My granddad was a great storyteller. Most of his life he was a truck driver, often hauling cattle from Elk City, Oklahoma to Cozad, Nebraska. During the summers our family would visit my granddad and I’d get to ride along with him on his 24-hour turn around trips. On those trips he would tell me stories about his dad, his brother, my grandmother, who died before I was born, and my mom—story after story. He repeated those stories over and over again. While he died twenty-five years ago, I can still repeat almost every one of those stories word for word.
My granddad used to tell me, “With age comes freedom.” When I was nine, I thought that meant that I was old enough to have the freedom to ride along with him in his eighteen-wheeler. Then when I was a teenager I thought it meant that soon enough I would be old enough to drive his truck. Later I thought he was telling me I was old enough to get married. With every transition in life, I thought, the phrase, “With age comes freedom,” was about that particular place in my life. Now at sixty-one, with age comes freedom, is taking on a whole new meaning. The phrase changes meaning with time.
There’s a sentence in the bible that has had that same long-term resonance in my life. In John 3:30, John the Baptist says, “Jesus must increase and I must decrease.” I’ve been using that sentence as a prayer for thirty-seven years. For the last ten years as an Episcopal priest, I’ve prayed that prayer before I preach every sermon.
The sentence found me in 1978. I had taken a youth group to a Baptist camp in New Mexico. A young seminarian was the preacher for the week. He was very dynamic and he quoted that verse before every sermon. Southern Baptist’ rarely open their sermons with a sentence of prayer. So this young man was doing something very unique. Shortly after that camp I became the interim pastor for our church. I was twenty-five years old. I started using that sentence to open my sermons. I used the prayer so much that a friend of ours made a crossstitch of the verse as a gift. It has been hanging in every office I’ve had since.
But, what that verse meant to me thirty-seven years ago is much different than today. Then, it meant that I needed to be a better Christian. What I knew about being a Christian then really didn’t have much connection to who Jesus really was. Being a Christian was learning and following the rules and knowing all the right answers according to the church. It was, however, the Jesus I had grown up with—and that’s all okay. That’s just where I was 40 years ago.
My journey of trying to live into John the Baptist’ statement, “Jesus must increase and I must decrease,” has taken me down many roads. Over the years I’ve prayed that prayer, so many times, it’s been like placing a rough stone in a river. Rushing water smoothing the jagged stone of my soul in the river of prayer. My soul stone is still in that river. A lot more work needs to be done.
What’s happened over the years is that I have been shaped by the rushing water of prayer, scripture, and writer’s like Marcus Borg, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Walter Brueggemann, Stanley Hauerwas, Miguel Da Le Torre, Barbara Brown Taylor, Mary Oliver, Carl Jung, and a host of others. I’ve also been shaped by the ministry of presence of Tom Wiles, Glenn Hinson, Rebecca McClain, Veronica Ritson, and scores of others. In every one of these people I could recognize that they saw themselves as moving to the backstage while Jesus was moving front and center in their life. The Jesus they saw was a Jesus I had not imagined existed—a living Jesus Christ who was no longer trapped in the confines of the New Testament. They sought a Jesus Christ who is bigger than the bible, the church, and Christianity itself.
Fifteen years ago I went to a retreat led by one of the great Baptist’s of our time, Glenn Hinson. In my opinion he’s great because the fundamentalist fired him and he survived to teach again. He had been terminated from his professorship at a Baptist seminary because he was too liberal. One of his mistakes had been befriending Thomas Merton. Hinson took his young Baptist seminarians to meet Merton. Yep, that’ll get you fired. Anyway, Hinson introduced me to the idea of walking and praying every morning. When he first suggested it to me, I asked him what in the world I could talk to Jesus about for an hour. Hinson said to just tell Jesus what was going on in my life. He must have seen the horror on my face so he suggested I simply repeat a prayer as I walked. “You mean like, Jesus must increase and I must decrease.” Absolutely, he said. And that’s where the idea began that pilgrimage is a shaping force in the formation of soul. Pilgrimage as a way of life.
I’ve walked across Ireland, almost 400 miles of soul shaping, one step at a time. I’ve taken several walking pilgrimages in Ireland—this past summer with a singing choir group. Each journey has had a profound impact on my life. I have gone on pilgrimage to find wisdom, to have a mystical experience, to embrace the dangers of the four elements, to understand the fullest experience of the world, to have a total experience of the mystical, to gain spiritual knowledge, and engage in the sacred magic of Jesus. I want to not only be a follower of Jesus I want to be like Jesus. Jesus must increase and I must decrease.
That sounds so simple—but the meaning keeps changing with age.
In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus said, “Divine Reality exists inside and all around you. Only when you have come to know your true Self will you be fully known—realizing at last that you are a child of the Living One.”
What I think Jesus meant was that I have to know my Self fully in order to be fully like Jesus. If I want Jesus to increase in my life I need the 360-degree of self-awareness. Jesus went through the process of discovering his true Self. He was laying out a mystical pilgrimage so that we could follow him and know our true Self as well. For Jesus to increase, and for me to decrease, I must be more like him and less like me—but to be more like him, I must be my true Self and more like me. That statement is so paradoxical it has to be true.
Jesus must increase and I must decrease. To be more like Jesus, I must decrease so much so that my true self will emerge from the realm of the union of the conscious and the unconscious. That’s what I’ll be working on the rest of my life.
When I walked the Wicklow Way this summer I prayed the prayer, “Jesus must increase, and I must decrease, keep vigil with the mystery. That phrase has been shaping my soul for the last two months, like it has for the last forty years—and the meaning keeps changing, even over the last two months. The phrase continues to trouble my soul. The more trouble it causes in my soul the more likelihood I will experience the mystery, the knowledge, and the sacred magic of Jesus. The more likely Jesus will increase and I will decrease.