Our Richest Soil

Matthew 13: 1-23

“Why do you speak to them in parables?” the disciples ask of Jesus today.  It was one of the few lines that struck me in today’s gospel reading for two reasons.  One, that in the midst of the crowd that has gathered to listen to Jesus at this point, the disciples seemingly separate themselves from this body, as if Jesus was somehow speaking to the crowd in parables but may not mean much to the disciples, in that they refer to “them” in posing the question.  The second is, even in the telling of parables, do the disciples understand?

The parables of Jesus are not always easy for any of us to understand, especially when it’s based on first century agriculture and others that seem to just leave us scratching our heads.  Yet, like the disciples, we too want to separate ourselves as well, as if this message is special for us and somehow we have a special understanding of what he’s talking about.  As humans, we also expect black and white thinking as if there’s one way to understand and live and if I follow that then I’ll somehow know God or have relationship with this Jesus guy.

However, that’s oversimplifying parables and by no means are we separate from the message, even if it may say something to me that’s different than all of you.  Only God knows where my heart is on this journey of faith and whether I like to admit it or not, whether it’s rocky ground, thorns, or the richest soil you can imagine, my heart and my life tends to be in all of those places at the same time, and like the disciples, I want to try to start separating it out, ignoring the rocky ground since it’s worthless, pull out the thorns as to not hurt myself or others, and simply focus on the rich soil.

When we do that to ourselves or others, we tend to miss the point of the parables as well and wind up cutting off parts of ourselves that we have somehow deemed unworthy or worthless by a standard I have set for myself and others.  It’s not so much that the disciples want to separate themselves from the others.  It just so happens to be the reality when the begin to ignore the rocky grounds and try to pull the thorns, even though deep down we know that all of it makes up who we are and somehow in order to experience the richest of soils, we have to do some heavy gardening in our own lives, not by destroying what we feel is useless, but allowing ourselves to view it through the life that comes forth from the richest of soils.

We all wish we can live our lives from that place but anyone that works at this type of gardening understands that we’re never quite there and it’s never quite enough for us until we learn to accept the landscape not as we believe it should be but as it is.  In those moments, we begin to experience the possibilities of the garden and of our very lives, not cut off from what we have conditioned ourselves to dislike, but rather to embrace it and love it with the richest of soils.

The people we encounter in our lives who we view simply as rocky ground or certainly thorns, and we can all name them, are often the ones that have the most to teach us about the parts of our own landscape that we have cut off and continue to cut off because we feel they have made us unworthy in some way.  Low and behold, they become those lost possibilities in our lives because we learn to love them in a new way, a deeper way, an unconditional way. 

If you have ears you ought to be able to hear.  If you have eyes you ought to be able to see.  If you have a heart you ought to be able to love.  It is the lifelong process we call faith and acceptance by allowing the rocky ground and thorns of our lives to be brought to the light, over and over again, to move to a place of wholeness and holiness.  It’s the only way the garden grows and reaches its potential in life.  Why does he speak in parables?  Well, quite frankly, because not one of us is alike and we enter this journey in varied ways, speaking to us at different points and in different ways, but always moving us to the same place, a deeper place, the garden of life that continues to show itself within so that we can recognize that potential in the world, especially among the rocky grounds and thorns that, more than anything, need rich soil, depth, and love.

Arrivederci!

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Today is our final day at Sea. We’re currently sailing somewhere in the vicinity of British Columbia, or at least that’s what I believe we were told. It’s a full-day at sea. It’s been a day of final shopping for a few things. It’s been a day of packing and unloading and preparing for disembarking the Island Princess tomorrow morning in Vancouver and then fly out in the evening. Before I do all of that and get on the treadmill of travel to get home, some of this day has just been sitting on the deck of the ship and taking in the quietness of the waters. As a matter of fact, although I can see some land in the far-off distance, it’s pretty much all water and the lapping of the waves beyond us and up against the ship as we sail.

As I write, I’m up on the eleventh deck of the ship so there is much below me. Even as the birds fly by below, they seem so far away from where I sit. I was thinking, though, just how much life is below me here. I don’t necessarily mean the people that are below me on this Ship, although there are more than two thousand on board, but rather the thousands of feet of water that lies below and all that calls that home. We never get to see much of it at all. We were told we’d most likely see whales among other creatures living in these waters, but this time we’ve seen none of it here. We all certainly get credit for gazing toward the horizon, day in and day out, seeking to catch a sight of something, and yet, all I see is the lapping of the waves, both here and far. All I see are the land masses that pop up from time to time and the gulls that seek food below. As much as we can’t see below, I at least know that they can see into the depths as they search for food.

But that is the hard part of any journey and what we call life. It’s, at times, nearly impossible to see what lies below the surface of the waters. We tend to live in a world that seems better suited for what we can see and what lies on the surface rather than seeking something more, rather than taking flight like the gulls, and seeking what it is we are looking for. I even know, that, once I step outside my room here, I will enter another world, so often seeming superficial in trying to buy and sell and shop until you drop on the cruise ship. Now I’m fully aware that it is vacation and there is an element of that for all of us. We like to have a good time, celebrate, and be with friends. But in many ways, coming to my room here has been a sanctuary, sitting out looking over the waters before me calling me back home to myself and to the mystery that I am as well.

We will never completely know what lies before us, beyond us, and even beneath us. Why would we want to anyway. Without some unknown in our lives we no longer have a need for faith and hope. It’s when we stop taking flight out into the great blue yonder or allowing ourselves to enter into the deep waters of our own lives that we become content with what we see and what we know rather than seeking more. It’s the more that continues to enthrall us, invite us, even seduce us to a dissatisfaction with the flashing lights and the latest gadget rather than falling overboard into the depths of the ocean with the faith and hope we need that God too will swoop down and lead us to greater depths and take us to places we’ve never seen.

As this experience draws to a close and I continue to try to take in as much as I can, of all that I can see, I’m mindful of what lies beneath. There too the splashing of the waters lapping against the heart bringing about new life and new opportunities. Sure, the sea often feels the roughest at those moments, but it’s also what makes it exciting and and adventure. There is so much I can see and yet even more so that I cannot. All I can do is continue to accept the invitation as much as I can, without fighting it and allow the depths to take me away to new places, to new realities, to new experiences that are always within reach.

A Wilderness Solitude

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Wilderness appealed to those bored or disgusted with man and his works. It not only offered an escape from society but also was an ideal stage for the Romantic individual to exercise the cult that he frequently made of his own soul. The solitude and total freedom of the wilderness created a perfect setting for either melancholy or exultation. ~ Roderick Nash

Today is our final day on the land portion of the trip to Alaska and begin the transition to the ship early tomorrow morning. For the final day I opted to set out on a guided nature tour down the Cooper River with our guide, Blake. It provided a little more time to simply sit and be in the presence of the majestic nature that surrounded us, from snow-capped mountains to the depths of the forested national park that surrounded us on the ride.

I’ve been so struck by the number of young people and listening to their stories of what brought them here to Alaska in the first place. So many started with doing similar type trips at some point in their lives and then find their way back for one reason or another. The same was true with this guide who spends the rest of the year in Minnesota with his wife but still manages to come here for ten years to work the river in one capacity or another, from salmon fishing to white water rafting with visitors from around the world who come here to Alaska seeking something. What may start as a vacation for some turns into something much more when they encounter the vast lands that continue to speak volumes and for generations to come.

Blake mentioned how is father has given him a hard time over the years, wanting him to use his college education to be a part of the work force, in the corporate world. I’m guessing that’s what many parents would expect of their sons and daughters. He did it for a time and yet never felt satisfied, as if there were something more for him that exceeded the expectations of his father and his education. It was amazing just how much he knew that river, every twist and turn that led us further down and deeper into the forest. He knew it. He feels it. He lives that river like nothing else and keeps returning despite the demands and expectations to “grow up”, whatever that might mean.

There’s something inviting about the river. Those that know me know that the river has not always been my friend over the years. After nearly losing my life while white water rafting nearly thirteen years ago now, I feared returning to it, despite it often calling my name to return. I may never white water raft again, but I haven’t allowed myself to be paralyzed by fear to return in one way or another. Today was yet another one of those days and listening to Blake speak about it reminded me today just how strong the current can be within us to seek adventure and take risk in our lives, even if it means breaking down the stereotype of what we have called success to live a fuller life, one that continues to feed us in a way that many others will just never understand.

I have found that it is practically necessary to return to nature, even when it has arisen fears within us that we feel will paralyze us for life. I think about Phil the other day who had been attacked by the grizzly in Denali. He may have to face the aftershocks of such an encounter over the course of his life, but it’s not going to stop him from living from that deeper place, that place that runs deeper than fear, the river that runs deep within our soul, yearning to be emptied into the vastness of the sea that continues to feed.

As much as it has been a place that I have had to face my own mortality, the encounter and experience of water remains the place that grounds my very being. Maybe it’s because I have witnessed its power and has taught me to reverence and respect it. Watching it flow so quickly around me today reminded me of the strength that it has to bring about life and death, so often when we least expect it. Yet, there we were, snow-capped mountains, freezing water temperatures, trees in full bloom, and trying to take it all in at the same time. The vastness of the lands around us pale in comparison to the vastness of what landscape of the soul that lies within. Sure there are parts of us that will terrify and feel as if we’re out of control, but a trip down the Cooper today reminded me that it’s not just me but all of the natural world that continues to be invited into deeper mystery and when we can finally begin to let go and accept it, all we can feel is the wind blowing through our hair taking us to places we never could have imagined!

Beyond the Edge

IMG_1536I came across a quote today from author and conservationist, Wallace Stegner, in which he wrote in a letter, “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.” I don’t know if I ever could have appreciated those words until a made a concerted effort to visit some of the great national parks of the United States, which now I can include Denali. Although it has been limited so often to the majestic mountain we visited yesterday, there is so much more, a wild side that spans millions of acres that often times have yet to be explored.

It’s been interesting meeting some of the people along the way here and other Parks I’ve visited. When you meet those who dedicate months of their lives to educating others within the park, you often are left wondering why they got there in the first place and why they continue to do it in service to others. Maybe on some level Stegner was right that if it does anything, it has the uncanny ability to reassure us of our sanity let alone heal us on levels that we are often totally unaware of as we walk through life. So much of the time is simply trying to take it in and every now and then listen to the stories being told, of the guide but also of the vast land that advances before your very eyes, even with a glass window standing in the way from fully embracing the experience on a deeper level, on a very tactile level of touching the earth that has been home to humans and animals for years beyond counting.

One of the people we encountered today, who has served in Denali for nearly ten years now each summer was Phil. He was our bus driver but also our nature guide as we ventured through the Park today. He couldn’t have been more than his late 20’s driving this bus, majored in Marketing back in Colorado, and now spends the off-season training other bus drivers to do what he does at Denali. But it was his story that leaves you pondering the words of Stegner because it was practically just a month ago that he was attacked by a Grizzly in the Park. Now I would guess that for most of us, that would be the end of our time stepping foot in there without having some time of flashbacks or anxiety attacks, but here he was driving us through and now telling his story of his encounter with the wild. It’s probably the main reason why most of us don’t venture beyond the confines of our cars or bus, the fear of the wild is real for us because it is the one thing that still leaves us humbled that there really is something more powerful than ourselves.

Phil has the scars to prove it (although he wouldn’t allow me to take a photo to prove it!). The grizzly caught him right at his left calf, a bite mark that encompasses much of his leg. He had gone out hiking on a beautiful day in late June and was trying to avoid areas of moose scat, which, unfortunately, led him to the encounter with the mama grizzly and her two cubs. He knew what he had to do in order to protect himself but also knew what he was up against in the reality of the wild that remains untamed and ferocious, yet, continuously invites us to those very places within ourselves. At some point, if he hasn’t already, he may find himself seeking that grizzly within himself, teaching him, guiding him, and acting as wisdom to this young man, but until then it remains an external encounter, wounding the flesh but often wounding and touching something deeper within us at the same time.

I have to say, many of the people that we’ve encountered in these locations are locals. They didn’t grow up here and had no immediate connection to Alaska until they had come themselves, visiting and experiencing the land and the spirit that arises from within these lands. We mustn’t forget the countless Natives that have called this home before others ever arrived, who have called forth from the wild the spirit of these lands. As much as many of them aren’t here, they return to give back. During an initial visit to the outreaches of this country they are called, have a life-changing encounter, and then continue to yearn to return to what then becomes home. It seems, at times, hard to fathom why they would ever do it. Why would Phil keep returning to these secluded parts of not only Alaska but this country he calls home, if it hadn’t first touched him in some deeper way.

From the peaks of Denali to the depths of the countless acres of undergrowth, it remains metaphor for something bigger, beyond explanation. Maybe they haven’t all found it yet within themselves, but the voice of the great Spirit that leads them to these lands and continues to reassure them of their sanity, reminds them of the nagging within themselves for connection and encounter and they find it here. In my experience, and I’m sure they’d say the same, you can really only drive to the edge and look in for so long, in the words of Stegner. Eventually you have to allow yourself to cross that line and enter in fully, even if it means an encounter with a grizzly. Deep down, you just know, that it’s where you belong and may be the only place that leads you to saving your soul and living your life most fully.

The Call of the Mountains

IMG_1532.JPGJohn Muir, still credited as the Father of the National Parks here in the States was famously quoted in a letter to his sister that “The Mountains are Calling and I must Go”. I don’t think you can ever appreciate such words until you’ve had the opportunity to visit places like the Rockies or here in Denali to understand the draw to such places, places that have cost many their lives in seeking not just the thrill of the adventure but a call from deep within to the wildest places of our own lives and theirs. Although I could never even begin to fathom the undertaking of those that descend more than 20,000 feet to reach the Summit of Denali (Mt. McKinley), there is something within that captivates you to such beauty and majesty, that when you’re in their presence, you can’t seem to take your eyes off of them, as if they have this innate quality to seduce you to a deeper mystery of and recognition that there is something not only beyond but deep within that is much larger than I can ever begin to grasp.

As we ascended today into a much colder climate, walking along Pika Glacier, it was hard to know where to look next, trying to absorb something that is beyond words. For a moment I drew my camera from my pocket, but I still know that the lens will never quite capture an experience that not only took us to the height of the mountains with thirty-some degree temperatures in late July, but at the same time into the depths of my own being, touching something that is known and yet remains so much a mystery. Of course, it was capped off by flying nearly 11,000 feet to capture a glimpse of the majestic peak of Denali, with a blinding sun bouncing off the pure white of snow to the deep blue skies only known to this Easterner during the months of January and February. But there it was, in all its glory.

Even as I sit here this evening, I can see outside the window part of that same Alaskan mountain range, not nearly as high and cleared of any signs of winters wrath. Of all the excursions that we have the opportunity to participate in on this trip, for me, this was number one. Like Muir, there always seems to be the call of the wild and nothing much like the call of the mountains. For someone who spends a great deal of time around concrete and macadam, it so often seems that the call becomes more faint. Some would say that we become nature deprived and when we do, the call only becomes louder and louder within. Today I responded to that call to go to the greater heights and depths all at the same time.

I really cannot imagine what it’s like for those who scale these mountains and peaks and the harm and danger in which they put themselves all in response to this call. No, we aren’t all called in the same way. For some of us, it’s to share the experience and lead others to those very places within, to the Denali of our own souls that takes more than a plane with skis to truly reach, but a symbol and metaphor nonetheless for the seeking of God and self. So there we were, a mere 5,800 feet up standing on the glacier, trying to take it all in. But that’s the challenge for us even in life, knowing we can’t possibly take it all in or know the depths of such beauty and mystery. All we can do is each day respond to the call of the mountains and then go. Despite the risk or any danger of living life with such courage, the more we respond the more we are seduced by the beauty and depth, as if this Mountain has somehow captured our hearts and souls without us even knowing it. For those who choose to stand by and ignore a God of such majesty, it must be hard to explain something so magnificent in a scientific way or the movement of tectonic plates and earthquakes over the years. No, there is something much more here and it captures the minds and hearts of everyone, from the first moment of catching a glimpse.

Today, it was more than a glimpse. It was literally touching and smelling, breathing in something that remains unspoken and yet experienced in such a deep way. As we flew through, shivering at times with fingers chilled, none of it seemed to matter. Nothing seemed to matter because you knew you were in the presence of something great, of something beyond words, of something beyond explanation, and yet, seductive beyond belief, drawing each of us into to the more we seek and desire in life. Like Muir, when the mountains call, you go. Otherwise we torture ourselves, trying to control and direct our own lives, rather than stepping out of the plane into an unknown place within the heart of the Mountain, to have hearts, minds, and perspectives changed by the simple gift of responding to the call of the Mountain.

Running Naked

Philippians 2; The Passion According the Mark

Like most artists, Mark finds a way to leave his own mark on his work of art in this gospel we hear from this year, and in particular, this passion narrative. There’s one thing unique if you picked up on it in this account and it happens in the garden. Out of nowhere, a man who has followed, appears in a linen cloth and runs away naked. It is believed that that young man represents not only the gospel writer Mark but each of us. From the beginning the command of Jesus is to “follow me”. Yet, when the going gets tough for the disciples, they scatter in different directions. They can’t handle the pressure. They can’t handle what is being asked of them and rather than passing through the narrow path which we call the Cross, they turn back and run, hide for their lives.

But this man shows us a different way. He has continued to follow but now leaves the garden naked. Seems rather odd that it would even be included in the gospel, other than it being Mark’s own “signature”. What Mark shows us is that if we are to accept the challenge to follow, and to follow through the narrow path, we must do so naked. We must be stripped of all that holds us back, all that’s weighing us down, all our fears and anxieties, anything that stands in the way for it is only Love that sees us through.

Paul tells the same in the second reading from Philippians. There is a transition that takes place from acts of humiliation done upon Jesus to the great act of humility of being hung naked on the cross. So what do we do when we stand before it? Sure, we stand in awe and we worship. On Good Friday we will venerate. But isn’t some of that doing just as the disciples did and even what our culture expects of us; to stop short of falling into the narrow path to life, of facing the great suffering of the Cross? Jesus is asking more of each of us, to not simply stop and gaze but also step into that narrow path, leading to the life that is promised.

As we enter into this Holy Week, we pray for the courage and strength to allow ourselves to enter into it fully. It takes a great deal of our time, a great deal of self-examination, and a great deal of trust to enter into these days. Mark reminds us how to come and approach this Cross. We stand before the Lord naked, in all of our own insecurities and in all our brokenness, grasping all that we have held onto and inviting us to let it go, surrender it into the Great Mystery, and allow ourselves to fall into, with great courage and strength, Love, so that we may be led down and through the narrow path to the fullness of life, a life filled with meaning, that the Lord has promised. Naked we have come forth and naked we will return, but now filled with the hope of Easter Sunday.