Most of us arrive at a sense of self and vocation only after a long journey through alien lands. But this journey bears no resemblance to the trouble-free “travel packages” sold by the tourism industry. It is more akin to the ancient tradition of pilgrimage –
“a transformative journey to a sacred center” full of hardships, darkness and peril.” In the tradition of pilgrimage those hardships are seen not as accidental but as integral to the journey itself.
-Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak
Last week I decided that it was time to plant onions. You can plant onions from seed, or you can plant them from a seedling that is a little baby onion. I had a patch of ground prepared and wondered what it would hold. I decided that it would hold onions.
So I put them in – the right spacing apart, point up, in about two inches into the ground, covered. It was actually pretty easy as my gardening goes – normally I am pick-axing giant rocks out of the ground.
I moved on to do a few other things in the garden.
But then I walked back to the onion patch and looked at it. Of course I had only just finished. But I looked at it, this blank part of ground, thought of my grandmother, and I said, “Grow dammit!”
Not only do I have many fond memories of her from my own experience, but I also have the family stories about her that I learned later on. One of them had to do with plants.
Supposedly she was having a hard time with her house plants – they were dying, and someone said to her “You know don’t you, you are supposed to talk to your plants – that’s what makes them grow.”
Without skipping a beat my grandmother said, I do talk to them. I talk to them everyday. I say, “Grow dammit, or I’ll pull you out!”
We are talking today about harvest and about purpose and finding meaning.
You will also see, up here on the table, in addition to the book by Parker Palmer and a handful of onions, that I brought my grandma’s St. Francis bird bath – which is not really a bird bath anymore, but more of a succulent garden now.
My favorite catholic priest Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar, talks about what he calls ‘birdbath Franciscanism.’
I’m assuming most people have heard of St. Francis – the first sermon he preached was to a bunch of birds – it is said that he preached to them, they listened there in the tree, and when he was done he sent them into the world and they flew away.
I have to tell you, no joke, this morning as I was sitting out on the patio, this one tree in the yard was completely full of birds – but they weren’t listening to a thing I said.
St. Francis was also was known for being a bit counter-cultural – he was born into wealth and privilege, but gave that up in order to be poor amongst the poor.
It is even said that at one point his father was very angry at him for this – and was trying to ‘reign him in.’ In order to show that he was walking away from it all, St. Francis stripped himself even of the robe he was wearing – giving it back to his father – and walked through the streets naked, praising God.
Now what Richard Rohr says is that a lot of times you can get this birdbath Franscicanism – oh, isn’t it sweet, he talked to the animals.
But the reality is, in the life of faith and spirituality and finding meaning and finding purpose (we come from different places and so we call it different things) – that life that draws us all here to this place, that we are seeking a deeper experience of – it is not always so pretty, it is not always like that travel brochure.
Of course, the search for our purpose and meaning can be lofty and wonderful but it can also be tough and difficult.
What you might not be able to see is that St. Francis also has a crack, right here, along his neck. One time he tipped over and hit the tile and his head fell off. For a while his head sat next to him in the birdbath, until someone finally thought that doesn’t seem right, and so glued it back on.
But he has a crack there, within him.
Most of you know that I have just been on a trip – I travel as a Presbyterian minister, photographer and writer – it is wonderful and I am so thankful for the opportunity.
Recently I was in Taiwan. I love being in other places. But I don’t always love the getting there and back – it can be a long plane ride, there can be jet lag – it can be kind of rough.
But my favorite part of it is to watch movies on the plane. I don’t have a TV, I don’t really go to the movies because after dark I don’t really leave the house. So I fly on airplanes and watch movies.
Normally I like to watch foreign films. But if you are on Asiana airlines, if you watch say a Japanese film, the words are in Japanese and the subtitles are in Korean – that did not do me a lot of good. I did watch one Hindi movie, subtitled in Korean – but it was Bollywood and so at least there was a bit of music and dancing in the mix.
I decided I needed to find an English movie as my Korean is not very fluent – I can say good morning, milk, apple and delicious.
So I found this film called the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – for the elderly and beautiful. Some of you may have seen it – some of you may have been in it! (If you haven’t seen it, when you do, you will know why I said that.)
It is an incredible film about this young Indian man, Sunny, who decides he is going to ‘outsource old age.’ He creates a brochure, a beautiful travel brochure, promoting his hotel. He sends it off to British retirees. They think it looks gorgeous – and plus, they can’t really afford to live out their retirement in the UK – and so seven of them decide, let’s go, to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It looks exotic. Appealing. Delightful.
As the movie opens we see each of these folks experiencing the excitement about the brochure and the possibility.
Of course, you know how it goes – they get there, and not only is it not exactly like the brochure, it is much, much different. One couple opens their room and birds fly out, one woman goes to her room and there is no door, there is a leaky tap – it is not exactly what the brochure made it out to be.
So, this one woman that is really having a rough time goes to complain to Sunny, the manager. She says, ‘I do not want this! I want to go here (pointing to the brochure)! I want to go to this hotel! Where is this?!”
Sunny responded back to her – “The amazing news is that this, in fact, is exactly where we are!”
“No it is not. This does NOT look like the brochure,” said the irate woman.
His response is one of the central lines that weaves itself throughout the film – “Well, we have a saying here in India, that everything will be alright in the end – so if it’s not alright, then it must not be the end.”
You can imagine it doesn’t go well with his upset client.
Further on as this opening unfolds, the guests are having dinner and Sunny welcomes them to their new home.
“Look around, you can see that you are all a bit long in the tooth – but here we have a place where you can relax and enjoy your last years.” One look around the room tells us that the guests are not so sure about this plan.
But what is amazing is that as the movie unfolds and as they let go of their ideas from that brochure, and experience the real Jaipur India, the real Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, they find themselves planting in a soil that takes hold of them, and plants itself in them as they have taken themselves to that new place, to that foreign land.
It is beautiful to watch.
While I was in Taiwan I saw an example of that. He is a man named Pastor Chen. We met with lots of people, but Pastor Chen made a huge impression on me.
In Taiwan, when you are a Presbyterian minister and you are ready to take your first job, it is a lottery system, so they literally draw the names of the pastors, and assign them to churches that need them.
Pastor Chen made the decision that he would stay where he was sent. That would be it. He would plant himself there.
He was sent to an aboriginal (indigenous) area. He is not aboriginal, but he was sent to this area.
When he got there he found out that not only could the church not afford to pay him, they couldn’t afford to pay him, and that most in the church did not have jobs themselves. He quickly realized that he was going to need a job, and that if the church were ever to become self-sustaining, he would need to find a way to provide jobs for his parishioners as well.
It just so happens that there is a hospital nearby, a Christian hospital, started by Presbyterians. Pastor Chen became aware that the hospital needed a cleaning crew, and jumped at the chance to provide one. He quickly needed to gather this team.
They began the cleaning work – at first they were polishing the floors way too much and it was a bit dangerous. But they got into a rhythm.
Not long after the hospital came to him saying “You’re doing such a good job with the cleaning crew – do you also do fumigation?”
“Of course we do!” said Pastor Chen – who admitted to us that they didn’t know anything about fumigation. But they figured they could learn.
The hospital came to him again – we need some landscaping work, do you do landscaping work?
“Of course!” answered Pastor Chen – again telling us, they had no idea. He admitted that the first time around they pruned things back just a bit too much, but they learned.
As Pastor Chen recounted this story he said, “We learned. We grew.”
What started as an idea with 4 people now employs over 300 people – both those within the church and those outside.
It is also allowing the church to provide after school tutoring for the aboriginal children and helping the church to advocate on behalf of the people. Pastor Chen told us that the biggest threat to the aboriginal way of life is the threat to the environment brought on by globalization.
One guy. Who decided when he randomly got sent to this place, to stay where he was planted. It is 20+ years since he was planted there. It is amazing to hear the stories.
Of course there was difficulty along the way.
Of course St. Francis has a little crack that you don’t necessarily see when you look on 20 years later.
The life of faith calls us, invites us, draws us in to plant ourselves deeply, in place and to let place plant itself in us.
I’ve been reading lately about monasticism because I love St. Francis and because there are other modern day communities of folks who have dedicated themselves to a rhythm of life, to a way of going deeper.
That is one of the things some of us have talked about – we love Not Church, we love gathering, but how do we go deeper?
I think one of the ways we go deeper is by adopting this idea of a rhythm of life, a rule of life.
You don’t have to do it exactly the way they do it in monasteries – celibacy might not be an option for everyone, for instance – but hospitality might. Some of these monasteries, communities, are centers of hospitality that invite in the stranger, friends, and share meals together. Some of them have regular times of prayer and mediation.
They are finding ways to plant themselves deep in their soil.
One of my other favorite teachers, a rabbi named Jesus – you may have heard of him – the way he gave voice to this idea of the life of faith, often referred to as the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven. I think it is easy for us to think, oh heaven that is after we die, clouds, harps and such.
But this is right here, right now, that which is seeping in and planting itself in our lives and in our very beings.
He talked about it like a mustard seed.
If you are a gardener you might not love this analogy – because you know that a mustard seed is tiny, but once it gets into the dirt, it takes over everything. In fact, it is sort of a pain.
But that is what Jesus used as an analogy of this life of meaning, permeating and finding its way through everything, so that all of a sudden you have beautiful vegetation and flowers and spice…
Everything will be all right in the end. If it is not all right, if you find yourself saying, hmm, I’m not so sure, what my meaning is, my purpose, in this season of Autumn that brings a sense of the season of autumn in life – everything will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright then it is not yet the end.
The other thing you’ll notice about onions, once they are grown, is that they have many layers. In a sense, the life of faith is like peeling away those outer onion layers, until you get to the center, to that which is ‘onion.’
We peel away that which is not – that which keeps us distracted or not focused or angry – whatever things are not going to last, until we find that core within – or it is found in us.
My grandmother saw herself as not really being such a green thumb. Not really doing much with that which she had planted.
She kind of was here, in a sense, by accident – she and my grandfather were set to move here for their retirement, but as the house was being built, my grandfather died. So my grandmother lived here for the last twenty years of her life in La Mision.
At first there was no electricity, for there wasn’t any yet on the hill. She didn’t know how to drive – she had to learn. And she didn’t speak Spanish – which she learned enough.
As I have spent time here and gotten to know the community, when I meet Mexican men about my age who grew up here, they will say ‘Dunigan? How are you related Anna Dunigan?”
She was my grandmother.
When I was a boy, she would give me a quarter for raking her leaves….
When I was a boy, I would come to the door to ask for a cup of water – knowing that she would also give me a cookie….
When I was a boy I had no shoes for school, and she gave me some….
She didn’t see the result of that then. She didn’t know that her granddaughter, who was only a little girl, would later be living in her house, meeting those little boys who had swept her leaves or eaten her cookies.
I called her Mama. That was my name for her. But everyone else I knew called her Tianna. Tianna was not her name – her name was Ann.
But as kids do, you just accept things, and it was only a few years ago that I realized, “You know, Tianna – it was even the name on her stocking- that name was given to her. Tia Anna. Auntie Ann.
She planted herself in this place, and this place renamed her. They gave her a new name. She was no longer known as Ann. She was Tianna.
Because of her I am here of course, but because of her we all are here, gathered together this morning.
Plant yourselves in this place. Let this place be planted in you.
And if it is not all right, that’s okay – because we know it must not yet be the end.