A Tale of Two Buildings

Let’s be up front: this isn’t really a tale of two buildings. It’s more what they represent. They are buildings, but also emblems. The cabin and the church.

The Cabin

It is so easy for me to be a hermit. An active, outdoor hermit, mind you–wrangling sunrises with coffee, running, paddleboarding, looking for birds. I like to hermit in the John Muir, Edward Abbey, Thoreau style.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to daydream about finding a cabin like this one from Cabin Folk and holing up for a good stretch with books, notebook, trail running shoes, binoculars, backpack, you get the idea. And I would enjoy that and likely recharge a bit.

Solitude is a necessary condition for me. But I’ve come to realize it’s not enough. It’s just a beginning point, albeit one to return to. If you are one to ask life’s biggest questions and take the walk to find answers, there is a good chance that you are going to struggle at times. You are going to suffer, you are going to come up short, and sooner or later, you are going to need help. That can be a humbling experience. For me, being humbled is also a necessary condition.

It’s being humbled and needing help that sets us up for needing other people. Needing a community of sorts. Needing people who we can relate to; who understand our struggles; and who we can in turn help with theirs. In my experience, helping someone–whether it is moving furniture, listening, laughing, accomplishing a goal, or just being there–creates a feeling in me that I can’t replicate on my own, cabin in the woods or not.

The Church

The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone who thinks and feels with us, and who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“Someone who thinks and feels with us,” Goethe is perhaps describing the beginning or foundation of community. In his sermon at Christ Church Easton on Sunday, Fr. Scott Albergate posited that “The reason to go to church is to be in the company of others,” and that while in a worship service, “Hopefully it will sink into your soul–through the sacraments, songs, Scripture–that life is beyond our control.”

If you spend time in nature, or if you are at all mindful of the passing of time, disease, death, the notion that life is beyond our control is almost self evident. And it can be a heavy truth to bear. As we try to carry that with us, it can weigh us down.

Fr. Scott also pointed out that the majority of what we know of Jesus through the Gospel, he is concerned with healing and transformation. Healing and transformation, through Christ, happen through love and grace. Love happens in the world, through people. We can’t experience it alone. And when we come together, a funny thing happens:

God brings his presence ‘into the house,’ and we are called to release it back out into the world. – Pete Greig, “Red Moon Rising”

Grace is only grace because God gives it to us, He shares it. We know it as a gift and show it by sharing it with each other and others. We know love and grace in the company of others.

Two Buildings

The cabin is the place to find ourselves in solitude. The church building is the place to come together with those “close to us in spirit.” We come together to know, to experience God’s grace through each other and to take it out into the world.

I need both buildings and what they represent. I think Thomas Merton gets it right when he says:

We do not exist for ourselves alone, and it only when we are fully convinced of this fact that we begin to love ourselves properly and thus also love others.

Space for Grace

Tohu wa-bohu. It’s fun to say. Like an incantation you would chant while waving a magic wand over a hat. Tohu wa-bohu. It’s a Hebrew phrase from the Book of Genesis, describing the state of the Universe before God created order. “Formless void,” and “primordial chaos” are two of the translations I enjoy the most.

It’s a phrase Fr. Bill Ortt has unpacked in a couple different small groups at Christ Church Easton of late. He used it to point out that the first things that God created, in addition to light, were time and space. These were the ordering principles of the Universe. To get rid of the chaos, it was light, time, and space.

The image above is William Blake’s “Ancient of Days,” in which God creates order out of chaos. Blake is depicting God putting his orderly stamp on the Tohu wa-bohu. It’s an image I am familiar with: it’s on my left shoulder, the first tattoo I ever got, when I was 25, after my first encounter with Blake in Dr. Gillin’s British Romanticism class at Washington College. Funny to come back to it in a new way, almost 20 years later.

There is something to that need for order. When we want to calm the chaos in our own lives, we need to shine a light on things and create time and space. When things get hectic, there is a blueprint that goes back to the beginning.

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s “Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.” I like Lamott for her honesty, humor, compassion; for her irreverent reverence; for her willingness and ability to shine the light on herself and laugh and make us laugh at what she finds; for her willingness to wrestle God and surrender; and for her unique and personal path and walk of faith.

Both in reading her and for some time before, I have had the notion of “grace” on my mind. Here is how Lamott looks at it:

It is unearned love–the love that goes before, that greets us on the way. It’s the help you receive when you have no bright ideas left, when you are empty and desperate and have discovered that your best thinking and most charming charm have failed you. Grace is the light or electricity or juice or breeze that takes you from that isolated place and puts you with others who are as startled and embarrassed and eventually grateful as you are to be there.

There is so much there that I like. Grace is what is left when we have nothing else. It’s what is there when we are on empty. It’s foundational. It’s also not something we have alone, or by ourselves. Grace connects us to God and to each other. Sometimes that is a tough lesson to learn for those of us who are hermits by nature.

Here is another way she puts it, “Man is broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue.” Let’s play that out to bricks and mortar. A single brick only gets you so far. With a bunch of bricks, you can have a sidewalk, patio, house, etc. But the key to putting bricks together is mortar. And you have to make space for the mortar to join them together and make them stronger.

You have to make space for grace. If we get so busy with our lives, or so self-absorbed that we can’t see or feel grace, we are the bricks without mortar. We are the ones deluding ourselves that we can do it on our own.

We are broken. We live by mending. The grace of God is glue. We need to make space for grace.

Making Us New

Each day is full of the expected and the unexpected. There are things I see coming and plenty I don’t. There are things I recognize and those I know are new. And that goes for myself as well; there are parts of me I recognize and parts I have to do a double take to catch (some I like, some I need to work on).

We can say the same thing for each of our paths through life: there is familiar ground and new ground every day. The thing about it is to keep going.

By your endurance you will gain your souls. – Luke 21:19. That was the Gospel from this morning’s worship service at Christ Church Easton. Over the last couple months, I have been reading the Books of Luke and John, and I underlined that passage a week or so ago. As a distance runner it speaks to me of lessons learned through perseverance. As someone whose life doesn’t generally seem to move in straight or discernible lines, it’s also about endurance in the face of the unknown. We might call that faith. Faith helps us endure.

Jesus talks about the destruction of the temple, the impermanence of the earthly life, the trials and tribulations and hardships that lie ahead, and the need to stay on the path, have faith, “by endurance you will gain your souls.” There are a very few things we can control, life happens all around us, what are we to do, what are we called to do as followers of Christ in the face of it all?

What we are called upon to be in this world is a force for good, for hope, for reconciliation, and righteousness… we can be better vessels of grace in this (community). – Fr. Bill

Life happens in ways we can’t understand. What we are called upon is to be a force for good, for hope, for faith. To focus on those things we can do something about, how we treat others, how we serve, what we can do for ourselves, our families, our communities.

Our walk may require different shoes than we expected (I had to grab the photo above, which shows what happens when a priest has to go from two morning worship services to volunteering at the Waterfowl Festival). It may take us down different roads, put us in different places, and run us into different people than we expected or than we would have chosen on our own. Though we’d like to, we can’t control what or who we encounter, but we can control who we are, how we act, and how we see things and people.

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Sometimes I think we adapt to the path we are on. We are made new by how we respond. Sometimes, I think we adapt to the path we see coming. We are made new to prepare for what’s ahead. In both cases, it is our response to God, what He’s put in front of us, and how we respond to His calling that makes us new.

Endurance, enduring doesn’t just have to be work and suffering. Those things are there, but so are happiness, joy, celebration, inspiration, and love. All things by which God makes us new, renew us. Along our path, we are able to become new again, invent, and improve ourselves. We can look to God for inspiration and we can surround ourselves with people who inspire us.

I’ve had the great fortune over the past couple weeks, to be inspired by two friends, in their mid-40s, doing amazing things that they have taken upon themselves to do.

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Jeremy Joseph is an elementary school art teacher, father of two girls, his wife is also a teacher. He is an artist with a cool style. Recently he decided to take his painting in a new direction and opened a solo exhibit of 30 new works. More on that another time, but Jeremy has long been an inspiration for me and writing, the way he makes time for creativity, for his passion, when it would be easier just to work, to be a dad, live life. Instead he chooses to have creativity, art, and newness be a part of his life.

A.K. Leight is a marine biologist. He decided a number of years ago that he was going to get his PhD in environmental science (Biological Oceanography) knowing he and his wife work full-time, have two girls, and that it was going to be a long, slow process. This past week he successfully defended his thesis, bringing the culmination of so much time, effort, and study. It’s not something most people do 20-some years into a career. As I am entering a new life adventure where continuing education and/or graduate study are a part of a calling, I am inspired by what A.K. has done and how he has gone about it. I am blessed to have friends who inspire me by their example.

Every day there is something new for us. Every day we can bring new eyes and renewed heart to what we are doing and how we live our lives. Every day God makes us new.

“Increase Our Faith:” Thoughts After a Sermon

I try to listen. Every chance I get. I am a visual learner, so being quiet, taking in sounds, words, wind, birds, a conversation, is something I work at. It’s a funny thing, but I find it’s amazing how much I hear when I listen.

“Increase our faith,” Luke has the apostles saying in his part of the Gospel (Luke 17:5). It’s during the trying times that we ask for something like that. When we know we’re working through something. It’s never when things are going well and life is good. Those aren’t the times made for faith.

When I sit in church, I try to make my posture silent and open, so I can take everything in. It’s those moments where hymns, songs, scripture, sermons, feel directed to my ears.

Am I being the person I am supposed to be? Am I doing the things I am supposed to be doing?

Those are the crossroads questions. Livelihood, being a good father, relationships, life, spiritual path, faith… those questions come up, sometimes we have an answer we are happy with, sometimes not, sometimes we don’t know. Those are times for faith. Leaning away from worry and leaning into faith.

Even when we can’t do it, God moving through us can make great things happen.

When we face doubt, struggle, our limitations, if we get out of the way, if we make room, God can work through us.

Being mindful not of who we are, but “Whose” we are…

What a difference a letter or two can make. When I am thinking through questions about living my life, remembering that life is a gift and should be treated accordingly, with gratitude.

I rode my bike down Boone Creek Rd., and looked up the creek. There was a deep silence, a stillness, the same as I felt in church earlier.

…silence to open a path… experiencing the stillness of God’s comforting grace.

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There are times when I dig the hermit on the mountain idea. Cultivate that silence and rest in it. But I know at the bottom of that savored solitude, something is missing for me.

This great capacity we have as human beings to love, makes us better.

Ah yes, there it is. Maybe we’ve got this grain of mustard seed in us (sticking with Luke) that can grow into something beyond what we even thought it could.

In stillness, it can come to us. God can come to us. When we are still. And listening. But don’t expect a road map. Don’t expect answers. If it were easy, if it were clear, it wouldn’t require faith, this walk.

Not all things in life are unscarred, pure, and perfect.

Amen. It’s our scars, our particular brokenness and how we are put back together, that defines us.

Increase our faith.

[italics are words taken/quoted from a sermon on Oct. 2, 2016, Christ Church, Easton, Md.]