The Journey from Loss to Hope

They gathered in a large circle at 5:30 AM in our church parking lot.  The circle was wide enough for all 26 of them, and each had the opportunity to name a person to whom they wished to dedicate the day’s 113-mile ride.  One of them named our church member and her children who fed the whole crew the night before.  Another dedicated her ride to her father, because, she said, “He would think that what we are doing here is really great.” 

Then they separated and went to their bicycles, and readied themselves for the journey.  On the back of each person’s jersey, written across a map of North America were these words:  FIGHTING CANCER EVERY MILE.  It turns out that each of these riders had at least three things in common.  They were between the ages of 19 and 25. They had family members who died of cancer or are living with cancer.  They were part of the group “Texas 4000,” which annually organizes 4000-mile rides from Austin, Texas to Anchorage, Alaska to raise money for cancer prevention and treatment.

With a shared history of pain and loss, they were nonetheless joyful, and their joy was infectious. They were only with us for 10 hours, arriving at 7:30 PM and leaving at 5:30 AM, but all of us who talked with them were inspired by their idealism and their love for one another.  Even our breakfast cook, who was surprised to hear the night before that they needed breakfast at 4:30 AM (!!), left church that day with a full heart. 

I was inspired to the point that I asked if I could join them on their ride, knowing I would have to turn around at some point.  They thought that was a fantastic idea.  Before I knew it, I was part of the first flite of six making our way down 11th Street, to Cameron, and then west on County Road E.  We rode single file, and so did not talk much, but the lead biker was a big Taylor Swift fan, and he blasted her songs through a compact loudspeaker strapped to his back. Even though I was going on four hours sleep and the scrambled eggs were still churning in my stomach, I felt about as good as I can feel during those 40 minutes with them.

When it was time for me to turn back and leave my spirit-filled peloton, I sprinted ahead of them saying good-bye to each one as I passed.  I got off my bike in time to take a photo of them in motion, smiling against the morning sun. Each waved, smiled and said thank you.  I gave them a thumbs up.  I returned by the same road we had traveled, and so, a few minutes apart, I passed the other two groups who were speeding westward while I moved east.  Waves, smiles, thank-you’s.  And then I was alone. 

My joy almost immediately turned to deep sadness.  The adrenaline fueling my pedaling diminished.  In truth, I wanted to stay with them, and share their joy and exhilaration for the next 35 days, or lest ten more miles.  I imagined the depth of companionship they would have after their 70 days and 4000 miles together.  I remembered a similar feeling of joy when I was a young adult during a week of service with others in poverty-stricken eastern Kentucky.  There is something truly powerful about the experience of doing good things, not only for others but WITH others. And, like now on the road alone, I was sad when that week in Kentucky ended and we went our separate ways.

I finished my ride at a slower pace, grateful for these young people.  They had reminded me of something very important.  Pain and grief do not have to be one-way, dead end streets. Knowing our own pain and vulnerability, we can turn toward others with compassion, form real friendships, and together seek to ease the suffering of others.   It seems that is what Church should be all about.  Realizing this gave me hope, and gave me the needed energy for the rest of the journey home. 


Fame and Goodness in Memphis

Last month, I had a free day in Memphis, Tennessee. Before leaving on this trip, a lot of people asked me if I would visit Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home.  The $77 ticket price dissuaded me, but I was looking forward to going downtown and eating at his favorite breakfast place, The Arcade Restaurant.  Thinking it would be really crowded, I made the mistake of grabbing a sandwich first at a nearby deli. As it turned out, the Arcade had very few people dining at 11:30 when I arrived.  I ponied up to the counter where I ordered a milkshake and struck up conversation with the waiter who pointed to the booth that was reserved for Elvis before he became a mega-star, and where people can still sit and eat. Unfortunately, the booth was taken. Also unfortunate, I found out only after ordering the milkshake that I could have ordered Elvis’ favorite item on the menu, a grilled PB&B, peanut butter and banana.

I seriously wish that I could have eaten his favorite sandwich while sitting in his booth.  I think it would have been thrilling to be in that sort of physical communion with someone so famous.

After slurping up the last few drops of my milkshake, I set out to explore more of the city.  I walked one block north on the right side of Main Street, and happened to throw a glance to my right while crossing the street. What I saw made me stop and take a deep breath, and then, as though pulled by gravity, I moved toward the iconic sign with the words “Lorraine Motel” on it.  I had wanted to visit this sacred ground where, on the evening of April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed.  I just didn’t expect to see it so soon, while not even looking for it.

There is a national civil rights museum now attached to the motel, which is closed on Tuesdays.  I was there on a Tuesday.  Perhaps it was just as well, since I used the next hour to just sit on a curb of the parking lot opposite Room 306 on the balcony where Dr. King last stood before a bullet from across the street, over my left shoulder, ended his life.

On my phone, I looked up the speech, the last of his life, that he gave in a church a mile to the south the night before.  Known popularly as “The Mountaintop Speech,” Dr. King gave it to support the city’s sanitation workers who were on strike seeking safer working conditions and a just wage. I had heard the end of that speech several times—powerful—but that was only the end of a 53-minute speech, which I engaged as an exercise in sacred reading.  In this speech, he spent a good deal of time discussing Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan.  With clear insight, he said that the difference between the men who walked by the half-dead man lying at the side of the road and the Samaritan who helped him was this: The ones who walked by asked themselves “If I stop and help this man, what will happen to me?” The Samaritan asked differently, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

Dr. King went on to say that the reason they had gathered in support of the sanitation workers was in consideration of what would happen to them if they did not.  And then the speech crescendoed to the final paragraph where he famously said that he did not know what the future held, that there would be difficult days ahead, but that he was a happy man because God had led him to the mountaintop where he had seen the Promised Land.  “I might not get there with you, but…we as a people we get to the Promised Land.” He said would he would like to live a long life, but more important was to do God’s will, and with God’s assurance he was happy and feared no one. 

When I was a boy, I wanted to be famous. Fascination with fame is what drew me to the Arcade Restaurant. Older now, my main desire is to be deeply good.  That desire drew me to an hour of silence opposite the motel balcony where Martin Luther King’s blood was shed.  It was much more important to be close to Martin Luther King than to the “King of Rock and Roll.”  I hope I will always be more fascinated with good people than famous people.

Losing to God

One of the most profound stories I ever came upon was in the book Report to Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis.  In it, he remembers himself as a young man struggling with temptation and seeking wisdom from an old monk who lived alone in the mountains of Greece. Finding him, the young Nikos addressed the holy man. “Tell me, Father, do you still wrestle with the Devil?” The old monk smiled and said, “No. I used to wrestle with the Devil all the time. But now I have grown old and tired, and the Devil has grown old and tired with me. So I leave him alone and he leaves me alone.” Curious, Nikos asked further, “Then your life is easy now?” The monk responded, “Oh no. Life is much harder now. For now I wrestle with God.” Puzzled, Nikos asked, “You wrestle with God and hope to win?” “No,” said the monk, “I wrestle with God and hope to lose.”

What is it to wrestle with God? I asked a group of children if they ever prayed for something that they did not receive.  A Christmas gift? Or, more serious, for a grandparent to recover from an illness?  Not getting what we ask of God, especially very good things, is frustrating.  That is wrestling with God.  I asked if they had ever wanted to be smarter than they are or more athletic than they are—if they ever wanted to be more like someone else instead of themselves.  Why did God make me this way? That is wrestling with God.

When we are older, if pleasing God is important to us, we beg God to help us make good decisions that align with his will.  Should I go to college or not?  Should I marry this person or not?  Should my family belong to a church?  If so, which one? What should I do with my free time?  Questions abound for the person seeking God’s will.  I remember in the months before my ordination desperately asking God to let me know for sure he if wanted me to be a priest.  Just tell me!  I was wrestling with God.

When I was about 12, I apparently had a reputation for giving good nicknames to people.  One classmate, on our walk home from school, demanded that I give him a nickname.  I could not think of one on the spot, so there at the intersection of 10th and Holub, he took me to the ground and we wrestled until he pinned me into submission.  He would not let me go until I offered a nickname.  Gasping for air, I shouted, “Merc! Merc! We’ll call you Merc!”  He liked it and I was free. 

I do not think God wrestles us into submission; it always has to be our choice. Yet, it is often the experience of suffering that wrenches out of us the most common prayer of surrender: Thy will be done. This prayer is the “white flag” we wave to God. It can feel like dying, because it is. It requires letting go of the way we want things to be and embracing with faith, hope, and love, the reality that is before us.    The Good News is that while part of us dies, another part, the deepest part, comes to life.  Jesus tells us that a grain of wheat only bears fruit after it dies, and that to gain ourselves we have to lose ourselves.

In my parish this Lent, we handed out cards with a prayer written in 1897 by Charles de Foucauld.  Charles was a holy person with one desire: to imitate Jesus in his humility by quietly serving everyone around him. In the desert of Algeria, he lived alone, earning enough money through simple work to survive and then giving away any excess money at the end of each week. His famous prayer is called the “Prayer of Abandonment,” and it is the fruit of one who has wrestled with God and lost:

“Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will. 

Whatever you may do, I thank you: I am ready for all, I accept all. 

Let only your will be done in me.  I wish no more than this. 

I love you, Lord, and so need to surrender myself into your hands,

without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father.”

For the Sake of Love

In recent weeks I have been training 4th and 5th graders how to be altar servers.  Before I train them, it helps me to remember the morning of December 6, 1973 and how nervous I was before serving my first mass. Just the fact that I remember the date indicates that it was something that worried me a lot. I at least had the comfort of knowing that Steve, an older student who trained me, was scheduled to be my partner server. He would make sure I did not mess up.  

As I stood in the sacristy before mass, robed and ready, my worry intensified with each passing minute because Steve had not shown up.  In fact, he never showed up.  I was alone.  Questions raced in my mind. How could I ritually cleanse the priest’s hands with only two hands myself, since three things—the water, the bowl and the towel—were needed? Would I ring the bell at the right time? When to stand?  When to sit? When you are nine years old, the rhythm of the liturgy has not yet sunk very deeply into your bones.

My dad was at that mass. He must have seen the panic behind my eyes as I walked to the altar to prepare the water and wine, because in a move that surprised everyone in the church, most of all me, he left his pew and stood beside me.  He held the towel as I poured the water over the priest’s fingers. Then we knelt together on the steps of the altar. When it was time for me to ring the bell and he heard nothing, he cleared his throat and pointed to the bell, his body shielding his finger from the people to save me embarrassment. I remember he was wearing a blue cardigan sweater.  It didn’t exactly match my black and white gear, but everything else matched perfectly what was happening on the altar.  Compassion, love, service, one’s body offered for the good of another.

Initially I was a touch embarrassed, honestly, to have my dad come out of the assembly to serve with me. In retrospect, though, it is one of my favorite memories of him.  I wish I had told that story at his funeral in that same church years later because it was a moment when his love for his family and his love for God and Church all come together. 

His simple act of love also took courage, I now see, because Dad was a meek man. But love stirs the meek heart to action. I learned this lesson for myself 14 years later when our roles reversed.

I was living in Seattle, and my parents came out to visit. I wanted to treat them to the Ivar’s Salmon House take-out experience, where you place your order streetside and then take it around back to sit among the sea gulls with a view of the Space Needle across the water.  Unfortunately, about a hundred other people had the same idea, and there was no orderly line or “take a number” system.  Instead, people literally screamed out their order and hoped to catch the eye and ear of the order-taker behind the counter.  This was a nightmare scenario for both my dad and me, meek and mild as we were, standing in that swarm of people as Mom went to save our seats. 

After a few minutes and a few feeble and failed attempts to be heard, I broke out in a cold sweat and wondered if we should go somewhere else.  It was clear that Dad was not going to yell out the order, and why should he since I was the host?  I tried again, “Three chowders and three salmon and chips!”  No reaction came from anyone behind the counter, only a slight look of pity from another customer close enough to hear me. If I were alone, I would have left.

But I wasn’t alone. I knew I had come to an important fork in life’s road.  I was there with my mom and dad and wanted them to have this experience. How far could I stretch myself? How much would I sacrifice for the sake of love?  I closed my eyes, inhaled deeply, and then screamed like my life depended on being heard, “Three chowders and three salmon and chips!!!!” The man behind the counter nodded calmly, wrote something down, and in five minutes I was sitting with mom and dad on the water’s edge, my heart back to normal pulse. 

St. John tells us “Love casts out fear.” Love enabled me to scream out a seafood order in Seattle, just as love enabled my dad to walk up to the altar that December morning. I have learned that when I am afraid to do something, there is no better way to gain courage than remembering that what I am about to do, I do for the sake of love.

The Heart of the Giver

For so many of us, Christmas time holds the most tender of memories.  When I meet with families to prepare a funeral for their mother or father, I often hear them say, “She/He always made Christmas so special for us.”  Christmas love imprints a deep mark on our hearts that never leaves us.

My mom was no slouch, but in our house Dad was the big Christmas guy. He loved his peanut brittle and sponge candy. He delighted in making us wait to open gifts, and then, while holding a gift in his hand that he had just wrapped an hour earlier, he would pause still longer trying to remember who it was for.  “Is this for Ann? Glenn?  Randy? Thomas?”  I don’t think anyone ever opened the wrong gift, now that I think of it, so he must have just been playing our growing anticipation for all it was worth.  Gifts opened, he would spend the rest of the night lying on the living room floor with us enjoying the gifts he had given with a joy, I now see, even greater than our own. 

My friend Tim was talking to his granddaughter before Christmas.  He asked her, “Katie, what do you want for Christmas?”  She went on excitedly for about a whole minute, then paused and said, “Papa, what do YOU want for Christmas?  He said, “Katie, you know, I really don’t want anything for Christmas.”  She replied in disbelief, “WHAT? You don’t want anything for Christmas?”  She continued to beg her Papa to tell her what he wanted.

“Well, Katie,” he finally said, “What I want for Christmas is for you to get everything you want for Christmas.”  Then she said after a few seconds, “Hmm…I’ll have to think about that.”

That day, Katie started a long journey of learning. She was curious about the heart of her Papa. Why wouldn’t he want things just like she wanted things? Answering that question will be for her the key to a good and joyful life.

Just like Katie was intrigued by the love in her Papa Tim’s heart, Christmas invites us to be curious about the heart of God.  Like Tim, God wants only abundant life for his children.  Like my dad, God is with us on the floor thrilled to see us enjoying all that he has given us.  Among these gifts are compassion when we are hurting, mercy when feel unlovable, and a high-five from heaven when we do the right thing.  Those experiences are better than anything we can hold in our hands.

The love of Christmas, started by God and passed down ever since by families and friends, has the potential to mark our hearts from an early age as loved and lovable.  That is its infinite value. And for those who over the years come to understand the heart of the Giver, the ability to share that love becomes the only thing worth having.  

A Precious Communion

For many years, I have enjoyed driving up to the north shore of Lake Superior and hiking along the Superior Hiking Trail. This year, in July, was special, in part because I was alone. Sometimes, going solo like that, while easily glamorized in the planning, actually leads to lonely hours during which I ask myself, “Why did you come out here alone?” This time, however, it was different.

For whatever reason, I started thinking about people I was close to in life who had died.  I thought about my dad, my sister, several priests who mentored and befriended me, parishioners. I did not strain my memory or ponder each one’s significance. Without much effort, I simply enjoyed their presence.

The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen described what he called the movement from loneliness to solitude. When we are lonely, we are intensely aware of what we lack and try, sometimes desperately, to fill ourselves with whatever distracts us from that loneliness.  The cure for loneliness, however, is not to run from it, but rather to journey toward it.  Here, by grace, we can find a quiet inner center that rests in awareness of our deep connection to God and to all that lives and ever has lived.  It was this “Solitude of the Heart,” as Nouwen called it, that brought me joy as I walked with companions who had died.

During these November days, the final days of the Church year, Christians often ponder their own mortality and remember prayerfully those who have died.  It occurs to me now that it is easier for me to feel accompanied by those who have died than by current friends and family.  To be sure, I need current friends and family like the air I breathe. But when I am alone, it is those who have gone before me through death whose friendship I feel the most. I suppose this is because I trust that they live, and that from where they live they can see everything and have been purified to the point that they now love like God loves. Seeing everything, they see mercifully.  

There are some beautiful prayers that I say in church sometimes at the altar.  One speaks of our relationship with the saints in heaven, thanking God for them and saying “By communion with them you give us companionship, by their intercession, sure support, so that…we may run as victors in the race before us.” Another, a funeral prayer, states, “Indeed for your faithful, Lord, [at death] life is changed, not ended.”  So it is with our relationships with those who have died—changed, not ended.

I returned to hike north of Lake Superior just days before All Souls Day this year.  I did not have the same near ecstasy of felt communion that I did on my previous visit, but I remembered those who had died and welcomed their presence.  During one walk along a wide running stream that was making its way over rocks and around boulders, drawn to the great lake below, I recalled the film A River Runs Through It. In particular, I remembered being moved by the closing narration that spoke over the main character, now old, fly fishing alone where he used to fish with his father and brother, now both dead. I googled the actual words.  Here are some of them, written by Norman Maclean: 

“Now, nearly all those I loved in my youth are dead. But I still reach out to them.  Now I usually fish the big waters alone, but when I am alone in the half-light of the canyon, all existence seems to fade into a being with my soul and memories…. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.  The river was cut by the world’s great flood, and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops.  Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.” 

Companionship. Communion. Deep waters. Precious things that death cannot take from us. 

How Important Are We?

I was bicycling through a city park the other day and came across a statue of a man named Adin Randall.  I found out later that, predictably, he was a man of wealth who helped promote the city in its early years, and he donated the land on which the park now stands.  My first thought, however, was “Even this man, who must have been very important in his day, is now basically forgotten.”  It did not take too many more heart beats for the next, more personal, thought to come to mind.  “Twenty years or so after I die, fifty tops, I will basically be forgotten.”

I was unsure how to feel about that stark truth.  As a boy, like lots of children, I had fantasies about being famous—a sports star, even the President!—and to that boy the idea of being forgotten shortly after leaving this world would have seemed like failure.  Now, I am accepting of the idea, though it begs the question of how to, or even whether to, believe that my life is significant. 

Initially troubled by this question, I soon found an answer which brought me mental relief and spiritual joy.  Even though no one will remember me deep into the 21st century, the effects of how I have been in relationship with people will live on.  To the extent that I now show love and mercy to people and am a trusted companion, I will contribute to the healing of a broken humanity.  Of course, it could cut the other way, but even knowing my potential to create greater darkness only fuels my desire to spread more healing than hurt and more compassion than indifference.  

A line from an old song rings true here.  The composer is probably now dead, and the title of the song I have long forgotten.  But I remember it concludes, “The only measure of your words and your deeds will be the love you leave behind when you’re done.”

Pondering both my insignificance and my significance also brought to mind a bit of Jewish wisdom I heard long ago.  Over two hundred years ago, a rabbi, Simcha Bunim, advised his people to carry two scraps of paper with messages on them, one for each pocket.  The message on one should read, “You are but dust and ashes.”  The other should read, “The universe was made for you.”

The rabbi’s advice: Read the “dust and ashes” part to stay humble, to realize that you are a very small part of a much bigger world, and that, yes, over time no one on earth will remember you.  If those thoughts ever lead to despair, then reach for the other pocket.  Reading “The universe made for you” will remind you that God has counted every hair on your head, and that God truly delights in you. That takes a leap of faith to be sure, but it is where faith wants to lead you.  If that idea ever bends you toward arrogance, however, reach for the other pocket. And so on.

So, just how important are we?  Not very, and infinitely! Neither thought scares or intimidates me any longer.  Even made of dust and ashes, and someday not so long from now to become part of earth’s forgotten masses, I nonetheless live in God, and will never be forgotten by God.  

Staying Church Amid Scandal

As a young adult, I was a big Woody Allen fan.  His films made me laugh and made me think.  As a Jew, he knew a good deal of Scripture as when he spoofed Isaiah with the line, “The lion will lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.”  His film Crimes and Misdemeanors surfaced many instances of sin and grace, and pondered the question of whether or not there was a “moral structure to the universe.”  Interesting stuff.  I used to show the movie to friends and would tell his jokes in sermons. 

Then scandal entered the picture when he married his step daughter and other jarring accusations came to light.  It was the first time someone whose work I leaned on for joy and inspiration came tumbling down in my estimation.  I have to say that it hurt.  It was the first of many such hurts as people to whom I looked for leadership in Church and world proved themselves unworthy of that gaze. 

Maybe your church has been rocked by scandal as mine has, or maybe not.  Leaders with religious authority over their flocks have done everything from criminal behavior that turns our stomachs to less grievous actions that nonetheless stand in stark contrast to the life of Christ.  Surely, this is one big factor in the dwindling numbers of people in our country who identify with any church.

That is one option we have when our church leaders scandalize or fail us, to say good-bye to that church or any and all churches.  We can despair of finding a home, and do our best on our own. 

Even though Church has clearly not been good for all people and has done damage in our world, I am not ready to give up on it.  I remain committed to the idea that standing among God’s People on Sunday mornings is a good thing and an important thing for our world.  Here are some observations that help me stay a committed church person.

First, I need to face up to the truth that good and evil exist in our churches as they do anywhere else, simply because our churches are us.  It is critical to make the distinction between God who alone is perfect and the rest of us flawed followers.  If a pastor or other leader inspires me on a Sunday, that’s a good thing, but I should never look to him or her for salvation, and never be too shocked when I see evidence of their limited virtue. 

Second, I need to take the long view.  In light of the latest scandal or headline, I need to remember that I was baptized into a tradition that is filled with spiritual treasures and has carried Christ through the centuries even as He has carried us.  It is a tradition that has inspired us with saints even as it has scandalized us with sinners.  Those who in community heard the same Bible stories and celebrated the same sacraments were inspired by them to lead courageous and holy lives. 

Third, I need to wrestle with the two ways of viewing evil articulated by Jesus.  He speaks of those who would harm “little ones” as deserving a millstone wrapped around their necks before dropping them into the sea.  Those are strong words from the one who told us that only the sinless should throw a stone of condemnation at anyone.  Alternately, he speaks of the co-existence of good and evil like weeds that grow among the wheat, and encourages us to let them grow together until harvest when God will sort it all out.  In these two passages I hear both a need to have firm boundaries on what cannot be tolerated, and an overall attitude that doesn’t expect perfection in this world while doing our best to be light amid darkness, to sow more wheat than weeds. 

Fourth, I take inspiration from the English theologian Timothy Radcliffe, who said that he makes the choice to remain a faithful part of Church because Christ has chosen to remain faithful to us.  In other words, who am I to give up hope and leave the community where Christ remains and continually seeks to bring us through death to life?  

Lastly, I don’t think I can improve on the words of John Gehring, who this summer wrote an article that concluded, “Ordinary people who live our faith in the shadow of scandal and hypocrisy are not blind to the flaws of our church.  We persist because we search and struggle together, connected in spirit and memory to all those who did the same before us, and to future generations who will take up this difficult, worthy pilgrimage after we are gone.”  Whatever your faith tradition may be, I do not know your pain, and I understand if you leave or have left already.  But I hope you will stay or come back, and help us all be better.  

Walking Each Other Home

One of the great things about summer is all the people out walking in the evening.  Whether it’s a quick walk around the block alone or with a dog, or something longer, people take advantage of the warmer weather to exercise and reacquaint themselves with neighbors.  Would we even say hello to neighbors if it weren’t for summer? 

At the beginning of June, I joined five other church friends on a very special walk known as the “Wisconsin Way.” Modeled after the famous pilgrim route through Spain, the “Camino de Santiago” or “Way of St. James,” the Wisconsin Way starts near Green Bay and ends near Milwaukee, with stops at religious shrines along the way.  While we were shuttled by van for most of the distance, we did walk ten miles per day before arriving at place to pray with each other.  It’s one thing to visit holy places by car or bus, and quite another to arrive there by foot.   

You sort of get the idea after a few miles that a pilgrimage walk is a metaphor for life as a whole and our one common pilgrim journey from God and to God.  Especially on a 90-degree day, which was every day for us, you get in touch with your need for water. This reminded me of the frailty of my physical existence and my need not only for water, but for other people, and for God. Also, in a group, needs bounce from one person to the next.  Someone needs to cushion a blister; another needs a bathroom. Often, one person is in really good shape and has to slow down for the rest of the group, while another person has more physical challenges than the others.  Accommodating each other in a spirit of love and community mirrors our life in society, leaving no one behind.

I learned this lesson while on a previous walk, backpacking through the mountains with three others.  As it happened, I was the strongest in the group.  It was years ago and I hope I’ve matured since then, but I have to say I was less than gracious at being “slowed down” by my companions.  I wanted to see more, do more, cover more miles! Then, guess who sprained his ankle?  Suddenly I was “the slow one.” In response, my companions could not have been kinder.  They treated me with a compassion that I had not shown them.  It was an experience of grace: a love I did not deserve.  I think it changed me; I hope it did. 

A few years ago, a Benedictine sister shared a quote with me from the spiritual writer, Ram Dass, who described the meaning of life by saying “We’re all just walking each other home.” I thought of that line often on the Wisconsin Way, as my fellow pilgrims and I wended our way through wheat fields, county highways and state forest trails.  Walking with others, I could see clearly that that in life our individual journeys all flow in and out of each other, each of us dignifying the others’ journeys with our care and attention, certainly, but also by simply walking alongside and sharing the road.

One of my fellow pilgrims had just lost his job a week before our journey began.  After our four days together, walking and praying, eating and laughing, he reflected on the ride home. Minutes before, we had concluded our journey on a high hill, “Holy Hill,” and celebrated mass there.  Now next to me in the back seat of the van, he exhaled a satisfied sigh, and said, “That was just what I needed.  I’m OK.  It’ll be OK.”  When life deals us hard blows, it is good to be walking with others.  Together, we will make it home. 

Their Story as Our Story

Whenever I started something new in life, I could count on an encouraging letter from my mother that always included the words, “Change is hard.”  I appreciated those words every time.  I guess they made me feel normal in the midst of my anxiety. It helps me to know that my experiences fit into a larger truth.

Years ago I read a book that impacted me for that very reason.  In his book The Holy Longing, Ronald Rolheiser draws on the events Christian communities commemorate this time of year as a way of interpreting our own experiences of change, grief, and new life.  Specifically, he names five experiences:  Jesus’ Crucifixion; Jesus’ Resurrection; the 40 days of Jesus’ continued presence on earth in his Risen Body; Jesus’ Ascension into heaven; and the Coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Consider an experience of loss and grief:  A death, a divorce, or termination of employment.  The initial pain of our loss is like the disciples’ experience of Jesus’ crucifixion with its pain, sorrow and disillusionment.  We wonder, Is this the end?  Will I ever see happiness again?  That’s how we feel and that’s how it felt to Jesus’ followers. Life as we have known it and wanted it to be has fallen apart.

Then, we witness that we survive, and even though our hearts are heavy, there are moments when we glimpse hope.  For Jesus’ followers, that was the empty tomb and the message that he is not there, but is alive.  Where death was supposed to be, death is not.  Hope enters.    

And so we walk into a new reality with unsure feet.  All that we had known is now changed, and we begin the process of learning to live without the familiarity and comfort of how it used to be.  For 40 days, the followers of Jesus learned to see him in a new light, often not recognizing him right away for he had also changed.  To help them see him anew, he spoke their names, invited their touch, grilled them fish and broke bread with them.  Their steps become surer week by week.

In our experience of loss and change, if healing is to occur, we come to point where we accept that the old way will never return.  We let go.  We do not yet know what the future holds, but we allow ourselves to be free from the past and open ourselves to the will of God to lead us into what is next.  Like this, on Ascension Day, the followers of Jesus witnessed his departure and let go of their Lord and friend whom they could touch, and hear and see.  And they waited and prayed, unsure, because he told them to. 

Then, and this is a great grace, after our experiences of pain, hope, testing the waters of a new reality, and saying good-bye to the old reality, we find firm ground again, fully embracing a new reality with joy and a sense of purpose.  We sense that once again, even though our past love and pain will always be part of us, our hearts are full, and we are ready to fully invest again in our new lives.  So it was for those first followers of Jesus whose faithful waiting was rewarded by the driving wind and swirling tongues of fire that filled them with the Holy Spirit.  They went forth from that upper room confident and joyful, at long last.

Moving from pain and loss to healing and wholeness is a mysterious journey that takes most of us more than 50 days.  But we are given these 50 days on the Christian calendar to remember the story of Jesus’ first followers and make it our own.  Making their story our story is a pretty good definition of faith, actually, because it leads us to trust that God is working in us as surely as God was working in them.  For the person of faith, suffering is never the end of the story.