Rock Piles and Reverence
I wanted to spend one more week talking about God’s call to Abram. Last week, I talked about how Abram paused on his journey when he arrived at Canaan, discerning where to go next.
This week I found myself thinking about all the actions Abram took in face of his doubts: about how he built that altar of rock and how initially he gathered his family and simply began to walk, putting one foot in front of the other to his unknown destination.
One Rabbi notes that this journey is a metaphor for the genuinely religious life.
This aspect of Abram’s journey struck me because our church is in the planning process to discern where God is calling us next. We have done work this past spring around getting to know the needs of our community and this fall we will do work around our identity and updating our mission statement.
This week I was reading a book about church planning processes and I came across a passage that said, “[Church] Planning … is not knowing the final destination. It is about illuminating and committing to the next part of the journey with the conviction that it will lead to a faithful destination.”
In other words, much like Abram’s own journey, the church planning process is not about knowing every step and prescribing the destination in a single bound, but about creating room for the Spirit and discerning the next immediate places we should place our feet forward.
God calls. Abram responds by walking.
In time, Abram arrives in Canaan and glimpses the Promised Land. In Canaan, Abram builds an altar, likely made of a pile of rocks, to say yes, in this specific place, at this specific time, I have encountered the Holy One.
God invites us to trust. How do we respond in our specific location?
This is a question that many people were asking themselves in Europe after the First World War. The war tore apart towns and villages, pitting nations and even Christian against each other. How could anyone in that continent ever trust again?
One old widow did what she could – during WWI she hid refugees in her home – and when the war ended, she was pained at seeing Christians divided into different denominations fighting and killing each other in Europe. “They at least should be reconciled in order to avoid another war.” So, even though her family had been Protestant – or “not a Catholic” – for generations, to live out reconciliation within herself, she would go to the Catholic church to pray.
Rock piles and footsteps, prayers in Catholic churches and hidden refugees.
Can these things really help us to glimpse the Promised Land?
Now this widow, had a grandson named Roger.
Roger grew up as a person of faith, but he wrestled with the way so many people, especially young people live out their faith in isolation. This was a problem that he particularly encountered after finishing his studies.
“How can we keep our own searching alive? How can we continue the good that was begun in us?” He asked.
He decided to form a community of faith but, as he made this decision, WWII was starting, and so he began to offer hospitality to political refugees, especially Jews.
After the war ended, he formed a monastic community in the French town of Taize – a place where people from all nations and backgrounds were welcomed, a place where you were welcomed with you were Catholic or Orthodox, Baptist or Lutheran.
He began this in his twenties and formally founded the brotherhood in his thirties.
Brother Roger didn’t know how things would turn out, but he had responded to God’s invitation to trust, to trust humanity and to trust God.
Do we really trust anymore?
I grew up in a suburb of Rochester, NY – I was told to lock my doors, not to talk to strangers, and when I went to church – because it was in an unsafe area of the city – not to wander from the church building.
What would it look like to create places of trust in our world? I wonder sometimes about the difficulty of open our hearts, taking risks, journeying to a new land. After all, this is God’s call: to build God’s kin-dom in places of distrust, to create community in places where we feel isolated and lost.
Sometimes that task just feels so enormous.
We want to ask Abram: How did you do it??
And perhaps he would say to us: “Sometimes you don’t always know what will happen but you have to start somewhere, whether with footsteps or rock piles.”
You have to start somewhere.
I found myself pondering this reality while I stayed at the Taize monastery for a week just a couple of weeks ago.
As I thought about it, I attended the prayer times which happened three times a day.
On Friday night, they had a different kind of service, where you can venerate the cross. Now, in order to do this, they put this beautiful cross on the floor in the brother’s space and you are invited to bow next to it. It’s really one of the few times you can go into the brother’s space during worship – which is separate from the space where the thousands of visitors worship.
As you can see from this picture, the space is central and has the best view.
After lots of singing and a period of silence, people begin to flood into the brothers’ space for the veneration of the cross. Brother Benoit – our Bible Study teacher – had told us earlier in the day that they do it every week to remember the pain and suffering in the world.
I didn’t think about that; all I knew was I wanted to be in that beautiful space that the brothers sat in, so I got up and sat in the space with the others. We remained there for a long time, continuing to sing, and I observed the people venerating the cross. They would go forward, bow their foreheads down to the cold wood of the cross, stay there for some time, and then stand up and return to their seats. The group would then scooch forward, filling up the space they left behind. Although I had really only come as a sight seer, the significance of venerating the cross suddenly came to me. People from all over the world, men and women alike, were kneeling, bowing before the cross.
“Why would these grown adults that I have met actually kneel and bend down like that?” I wondered. “Are they too hungry? Are they seeking to make meaning in their life?” It opened my eyes a bit – I realized that they too were filled with pain, so much pain, and they were hungry for healing. I felt like the veneration of the cross was a bodily acknowledgement of all the pain we carry. As I drew closer to the cross, the pain began to rise up from the places I had so neatly hidden it, until at last it was my turn to venerate the cross. As I walked closer, I thought of a conversation I had had with a brother – who is actually coming in 2017 to host a Taize meeting near Ferguson to start to build places of trust – I thought of Charlestown and how we lost dear brothers and sisters in a place of worship itself and of Newtown and of all the violence and suffering and injustice in our world. I thought about how it had broken my heart.
Like the old widow whose heart had been broken after war world one. What had she done? She started attending a Catholic church.
Like Abram and Sarai, who thought perhaps their story was done and finished, but went on to put one foot in front of the other, settling finally between Bethel and Ai, where they bore a child at the age of one hundred and ninety respectively.
Like Jesus, who had been betrayed by his friend Judas and died on a cross, but who shows that death is not the end and, that indeed, resurrection and new life is the truth that God intends for each us.
Like a story that Brother Emile – who is the brother assigned to North America – told me of a trip he had taken to the United States. He had been contacted because a local church thought it would be meaningful to host a Taize gathering at a nearby native American reservation because these were people whose treaties, voices and lives had often not been respected in the past centuries. When the church asked for permission to use the land, one of the elders said, this is the first time we have been asked permission. They donated two buffalo to the event and worked alongside the faith community to make the gathering happen. At the gathering, they said: Thank you for coming, we have been wanting to share this space for a long time with the community around us. One the church leaders responded, “Thank you for trusting us.”
Is this what an altar to God looks like in the world today?
Perhaps we build altars of reverence and resurrection through our actions.
When Brother Emile told me that a Catholic church invited him to host a gathering in the St. Louis dioceses near Ferguson, I asked him, “What are you going to do?”
He said, “I don’t know but we have to start somewhere.”
With a rock pile, with a foot step, with a prayer, by showing up at a communities of difference, by singing and serving strangers and daring to embark on a pilgrimage of trust.
I overhear another conversation at Taize: A young person says to a brother, I don’t find anything meaningful at church. The brother responds: Find something, anything, even if it is to ask the oldest person to pray for you in the coming week; I promise you will leave there happier.
Find somewhere to begin, he is saying.
God is calling. What are you going to do?