So good to welcome you all again to the 109th Convention of the Diocese of Olympia with our theme, People of the Way: Our Year of Pilgrimage, Listening, and Obedience. In Flat Rock, North Carolina, just outside Kanuga, sits the great poet and writer Carl Sandburg’s home and farm. It’s a beautiful place, pretty much left as it was when it was turned over to the National Park Service. Whenever I’m at Kanuga, I never miss going there, hiking the trails Sandberg and his wife Lillian would walk. Carl Sandburg once said, “When nothing is ahead of you, then you have come to an end. When nothing is behind you, then ahead of you is a beginning.”
I guess this year of pilgrimage, of mine and yours, is about that – discerning if anything is ahead of us, and maybe even more, if we can leave behind what is past to make way for a new beginning. And so you can see already this is not going to be the normal Convention Address, as if there is any such thing. But what I mean is that I don’t intend to rehearse the State of the Diocese, to go over the budget with you, rehearse the things I think we accomplished or still need to. All of those things exist, but I’m just not going to do them today.
Most of you know that I’ve been on sabbatical for four months and have only been back in the office – and in communication really – since Wednesday of this week. Essentially, today is my third day back after four months, so honestly I probably am not a real good one to ask about the State of the Diocese right at this moment, because I’m still figuring it out myself. And it’s not going to be, although some of you have already asked for this, the dreaded slide show of my four months of travels – which for the vast number of you will come as a great mercy on this day.
For all of you that need to thank someone for that, thank Canon Dede Moore (she’s sitting right over here), because she only allotted me 15 minutes for this address. So you can send her a thank you note. For those that want the slideshow, I’m glad to get to that when it’s your choice and not when you’re held captive here at convention. You can also simply look at my blog. I tried to put it all there fresh, in the moment. Reflections will come later and often, and probably for the rest of my life – just as it should be.
No, today I want to talk about us – you and me – because on this pilgrimage I have just returned from, this is what I believe I carried with every step and what I brought back. That is, after all of that, the most important thing: us, this thing we do together. All of my walking the various journeys, sitting in long airplane rides to get to the trails, getting to know airports like I never wanted to, has brought me back to this – our life together.
One of my favorite songs is one entitled, “Here’s to the Trains I Missed.” Basically, it talks about how when we take the turns in life we had not expected and that we never plan, we are often taken to places, times, and people we could have never made up ourselves, made happen ourselves, even dreamed of ourselves. And yet, sometimes – often – we know we’re supposed to be right there, right then, and always we are changed. Even with this pretty much universal understanding of life – we all know this to be true – we still work hard every day to have no surprises, no difficult forks in the road, no diversions. At least I can personally sign up for that still being my mode of being most days. It’s kind of a human thing to strive for that, but we all know and have experienced that eventually that plan is not going to work and that plan is not, in the end, best for us.
My travel away from you seems to always solidify more the need to be with you. You might say walking away from you always makes me wish to be walking with you. I hope you hear that, as I feel it, as a very good sign. It’s a lot better than walking away and having the immense urge to just keep on walking. There are days, but they are very, very few.
Our lives together, this diocese and me, began with something we called 12 years ago a walkabout. We now realize we had culturally appropriated that term and that idea as we often do with things. Actually among Australian Aborigines, this concept is the call for the long walk into the Outback to visit the ancestral grounds, and this call can come at a moment’s notice – on the scaffolding of a high-rise project in Sydney, at a gas station in Darwin, or in a poor shack housing. Men and women are known to rise up, drop their lunch boxes, paychecks, children, and just walk – as if in a trance. They walk the holy ground of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia. These pathways are known to Europeans as dreaming tracks or song lines – to the Aboriginals as the footprints of the ancestors, or the way of the law.
Bruce Chatwin – who’s one of the greatest chroniclers of this ancient nomadic urge – writes, “I have a vision of the song lines stretching across the continents and the ages, that wherever humans have trodden, they have left a trail of song, which we may now and then catch an echo of, and that these trails must reach back in time and space to an isolated pocket in the African Savanna, where the first human opening their mouth in defiance of the terrors that surrounded her, shouted the opening stanza of the world song, ‘I am. I am.'”
Many of the First Nations’ traditions call for vision quest during adolescence – much the same thing. In “The Innocents Abroad,” Mark Twain says this when he remarks, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of people and things cannot be acquired by vegetating and one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” He put it much more sternly and succinctly – and I hope I don’t offend you, but he did say it – “The general reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad.” I resemble that remark.
Japanese poet and traveler Matsuo Basho spoke of how to see and how to listen. As he called it, “the inward experience, while traveling outward along the roads of the world, we learn by going where we have to go. We arrive when we find ourselves on the road walking toward us.”
“When nothing is ahead of you, then you have come to an end. When nothing is behind you, then ahead of you is the beginning.”
When I was in that Walkabout 12 years ago, I shared a belief of mine and so I feel made somewhat of a promise to stay here about 10 or 12 years and then get out of the way for new leadership and new ideas. Being on the way is much better than being in the way, and I never wanted to be in the way. Of course, I made that statement not knowing a thing about what this job, this position entailed. I can tell you, no one can prepare you for this office, this title, or this life. Given the task with some of my colleagues, I am still at a loss to do it. I can make inroads to what it’s like, but you only know it by being in it. And almost in the wink of an eye, 12 years has now come and gone. We are now in our 13th year together. I always shutter a bit at installations and celebrations of new ministry when I read that line “and in the 13th year of my consecration.” I always want to stop and have a dialogue with God and me. “Really? Already? Wow!” So I did not forget that vow, and I don’t like to lie. And so I said a few years back to our governing bodies and staff, “It’s time.” And it was, and I’ve shared much in this past year. And that moment was an awkward moment.
One person said after a long silence when the words were finally said, “But it seems like we just got started.” Which it turned out where the words I was feeling too, but I still believed we needed to assess this moment, and that I needed to discern it. Is this just easy now, or is this the right thing? Is our walking on this pilgrimage, this journey, this way together in this place good, for the furtherance of the cause, for the moving ahead of the movement, or not. This is always about much more than us, and certainly much more than me. Thinking and discerning that way has integrity, and we could use a lot more of it of late. Those are big questions, and I’m glad we have had the courage to engage them in this year of pilgrimage, listening, and obedience.
Of course, we probably didn’t do that perfectly, but when you’re doing something for the first time, that’s how it is. At least we did it. We tried it. We need a lot more of that, too. Most of all, all of you have been gracious and discerning those questions with me and letting this decision rest with me, and I really cannot thank you enough for it. Some of that discernment will continue here at this convention. I don’t think we’re quite through with it yet. I do want to stop here and give a huge thanks to the Rev. Arienne Davison, President of your Standing Committee, and most of all today for leading this year of pilgrimage and discernment. She left her family many times to travel across this diocese and to lead our WalkAgains.
I’m three days back from pilgrimage that was filled with things exactly as I had planned, and also filled with what comes with every journey – a whole lot I did not plan. I can honestly stand here, so very grateful for all of them. I guess I can truly say, “Here’s to the trains I missed.” On my four month walk, what I came back to more and more, was how important it is to have traveling companions. I could not imagine having done the Camino without my partner in life, the love of my life, my wife Marti at my side, as she got to be with me for much of the pilgrimage. Now on that Camino, she cursed me most of the way because I had called it a walk, and she kept reminding me, “This is a hike. There is a difference.” But on the pilgrimage of life I can honestly not imagine any of it without her.
What I found on this four months sojourn was the real emotion that this is all a communal endeavor. We come back home different of course, mostly because of all those we met along the way, all that we learned, all that was adventure and challenge and surprise. As the Buddhist says, “You can never step in the river twice, and whoever does step in the river is changed forever.” With every step, we are changed. So, for a little bit of the time I have left, I want to focus on The Way. We throw those words around easily now – us Christians. We have done it with the very theme of this convention – “People of the Way.” You can like it because it has a nice ring to it and pretty much leave it there if you want to, but I think that idea – The Way – and us being the people on it should really be both a blessing and a challenge.
We can thank our Presiding Bishop for making this very plain. The Way of Love has been a galvanizing reminder to us of our true call, not just as Episcopalians, but as Christians. Just the term, The Way, invokes and necessitates movement. It says to us that our spiritual walking, our spiritual growth, all of it is motion. We are always and forever moving toward something. If not, we’re dead. If not literally, then spiritually. That all flies in the face of a view of Christianity which denotes something totally different – arrival. Arriving, as if you can actually make it in to whatever “in” means, and it means you’ve arrived safely in the gates of God’s protection and grace, and now you can – more or less – just sit and rest on your laurels. Why would anyone keep moving? If in fact they have arrived, they possess eternity with God and exclusive status, in that regard. Why would anyone venture out again? This is the great danger I feel in the exclusivist ideas that have sunk into Christianity of being people of certitude and arrival, -rather than people on The Way.
There’s a famous Zen Buddhist saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill it.” Which to me really is saying, if you meet the Buddha on the road and think you’ve arrived, you are in trouble again. Kill that image. Keep walking, keep moving. Salvation is in the journey toward, not arrival. Or at the very least is a whole series of lifelong arrivals before setting out again. Jesus himself starts with, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Even he was saying – it is me, but not just me, it is us journeying together. It is us on The Way. Moving, always. You can sit right where you are and never move and believe many things, but to live into those beliefs, you will need to get up and put one step in front of the other and move. You may have to open your mouth and give voice. We should not confuse believing with living. To me, this is what it means to be people of The Way, on The Way.
Just before I left on this sabbatical, Kathy Thomason wrote to me about a book she was reading that she said she wished she had gotten to me before this all started. It turned out, as it often does, it was just the right time. It is called “The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred,” by Phil Cousineau, and I cannot thank her enough for that as it led to a myriad of other things I read: Mark Twain’s “The Innocents Abroad,” Matsuo Basho’s “The Narrow Road to Far Places.” Cousineau begins his book with this quote: “Pilgrimage is a spiritual exercise, an act of devotion to find a source of healing or even to perform a penance. Always, it is a journey of risk and renewal. For a journey without challenge has no meaning. One without purpose has no soul.”
“When nothing is ahead of you, then you have come to an end. When nothing is behind you, then ahead of you is a beginning.”
The difference between a tourist and a pilgrim is that a tourist takes a journey in order to ask questions of the land and the people. A pilgrim takes a journey in order to let the land and the people ask questions of them. I definitely wanted to be a spiritual pilgrim on this journey, not a spiritual tourist. And that truly is how we are called to navigate this pilgrimage called life. As Basho also said, “The passing of days and months are external travelers in time. The years that come and go are travelers too, life itself is a journey.”
What I hope I can live into and not lose from this time now that I’m back, is this – that a pilgrimage is not some place you go. It is life.
What I believe I bring back is the making of a pilgrim life for myself here and now – deeply felt, fully breathed life – the idea that pilgrimage, whether to the Camino, or to Minidoka, or to a clinic in the inner city, or to visit my aunt in a memory facility in Iowa, or riding with a farmer in combine harvesting soybeans, or taking a walk on my street, is a way always to bring me closer to God. A way to be Christ to others, not just use the words or carry the beliefs, but to live in Christ’s way. That’s The Way.
“When nothing is ahead of you, then you have come to an end. When nothing is behind you, then ahead of you is the beginning.”
Pilgrimage, listening, and obedience. Now for you and me comes obedience and that word is also been maligned. It’s been tarnished. In the spiritual sense it means to be committed to, to follow paths we may not always understand but we know Jesus will walk along with us. Now comes the question for us, what is that? What shall we be obedient to?
Through my latest wanderings I’ve come to believe, Diocese of Olympia, that there is still a lot ahead of us, and that we are not a people hopelessly locked in the past, but instead moving, growing, and living, still discovering, still willing to give and to risk for the sake of this one who is The Way and he points The Way and he leads us still – Jesus Christ
I look forward to our further discernment, and to whatever length of days we are on this path together, I can assure you of my deepest gratitude and thanksgiving for the gift of our traveling this way together. And I stand before you with a deep gratitude to and for all of you, for a staff I love working with and being with, and for being right here, right now, in this moment.
May God, be your comfort and your strength, your hope and your support, your light and your way. And the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit rest with you this day and remain with you forever. Amen.