Saturday, June 24, 2017

Diamond Hill in Connemara Park, the Pilgrimage Lessons Begin

We made our way north of Galway to the Connemara National Park. The tiny road into the park is nestled at the base of stark limestone mountains covered with short grasses. The road travels along a stream that feeds into a series of dark lakes. Sheep make themselves at home along the tarmac, never moved by oncoming traffic. They are often nestled in the tall grass alongside the road or against short rock bridges. The new born lambs are never far from their mothers. One rather large horn adored sheep relaxed in the very middle of the narrow road. He never moved an inch as we slowed to move pass off the far edge of the road.

We traveled past the Elizabethan Kylemore Abbey, now a tourist attraction and home to a Benedictine Community. Our GPS led us to turn off our narrow two lane road onto a gravel road, which took us up to a grey aging building that looked like an old university dormitory. There were a handful of cars parked in front. As we drove up the entrance, Cathy saw some nuns sitting by a window. As we stopped, a nun in full habit came out the door and up the car. I rolled down the window and she asked if we were looking for the Connemara Park Center. She nodded to Cathy who was holding her phone, "The GPS always sending folks our way. We meet them from everywhere." We told her we are from Arizona and then she gave us directions to the park. Their Belgian order was founded in the 16th century and made their way to Ireland after World War I. They moved to their current residence near the Abbey in 1920 and founded a girl's boarding school. In recent years they closed the school and, as many orders, discerning what is the best future for their order.

With our new directions, and without the GPS, we found our way to the entrance of the Connemara National Park. I am always reminded by the free admission to the parks of how important these sites are to the Irish and how much they want to share their life and history with the world.

The Connemara is the world's largest outcropping of limestone. The hills are covered with low grasses and bog and barren of trees. We walked the 5 mile trail up 1500 feet to the peak of Diamond Hill. The trail was made possible by picking our way up the winding limestone wind swept "stairs."

Halfway up the hill, we stopped for a breather and a drink. A young man in his thirties nodded and walked past. Later we passed him as he was facing the mist that was rolling in off the Atlantic with arms outstretched. In broken English, with what sounded like an Italian accent, he said, "The smoke is the best." He moved on passed us again. We would trade spots with him a half a dozen times in our ascent.

As I neared the top, the young man seemed to be waiting for me. When I approached him he said, "Can you give me some advice." He came face to face with me. "How do you handle baby?" I told him we have two adult children and they have grown to be truly wonderful adults. Just be yourself, I told him. "As babies, they were ok?" He asked. "How?"

Be present to the baby with your mind, your heart, your body, all of yourself. "My whole being?" He said. Yes, all of your being. We introduced ourselves. He name was Stephan. I blessed him and told him all will be well. He thanked me and we departed. I didn't see him on the trail again.

This day started out simply as the desire to take a bit of adventure to see some new landscape and walk an unfamiliar trail. But it wasn't long before I was gently reminded that everyday is day of pilgrimage. Every step, every hill, every stone, every animal, every person on the pilgrimage is a guidebook with tiny maps for the way of life. The opportunities and markers are often subtle and easy to miss. Other times, they just step out and confront me face to face. And today's journey has made me happy to imagine what tomorrow will bring.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Walking those Unwanted Painful Pilgrimages

The last few weeks people have been asking me if I’m excited about our trip to Ireland. That question usually is followed with, “are you packed?” A few will ask me if I’m ready to walk the 150 miles. And a few have asked me how have I prepared myself. The answer to those questions lie somewhere in the process of paying to attention to the mind, body, soul, and spirit.

I know I’m headed to Ireland. I know I’m going to walk the Wicklow Way with two groups. I’ve walked the Wicklow Way before; I know the terrain, and I know that the weather is unpredictable. But I don’t know how my body will hold up this time. I am walking with people who will be on their first walking pilgrimage. I don’t know how they will respond to the pounding of the trail. And for sure, I don’t know what will bubble up from deep within my psyche, nor do I know what the Spirit of God will bring my way. The power of the uncertain far out ways the familiar.

But pilgrimages come in many forms, those we intend to take, as well as those that are thrust upon us. I am always talking with people who are sharing their stories about dealing with life pilgrimages; the anxiety, the fear, and the unknown. The question invariably comes about how to prepare for the uncertain.

How do we prepare for a pilgrimage into the uncertain—the pilgrimage of health issues, the pilgrimage of life transitions, the pilgrimage of disappointments, and the pilgrimage of delving into the unknown realm of the spiritual world?

To find some answers to these questions, let’s take a look at the story of Abraham and Sarah, the founders of our faith and the original pilgrims. (Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7) How was Abraham prepared to go on what seemed to be an impossible pilgrimage?

First, Abraham listened. He used his six senses to hear what God was saying to him. To go on any kind of pilgrimage—those we intend to go on and those we do not want to traveled— we have to prepare ourselves by listening. Typically, our first response is to do something; make plans, buy tickets, buy new boots. We want to rush around and do things; all good things, all things we eventually need to do.

The same usually happens when we get thrust into a pilgrimage we don’t want to take, things like illness, divorce, loss of a job, death of a loved one.

We want to do something, get on the internet, do research, read a book about how to solve our problem, talk to our friends. All things are good, but they are distractions from the reality of how to start a pilgrimage. The first thing we must do is listen—to take information using all our senses. Look around and see what’s happening. Smell the air. Taste the situation. Touch the circumstances. Listen.

Abraham listened. What he heard was awfully challenging. God told him to leave his home. God told him he would be traveling to some unknown place. And when he arrived at this promised land it would be occupied by another tribe who wouldn’t want to give up their land. And God told him that one day, in the far away future, he and his wife, though seventy-five and childless, would bear a son, and Abraham would become the father of many nations.
Before we head out on one of life’s pilgrimages we first have to listen to the Divine, realizing that what we might hear could be irrational and not make sense. It’s often those callings that are truly the voice of the One Holy Living God. By listening, we are then able to make intentions for our pilgrimage. By listening, I have set a specific pattern of spiritual practices that I intend to follow each day. I bought a red journal for the journey. I intend to follow the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius. I am going to read the poetry of W.B. Yeats and the prose of James Joyce. And I intend to be open to what the Spirit of God presents to me along the way.

Second, Abraham and Sarah traveled by stages; they took time to think about what they were doing. A pilgrimage has many parts. The preparation, the travel, the walking, the reflection, and then adjusting to the changes the pilgrimage has brought about in our life.

Abraham went through several wild experiences on his pilgrimage. At times, he didn’t know where he was or where he was going. He put his wife’s life at risk. His own life was threatened. His plans had not worked out very well. But he was still on his pilgrimage.

The pilgrimage of life can leave us feeling frustrated, angry, and confused. The most difficult thing to accept about the pilgrimage of life is that more often than not we really don’t know what the outcome will be. We have to let go of our need to control. And from that point, we must simply follow where the Spirit of God is calling us to go. If we avoid the calling, if we deny what is happening in our life, if we refuse to embrace what lies ahead, if we refuse to walk, then we will not be able to fully experience the gift of life. We must journey by stages and think through the process in order to experience the pilgrimage.

Third, Abraham rested under the oak; he checked in with his feelings. When you’re on a walking pilgrimage you can’t walk 24-hours a day, seven days a week. At some point, you have to sit down, take off your pack, rest, and reflect on your experience.

Abraham sat down under an oak, which became known as the Tree of Abraham, synonymous with the Tree of Life. It was there that Abraham reflected upon his pilgrimage. I have a favorite tree on the Wicklow Way. It’s a giant oak that has grown around a rectangular stone about six feet long and two feet high. By growing around the stone, the oak has created an opening to itself, which, when climbing onto the stone, you can fully stand up inside the tree. Sitting on the stone, inside the tree is a beautiful place to check in with my feelings.

And now, when I’m not in Ireland, I can sit on the ground an imagine myself inside the great oak. In the pilgrimage of life, we need those quiet, safe places, where we can check in with our feelings and reflect about our journey.

Finally, having gone through the process the comes with being on pilgrimage, Abraham imagined; he had a vision. And not only did Abraham have one vision, he lived his life in a state of visioning. In other words, his pilgrimage work effected how he lived his life; what he sensed, what he thought, what he felt, and how he imagined living the remainder of his life.

We are all on the pilgrimage of life. Some of the pilgrimages are wonderful and filled with joy—and some are not. The painful journeys maybe are where we learn the most. What we learn from the life of Abraham is that a full complete mature life will have both types of pilgrimages. The key is how we process them. Do we listen? Do we process the pilgrimages by stages? Do we set aside time for reflection? Are we willing to imagine a new way of living? Such is the work of living life as a pilgrim.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

When the Trinity Becomes Four

Being the week of Pentecost, Deacon Gay and I were talking about the difficulty of trying to explain the work of the Spirit of God. The explanation, she said, is found in the story. She said that this week she was with one of our parishioners during the final days of her life. On her visit to this person’s home, the family unexpectedly gathered around the bed for communion. Gay said she could feel the presence of the Spirit of God as she shared the bread and wine with these people. It was a mystical moment that defied words, but the experience was shaping her life in such a way that it demanded she tell the story. Later, Deacon Gay had the opportunity to tell this story to the women at Perryville. In the context of a life of so many deaths and so few resurrections, the women of Perryville were deeply touched by the movement of the Spirit of God in Gay’s life.

Within a few days, the person Gay had visited, died. As I talked with the family, one of them recounted the story of sharing communion. With tears in their eyes, they told me how meaningful this experience had been for them. The Spirit of God seems to be at work in those moments when we are the most vulnerable and willing to take the greatest risks; when the veil between life and death are the thinnest.

Deacon Gay’s story made me reflect on my own encounters with the Spirit. I thought of those times when I’ve sat with parents who were grieving the loss of a child; those times when words are meaningless and only tears have voice in the conversation of silence. I thought of those times when I was discerning a life changing decision; those times when the mere thought of the options brought on a migraine. I thought of those times when I had to sit with my own grief and I couldn’t distinguish between the waves of anger, depression, and honest grief. In each of those times, the Spirit of God appeared in a variety of ways—a singing wind chime, a subtle breeze, the innocent question from a child, a voice spoken from the dead. The Spirit of God speaks in the ways we are open to hear; but only if we are willing to listen and then act.

The Spirit of God is the interplay, between God the Creator and Jesus the Christ. To use Richard Rohr’s words—the Creator, the Christ, and the Spirit are involved in an ongoing Divine Dance into which we are invited to participate.

Cynthia Bourgeault expanded Rohr’s idea of the Divine Dance with her explanation of the “Law of Three.” This law of the Universe states that the interweaving of three agencies always produces a fourth, which is then displayed in a new dimension. In other words, when God the Creator, Jesus the Christ, and the Spirit of God are harmoniously at work in our lives, something new, a fourth, will emerge in an unimaginable way, the new dimension.

Let’s use Deacon Gay’s story as an example. There was some backstory to the event. Gay told me that on the way to visit the person, she got lost. She was running thirty minutes late and worried about finding her way. The spouse of the dying person called to ask if she was still going to come to their house. Gay could have gotten embarrassed, or frustrated, or given up, or tried to reschedule, but she didn’t—she trusted that this was “the time” she needed to be at this person’s home. Arriving late, she was told that most of the family had left in order to provide some private time for Gay to visit the dying person. But because she had been late, the family returned within a few minutes.
This window of vulnerability opened the way for the Spirit of God to engage everyone present in a deeply spiritual experience. The interweaving of God the Creator’s call on Gay’s life as a deacon, her willingness to follow Jesus the Christ even though she was embarrassed about being late, and the Spirit’s movement in the life of this family who were open to share communion across their various denominational differences, produced a fourth agency in a new dimension—that fourth was a healing experience in the life of a family that was facing death and now grief.

This story is a microcosm of the biblical story; a story about God being in relationship with all of creation. The biblical story of Jesus reveals to us that this relationship between God and creation is oddly reliant upon human interaction. The Spirit of God, then, is the provocateur, the straw that stirs the drink, the bag that holds the tea in the hot water, the pot that keeps the soup on the stove, the needle that weaves the fabric of the interaction between God the Creator, Jesus the Christ, and us.

You and I are capable of being in the Divine Dance with the Holy Trinity. But to be in the dance, we have to be willing to participate and be consciously aware of the opportunities as they present themselves to us.

Jesus is the model for how to live our life this way. He was the most consciously aware human being to walk the earth. In his consciousness, he knew that death to the ego would create a resurrected new True Self, which will be lived in unity with God.

To model Jesus, we must take up our own cross in order to find our own moment of resurrection. Death to our ego, death to our agenda, death to our embarrassment, death to our expectations, death to our demands, death to our beliefs, death to our illusion of being in control—these deaths must happen on our own cross in order for us to be open to the resurrection movement of the Spirit of God in our life.

God will not force the way of Jesus on us. God will not operate unilaterally. The Spirit of God will not make something happen singularly. We must be willing to participate in the Divine Dance. Jesus the Christ’s power in death was resurrected in the life of his disciples, who willingly became his agents in the world. He breathed the power of the Spirit into their lives. And they took that breath deep into their souls.

The breath of the Spirit of God brings a power so great that the disciples could hold the raw naked fire of forgiveness. But, being given the agency of the Spirit of God comes with a warning: Danger, you might find yourself holding someone else’s demonic snake and it will only let go of you if you grant both the person and the demon forgiveness. The only way to activate the Spirit of God is to love so much that you can let go of control; to forgive so much you’ve forgotten the sin; to empty yourself so much you’ve crawled up on your own cross to die to your ego. The fire of the Spirit of God does not move accidentally nor without purpose and not without a human agent that is willing to follow the path of the Christ.

To be actively involved in the Divine Dance we must open ourselves to the difficult process of becoming spiritually mature human beings. We must work toward becoming as consciously awake as was Jesus. How? By, opening our spiritual eyes to see the creative action of God that is still taking place in the world today. By opening our spiritual hands to receive the nail prints of the Christ when we risk being his servants. And by opening our mouths to receive the breath of Spirit of God into our very souls. By living into these spiritual actions, we will find ourselves involved in the intoxicating dance with the One Holy Living Trinitarian God, where three will become four.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Transmutation of the Dying

During the course of my ministry as an Episcopal priest, I’ve spent a lot time with the dying. I consider it a deep privilege to be with people as they walk through the final days of their life. Their stories are often the legacy of their soul. The dying fill every word of every story with a heavy weight that leave a lasting imprint on my mind, body, soul, and spirit; the transmutation of the dying.

Such are the final of words of Jesus that we have been reading in the Gospel of John chapter 13-17. The Gospel of John is set apart from Matthew, Mark, and Luke as a very different look at who Jesus might have been and what he taught. The Gospel of John was written thirty to forty years after the other gospels. Its focus was not on telling Jesus’ life story. There isn’t a birth narrative in the Gospel of John. There aren’t any parables in this gospel. Instead, the Gospel of John was written to reveal the wisdom of Jesus’ teachings, which are often hidden in the poetic nature of John’s writing. In one line in the gospel, it even suggests that Jesus’ teachings were done in “secret.” (7:10) In the Gospel of John we hear Jesus’ seven mystical “I am” statements and we are told about his magical seven signs. A great deal of the wisdom literature discovered in the Nag Hammadi text, found in an Egyptian cave in 1945, were based on the Gospel of John. And the mysteries of Celtic Spirituality have drawn deeply from the Gospel of John as its primary source of understanding Jesus’ wisdom and his relationship to God.

In John 14:15-21, Jesus gives his followers a very straight-forward statement about how they are live once he is gone from the earth. “If you love me,” Jesus says, “you will keep my commandments.” The temptation here is to start listing all the commandments of Jesus that we can find in each of the four gospels. The problem with this is that each gospel was written for a different community. And most likely these small house churches only had access to the gospel written especially for them, and not the other three.

That’s why, in this little study, I want to keep our focus on the Gospel of John, on Jesus’ wisdom teachings.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus gives us three simple commandments, or expectations, for his followers:

1) Love one another as Jesus has loved us. (John 15:12)
2) Abide in Jesus’s love, which is the same as abiding in the Spirit of God’s love. (John 14:17)
3) And wash one another’s feet. (John 13:14)

First, Jesus tells us that our society will know that we are the followers of Jesus when we love one another. (John 13:34-35) Jesus’ teaching sounds so easy, just love everybody. But the reality is, we have a hard-enough time loving ourselves, and our family, much less those in our church community. It’s hard to love people we don’t know; much less love the ones with which we share deep relationships. The love Jesus is talking about is an intimate love—the kind of love that reaches us in the most vulnerable hidden places deep within our souls. And this kind of love, Jesus’ love, is transformative—it changes the very essence of the core of our being.

I remember so well when our son told us we were going to be grandparents. We were so excited and could hardly wait for the day Cole would be born. All my friends told me that having a grandchild would change my life like nothing else. I believed them, but I just didn’t have any context for what they were saying. And then Cole arrived; the holy grandchild. The next day we went to meet our grandson.

Within minutes of our arrival our daughter-in-law slipped Cole into my arms. When I peered into his eyes I knew I was looking in the eyes of God; and my heart was forever changed. In that mystical moment, I knew my life would never be the same. For the first time, I was beginning to understand what it was like to be loved by God, to feel what Jesus felt like when he told us that “God is love.” (I John 4:16) The experience of holding my grandson for the very first time opened a whole new understanding to me about what it means to love one another as Jesus has loved us. Jesus’ love is intimate and his love is transformative. Now when I am challenged to love those around me who are difficult to love, I am moved to see the God that I see in my grandson’s eyes, in the eyes of the person I struggle to love.

Second, Jesus teaches us to abide in his love. Jesus tells us that we can abide in the same love that he and God share. To abide means to remain permanently, to stay in the space of their love forever.

When I go hiking, I love to pick up stones. I’ve found myself attracted to the rough, jagged, and sharp edged stones. In pondering why I’m attracted to such stones, I’ve come realize that these oddly shaped stones represent how I see my soul. To abide means to place the rough stone of our soul into the river of God and leave it there until it becomes smooth, a process that will take more than a lifetime.

In our Baptismal Covenant (found in the Book of Common Prayer, 304) we are asked five questions about our commitment to the teachings of Jesus. In each case, we respond, “I will, with God’s help.” What we are saying is that we are work in progress. We will do everything we can to stay permanently in the river of God, allow the rushing waters of God to transform us; smoothing out our rough edges. It’s not always easy to abide in the river of God. Sometimes the waters are rough. Sometimes the waters are freezing cold. Sometimes the waters are muddy.

But it is at those times that we know we must abide; we must keep our stone in God’s river, so that the transformation can happen. It’s the good times that we remember; but it’s the bad times that have made us what we are.

Finally, in Jesus’ wisdom teachings he asks us to follow his example by washing other people’s feet; in other words, to minister to others hidden needs. Recently, the Episcopal Church has passed a new regulation that will require all our volunteers to participate in a training course. The Church’s meaning has good intent. The only problem is that St Peter’s has so many volunteers, we not sure how to even count them all. This past week we started gathering lists and in our earliest guess, we might have more than 250 people volunteering for one or more ministries. St Peter’s people know how to “wash other people’s feet,” by being servants.

More often than not, I hear people tell me that when they serve in one of these ministries that it does more for them than the people they are serving. In washing another person’s feet, we humble ourselves in the most vulnerable way to the most vulnerable people in need. The act of serving others changes the core of our being. It’s a reciprocal act. An act that creates within us what Thomas Merton calls a “Resurrection Consciousness.” In other words, the world is turned upside down as we begin to see everything through the eyes of Jesus.

In Jesus’ final words he told us to love one another, abide in God’s love, and to wash feet. His final commandments change the way we live, move, and have our being in the world; they transmute us. Living as Jesus has taught us can be our legacy that we leave to our family and friends. Jesus’ way of living can indeed change us and our community.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Singing to the Weary Soul

In June, Cathy and I will be going to Ireland again for another pilgrimage. I will be walking with two groups. The first pilgrimage will be with Vox Peregrini 2017, a group of twelve professional singers who will be walking and singing their way along the 100 miles of the Wicklow Way. The second group includes people from our Wisdom School, St Peter’s, and a few other close friends. This group will walk three days of the Wicklow Way and then spend five days on a retreat led by Cathy and I that we call Sacred Cauldron.

We have walked the Wicklow Way and led these types of pilgrimages before. Our experience has taught us that a community forms rapidly among those who are walking the Wicklow Mountains. Walking fifteen miles a day for eight days through, sometimes rough terrain, leaves the pilgrims exposed and vulnerable. Exhausted and sometimes in pain, the best and the worst of us comes to the surface for everyone else to see.

Like all communities, the spectrum of each member’s involvement in the community is often dependent upon their maturity. Those who are more mature and experienced have a tendency to carry a heavier load of leadership. A few walk in the front, a few at the back, most in the middle. And while each person has to carry their own pack, everyone eventually will carry some spiritual and emotional weight for the entire group.

Walking together is Ireland is like walking in a mist of Celtic Spirituality that naturally fosters a form of community development. Celtic Spirituality is monastic by its very nature. It is built upon the idea that small groups can learn best how to pray, work and live together. These small groups share the central ideals; that God is present in all of creation; that Christ is the model of personal development; and that individuals are collectively responsible for the well-being of the community. Celtic Spirituality is a perfect blend of Franciscan, Benedictine, and Ignatian Spirituality.

Franciscan in its nature-centered theology. Benedictine in its hospitality-centered theology. And Ignatian in its imaginative-centered theology. By combining these three spiritualties, there seems to be a possibility for almost anyone to find their way in the Celtic community.

Of course, this method of community building comes from the teachings of the apostles found in Acts 2:42-47. In this text, we find five components upon which we can weave the web of the spiritual community. Together, the community will 1) study the scriptures, 2) fellowship, 3) worship and pray, 4) serve others, and 5) share their time, talent, and treasure with the group. Without all five of these connecting points holding the community together, it will eventually collapse in on itself.

Let’s take a closer look at these five connecting points of community development.

First, we must study the scriptures and other wisdom texts together. What that means from Anglican tradition is that the God is still speaking and reveling Godself to the community. We can learn to hear the Voice of God and discern what God is saying to the community when we study together. Without studying together, we can get lost.

On one of my pilgrimages across Ireland, we spent a lot of time in the rain. One of the worst rain and windstorms we encountered was crossing White Hill in the Wicklow Mountains. Everything we carried was drenched, including my map.
The following day was another hilly climb from Roundwood to Glendalough. We endured another day of steady Irish downpour. With a trashed map, the inevitable happened. We got lost and I was feeling very anxious.
We came across a couple sitting by the side of the road. They were having a cup of tea.
“Are you walking the Way?” I asked.
“Aye,” the man said.
“We are walking the Way as well, but I think we’re lost,” I told him.
“Where are you coming from?” he asked.
“Indeed, you’re going in the wrong direction,” he said, “Where’s your map laddie?”
I pulled out what was left of my map. It was a useless wad of soaked paper, an indistinguishable mess.
“That’s not a map laddie,” as he reached in his bag. “This is a map.” He produced a detailed topographical map sealed in zip lock bag. As a kind pilgrim, he proceeded to tell us that not only had we walked in the wrong direction, but that we had walked about two miles past the turnoff point to Glendalough. On his map, he showed us where we should have turned and what markers would guide us. We thanked him and started to walk back the way we had just come.
“Laddies, we’ll walk with you a bit,” he said.” just to make sure you don’t get lost again.” The couple walked the next two miles with us explaining, in detail, how to make our way to Glendalough. Studying the together is like walking together with a good map. At St Peter’s we have seven study groups going on right now. We study together to keep us from getting lost on our way.

Second, spending time in fellowship together is critical to the community’s spiritual growth. If we don’t eat together we won’t get to know each other. On our walking pilgrimages, we eat most of our meals together. This gives us time to talk about lives, our pains and our joys. In the same way, spiritual communities must make time to fellowship together. John Wiles, who founded Vox Peregrini, wrote a song about how the potluck dinner can be as powerful a sacrament as the Eucharistic meal. In many ways, I believe he is right.

Third, when we worship together, when we break the Holy Bread together, our souls will be woven together. We have different tastes in music. We all like one preacher better than another. We like a particular style of liturgy better than another. But the one singular thing that holds us together is the very Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving Feast. That is why, here at St Peter’s, we say that the Lord’s Table is open to everyone; no matter where you are on your spiritual pilgrimage, you are welcome to receive the Holy Meal, the Body and Blood of Christ.

Fourth, as a community, we must serve together—serve those in need, both in and outside our community. Not a week goes by when I don’t hear multiple stories about the ministry that is happening at St Peter’s—stories that bring tears of joy to our lives. Ministries abound in this community, for those in the community and those outside our doors. St Peter’s, I believe, is a model parish for other communities on how to serve.

And finally, in the Acts of the Apostles, we hear how everyone in the community contributed their time, talent, and treasure for the sake of others. We are called to faithful stewards of what has been bestowed upon us. There are countless ways in which all us can participate in this community. By volunteering our time, offering our skills, and yes being faithful in giving regularly to the complete ministry of the church. Giving of our time, talent, and treasure is a spiritual practice, a discipline. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, there is “cost” that accompanies “discipleship.” No one can tell us what that cost is, but we will know when God places that call on our heart to share of our time, talent, and treasure.

St Peter’s is a spiritual community that is on its own particular spiritual pilgrimage—one that will continue to develop our strength and resilience. The kind of journey that we are on, however, will require everyone to carry some of the load. It will take all of us working together: in our studies, our fellowship, our worship, our service, and our giving. When we work together to strengthen our community, we will see “wonders and signs” done in our midst.

When the Vox Peregrini 2015 finished its 100-mile walk, they were scheduled to perform two concerts. The first was at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. That concert went fine but the group seemed a bit off. I had listened to them sing for eight days and every time I was moved at the core in my being. Maybe that day they were just too exhausted to sing or I was too tired to listen. The next day they performed at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. That day the music was pristine, rich, and filled with emotion. I asked a few of the singers what made the difference between the two concerts. One person said it was because they had another day of rest.
Another person said they sounded different because John, the director, had told them to sing like they were standing in the forest, to match their voices to the sound of the wind blowing through the trees. One person said it was because he had stopped looking at the audience and instead looked at his fellow pilgrims; seeing them not dressed in their performance clothes but instead as they looked while hiking through the forest, weary and worn but at peace. He said when he saw them this way he was seeing their souls. He could sing to their souls.

Wonders and signs don’t happen in our community by accident. They happen when we are willing to walk together as a community, everyone carrying their own pack and supporting one another along the pilgrimage. And when we look at one another in our weary pain we be able to sing to the soul we see.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Wisdom Walking: Pilgrimage is a Way of Life

My latest book is now available from Church Publishing and other book sellers. Here's the promotional cover.

Let’s go for walk. A very long walk. A journey down the pilgrim’s path. Traipsing through the forest of life. Climbing over the mountains of adversity. Enduring the climate of challenge. Over the course of countless miles and numerous days, we will mine the golden wisdom hidden within our pilgrimage experience.

“Wisdom Walking is a deeply satisfying and beautifully written journey of the transformation of the soul on pilgrimage. This lively and widely accessible book will feed the mind and spirit of experienced and novice pilgrims. Gil Stafford›s candor and humor will inspire those drawn to both spiritual and secular journeys. An excellent introduction to pilgrimage as an archetypal spiritual practice.”
—Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook, Claremont School of Theology

“Gil Stafford shows us how to take up the art of pilgrimage as a long work of transformation, one which demands an unflinching journey into the dark night of the soul. The compensations for this difficult work, as Wisdom Walking movingly illustrates, are immense: if we are willing to walk into the fires of pilgrimage, we may yet transform the stuff of our everyday lives into the gold of spiritual wisdom.”
—Gaymon Bennett, Arizona State University

Gil Stafford, PhD, DMin, is Canon Theologian for the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona and a priest at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Litchfield Park, Arizona. Prior to being ordained a priest, he was the President of Grand Canyon University. He also had been the head baseball coach at the university for twenty years, winning three national titles. Life is a pilgrimage, and he has taken many, including walking Ireland coast-to-coast. Gil and his wife Cathy are co-founders of 2Wisdom’s Way. He blogs at

9780819233493 | $20.00
paper | 6 x 9 | 208 pages
April 2017
Church Publishing

Monday, April 03, 2017

Grief is Love's Suffering

A few weeks ago, was the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death. When I went to visit her grave and put out fresh flowers, I was immediately taken back to the events that surrounded those days of raw grief.

My sister Dinah and I were having lunch three months after our mother passed away. It was the first time just the two of us were able to be alone. Dinah is Prader-Willi. She is mentally and physically handicapped with a measurable IQ of maybe forty-five. Despite her measurable intelligence, she has the wisdom of a crone and a connection to God of a mystical saint.

Conversations with my sister are slow. She starts by asking how my children are doing. She simply names them and I know she wants to hear what is happening in their lives. Dinah is most interested in our grandsons and my dog, Jesus. She loves dogs, and if she could have one in her house she would, but she can’t, for now anyway. She lives in a single care home, taken care of by two angelic women.

On the day, we had lunch she was unusually chatty. She worked her best to tell me her stories, stringing three or four words together, and then silence. Dinah says a word or two. I ask a question. More silence. Then she ponders the next word needed to find a different way to help me understand.

Lunch was delivered to our table. Dinah is very intent on eating so there is little conversation during the meal. I kind of idly offer a few rambling stories. When the plates were taken away. She resumed her questions about the dog.

Somewhere in the little strands of conversation she told me that she had washed her hair that day.
“Do you wash your hair every day,” I asked.
She nodded an affirmative yes, as if to yes, you idiot, don’t you?
I smiled the older brother grin. “Do you blow dry and style your own hair. It looks nice.”

I was trying to make up for my previously stupid question.
“No, Joey,” she said making reference to her beloved caregiver.
“You have beautiful silver hair Dinah,” I said in truth.
She said without hesitation, “My momma’s hair.”
I wanted to cry, but I held my emotions in check.
Then she said to no one in particular except herself, “My momma’s hair.”
Silence was the best I could afford.
After a minute or two she said, “Momma no more.”

I nodded to affirm that our mother was indeed no more. We sat there in pristine silence. It was at if the entire restaurant, the outside world, and God herself had stopped breathing in communal grief waiting to hear what Dinah would say next.

Grief is the suffering of love. Grief is the complex emotion of love’s pain. And we carry this suffering of love within our minds, our bodies, and our souls for a lifetime. It takes a lifetime to process grief. Every individual experience of grief weaves another pattern of grief into all our previous experiences of grief. Every time we have a new experience of grief it pulls out all the grief of our past and then the new grief weaves itself into the cloth of the old grief, making it weigh heavier than before. That’s why our grief can be triggered by sad movies, a certain fragrance, a particular location, and sometimes random unrelated events can bring us to our knees.

The weight of grief is always present. That’s why denial and avoidance don’t work as a technique for diminishing grief’s effects on us. Unprocessed grief will eventually expose itself at the most inopportune moments as impotent anger. In other words, we get angry about the grief, angry at someone else, even angry at the dead, but no amount of anger will bring back what we’ve lost.

But our grief isn’t confined to our loss of loved ones. We grieve almost every time something in our life changes, good or bad. Because change reminds us that we are not in control.

And grief is not just an individual emotion; grief can also be something held within the body of a community.

The story of Lazarus is a perfect example (John 11:1-45). The Gospel of John was written seventy years after Jesus had died on the cross and thirty years after the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. The Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were grieving the loss of their beloved Temple, the place where they had gathered to connect with God. The gospel writer had written the story of Lazarus as a way of encouraging the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem to come to grips with the reality that while the Temple had been destroyed, they, as a community, had been resurrected to be the new Temple of Christ. Yes, they were suffering grief from their loss but something unexpected would arise out of their pain.

Everyone in the story of Lazarus is suffering from grief. The disciples were grieving the anticipated fear of Jesus’ death. Martha, Mary, their friends, and Jesus were grieving over their loss of their beloved Lazarus.

Martha is the one who first displays her anger. “If only you had been here, Jesus, Lazarus wouldn’t have died.” We all play the “if only” game. If only they would have taken better care of themselves. If only they had caught the cancer sooner. If only I had paid closer attention to the signs of depression. If only… But being angry at the dead, other people, or ourselves, never brings back the dead. That’s why it’s called impotent anger—it serves no purpose. What serves a purpose is to process the grief, the reality of death, and the potential for new life.

Mary is the one who is hiding her grief and depression. Martha has to call Mary out of the house and tell her that Jesus wanted to see her. It’s when Mary sees Jesus that she too displays her anger with “only if you had been here.” But that anger quickly gives way to a wave of grief so profound that Jesus breaks down and weeps. Mary’s grief triggered Jesus’ grief. And that triggered the grief of everyone around them. The community was collectively grieving.

Then Jesus goes to the tomb and there raises Lazarus from the dead. The point of the story, however, is not that Jesus resurrected Lazarus from the dead. If that was the point, then Lazarus would still be alive today. The point of the story is that out of death comes life. Lazarus was buried in a cave; the symbol of the womb of God. Out of the empty womb comes new life. The story is repeated over and over in the Bible; out of the empty womb of Sarah, Israel is born; out of the empty womb of Elizabeth, John the Baptist is born; out of the empty womb of Mary, God is born; out of the empty tomb of Jesus, the Christ is born. The marriage of life and death breeds the resurrection of new life. If we deny living life, or if we deny suffering the grief of death, resurrection of new life cannot be born.

Just eight weeks ago, Pastor Gae departed from St Peter’s. Her leaving was a loss. She had been here seventeen years and built deep relationships. Grieving her loss will take time; a different length of time for every person. But honestly, some were grieving before she left—they were grieving something else—something they had lost. And that loss will take time to grieve. Whatever you are grieving that is related to Pastor Gae, is compounded by your own particular history of grief. And all the weight of that grief is being held within the body of the community. Some have acted out in the anger of “if only.” Some are hiding their grief from the community. And some are openly weeping. Someone asked me why it will take two years for St Peter’s to have a new rector. In the tradition of our old ways, we would celebrate a Mass on the first anniversary of someone’s death. It was a ritual that signified that the time of mourning was officially over. Grief, no matter what kind, takes time. And while we will never get over our loss, we must find a way forward, which takes patience.

There are two things I hope that you can hear:

1) First, as a community, we must be lovingly patient with one another’s grief. Whether we understand the other person’s grief or not, we must continue to love them and be patient with what we do not understand.
2) And, second, we must trust what Jesus the Christ taught us; that the marriage of life and death will bring the resurrection of new life. We may not be able to see it right now, or want to see it, or be ready to see it. But this is the hope of the resurrection of the Christ—death is not the end.