Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Thresholds to a Culture of Peace

At the transition into the new century, UNESCO gave imaginative reflection to just what might go into a recipe for a culture of peace. Their conclusion -- called a "Manifesto for a Culture of Peace" -- numbered six items. They have their own ways of imagining those six; I have mine, as expressed in narration during the closing ceremony of our sixth Thresholds Festival to a Culture of peace:

1. Respect all Life
In our imagination, God’s voice is the first thing we hear – speaking out loud the Divine Imagination, and with a word calling all life into being – snail and owl and salmon and ape; dragonfly and butterfly, anemone and grape; and somewhere along the way, you and me. Leaf and lamb; sparrow and sponge; walnuts and women; minnows and men – all singularly and chorally echoing the very voice of God. Imagine a world in which those echoes found themselves in harmony – valuing and respecting the augmenting voices that collectively swell us into something new and ever more beautiful. Dream of a world that sings in a fundamentally different key. Dream into being a world whose pulse beats with the conviction that there is nothing so courageously strong as holding the hand of creation in affectionate, profoundly appreciative love. The imagination begins, then, with a basic respect for all life, without discrimination or prejudice.

2. Reject Violence
Peace: the very word itself reflects an onomatopoeic expression of its intent. “Peace.” Even spoken in anger the word maintains its hold on a higher character and beckons those who hear and speak it to let go of violence – if only for a moment – and reach prayerfully toward its possibility. “Give us,” we implore of some higher power or each other or perhaps our own better nature, “give us…peace.”

3. Share With Others
There are wars to end and mountains to climb; there are burdens to lift and oceans to both swim and cross, but there may well be nothing that requires more strength than opening one’s fist, loosening one’s grip, and sharing. “The Earth provides enough,” observed Gandhi, “to satisfy everyone’s need, but not everyone’s greed." The earth provides enough, but until we believe it we will budge our way to the head of the line in desperate, grasping, hoarding fear. There is enough for us to share with others. If we will.

Change and the stewardship of creation can scarcely gain much momentum until we begin to simply pay attention – attention to big things, to be sure, but small ones as well: the distinctive kinks of a winter tree’s barren branches; the thawing pools in the midst of a frozen lake; the arch of an eyebrow reacting in surprise; shoulders melting in a loving embrace; and movement, like the way a necklace moves on a breathing chest. Noticing; attending; paying close, invested attention.

4. Listen To Understand
Listen to understand – understand the hopes that get me out of bed in the morning or the hurts that drag your face down into your hands. Listen to understand – the particular dialect that gives you some hint of my story. Listen to understand the gifts you have to offer and willingly, eagerly hope will be welcomed, honored, and used. Listen to understand the gratitude whose loudest expression is “joy” – for living, for loving, for connecting and for forgiving; for singing and breathing and eating and glorying in the sheer exhilaration of simply being. Listen to understand the simple happiness of “Amen.”

5. Preserve the Planet
Despite the flags we stake in it and the boundary lines we carve in it; despite the cement we pour over to control it and the holes we drill down to rape it, at the center of our faith and the humility of our souls pools this abiding truth: that the earth is not our own. This much we know: that mudded into form by the earth’s very soil, we are siblings with all there is; and the earth is our womb. This much else we know: that we nourish each other when we Preserve the Planet.

Lungs swell and fill with invisible, unnoticed air. Eyelids blink and the pupiled irises soothe with unconsidered wash. Some things are so common, so very much a part of our experience, that we don’t notice them until they’re gone – the song of a bird, the crystalline wonder of snow – a simple drop of rain. Precious and beautiful these essential gifts and vulnerable graces.

6. Rediscover Solidarity
Each of the six points to culture of peace is driven by a verb, representing in their very expression that peace demands action. It has never been the purpose of this Thresholds Festival to merely gather us together for sympathetic intellection. It has always been its purpose to inspire, to evoke, and to stimulate movement well beyond this place and weekend. Peace, like love, is not merely something we are “in,” it’s something that we “do.” And so we come to the end of the Festival, but only to a fresh beginning of our longing and living for peace. The movement begun in these sessions must now find its way into different patterns of living. The rhythms and currents that have swept through this house must now find expression in yours, and your neighbor’s, and beyond; and rediscovering solidarity with all God’s people and the gifts we bring, hand in hand, amplify the voice that gave us birth.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Silent Beauty and Falling Trees

If the weather was treacherous before the concert, by the time Richie Havens had sung his final encore Saturday night, and signed the last remaining vintage album jacket thrust at him by a fan, the afternoon's ice storm had long since been thoroughly blanketed with snow -- snow that was still falling heavily. So when we arrived at the bottom of our hill, having picked and dodged our way that far, it did not surprise us that we couldn't make it up the drive. After dropping my wife off at the bottom of the hill, I parked the car in the Unitarian Church's empty lot (trusting in their ecumenical spirit) and began the block-long trudge through the snow. Close to midnight now, it was all but silent -- save the muffled "fuff" of the snow and the occasional crack of breaking limbs. It was an intriguing combination -- both eery and awesome -- whose alchemy together was prescience.

Sunday, ours was one of only a handful of churches that didn't cancel services. Perhaps we should have joined the masses, but we had all these special guests in town for the festival -- a guest preacher from a native reservation in South Dakota; the native

American flute player; and for the afternoon, Jean Michel Cousteau who had flown in from Brazil and driven through the storm from Kansas City after his Chicago flight was cancelled. If he could get here, couldn't the rest of us? So we went ahead -- partly awed by the power and beauty of the experience, and partly cracked by the diminished attendance. Exhilarated, but disappointed; thankful but regretful; thrilled to be close enough to touch, but sad that more couldn't join alongside us. Awestriking wonder and beauty, littered by ice-broken branches and whole-felled trees -- the event as much as the landscape.

It reminds me of the time we spend, each Sunday morning in worship, sharing joys and concerns before prayer. It is always a jarring juxtaposition there, as well -- the straight "A's" of a child alongside the sudden death of a neighbor; a new job celebrated alongside a new diagnosis grieved. It is, as it turns out, real life. Broken branches and broken crowds alongside snow-covered horizons and transcendent moments.

powered by performancing firefox

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Giving Up Noise for Lent

Lent has begun. As a child I would prattle along with all kinds of clever repartee -- based no doubt on unrealized misspelling -- about dryer residue and black sweater bans. But hopefully even then I knew somewhere deep in my soul that I was being sophomoric. Though the season has not been as ritualized and developed in my religious tradition as it has in others, even we have recognized that Lent is about something important. If we haven't always wanted to get serious about "giving up" one thing or another in observance, the realization has probably not been too far beneath the surface that our resistance is less about freedom than our profound and gripping addictions. So dependant on so many things, we simply can't bring ourselves to set any of them aside -- even if only for a time; even if for the healing of our spirits.

And so this season begins, and I wonder about the spiritual and psychological clutter in the household of my own soul. What might I "give up", if that is the description of it; or what might I clear away? My wife might suggest the iTunes store or the complete DVD collection of Hogans Heroes episodes I've been working my way through during lunches with the dog. The cell phone comes to mind, and e-mail. How many times do I check for messages -- in a day? In an hour? In...?

Or if not "giving up," what might I "take on" as a spiritual discipline throughout the season? Regular vacuuming would be nice, or more diligent updating of my check register. But seriously: what?

If I learned anything -- brought home with me anything of value -- from my recent retreat, it is the importance of being "still"; the constitutional necessity of looking out the window patiently enough, and often enough to see the particular arc of the tree branch across the street or the nuanced hue of today's sky blue or the unique pattern of the snow thaw on the lawn.

"Still" enough to see, to hear, to smell, to feel those dynamics unfolding and swirling both around me and within. I am no longer on a train with a passing landscape, but I am in a context -- an environment -- in which I have no business participating if I have not first taken the honoring time to become aware of it.

Maintaining"stillness" doesn't sound quite as sexy as "giving up chocolate" or some other indulgence, but it seems healthier to me -- the calorie issue notwithstanding.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Blessed Britney and the Quest for What Matters

The news reports this morning that Britney Spears has shaved her head, has been adding tattoos, and may or may not have entered rehab. Presumably, the rehab is related to substance abuse, and if she has a problem in that area I hope she gets the help she needs. But my hunch is that a surplus of hair, a poverty of skin art, and an indulgence in alcohol are the least of her problems.

A disclaimer: I am not a Britney fan. Neither her music, her marriage history, her wardrobe (or lack thereof) nor her self and social contortions in search of publicity are of particular interest to me. I have not developed a taste for her "art."

But I find myself grieving on her behalf. What began as a fetching, energetic, if not all that original step into the entertainment arena has evolved, over the years, into cartoonish parody. Fair Britney has careened from one silly and melodramatic absurdity to the next in what seems -- at least to this admittedly disinterested observer -- like a tragic grasp at significance. And who, after all, doesn't want to matter?

I haven't shaved my head and I've never really understood tattoos; I've certainly never made it into "People" magazine, but in my own subtler way I suppose I've done my share of clawing for attention. Trying to matter. Begging to be noticed. And my suspicion is that such attempts look no better on me than they do on Britney.

In my better moments, I recognize how unnecessary are the graspings. Significance, after all, is the grace of the gospel. As far as God is concerned, we don't have to gyrate in a spotlight and recklessly careen from one camera to the next. We have already been noticed. And we already matter. It has to do with that whole "image of God" idea, and the voice that we, too, might hear if we interrupted our preening and prancing and paused long enough to hear it: a voice saying "you, too, are my child, in whom I am well pleased."

Maybe, in other words, it is our idea of fame and significance -- of the opinion that truly matters -- that needs the time in rehab.

In the meantime, I'm going to go comb my hair while I still have it. I'll be bald soon enough.

powered by performancing firefox

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Rail Retreat -- The Final Chapter

Happiness is two kinds of ice cream
Finding your skate key; telling the time
And happiness is learning to whistle
And tying your shoe for the very first time.
Happiness is playing the drum
In your own school band
And happiness is walking hand in hand
And Happiness is five different crayons
Knowing a secret and climbing a tree
Happiness is finding a nickel
Catching a firefly; setting it free
And happiness is being alone every now and then
And happiness is coming home again…
(from You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, Music, Lyrics and Book by: Clark Gesner)

Being alone…and coming home again – although more than happiness, it is pure joy. Especially now, after a week of the former and over 5000 miles to both enforce and punctuate it, it is the latter that is happiness and joy. The sight of home in my imagination, and before long just around that final, evocative turn. The welcoming touch of one whose parting embrace animated the quiet and kept me company in that strange, ephemeral way.

So what do I bring home with me? Some tasks gratefully accomplished – books read, words written, services imagined, a sermon series well underway. Indeed it would be hard to justify this trip without such things in my pocket.

And there are the people – Ron, the stoically efficient attendant between LA and Portland, and Darryl, the effective and jovial one along the final leg who went to work with Amtrak as a summer job – 24 years ago; the retired FBI agent/business owner/theology student and his wife from Detroit visiting grandkids throughout California, and their adult daughter – roughly my age – traveling with them who along with her husband is building a stone, wood-fired pizza oven in their back yard; the two brothers and their wives who rode the Coast Starlight together just so they could spend time and visit; the train marketer is riding across the country to evaluate and assess how Amtrak is doing; the Metropolitan Lounge attendant in Portland who was born and raised in Marshalltown, Iowa, graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in Piano and a teaching certificate, and taught music appreciation in an elementary school in Minneapolis before hooking up with Amtrak; the Goth young man riding in coach in all black, a flaming yellow goatee and a shaved head with a tattoo just behind his ear that looks like it was done by his little brother; the three “U-Per” women who each retired from careers in different places and settled in the same community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula because of a love of skiing, met and now share an annual ski trip together to somewhere – like Montana; the many waiters, conductors, and other employees who combined to afford me an extraordinary experience.

And, of course, there is the land which has blessed me with rich passage – the rustic red deserts of Colorado and New Mexico, the coastal magnificence of California, the rivers and forests and mountains and plains of the American northwest; frozen lakes and persistent streams; snow-covered evergreens and crystalline brush; the warmth of Albuquerque, New Mexico and the pure icy chill of Shelby, Montana; herds of antelope galloping in eastern Montana and bald eagles soaring and feeding along the river east of Red Wing, Minnesota. Yes, almost indescribably so, the land. “Come now and look upon the works of the Lord, what awesome things he has done on earth” (Psalm 46:9).

All those things, and of course, more. But mostly I return home with an awe-filled gratitude to a God who fashioned it with words I can’t even imagine, and to a church and a wife who offered their blessing on my longing to roll through it.

Happiness, indeed. Amen.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Rail Retreat, Chapter 5 -- Evening

Beyond the mountains of western Montana, the plains opened expansively. Wide, ranging, seemingly infinite. I was caught by the wire – hundreds and hundreds of miles of it – twisted wire and barbed wire nailed to fence posts within which the cattle and horses roamed, but only so far; electrical wire strung across pole after pole after desolate pole. I noticed the same thing earlier in the trip as the train rolled across the southern plains, and I tried to remember the stories about the range wars when the frontier was being conquered. Battles were fought, tempers were flared, lives were lost over the idea of fencing off the open range.

Few, I’m guessing, fought the later efforts to string more wire. Craving the prospect of power, people no doubt clamored for it. And though it looks so odd to me – poll after powerline poll – I can hardly feel smug. Here I am tucked warmly away in my rolling bedroom with an octopus extension chord to which is attached an iPod, a cell phone charger, a camera charger, and a laptop. Hardly primitive; hardly “roughing it.” My letters, had I been such a candle-lighted pioneer, would have been the first to make their way to the “powers that be,” begging for electrification.

Rolling now across far eastern Montana, the sun is fading. The landscape has surprised me. After miles and miles of flat, open range, the land is now filled with plateaus – hills that the wind, or perhaps God’s own hand, sliced off horizontally. Against one side of the slopes – the easterly side – snow has accumulated. To be sure, there is a general dusting of snow all around – in the ground cover of the plains approaching the rise, and around the plateaus as well – but the accumulation is on the one side. I noticed a similar phenomenon this morning in the mountain forests, when it was the southeasterly face of the evergreens that collected the snow.

It has caused me to remember my favorite views of running rivers, where stones interrupt the flow of the stream and cause, at one and the same time, both a rise and a diversion. The stones, no matter their size, have simultaneously caught and redistributed the river.

And perhaps that is most of what life is: standing in the way of life as it passes or blows its way through – wisdom, experience, love, grace – and offering ourselves as a catchment.

Rail Retreat, Chapter 5 -- Morning

Breathtakingly beautiful. In fact, with each incremental rise of the sun into the morning the sweeping scenes passing outside the window have become more hypnotic. Montana since the earliest graying of dawn.

The Empire Builder pulled out of Portland exactly on time, but through the night fell behind. Again, the hour or so tardiness is hard to begrudge; on time we would have driven through these mountain forests in the dark. Snow-covered fields occasionally interrupt the woods, an orphaned farm implement up to its axels in drift. Deeper now into the mountains, wildlife tracks are evident ascending the slopes, but I can’t imagine how they managed the steep grade. As we pulled into Whitefish – a ski area at which many departed the train – I found myself thinking this vertical ocean of God-flocked evergreens “out-Vermonted Vermont”, before deciding such an idea blasphemous.

Now east of Whitefish, in the midst of the Glacier Park expanse, the train has snaked alongside a snow-banked river with the mountains towering up beside. I’ve tried a few desperate but feckless pictures; the results can’t begin to capture the grandeur. A few buildings peak out from between the trees and beneath the 3 or 4 feet of snow frosting the roofs. Here and there in an open space, horses dot the snowy landscape. Crossing over a high trestle, the valley below opens into such an emotionally beautiful vista that tears well and a lump rises in my throat.

No music – no jazz, no train songs; just the centering drone of the train and the occasional laughing banter of car steward Darryl. Work – the books, the sermons, the thinking – are hopelessly overpowered by the compulsion to simply sit, absorb, marvel, float, as it were, along the river, and give thanks. What is happening through the windows is sermon enough.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Rail Retreat -- Intermission revisited

As one of God's little humors, after my rather petulent observations about Portland's urban collision with my train-indulged hermitage of sorts, I boarded the Empire Builder at the city's Union Station to find a full house. The train is teeming with people -- with the room immediately behind mine packed with four quite active pre-pubescent girls, and the rooms forward of mine filled with the four parents; two families traveling together and armed with animated chatter. So much for the silent sanctity of the rails!

There is some instructive justice to the circumstance. I have been reflecting on my earlier observations with some humility and regret. While retreats -- whether of the railroad or the more conventional varieties -- are certainly useful, surely it is lamentable if the spiritual life and inner quietude are only possible at a distance from active and energetic life in the very midst of whatever is more common -- an urban cacaphony or a rural spread. To curse the very hum of human animation seems contrary to the transformative premise of the Gospel. If the Spirit is only accessible apart from everyday life then we are most to be pitied!

And so chastened, I reengage my rolling environs -- giggling girls and chatty neighbors and all. They are the world I am in. And wasn't part of my intent to listen, to attend, to know?

Sleep well.

powered by performancing firefox

Rail Retreat -- Intermission

System jolt! The layover in Portland has afforded the chance to have a luxuriantly spacious night's sleep, true, and the variation from train menus has indeed been delightful. Moreover, for exercise I walked the 10-or-so blocks to the sacred mountain: Powells Bookstore -- a multi-storied city block of books.

That said, this urban interlude has been a jolt back to reality -- the steady, almost narcotic drone of the train replaced with the cacophony of traffic; honking horns, car doors, squealing brakes; boom boxes thumping out from passing windows; wisps of marijuana seeping out of a parked beat-up pickup, inside of which is a haggard looking woman stupored against the glass; dodging bicyclists, and people. It seems like a suffocating mass of people. I know that sounds strange -- that the confinement of a train could seem less congested than open air in the city -- but there you have it. The hotel was filled with name tag-dangling conventioneers in town for something. The coffee shop where I'm spending an otherwise tasty party of the afternoon, called Stumptown Coffee and Pastries ("one of the best in the country," I'm told), is packed with people and and a throbbing soundtrack of "music" I would not have picked (and wouldn't be included in my otherwise "broad and somewhat disturbing musical collection").

One serendipity -- while sitting in the coffee shop typing away, a woman named Stephanie, a reporter for a local television station, along with her cameraman interviewed me briefly about online personality inventories and IQ tests. She said I caught her attention because of the laptop I was using and its obvious connection with the story she is working on. I, of course, was disappointed; I was certain it was because of some self-apparent sagacity and erudition. Supposedly I'll be able to watch the story online by next Wednesday at Can't wait.

Truth be told, neither can I wait to be back on the train. This is what I escaped! I'll be back to urban life soon enough. Meanwhile, the coffee is quite good.

I checked for an update about the train's timeliness, but learned nothing new. It will come, on its own time.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Rail Retreat, Chapter 4 -- Evening

Green forest-covered mountains stockaded the view around us. I hadn’t even noticed that we had progressed into territory completely blanketed with snow. In the far ground, an immense mountain face, etched with white, vertically ribboned pathways interrupting the trees. Betraying my frame of reference, I called attention to the strips and concluded, “ski area.”
“More likely,” corrected another passenger, “logging strips.”
Sure enough, throughout the afternoon, the Cascades and their log-wounds drew closer and more revealing. Surely business, those strips, not pleasure. Force moreso than grace.
For all my lament, I can’t really indict. I live in a house that depends on its lumber. I work in a building that, while more concrete than wood, employs more than a little bit of both. In our worship we sit, after all, on wooden pews. I can’t very well treasure my shelter and my livelihood while begrudging the loggers their own.
But still, the mountains wear their scars, and the clearcut paths, from our distance, look like streaks of tears.
Late in the afternoon, enjoying the Parlor car for its views, the tracks took us along the edge of a forest on thee left, the Willamette River flowing scenically on the right. Its beauty, however, was only visible for a moment. As we slowed to a stop – as if to afford us a prayerful moment to drink the magnificence in, a Union Pacific freight train pulled alongside us on a heretofore unnoticed neighboring track, blocking our view of anything but a long and seemingly endless series of box cars in need of paint – made perceptually even longer by the knowledge of what lay beyond on the other side.
“There’s something wrong,” I mused to a passenger sitting nearby, when a freight train occupies the track with a view, while the passenger train gets stuck over here.”
It didn’t take long, I’m relieved to say, before I remembered that this isn’t an amusement park ride, and that the freight companies own the rails. We passengers hardly have priority, and are privileged to catch any glimpse that pops into view between the freight. If anybody has a right to the view, those engineers, workers and what I have to assume to be an occasional hobo, do.

Rail Retreat, Chapter 4 -- Morning

“It has always seemed to me that true natural presence, true wild being, involves no tuning out of anything. It must be absolutely contemplative – openly receptive to all the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings that exist in each immediate moment. I believe it is civilization, the taming of our nature, that has taught us to focus on a single task and tune out what we consider to be distractions. I acknowledge that we do have to do this to function well in our society – but it just isn’t natural.
By the time we reach adulthood, most of us are so conditioned to focusing attention that the concentrated one-track mind is the only way we have of approaching situations. As we mature, we may be vaguely aware of mission something, but we are too far away from it even to give it a name.
What we are missing is fullness of life. To put it simply, in concentrating on one thing at a time, we miss everything else.”
(Gerald May, The Wisdom of Wilderness, pp. 61, 64)

I often overlook it – the first exhilarating morning stretch; the soft warmth of the blanket and the nest it has helped me create; the early morning quiet before the busy stirring. This morning there is more. Out the window – where?
Misty, dawn-smoke seeping through evergreens on the mountains.
Shallow, white rapids streaming over rocks in the river below.
Curving tracks, each emerging view more compelling than the last.
A lone white plastic chair abandoned on the river bank across the way.
Fingerling waterfalls down the opposite bank, and then near enough to touch. Waterfalls – suddenly a lattice-work of falls.
Patches of remnant snow at the edge of the woods.
Northern California I eventually learn – Dunsmuir.
Over breakfast I overhear that it is typically dark when the train passes through this area. Suddenly I am grateful for the delays that held the experience until dawn. Apparently Mt. Shasta is off to the right, but it is raining gently and the visibility is too limited to see it.
The day has begun, and I intend to tune little out.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Rail Retreat, Chapter 3 -- Evening

“Be still” has been the mantra of the day in more ways than one. As the morning posting suggested, it was to be my inner instruction. Little did I know that it would prove to be an accurate external one as well. After departing on time from Los Angeles, and arriving perhaps a few minutes early in Santa Barbara a couple of hours later, the latter part of that day has been marked by stillness on the track. Delay leaving San Luis Obispo; a freight train with priority here, a track repair crew there, and there, and there. Good practice in watching, listening, and simply, patiently “being.”

Which is to say that if we were corporately enduring stillness outside, I was slowing to embrace it within. Settling into a seat in the observation car mid-afternoon, I cursed myself for arriving without a book. I was alone, after all, and nothing to do but sit. Perverse! “Just be still,” whispered the Voice, and I was. More than a narrative or a thesis was beckoning me through the glass. Which is also to say that the books and the tasks have been less compelling today than the grace outside the window. On one side mountains; on the other, ocean with waves and beaches, splashing rocks and an occasional sea lion. Sometimes we were high on a bluff above, looking down on ground-covering succulents that carpeted the dunes; other times we seemed close enough to need a towel if we could have only opened the windows. Sometimes the route S-curved so tightly that the entire train was visible from engine to end.

It is darkness now, and we are moving – rapidly, by the sound of it, as if to make up time. And it is quiet apart from the rails. Quiet – inside and out.

Rail Retreat, Chapter 3 -- Morning

“…my mind suddenly erupts with ideas of things to do. …get everything arranged so I start enjoying myself. The impulses are almost desperate, as if my mind has awakened startled, terrified by its own depth of peacefulness, abruptly afraid of dying from inaction. I respond immediately. …ready to unpack…I am simply stopped by something. I feel it within me, inside my very muscles, yet it seems to come from somewhere outside me. It is not me, yet it is rising from the deepest part of me. It is powerful, as if a great gentle hand has taken my arms and legs and simply stilled them, and a sweet irresistible voice is speaking in my belly, ‘Be still now.’ It’s not a real voice, not actual hearing, but the message is clear: no rush, no need to do anything, just be.”
(Gerald May, The Wisdom of the Wilderness, p. 19)

Morning, and palm trees silhouetted against the gold-blue streaked sunrise. California – quite a contrast to the snowy plains of Colorado and the desert red of New Mexico. Breakfast was early, then packing to detrain. The Southwest Chief pulled into Los Angeles’ Union Station at 8:00 a.m. – 15 minutes early – and the progress board indicates that the Coast Starlight is on time for its 10:15 a.m. departure. So far so good!

I have settled into a kind of rhythm – seeking to give into that voice inviting me to “be still now.” I have work to do, but at least some part of that work is stillness. I have decided to observe Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours, a contemporary rendering of the Benedictine prayerful ordering of the day. Through prayers and scriptures, it patterns each day into The Morning Office (observed sometimes between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m.), The Midday Office (between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.) and Vespers (between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.). In between, I am devoting some time to reading, and a larger block of time to writing. After vespers, so far I have continued with some devotional reading, followed by an indulgence until bedtime in a mystery. Throughout the day, as long as there is light, there is the window, and the landscape moving and changing and engaging. And there is the voice…

“…be still now.”

Monday, February 5, 2007

Rail Retreat, Chapter 2 -- Evening of a Day of Extremes

It hasn’t taken long to notice that trains don’t pull into the center of town – except those towns small enough to have nothing but a center, whose memories are stronger than their imaginations. If tracks used to line the nerve centers of civic commerce, now they form the industrial entrails of a community’s underside. Railway stations share their neighborhood with freight cars and transport trucks, warehouses and vacant lots; barbed-wire enclosures piled with the twisted metal remnants of whatever was useful that has already been cannibalized for something else, rather than the hotels and restaurants, services and shops that once upon a time welcomed de-boarding passengers. If a city were a body, I have no doubt what part of its anatomy would be the train station. The pleasantries of urban enclaves have long since migrated in more scenic, quieter and less grimy directions. The platforms make for useful exercise tracks when a stop is long enough to permit it; but it is Spartan, utilitarian, mechanical surroundings.

The conductor came on the PA earlier in the afternoon to chastise smokers. The train, like other forms of public transportation, is non-smoking by government regulation. Signs are clearly posted. Reminders are courteously announced. But the frustration in the conductor’s voice, noting that “we are well aware that some are going to the lower level to smoke” and that “everyone can smell it” betrayed his loss of patience. He reiterated the rules, and looked ahead to the next available smoking stop.

On the one hand, I cheered his announcement. I hate the smell, and while I hadn’t in this case been bothered by it (perhaps the offenders were on a different car), I don’t want any noxious migration. As we pulled into Albuquerque for an hour-long stop, several virtually leapt onto the platform to light up.

I wonder about my own voices – addictions – that perhaps are subtler but no less distracting and controlling – and potentially offensive. What are those attachments in my own life so compelling that they cause me to risk censure and eviction at the next available station? To what have I given myself, and to what ends will I go to accommodate its demands?

As the “all aboard” was sounded, I noticed several final and impassioned drags on the platform before the butts were stubbed and the soothed hopped back on board. I’ll keep them, too, in my prayers, hoping that at least a few of them take the time to remember me in theirs.

Rail Retreat, Chapter 2 -- Morning

We mercifully slept across Kansas, and though I took advantage of several unintentional opportunities to notice the moon, in-between views I rested comfortably well. The smell of brewing coffee signaled morning, and I began to absorb the prospects of the day. Stirring, I gathered my supplies and headed downstairs. The shower I had dreaded proved to be simpler than my expectations. It had its limitations, but after managing in Nicaragua last spring with a barrel of water and a bowl to pour over my head in the company of chickens around my feet, with only a fluttering plastic tarp for privacy, Amtrak offered elegant luxury.

I shared a breakfast table in the dining car with George and Ann from Connecticut, on their way to Flagstaff to visit relatives. A vacation, of sort, it is their first time to ride the train. Since Ann refuses to fly, she is hoping it all goes well so that George might agree to future trips. The 5-hour delay between New York and Chicago that forced an unintended overnight between trains offered a bumpy start, but since Chicago the Southwest Chief has been running precisely on time. Now into the Mountain Time zone, our first opportunity for fresh air and a stretch came shortly after 8 a.m. during a 30-minute stop in La Junta, CO. The chilly exercise gave me a chance to inventory my rolling community in the daylight – 10 cars consisting of two engines, one baggage car, one dormitory car, two sleeper cars, one dining car, an observation car and two coach cars.

Now rolling again toward the southwest, the snow-covered plains pass outside my window, only occasionally interrupted by bluffs and gorges and buttes. And it is time to pay broader and deeper attention.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Rail Retreat, Chapter 1 -- Boarding

Wilderness is not just a place; it is also a state of being. If happiness means being happy and sadness means being sad, then wilderness means being wilder. Look it up, and you'll find that the primary meaning of wild is "natural." In turn, "natural" comes from the Latin nasci, meaning "to be born." Words like natal, nativity, and native come from the same root, all referring to birth. Wilderness, then, is not only the nature you find outdoors. It can also refer to your own true Nature -- the You that is closest to your birth. This inner wildness is the untamed truth of who you really are.
(Gerald G. May in The Wisdom of Wilderness, 2006, p. XIX)

So, I have boarded the train -- my own little encounter with wilderness; hoping not so much for "wildness" in the way I might have otherwise thought of it, but certainly something like my "own true nature" -- the "me" which, according to May, is closest to my birth. As I told my beloved on the night before my leaving, I have felt myself grow "shallowed out", which I suppose is something akin to drifting away from the true nature, the "birth-self" that is deeper, more grounded than the self I have, of late, become. Already the swaying of the train along its track -- not at all unlike a ship in turbulent waters -- has begun to dislodge from me the steady assurance I left in the station. This is foreign land to me -- first missing, then stepping into my car, only to feel totally lost; climbing the stairs and immediately taking a wrong turn; exploring to find bathrooms and showers; running into dead ends in pursuit of the dining car; settling down to dinner in the company of Max whose first impression offered little promise of conversation. And yet Max turns out to have grandparents in San Angelo, scarcely an hour from my childhood home -- and visited there last summer. And he lives in Kansas City, a block or so from one of our favorite getaways. That he loves "cage boxing" and shares an apartment with a musician in a heavy metal band more fascinated than repelled me.

The full moon outside my window and the occasional pause at a station serves to ground and orient me. And now it is about time to recruit Lisa, the steward assigned to my car through to Los Angeles, to assemble my bed. A bit of wilderness, perhaps, all its own.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Rolling Retreat -- the Overture

So, I've got to catch a train. It began seven years ago when I returned to work after a 3-month sabbatical having learned at least two things: one, that I hate workshops; two, that I need time alone. When I reported these findings to the Personnel Committee and requested permission and blessing to honor both insights in practice (meaning: avoid workshops, and schedule retreats), they responded, "Is that all?" What a precious place to work! Since then, I've tried to schedule week-long retreats each year. Not vacation -- I schedule that, too, but vacation is a different category (like the separate stomach compartments that receive vegetables and ice cream. "Full" in the former does not necessarily mean "full" in the latter). Sometimes retreats are for being quiet, praying, and reading. Some are for writing. Some are for preparing. Some involve all three. The common denominators, however, are solitude and absence.

This year's version will be different for me. The agenda will be familiar -- reading, writing, quieting and listening -- but the setting will be new. In fact, it will be constantly changing. Sunday evening I will board the Amtrak Southwest Chief at Galesburg, IL and ride it to Los Angeles, CA, where I will connect with Amtrak's Coast Starlight on which I'll ride to Portland, OR. After an overnight, I'll jump on Amtrak's Empire Builder that will trek eastward through Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota and ultimately down through Milwaukee to Chicago. At Chicago, I'll climb aboard the Illinois Zephyr which, with any luck, will return me to me car in Galesburg.

I'm packed -- with one suitcase full of clothes and another full of books and technology. I have Lenten sermons to write, special services to develop, a college syllabus to draft, books to read, and a clickety-clacked anonymity to dissolve into. I can't wait!

And along the way I plan to blog -- daily, or at least as often as I can find Internet access -- about conversations I have, sights that pass by my window, reflections that scratch their way through to consciousness. And perhaps an illustrative photo or two.

Stay tuned.