. Despite my repeated discouraging experiences in churches, I'm frequently surprised and impressed by a few of the people I meet there.
Heather's been reading a book I just finished, White Lotus, by John Hersey. It's a story of a future where Americans are enslaved by the Chinese, a retelling of Black history in America so that white people can better identify and understand their struggle under oppression. Well done, I thought. And I especially liked his invention of a nonviolent protest, the "sleeping bird," that made sense for the Chinese Buddhist culture. The protesting slaves stood silently on one leg with head bowed, imitating a helpless sleeping bird. This was meant to speak to the Buddhist teaching against harming living things, reminding the Chinese oppressors that the slaves are living things as well. The simple symbolism is beautiful. And the climax, where the main characters finally abandon their fruitless forceful struggles and find strength (and freedom) in courageous weakness, brought tears to my eyes.
It also reminded me of the simple symbolism of pilgrimage, and how that can be inspiring in itself, even if nothing more is said. Freedom, direction, faith. I wonder if that's what impressed the man who gave us money without much of any explanation of what we are doing. "It's the least I can do," he said.
And I thought of what someone told us during the Common Cathedral visit. That it's not nearly as important to offer people a workable plan for ministry as it is to inspire them to follow Jesus more closely (and with more abandon) and discover what unique thing God is calling them to do. They can then work out the details as they go. That made sense to us. Jesus' teaching and way of living offered the extreme in challenge and inspiration, but most of that is usually lost as people try to make it fit with what they see as the practical necessities of life "in this world." Hopefully, actions like this walk (and our ministry at Plow Creek) will inspire people to look again at what Jesus actually said and did, and recall his astonishing promises. Maybe make people wonder again if extreme freedom and extreme good might actually be possible "in this world."
Yesterday, as we were walking around a small town looking for a place to sleep, a man on the street asked where we were walking. When we said Florida, he was so astonished he promptly pulled out $20 and gave it to us.
We weren't able to find much in the way of shelter, though. But Heather came up with an idea to use our ponchos to make a big piece of playground equipment rain-proof, and it worked, keeping off the light rain last night.
Then today she wanted a break and found a quiet spot in the woods, hidden from the road. There was a small clearing next to a shallow, rocky stream, so we napped for while, and I woke to bird songs and the sunlight winking through the leaves overhead. And Heather beside me. A beautiful place that I'm sure I wouldn't have stopped for if it wasn't for her. Years ago we talked about going out on the road together and now here we are.
As we walked we sang the South African song Erin taught us, Hamba Nathi: "Come walk with us, the journey is long..."
We started walking this morning, but will probably just get to the outskirts of Boston today. Taking it slow for our unhardened feet.
We had a great five-day visit with the folks of Ecclesia ministries. Mike was a wonderful host, offering a beautiful room and fun meals together (I made pizza one night, with Italian sausage and Greek olives, and Heather stir-fried fresh garden vegetables and made spaghetti on other nights). Eileen talked to us about her work and gave each of us one of the fine crosses that an artist designed for Ecclesia. Then we went on the once-a-year overnight retreat with Joan and about fifteen of the people who attend Common Cathedral; our visit happened to be timed just right for that. One of the homeless artists there also gave us a matted print of one of his paintings to remember the visit.
So we're very full as we start walking. And thankful for all our new friends who are praying for us.
Good day yesterday. We visited the street church in Cambridge in the morning, then walked down to Boston Common for the Common Cathedral service, and got to meet and talk with the folks who lead both those ministries. We were also eagerly welcomed by the homeless members of those congregations. And the gospel reading for this Sunday, from the beginning of Luke 10, was perfect for us as we begin this journey:
Jesus said to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves...
"Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you; heal the sick in it and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.' But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, 'Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off against you; nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.'"
The worship was interrupted at times by street noises and people who aren't used to prayer services, but the service was well-prepared and taken seriously by the leaders and the people respected that. They seemed to be coming primarily for the worship, too, which was good to see. It was a pretty joyful time, at both places.
The most encouraging part for me (and something we would also like to see at our retreat ministry) was the respect for the spiritual lives of the poor folks who gathered there. It wasn't about preaching at them, but being their church community. Very unusual, in my experience. I remember a suburban church I visited once on the road, who bussed homeless people in for a service, preached to them about hell's eternal flames, and then sent them back to their shelter in the city. Ironically, the preacher used the story of the rich man and Lazarus, but failed to notice that it's poor, suffering Lazarus who ends up comforted in heaven and the rich man who ends up in the flames. Jesus very much respected the spiritual lives of those ignored and cast out of society, and gave himself primarily to them. That's what we'd like to do too.
Another thing I want to remember from yesterday: Talking about trying to live the more radical Christian life, the guy who started the street church in Cambridge said, "It's not a lonely path—there's just not very many people on it."
After a long bus ride, we arrived safely in Boston yesterday. Mike O'Grady, a Jesuit here who is taking classes and helping with the street church in Cambridge, met us and has made us feel right at home. We cooked dinner together last night with fresh vegetables from his garden. And he's very encouraging about our walk and our future retreat ministry at Plow Creek (he previously worked with the Jesuits we know in Chicago doing the ISP retreats).
I also had an interesting discussion with another Jesuit in the house this morning. Responding to my thoughts about radical dependence on God, he mentioned the well-known adage, "Pray as if everything depends on God, and work as if everything depends on you." A line I've heard often before and wondered about. I know it's meant to encourage people to act, to work as hard as they can. But is "work as if everything depends on you" really good spiritual advice? How is that different from how most people work, those who have no trust in a loving Father, those who have no one to rely on but themselves? For quite a while I've been discouraged that most Christians also work this way, and so their actions tend to contradict their words about trusting God's strength rather than their own strength.
And I mentioned this morning that Jesus' way of working did not seem to be "as if everything depends on me." His active work was not contradictory to his dependence on God, but was in itself also an act of dependence. He spoke what his Father told him to speak and did what his Father inspired him to do. Jesus described it in terms of complete dependence: "Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise." (Jn 5.19) And he spoke in a similar way about our dependence on him: "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing." (Jn 15.5) This is not working as if everything depends on us, but praying and working as if everything depends on God.
On the same theme of dependence on God, I read these lines at the end of Psalm 109 this morning, and they offer a good focus for this pilgrimage (when the challenges in the months and years ahead seem very great, the likelihood of failure very great, and we seem very weak):
With my mouth I will give great thanks to the Lord;
I will praise him in the midst of the throng.
For he stands at the right hand of the needy,
to save him from those who condemn him to death. (Ps 109.30-31)
[To read through these entries from the road, use the "next page" link near the bottom of each entry to proceed to the next entry. Or note the date of this entry, and use the "journal archive" in the sidebar on the right to view whole months at a time. There are 86 entries for the 2007 pilgrimage.]
During our last few days on the farm, I didn't have much chance to write. Trying to put everything in order for the rest of the year. And spending time with friends, including new ones, Dan and Katie Piché from Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco. We'll miss them.
Several people prayed for us during church Sunday, and we felt well-supported. And we smiled as we recognized the closing song, a familiar African-American spiritual, very well sung by our little gathering:
I want Jesus to walk with me
I want Jesus to walk with me
All along my pilgrim journey
I want Jesus to walk with me
In my trial, Lord, walk with me
In my trials, Lord, walk with me
When the shades of life are falling
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me
Now we're in Evanston for a few days to see other friends and finish a few last things before getting on a bus for Boston, where we'll start our walk.