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Rajesh Gupta left his family in Bangalore to join his brother in Miami and pursue a career as a civil engineer. Rajesh had graduated top of his class in India and was working for a small firm in Bangalore when he decided to improve his lot in life. So, when his brother invited him to come to the United States he jumped at the opportunity. Quiet and reserved Rajesh was hired by a civil engineering firm in Miami at a good salary and rented a room with three other people, banking his money to send home to his family. Rajesh didn’t drive. In India he walked or cycled to most everywhere he had to go to. So, with much trepidation, Rajesh took lessons and learned to drive. Now he could drive to work instead of relying on his brother to give him a ride. But driving was confusing, and more importantly it was lonely. It seemed everywhere he looked there was only one person in a car at a time. All these single people in their moving cages of steel.
Rajesh became more and more depressed. Despite having family nearby, he kept to himself. One day one of Rajesh’s roommates called his brother and told him the Rajesh had not come out of his room for the past day and a half. She was worried that he was hurt. The brother came over and pounded on the door (Rajesh was also hard of hearing). Finally, they called the police who broke down the door to find Rajesh dead by suicide. Today is the 21st anniversary of 9/11 that fateful crisp fall day in which our world changed including the loss of life here in our congregation. The Coleman family lost two sons in the World Trade Center. Others lost a husband, friends and relatives. I remember the dust covered walking uptown, even as the first responders ran in. We were so together then, in our grief.
Francis and I spent the month of July in Brighton England, thirty miles south of London on the coast. Brighton, as its name suggests, is an incredibly young and dynamic place. Known as Bohemian London, it is full of exhausted tourists, wonderful restaurants and some of the best coffee I have ever had in my life. With two large Universities in the city, young people are everywhere. Our flat was a block off the beach and sandwiches between a drag bar and a disco. We loved it; we are each working on a book so it was the perfect place to work. What I noticed most of all was how people got around, on buses and mostly walking. We walked everywhere. Putting in 8 to 10 miles a day. We met people along the way and connected to the city in a way tour buses cannot. We felt like we belonged. When we returned to the States the first thing we noticed were the cars. And no one was walking; no one had the connection to place. That sense of belonging was something you had to drive to, not pass through. Is it any wonder that Rajesh could no longer live in such a strange and foreign land? Somehow, even when we are walking by ourselves, we are not alone. Unlike a car, we are noticed and seen. Can you hear me?
I love to walk. Whenever I go to a new town, I rise early and walk its streets. In walking I see so much more than traveling at the speed of carbon combustion. I get a feel for a place. When I am in the wild, I walk. Always hoping to find a new path, a new discovery, a new place for my thoughts, and meditations. Mary Oliver, wrote her poetry while walking, a trait my granddaughter Iris now uses for her own poetry in the woods:
When I am among the trees,
Especially the willows and the honey locust,
Equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
In fact, Walking is a great spiritual practice. When walking, I can lose my thoughts or gain new ones. As the author Rebecca Solnit put it; Walking both takes you to places while your mind is free to go elsewhere. (Wanderlust: A History of Walking, 2016)
Sometimes we get lost in walking. Or perhaps we are found, as the Peripatetic Philosopher Aristotle once quipped. One of my greatest pleasures these many years as a minister has been to make our annual summer pilgrimage to an island off the coast of Maine. There I travel the trails of the Eastern woods; more dark and moist than their majestic counterparts I so loved in California. One day, I took a lumber road off one of the trails. I had a compass on my phone. Walking along the road, I could see that it would end at someone’s house. Not desiring to retrace my steps, I calculated that if bushwhacked across the woods to my left I would end up on a trail close to the water. I check my compass for a bearing and proceeded to march through high brush. About a quarter of mile in I came to a bog, moist from recent rains and full of skunk weed. I checked the compass again but, it being on my phone, I had lost the signal. I took a tack Northwest, around the bog, but soon ran into another. I took another take to what I thought was true North only to be stopped again. Just then, I slipped. I went bottom first into the mud, about four inches deep. My foot had become wedged under a large branch so that I couldn’t get my perch to stand up. Try and try as I might I could not free myself from the branch. I started to panic. Fear is the great immobilizer. I realized that Francis had taken the ferry to the mainland; she had no idea where I had gone. I imagined I would be stuck there through nightfall. That I could very well die there! I started to yell, realizing that I was deep in the woods even on an island. Then as if by magic a calm placed her hand on my shoulder. “You can do this. You can find a way.” And it was then that I realized that if I took off my shoe, I could free my foot. And lo’ so it was. Muddy, but grateful, I stood up, freed my shoe, put it back on my muddy sock and decided I would retrace my steps back to the original lumber road. I have a very good memory for places and I found my way, eventually to the road, which I took back to the trail that led me to the road, and back to the cabin, a little wiser and very muddy.
And walking brings us together with more than beauty. What we loved about Brighton is that we were walking TO someplace. And that act of moving towards was an act of belonging to the self, the environment and even the spirit.
Turn to your neighbor, and describe a favorite walk of yours.
…so how was that? What did you learn from a few of you?
Walking a way, walking together, as Jamie Forbes leads through the woods, is a way to belong, yes to the world around us but also to each other.
Thoreau put it this way “Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.” (From Walking). Now, walking is a metaphor of course. Mobility varies, so walking can mean, bi-pedal but also, rolling, or wandering the paths of the mind. What do you see and what does it tell you about one another? And sometimes walking is a matter of life and death as those refugees to our borders remind us. Walk your own path, but not alone. Measuring your progress not by distance but by time. Often, when I walk, on trails or streets, I note the time I start and when I must return and walk the half way point of that time, careful, or so I think, to return in the second half of the allotted time. Inevitably, I wander on past the half way mark. As Thoreau reminds me:
“We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return; prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms.
When I imagine us walking home to a safe and growing place, I imagine us coming here.
In his book Togetherness, former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy writes about the pre-political form of our society before recent political polarization. Up until the 21st century, people in communities related to one another in their daily lives first, political party second. In part this was because we could be together more often than in the digital age. You walked into the store, down the street, into Town Hall and into and out of congregations. We walked together as communities. But with the advent of social media, our relationships are defined virtually. We don’t walk into anyone outside that digital world. And the algorithms keep us from walking into each other. Now, Murthy says we are post political. We define who are in relationship by what they believe first, not by who they are. how we are now in the phase of post political we cannot connect with one another until we agree politically. Our job here is to walk into each other, metaphorically speaking, walking the walk of life together
Here is our spiritual home together.
In the biblical story of the prodigal son told by Jesus, the younger son, having received his father’s inheritance squanders all he has on vice. Dejected, alone and broke, he returns to ask his father for forgiveness; a forgiveness he is not sure he will receive. As he walks towards his home, his father, seeing his long-lost son, drops everything and runs towards him. Walking him home, he announces to all that his son, once lost is now found. He tells his servants to “kill the fatted calf” and prepare the feast. Meanwhile, the older son, you know, the one who did as he was told and stayed home (I was such a son) is a little biffed. “What is this?!” he demands self righteously “I have worked long and hard and never left your side, I did not squander your wealth and you have never killed the fatted calf for me.” Justice does not always translate to love. The father looks at his eldest and says, “You are always with me and everything that I have is yours. But how could we help celebrating this day? Your brother here was dead and has come back to life, was lost and now is found.”
This is a parable about homecoming and belonging. For Christians, of course, the parable is about salvation. “Home” as Robert Frost reminds us “is where they have to take you in.” Home is where forgiveness lives. The journey of the prodigal son is a journey of self-loss. Surrender and forgiveness is what walking home along the crooked path really means. As Forest Church said “To find our way home, we must first find ourselves.” (From Love and Death) How many of you are carrying some wound, some hurt that seems almost too great to bear? Walking home begins with barring that hurt. That pain itself is a very crooked path indeed. And we begin by forgiving ourselves. This is why these candles are so important to our communion here. Often, they are, like the prodigal son confessing to his father, the way back home. Joys as well, but sorrows, regrets, forgiveness, these are the ways we come home.
Home is where the heart is, but you need to be sure that you aren’t at the wrong address, as Forrest Church writes (Ibid Church). Many of you have been at the wrong address and you know what that means; condemnation instead of acceptance, guilt instead of challenge. All the traits that the elder son insisted that his father punish his wayward younger brother with. My people, the world will give us condemnation, judgement, and guilt in spades. What we need is a new way to be together. Rajesh was Dr. Murthy’s uncle. Perhaps if Rajesh had lived with his brother this might have not happened. His tragic story was part of the impetus for Murthy’s desire to study loneliness as a national crisis. No life is lost without meaning. The souls of the dispossessed are in our souls as well. Each time we walk into this space we are brought together in belonging. Even when the sun is most thin and far away. It is good to be together.