But on Sabbatical, it was important for me to focus my energy, so I did do a social media Sabbatical. As much as I love being connected with all of you, I know I needed to try out some time away, stretching some different muscles, and seeing what I might replace that social media time with. I found that since I was not checking facebook first thing in the morning, last thing at night and several times in between, I found time to read, to make music, to be more present with my family instead of the half-attentive looking over a laptop screen or a Blackberry feed. In this era when we are connected 24-7, are we attentive to our connection with the holy? Imagine if we spent a fraction of our on-line time on God-media.
When I was ordained, a wise pastoral friend of mine gave me two ceramic jars. One said, “Passion” and the other said “Solitude”. She told me that I could not do ministry well if both were not filled and refilled throughout my life.
What renews you? How do you get recharged? What do you need to do or to set aside in order to be ready for this coming academic year? This next job search? This next episode with your family? The next piece of life that throws you a curve?
The prophet Isaiah, writing to a people in exile, tells them that they need to be renewed if they are to restore the nation of Israel.
“Ho everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” (Isaiah 55:1-2)
Isaiah is speaking enigmatically, but he is saying that we need to put our priorities in balance. Come to the waters, if you’re thirsty. They are always flowing and free.
What feeds you? What gives you life and energy?
I spoke last week about being on the island of Iona in Scotland. The focal point of the Island is an Abbey, which is home to the Iona Community. This religious community is focused not only on prayer, but also on action. They meet three times a day for prayer and worship, but also work to restore the Abbey, welcome pilgrims from around the world, take care of the environment and educate each other on matters of spiritual and political import. People leave the island of Iona renewed and inspired to make a difference in not only their lives, but in the lives of those they encounter.
The stone Abbey building was originally built in the 1200’s, replacing the relicts of wooden buildings of centuries before. It was run by the Benedictines for hundreds of years before falling into disrepair and abandoned in the 1600’s like so many castles and abbeys throughout the UK—a victim, some say, of the Reformation. About one hundred years ago, the Iona Community reconstituted itself as a place of prayer and action. They set to work on restoring the old Abbey. As they were repairing one of the large windows at the front of the abbey, they came across two chipped and weathered stone carvings. One was of a cat and one was of a monkey.
These were enigmatic figures and not the thing one would see in a monastery. The community ignored them for a while, chalking it up to yet another unexplained oddity of the old building. But then an Asian pilgrim told them that they actually represented two aspects of the Christian life.
The monkey represents activity and action while the cat represents solitude and reflection. Think about it. Have you ever seen a docile monkey? They are mischievous, creative, and unpredictable. There is a playfulness to a monkey and a boldness, too. Maybe even a certain care freeness.
A cat on the other hand, has a dignity to it. It is more reserved. Will often sun itself and purr with delight when things are going its way and hiss with passion when they are being disturbed. A curled up cat has wisdom and patience and attentively watches the world, and seems to constantly be lost in thought. Both are needed for a healthy spiritual life. The monkey represents the hard work of living in community and tending to life in a formidable climate. The cat represents the solitariness of monastic life. Is religion individual prayer and no action? Is Christianity action and activism without a centering in God and scripture and contemplation? Of course, we know both are needed in a balanced life, but how often do we tend to the balance? How do you respond to these two impulses? Do each of these aspects alone bring you closer to God or to your higher purpose in life?
One of you asked me last week where my thin place in Minnesota was. I thought for a moment and said the first thing that popped into my mind, which was on those solitary rides out at Elm Creek Nature Reserve in Maple Grove. But as I thought about it, there are places up on the north shore that are like that for me, too. The Temperance River comes to mind, especially the place above the falls where the river widens out, the tempest changes to tranquility, and you can wade in the cool water after a long hike. I took my wife and daughters there a month ago. I also waded in that same stream four days ago with Dave Bienhoff and Deidre Druk. There’s something about the solitude there after the strenuous hike and the ferocity and timelessness of the river that makes me more attentive to God.
I often experience a connection with God when I’m camping. Maybe it’s part of being unplugged to the wider culture that makes me more attentive to what’s eternal and holy. I get plugged in to God in the wilderness.
I also have to say that sitting in my back yard making maple syrup is a thin place—largely because it gathers community and connects me with an ancient art form in the boiling of the sweet nectar of the maple trees into the liquid of the gods. It helps that there’s a fire there, too.
There’s something mesmerizing about the flicker of flame that draws me in, and helps me to reflect back on those gone before, on the beauty of nature, on the miracle of warmth, on the fires I have watched before with friends and family near and far.
So, the activity is my monkey self. The reflective time is the cat self.
Think about this. We can be so caught up in activity, that we lose our sense of self. We lose our sense of others. It all becomes about me and not about us. Even our activism can be unbalanced. We need those moments, those opportunities for prayerful reflection.
On the other hand, we can become too self-absorbed, worried about our own connection with God and our own need for rest and solitude that we lose our connection to the wider world.
You know the old hymn, “I come to the garden alone, when the dew is still on the roses. And the voice I hear whispering in my ear, the Son of God discloses. And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own. And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.” Well, people at my last church refused to sing it, not because it sounded like a drinking song, but because it contained bad theology. It purported that religion is just about a personal and private relationship with God. There is no sense of community in the song. We need both the monkey and the cat. We need to find time to sing both a contemplative “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and a joyous “I’ll Fly Away”.
There’s a small activist church in Washington, DC called the Church of the Savior. This is a high commitment church. And it would be easy for each of the people to get burned out doing good work. There is so much need. But they learned early on that they needed to balance their monkey and their cat. They wrote into their church covenant that each member needed to attend to both an inward journey and an outward journey. To do only one is to be incomplete and not an effective minister of the Gospel of Jesus. Jesus after all balanced his activist turning over the tables of the moneychangers with his prayers in the Wilderness and in the garden of Gethsemane.
The last church I served used a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in their mission statement. There are two pillars of our church: prayer and doing justice. Everything grows out of these two. Prayer makes you think about the wider world and empowers you to take action. Action brings you to prayer about your fellow human being.
All of us are part monkey and part cat. Sometimes one part is dominant. At other times the other takes center stage. The important thing is to take time to tend to both of them.
If we do that, then maybe we can embrace the promise of Isaiah, “For you shall go out in joy and be lead back in peace; and the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and we shall be a sign from God: and everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 55:12-13)
So how will you do that? How will you attend to your monkey and cat. Maybe we need to introduce each other. “Hello Monkey, I’m Cat. Let’s have a chat.” Each one may introduce you to God and we need the wisdom of both.