My friend Ginny and I made a trip via Amtrak train from Chicago to Denver in the middle of May. An overnight train trip on The California Zephyr” in our own roomette with a steward who pulled down our bunks when we were ready for sleep, meals in the dining car, all of it was a new adventure for me. I didn’t sleep much going out. Our room was cold, I woke whenever the train made a stop, and I found out that the “ette” part of roomette is there for good reason! When I heard Ginny stirring in her bunk above me, I reached up and pushed the curtain aside covering the one window of our roomette. Expecting to see mountains, there was an unbroken golden expanse of flat grassland prairie meeting the skyline. No houses, no roads, no farmland, no grazing cattle, no hills or horses, only golden grass. I felt like a pioneer and imagined seeing a herd of buffalo as our train clacked by, some living thing to break up the emptiness.
My heart and soul felt a little like that first early morning view from my roomette window. Traveling to Denver for The Festival of Homiletics, to hear the best of the preachers, theologians, church and religious culture watchers, I experienced an emptiness, a flatness in my Pastor vocation. It had been with grief coupled with some relief from burn-out that I left my ten-year appointment at an urban church involved in music, theater, and visual arts, housing a Head Start program, attracting young adults from a nearby university, immersed in social justice issues, and moved to a small suburban community. For the past two years I have been working part-time as solo pastor for a tiny church community of elderly congregants struggling to keep their church alive, holding on to a past that has disintegrated and anxious about an uncertain future. I dreamt about moving back to the city, immersing my self in the social justice issues so apparent there, yet could not muster the energy needed to climb the mountains, keeping up the numbers, trying to satisfy creative and divergent personalities, do continuous fundraising, and nurture my own spiritual life in the midst of the fray. I just wanted to stay on the prairie, watching from the train, marveling the golden emptiness.
There was mighty preaching from the mountaintop when we arrived in Denver. There was no denying the emptiness and fear being felt in the church and religion in the Wast. “We are in a mighty storm.” “Christianity will no longer be in 25 years.” “There is a strong growing opposition to organized religion.” “Institutional fear; epidemic sickness of the church world; something has to be uncovered; we are in an age of anxiety.” “Hope is at a premium and it’s supply is short.” “Old certitudes simply do not prevail.” “The known world is gone and it scares the hell out of us.”
The call from the mountaintop was also great. “What the people need is for someone to be vulnerable.” “Expose the truth and envision how things can be different.” “Raise up what people’s fears are.” “The concrete, palpable presence of Jesus is more powerful than all of the formulas.” “Find rest in a world of toxic restlessness.” “Jesus calls me with very few requirements, only to put me in sync with my true self.” “God is a God of finitude, not certitude. God cannot be reduced to the assurances of Empire.” “Ours is the imaginative, artistic, poetic work of contestation. God sustains amid anxiety.” “To re-locate God is to re-ground our lives.” “Cling to the Word. Practice Resurrection.” “Move towards the heart.” “Find a way to get together. Peace is imminent.” “Read the Bible from the bottom up. Dare to take risks. Open up to new possibilities.” “Somebody is waiting for my courage.”
“Maybe coming off the mountain is not so bad after all,” said Diana Butler Bass, speaking from her soon-to-be-released book, “Grounded: God, the World, and a Spiritual Revolution.” So I’m down on the plain, or perhaps a valley hewn out of the rocks like in “The Garden Of the Gods” Ginny and I visited outside Denver (where the above photo was shot). The air is good down here. Here now, is where I need to practice my faith, to uncover my vulnerability and find rest for my soul. Who knows? Some unexpected creature may be resurrected, looking somewhat like a buffalo but in a new incarnation!