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Finding a Compass in the Whirlwind
  In 1975, some 33 years ago, Charlotte and I set out to move from northern British Columbia to Fredericton. For the previous 8 years, we had been living on a small subsistence farm - really almost a homestead operation - about 19 miles behind the middle of nowhere, some 800 road miles north of Vancouver. For the first 4 years we had neither power nor water, and we never did have things like telephones or indoor plumbing. Anyway, we decided to move to the big city. We drove across the country, a trip of almost 6,000 km. We drove a Pinto station wagon, and in that wagon, besides the two of us, were our two year old son, Chris, and his four year old brother, Jon. We also had a nine year old Great Dane. We left on the 8th of April, which meant we were just in time to get thoroughly hammered by a late spring blizzard in the Prairies. It was an interesting trip.

When we finally reached Fredericton, we had no map, no image of what things would look like, and precious little idea of what to do next. We drove down King Street (which, in those days, was one-way east-bound), and finally pulled over next to a pedestrian who was walking down the sidewalk. Rolling down the window, we asked him, Excuse me; where is downtown Fredericton? He gave us a rather strange look, and said, You're in it! Thus began the east coast part of our saga, a tale which, among other things, has landed me here this morning.

It's not particularly hard to start a journey in Fredericton; you just ask somebody for directions and go from there. If you are a little farther off the beaten path, it's still not too difficult. You just pull out your handy-dandy compass (which, of course, you put in your pocket before departing from the beaten path), and away you go. But what of the journeys of our lives? How do we guide them? We are provided with all sorts of possibilities. Follow the yellow brick road of capitalism - acquire more and more stuff, climb the economic ladder, etc. Religions offer no end of solutions and answers - Follow the one true religion, which is [fill in the blank]. Live today so that your life after death will be rich and wonderful. Go the counter-cultural route: tune in, turn on, drop out. And so on. Lots of people providing the answers to all our questions.

My sense is that you wouldn't be here this morning if you were satisfied with somebody else's answers. Somebody else's ready-made pat solutions to the problems and questions we deal with just don't meet our really deep needs. This is not to say that they can all be written off completely. It probably won't surprise you if I say that I believe that Christian spirituality has a great deal to offer that is helpful. But this is significantly different from saying that I believe that the Christian religion has a great deal to offer. (Actually, I do think the Christian religion does have a great deal to offer, but it has gotten buried and ensnared in Christian orthodoxy and institutionalism.) There is a point at which we stop seeking definitive answers and begin to seek ways of living (and living with) the questions with which we struggle. We begin to accept that ambiguity and uncertainty are primary characteristics of the universe of which we are a part. It is at that point that we begin to live more fully and deeply.

Diarmuid O'Merchu is an Irish monk who lives and works in London. He is both social worker and author; many of his books explore areas of spirituality and theology. He suggests that our early ancestors discovered ways to kindle flame something over 600,000 years ago. (Which makes the lighting of the chalice this morning an act very deeply rooted in our human history.) Again according to O'Merchu, archaeological evidence suggests that our later ancestors began to develop forms of spirituality some 70,000 years ago. By contrast, organized religion emerged about 4,500 years ago. It is a relative late-comer on the scene. It is, I think, significant that organized religion began to take root shortly after the Agricultural Revolution. This was the time when people moved from nomadic ways of life to more settled patterns which involved permanent settlements, agriculture, and a host of new social arrangements, most particularly around land ownership (a concept which had no meaning to nomadic peoples). According to O'Merchu and many other writers, this was the most significant change in the history of humanity. Settled agriculture tended toward individual land ownership. Land ownership - ownership of the means of production - led pretty directly to conflict and war. Not everyone went along with these changes - many North American aboriginal people do not accept or use the notion of private land ownership, for instance - but overall, private ownership has become thoroughly dominant. The social impacts of these changes were immense, and we live with them even today. Without the notion of private land ownership (and thus private ownership of most everything else), capitalism never could have gotten off the ground. Without the capitalist economic system, it is doubtful that we would be in the planetary ecological mess where we now find ourselves. (It is also doubtful if we would have the vast wealth, in all its various forms, that we enjoy today.) The world's religions, in all their shapes and sizes, have their deepest roots in this time immediately following the Agricultural Revolution.

However they may start, religions tend to become institutions. This means that they begin to have self-preservation as an increasingly important goal. One of the ways that institutions (of any sort) try to keep themselves alive is to establish their boundaries, the lines which determine who is on the inside, and who is on the outside. With religions, these boundaries often come to be understood as sacred. That is, they are in some way divine - inspired by God, actually given by God, reflections of God's will, etc. Making them sacred makes them untouchable. In the extreme case (now commonly seen in the fundamentalism which seems to be rising in all religions), those who question or challenge (or worse, even cross) those boundaries are derided as evil, blasphemers, Satanic, and a host of other epithets. These sacred boundaries come to confine and restrain those who accept them, and often have a large impact even on those who don't believe in them. (Jesus was, according to the Biblical record, a persistent breaker of sacred boundaries. That was one of the main things that got him killed.)

But O'Merchu offers an answering metaphor to sacred boundaries: the notion of sacred horizons. These are not declared sacred by any one religion, but rather are recognized as being far larger than any religion. Most important, they are not limits beyond which we shall not pass, but rather invitations which invite us onward to explore, to learn, to grow. It is in accepting this invitation that we begin to explore our own spirituality, and to develop ways and means of connecting with that which is far larger than we are, but of which we are nonetheless an integral part. These horizons are sacred, not because someone has declared them to be, but rather because they invite us into connection and communion with something far larger than we are, something which we don't fully understand, but of which we are a part.

Several years ago, I led (together with another United Church minister) a series of worship services designed to begin each day of a five-day seminar. They were based on a story called The Blessing Seed: A Creation Myth for the New Millennium. The story suggested that there are four paths of life which we may follow. We won't necessarily follow them sequentially or in any particular order. But they are part of our growing into the fullness of being human. They are the paths of wonder, emptiness, making, and coming home. This is how they were described in that story: * On the path of wonder, you will remember when you were sung from the earth. When you see the moon and stars at night, or the sun sparkling on the water, when you hear birds singing in the trees, when you hear the song of creation, then the gift of caring will be born in you. * On the path of emptiness, you will remember when you began to wonder and question, and how that made you feel different from those who did not. When things go wrong, when no one understands you, when you lose the things you love, when you feel sad, lonely or frightened, then the gift of learning will be born in you. * On the path of making, you will remember the song that is inside you. When you have good ideas, when you make something beautiful, when you tell stories and sing songs of creation, then the gifts of learning and caring will start to grow. * On the path of coming home, you will remember that you are a part of everything. When you look after the earth, when you defend the helpless, when you speak for those who have no voice, when you enjoy and respect all of creation, then you will be most fully human. Your learning and caring will shine out everywhere. You will be separate no more.

This image of the four paths of life captures, for me, the essence of spirituality for the age we live in. The gift of learning, born along the path of emptiness, tells us that our remarkable abilities to think, to reason, to take in new information with old, must be used. We are not, to quote Galileo Galili (1564 - 1642), obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use. True spirituality does not mean checking our brains at the door, but rather putting them to use in every way we can. We are challenged to do this not only in the good times, but also in those times when things are not going well, the times when the light that shines on others leaves us in shadow, when the joy that others feel eludes us. Often we seek to avoid those times, for they are anything but comfortable. But they are part and parcel of who and how and where we are. To ignore or avoid them is to ignore or avoid a part of ourselves. For these times of emptiness are also times of potential, of possibility, of a future unbound by present limitations. These may be just the times when we move from defending our sacred boundaries, whatever they may be, to exploring sacred horizons. Thus does learning grow, and thus does our sense of spirituality increase. But such learning, by itself, is not enough. For there is also the gift of caring. Caring comes not from any sense of should, but rather from an awareness that we are, one and all, integral and important parts of the universe in which we exist. With that comes the realization that there is an infinite number of other parts of this universe - every living thing, every rock, every plant, every star ... all of it. We don't live in the universe so much as live as the universe. We are ultimately and intimately connected to all that is.

This sense of deep connection is central to a spirituality for today. Most of the world's religions recognize the essential connectedness of humanity, but they are less sensitive to this larger unity. The absence of that awareness has been one of the key factors leading to our present environmental crisis. At the very heart of any spirituality for today is awareness of this simple fact: we are all connected - every living thing, every rock, every plant, every star ... all of it. The universe is not a static object, nor merely an unimaginably large one, but rather it is a living organism - growing, evolving, changing, creating, ever renewing, ever decaying, ... - ultimately and profoundly alive.

I believe that this spirituality - of learning, of connectedness, of awareness of that which is far larger than we are but of which we are all integral parts - is the compass we need in the whirlwind of our modern busy lives. It calls us, not to withdraw from life around us, but rather to engage it fully, with every resource we can bring to bear, to learn all we can about how it works, and to function out of the awareness that we are profoundly interconnected with all that is around us. This is, I believe, the bridge from existing to living, from lonely isolation to joyful community. This is our compass in the whirlwind.