As I looked forward to our trek to Alaska and contemplated the grace of seven weeks to do that; I relished the notion mostly of unencumbered time away, with no huge responsibilities so as to settle in to what retirement would or could mean to me, having just passed that milestone. My travel partner Robert, and I saw many wonderful sights—from high, cascading mountains, glaciers and falls, to beautiful wild flowers all across this vast land. We were treated to whales, bears, seals and marmots. It seemed that on many of the Sundays that we were away; we were gifted with the most beautiful drives through landscapes that almost took our breath away! As Robert became fond of saying, “You just have to suck it up,” to which I responded, “I think it is, soak it up, dear!”
We are indebted to Dick Dahl for the gift of this time away and for his wonderful pastoring of the parish. A big thank you goes to Jo Hittner for planning and leading the music, to the board, and to each of you for all the unseen work that was done in our absence. We are so grateful!
Part of what I tried to focus on in our days of travel was to be present to whatever I was doing, present to wherever I was, on any given day. We have all experienced being physically present, but actually are mentally elsewhere planning for what is coming next. So, as Jim Elliot says so well, “Wherever you are, be all there!”
A “companion” of sorts that I took with me on this trip was a travel journal, complete with good quotes from the famous and not-so-famous, about travel; the above being one from a not-so-famous person. I also took four books that I wanted to read and read none of them, but did read two that came to me from a close friend we visited along the way. Part of “being present” I’m learning is leaving the agenda and allowing something else to happen.
One of the books was great in encouraging this practice—The Barn at the End of the World, by Mary Rose O’Reilly, a story of a woman who decided to give a year of her life living and working on a sheep ranch, to learn what she could about caring for sheep. Of course, what she learned was more about herself as is always the case in such ventures. During the year she gave to being a sheep intern; she took a month off for a Buddhist retreat as she wanted to deal with her innate tendency toward anger in response to life’s injustices and irritations, as she saw them.
Having come originally out of a Catholic background, even doing a stint in the convent, set her up already for feeling a certain amount of anger, but she found that many of those joining her for the Buddhist retreat, angered her in new ways over stupid things, in her mind, that they focused their time and energy on. Some of the retreatants were very into themselves and their own needs not seeing the needs of others while others felt giving up all earthly pleasures was the way to go. Retreatants were expected to share a room with one other person, and as you might guess, this could be rather annoying depending on who the roommate was.
The best advice she received in calming her anger came from a mentor who basically told her to “slow down” and try to decide how important something really is and if it is worth all the upset—what perhaps might she do to improve the situation?
The second book, Slow Love, by Dominique Browning is the story of a woman whose job ended unexpectedly due to the economy and the journey she then made into herself to find who she really was aside from what others expected from her—what did she really want from her life? Having not chosen to quit the work-a-day world, but having that thrust upon her, threw her into a depression where she questioned her own self-worth. Because the country was experiencing an economic downturn, her savings were hard hit too as an added complication. She had experienced a divorce in the past and her present relationship which had stretched over a ten-year period was clearly dysfunctional she was realizing. It seemed to be always about what he needed and wanted, never about her needs and wants. She realized as she struggled through all these losses that her life had been often, too often defined by others, thinking almost unconsciously that if everyone else’s needs got met, hers would too.
Both women in the two books learned as the Buddhist tradition teaches that they needed to slow down and be present to what was happening all around them—ask the important questions about how does this action, lifestyle that I am part of really, truly, affect my life and the lives of others? Does my life bring joy in the actions of my days?–and is there enough run-over to bring joy to others?
Mary Rose O’Reilly found that caring for animal life spilled over into caring for human life and being present to each situation helped with her impulsive tendency toward anger because she then understood others better—where they were coming from.
Dominique Browning found that “slowing down,” something she may not have done had she not lost her job opened up a whole new world for her. In addition to losing work and a relationship, she also experienced cancer. All of the above let her know in very clear terms that life is fragile, short—but also, sweet. She discovered music once again at her piano, the beauty of the outdoors, on the water and in her garden.
As I said earlier, this seven weeks for Robert and I afforded us the time to again, slow down and just appreciate life—ours and others. In order to get to all the places and people that we wanted to see, some days we had to travel more, some days the traveling was done for us—by boat or train, so we could rest more. Sometimes we took the opportunity to stay put for a few days and just relax. We said many times that this was an epic journey, once in a lifetime and it taught us much about all that is most important to us and what we want to spend our days going forward, doing.
The Scriptures for this week call us to just such introspection. We must face life and what it brings with clear eyes and open hearts, James teaches. We must treat all people equally, he continues, seeing them all as beloved by our God.
Our brother Jesus is our model as he brings healing to a deaf mute through what is perfectly human—touch, saliva, his words. Sometimes I think we believe that there is little we can do in our world to make a difference against all that is wrong. A better thing to do it seems would be to focus on all that is right and move on from there using what each of us is gifted with, our humanity—to make the changes needed for our country, our world and its people. We have tough issues to face it is true—just listening to the news since returning home, something we tried not to do while away, all the problems were not fixed in our absence.
The prophet Isaiah proclaims that we should not fear, even so, because our God is with us. As we traveled through our beautiful 49th state of Alaska and experienced its vastness, we came, once again to realize the greatness of our God that put this all into motion—all this that one can only call, grandeur!
Each of us has been gifted a share in this grandeur through our lives on earth. We might pray with the prophet Isaiah today that our eyes would be opened, our deaf ears cleared, our tongues freed so that we can do all in our power to make life good for ourselves and others, and it must be both, not one or the other as the stories I shared with you today indicated—life and it’s goodness is for us and for others, as our God intended.
The troubles that plague our world and its people are within our abilities to fix—we must simply be present to them—find the balance between our own needs and the needs of all on our beautiful planet. When we strive to be our best selves, also as God intended, one action at a time, great things are possible! We shouldn’t forget that Jesus, our brother promised that we would do greater things than he. And when this all happens, the streams will burst in the desert, burning sands will become pools and thirsty ground, pools of water. Things we thought impossible, will become possible!
As I contemplate the grandeur of the mountains, oceans, glaciers—beautiful creatures in the seas and on the land; I know the One who put all this in motion will be our strength too! Amen? Amen!