I am a cosmic ball of emotional energy, sitting in the world of my mind, the world of my office, the world of homelessness, the world of academia.
There is excitement. In a few short hours, I will see my committee members from Berkeley and Stanford and defend my dissertation on the spiritual lives of people experiencing homelessness in Seattle, which I call “Soul Woundedness.” It will be a helpful conversation, I think. It is a rare gift to have compassionate and brilliant minds so devoted to you, your development, and your work.
There is fear. I have heard horror stories: of people failing their defense, of being sent back to the library, of some unexpected disruption. I have worked a very long time for this degree—eight years—and much as I try to convince myself otherwise, it would hurt my ego and my pocketbook to fail or step backward. Very much.
There is also the peace that comes from a deep call. I did not go to graduate school to get two fancy letters and a period next to my name (fancy in some worlds, I should say, but repulsive in others). I did not go to graduate school to become an expert at something. A divine call pulled me into graduate school, I believe: a call to love: a call to listen to the wounds of the world: a call to work for social healing through understanding, study, dialogue, and spiritual practice. In a sense, I went to graduate school to become a better novice: a person possessed by good questions and a healing presence.
So, two weeks ago, as I sat in my office chair, getting ready to defend my PhD at the Graduate Theological Union, I am all of these things. Excited. Afraid. At peace. A cosmic ball of energy between worlds.
Anyway, I could not remain sitting down. I felt the need to get out of my chair and do something in the hours before.
So, I grab Veronika’s rainbow hammock. I take one of my favorite books down from my bookshelf—Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle—and put it in my Carhart backpack. I think it will do this cosmic ball of energy some good to cool off, sit beside the river, sway, and read something pleasant.
I also feel called to perform a spiritual practice I’ve been developing. There is no one definition of spiritual practice but, with the help of Elizabeth Liebert, who has written extensively on the subject, I am thinking of spiritual practice as something we do consciously and repeatedly to help us burn more fiercely into the Divine Fire. I can think of nothing I’d rather be than a torch of divine fire in a world darkened by suffering.
I step outside. I begin walking down, down to the river to pray.
I see a brown bird. I wonder what kind of bird it is and I wonder about how much there is to learn about the world. I wonder at wonder.
I am reminded, too, of a passage from the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus likens himself to a mother hen who longs to make people safe under her wings.
The first step of my spiritual practice is to remind myself that—whether I walk through the valley of the shadow of a dissertation defense or just to the Spokane River in a Lilac Spring—God is with me. Paul puts it well in Romans:
“Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not Covid.
None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Beloved has embraced us.”
With the divine presence in mind, I keep walking: down by the river to pray.
After a few blocks, I pass an immense patch of yellow wildflowers. Wildflowers or weeds, I don’t always know the difference—or when the difference really matters. Maybe one man’s weed is another man’s wildflower.
I stop and stare for a while. Here is a second dimension of this spiritual practice: I observe what is present and marvel at how beauty grows in the world without my having anything to do with it, and what a delight it is to meet Beauty on the journey.
Then I do something I fear is violent, but which I imagine the wildflowers allow out of love for me, our species, and the world we share.
I pluck one yellow wildflower from its home and ask it—not because it speaks like a human but because, like me, it is alive and does communicate—if it will accompany on my journey.
I keep walking: down to the river to pray.
Step after step, I hold the yellow wildflower before my eyes. I breathe into it. I also give the yellow wildflower a name: Friend. I ask Friend to hold my thoughts and my feelings about my defense: my excitement, my fear, even the call I feel has led me here and will lead me further on. Friend is carrying what has been carrying me as we walk together.
I reach People’s Park, one of my favorite places in Spokane. I stop and look at the bridge.
Looking at the bridge.
Looking at the bridge, I am reminded of the young woman experiencing homelessness I met on the Monroe Street Bridge, more than a year ago, who was thinking of killing herself. I remember my promise to this young woman as her legs hung from the bridge and somewhat free from the weight of the world: that things would be okay if she stayed, that the world would help heal the social wounds ravaging her life, that the rocks she would have surely broken her head open on would not have been kinder to her than the world I asked her to come back to.
Looking at the bridge, thinking of this young woman and my promise to her, I am reminded that I need to live my life faithful to that promise. Come what may. I hope my dissertation—though a scholarly project—is also a love letter to the woman I met on the bridge and the world that has wounded her.
Friend and I walk to the bridge. Like the young woman I met, we lean off the bridge and look down at the river.
Throwing the flower in.
Many of you know that we have been reading The Book of Joy by Douglas Abrams, the Dalai Lama, and Desmund Tutu. One thing I have learned from the book, and our Zoom conversations, is the importance of non-attachment. To be non-attached is to avoid suffering and welcome joy; it is to live life without violently clinging to it; it is to be free to move as the divine wind blows. While non-attachment is usually considered a Buddhist practice, I think it is also a deeply Christian one. It is a place, as Veronika once told me, where Christianity and Buddhism hold hands.
In Matthew 6, Jesus says:
“If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God.”
Proverbs 3 invites us to live our lives in pursuit of love and loyalty and wisdom, step into the unknown, and trust God:
1-2 Good friend […] it reads,
5-12 Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
don’t try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go;
the divine beloved is the one who will keep you on track.
Don’t assume that you know it all.”
I am in the middle of the bridge now, holding Friend in my hand. I imagine, again, that I have placed my attachments inside of her: the emotions, the immediate outcome of my defense, even what comes after as I step into a terrible job market in higher education. Friend helps me practice non-attachment and deep trust in God. She teaches me how to become more free to love and open to the divine wind. I tell Friend my wish—to pass my defense, get a job, and, most important of all, love the wounded lovingly—and then I toss Friend from the bridge.
Delicately, Friend lands in the river and moves along with the current. Friend asks me, as I imagine it, to watch her fade from sight and continues to teach me to let go, step more confidently and calmly into the unknown, and entrust myself to The River of the Good.
It may not always seem like it, Friends, but I have faith that our world is always moving in the River of the Good. The question is how to become more aware of that and allow its eternal current—fierce but gentle—to guide us.
I went closer to the river, hung Veronika’s rainbow hammock between the trees, and did some reading and some swaying. I read and swayed too long, actually. I lost track of time and had to run all the way home to make it to my defense on time.
Before I signed on to Zoom, and as the waters of fear began to rise once again, I checked my text messages and email. I found a wind. I found a Wind of Friendship. There were emails and texts from many of you: telling me that you are thinking of me, praying for me; encouraging me and guiding me. Your Wind of Friendship helped me step confidently and calmly into my defense—and understand how important it is to ensure that people always have a wind of friendship at their back.
A few weeks ago, Leann Williams invited us to experience COVID as a liminal time ripe with powerful opportunities for personal and social transformation. Last week, Paul Anderson invited us to listen deep for how God might be calling. This morning, I invite you to consider what spiritual practices help you cultivate trust in God’s presence. I am throwing yellow wildflowers into the river and reading encouraging notes from friends. How is God inviting you to splash into the River of the Good and create a wind of Friendship at someone’s back?
This message was given by Paul Blankenship to Spokane Friends Sunday Meeting for Worship on May 24, 2020.