The first reading today comes from a book called ‘Riding the Wave Across Spain’ and references the time when the author was walking the Camino. The Camino as most of you know is an ancient pilgrimage route and still today thousands of people walk it every year – some walk for a month, some three months, some longer. Pilgrimage walking is different from tramping in that firstly, connection with nature or fitness-building is not the primary goal; secondly, soul-work or self-discovery or God-discovery (whatever language you use to frame it) is; and thirdly, I believe that somehow something of each pilgrim is left on the trail creating an ambience, a thin-place, a holy feel, quite different from a usual morning walk.
Talking of morning walks, like many now, I’m developing a new routine of walking my neighbourhood as ‘morning guilds the skies’. Connecting with nature – looking at trees, the sky, breathing deeply – all these nurture the soul and keep us sane. And others are out now too walking the streets in the early morning. And we call out to each other, strangers yet in solidarity with each other in this strange time.
Eli, the author of the Camino piece, writes: “And I draw inspiration from those in my life I’ve admired, stepping out the traits they had, qualities I hope to one day hold: strength, courage, compassion, patience, persistence, love, loyalty, grace, honour, and pride.”
As we walk a pilgrimage, walk the streets of our neighbourhood, or even walk around our gardens or balconies in this virus time of uncertainty and fear we can be conscious of those who have walked these routes before. Some of you will remember the 1950s polio epidemic. My grandparents talked about the 1918 influenza pandemic. They were times of uncertainty and fear. They were times too to hold to the values and examples of strength, courage, compassion, patience, persistence, love, loyalty, grace, honour, and pride.
We are currently adapting to rapid change. Confined to home is not easy for many. Families with many kids, small homes, and likely unemployment for the parent(s) will and already are finding it very tough. For children and spouses where there are abusive relationships it will be very tough indeed. So too for those who have no homes, who live in cheap boarding houses, or in cars.
It is not easy too for those who live alone and who don’t have family, or family close by. It is also a challenge for families where everyone has now brought their work home and new routines etcetera need to be worked out.
One spiritual exercise, long used in times of uncertainty and fear, is thankfulness. As Gordon Raynal says, “The first, enduring, and final word of theology is simply this: thank you”. Gordon addresses his thank you to the extraordinary mysterious matrix in which all life exists (and which some use the word God as a shorthand name). But a thank you exercise doesn’t have to start huge. Find a quiet place. Maybe light a candle or bring up a picture of a beautiful flower on your computer (or from your garden). Be still and listen to your breathing. Then, before your mind starts wandering, start to give thanks.
I always start by giving thanks that I’m alive. (Which is something that those of you have come close to death will identify with). Then I give thanks for those who love me. Then I give thanks for what I see around me – right now as I’m writing I see this computer, my books, my coffee cup, and over on the bed (you can tell I’m working from home) my old teddy bear. Giving thanks for these opens the door for many more thanks. Ted E Bear brings memories of my parents and grandparents, camping trips and the like. The coffee cup takes me into memories of wonderful aromas, food, and company. Each time a memory is evoked I give thanks.
After even 5 minutes of doing this exercise it feels like I’m awash with gratitude. And when I arise to carry on my day it feels like I’m being rebalanced (like a tyre on a car being rebalanced). Matthew Fox adds a Matthew-like comment about strengthening our immune systems by having an attitude of thankfulness.
As a church we too rapidly have to adapt – upskilling in our use of the internet, using the telephone a lot, and shelving things that two weeks ago were high priority and now seem to have little relevance. When we are in ‘a dark time’ (as the mystics would have called it) we find that our priorities shift - being in touch with one another, and particularly those who are vulnerable, goes to the top of the list. Then the nature of that ‘in touch’ needs to be with lots of kindness, empathy, and encouragement.
Our faith story tells us that we have been in places of great change before. The scripture reading today from Ezekiel is written after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Jerusalem was of course not only the cultural and economic centre of Jewish life, but also the spiritual centre. The Temple had been destroyed by the same Nebuchadnezzar 10 years earlier. Why two sackings of Jerusalem? Well after the sacking in 597 Nebuchadnezzar installed Zedekiah as vassal king of Judah. However, Zedekiah revolted against Babylon, and entered into an alliance with the king of Egypt. So Nebuchadnezzar had to do it all again.
My point is that Ezekiel (who was living in Babylon as a captive in 587) wrote his famous ‘dry bones’ piece in the context of the end of not only what was the most holy place for Jews (the place wherein the glory of God, the shekinah of God, dwelt), but in the context of the end of how Jews worshipped and practiced their faith.
Ezekiel is pretty much a doom-and-gloom prophet, berating his people and blaming their lack of faithfulness to Yahweh, their sin, as the cause of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. But interestingly – in a theological sense – he said the shekinah of God had gone cross country and settled in Babylon. Where of course there was no Temple. Which begs the question: where did the shekinah dwell in Babylon? Where now did hope dwell?
Maybe in answer to that question he offers this well-known vision/metaphor of the valley of dry bones. It was a metaphor of disconnection – each bone separate. It was a metaphor of death – no flesh, no life, no contact, no sound. And, given that one could be ritually and medically contaminated by coming into contact with the dead, it was a metaphor of impurity.
Yet into this valley the Ruach comes. And there is a play on words here for Ruach is both wind and source of life and God’s spirit. The bones start reconnecting. Sinews, flesh, skin. And not just one person is reformed/transformed, but a community - the whole ‘house of Israel’. And (v.14) the spirit (the Shekinah?) of God is within them.
We know that while in Babylon the oral tradition and the few written texts of the Hebrew community were brought together to form the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible). This would radically change forever how Judaism, and its child Christianity, would practice faith. We would be from that time on ‘people of the Book’.
But also I would argue that theologically God’s glory which from the time of Solomon had been stuck in a Temple came now to be more understood as something within people and within/among a community of people. It was a bit like how even today people think of church as a building, rather than primarily as a community of people.
I’m not saying that this virus time is the same as the huge upheaval the Jewish community went through in the 6th century BCE. What I am saying is that our Bible records stories of our ancestors in faith undergoing huge change in both theology and practice. These were changes that were hard, catastrophe even. The faith, their religion, survived. But it changed. How they thought about God changed. How they worshipped and prayed changed.
Here is a blessing I wrote as we go on this journey of change:
May we be blessed by a guide, or at least a cairn,
as we journey through the complexities of life,
through darkness and light.
May we be blessed by the disturbing spirit of Jesus:
comforting, irritating, probing… encouraging us on
into the unknown shadowlands.
And where there is no guide, cairn, path, or pattern
may we keep moving, keep hoping, keep trusting,
with friends, though physically separate from us,
May God bless us in all the little turns on this journey:
and bless all whom we meet
(online or on the other side of the street).