The Practice of Encountering Others

We live in a fearful world. We read about or experience random acts of violence. In a 24/7 news cycle we may become suspicious of those we don’t know and tempted to surround ourselves with those who are familiar and make us comfortable.

The flip side is that it is often the stranger, the one we do not yet know, who offers a blessing. I recently flew with a family member who became ill while on the plane. Seated next to me was a physician from Turkey. He offered compassionate advice that helped my family member feel better. He and I then spent the next two hours of our flight talking about his life as a secular Muslim in Turkey and my life as a pastor in Massachusetts. We exchanged our email address to continue the conversation.

I also enjoy getting to know my neighbors who are homeless. The church I serve provides meals several times a week to neighbors on the streets or who simply want company. This past week I talked fishing with a few men who worked in the fishing industry in Gloucester and now are on the streets. I learned much from these men and now when we see each other in our shared neighborhood we know each other’s name and greet each other as friends.

Two women

To often we separate ourselves from one another. It is easy to pre-judge the other without knowing their story. Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, ‘An Altar in the World’, believes that encountering others is a spiritual practice. It is this practice that leads us from fear to freedom, from ignorance to knowledge, from resentment to friendship. How to start? Start with ‘hello’.

The Practice of Wearing Skin

I like to be naked. For reasons I’m not fully cognizant of I like taking off my clothes. Not at inappropriate places or times but when I’m alone or with my wife or in nature. I find it freeing to cast off my clothes and wearing only my birthday suit jump into a lake or mountain stream.

Many years ago while serving a church in Montana, I was hiking in the Crazy Mountains with several new friends. After a hot day of backpacking up the mountain we found ourselves sunning on a rock overlooking a beautiful alpine lake. As I lay on the rock I closed my eyes and felt the warmth of the stone easing my tired muscles and the sun on my face. Soon I heard a splash and then another. Opening my eyes I saw clothing cast around me and my companions now au natural swimming. What to do? Would I uphold my native New England reticence or take a dip? The water felt great.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her wonderful book, ‘An Altar in the World’ reflects on the Christian concept of the incarnation, the belief that the Word of God became flesh in the life of Jesus. She reminds us that this is radical stuff, that God the creator of heaven and earth would choose to make a home in the human body. Even more our tradition teaches that we are created in God’s image (Imago Dei). Understood in this way we are each a reflection of that great mystery we call God and hence have inherent worth and beauty. Do we believe this to be true?

In truth many of us don’t. We focus on our imperfections rather than our beauty, our limitations rather than our strength. Over time we acquire scars, nicks, pounds and wrinkles. Far to often we judge ourselves or others. We buy into ideals of what the physical should be forgetting that we too are God’s creation, God’s child.

As an antidote, Taylor writes: “I think it is important to pray naked in front of a full-length mirror sometimes, especially when you are full of loathing for your body. Maybe you think you are too heavy. Maybe you never liked the way your hipbones stick out. Do your breasts sag? Are you too hairy? It is always something. Then again, maybe you have been sick, or gone through surgery that has changed the way you look. Too many of us stay covered up or even bathe in the dark…This can only go on so long, especially for someone who believes that God loves flesh and blood, no matter what kind of shape it is in. Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important for your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror and say, ‘Here I am’. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.”

We live in a society that judges and objectifies based on appearance. Too often my Christian tradition has avoided focusing on the body as unseemly. We’ve focused on shaping the intellect and neglected physical, sexual and ecstatic expression.

Too often we’ve forgotten that David danced naked in the Temple. We’ve forgotten that Jesus held the leper with his oozing sores. We’ve forgotten that Jesus’ final instructions had to do with washing the feet of others and breaking bread. Physical acts that involve touch, cooking and eating together.

MFA scuplting by Kollwitz

We all wear skin, initially smooth and with a healthy glow and if we are fortunate enough, in time we acquire wrinkles, moles and blotches. Whatever the condition of our skin we are invited to look at our self and others as beautiful because of the Creator from whom we come and to whom we will all one day return.

Note: For those who live in the North Shore of Massachusetts, the church I serve First Baptist in Beverly is spending the summer reading and reflecting on the book An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor. To learn more or watch a sermon podcast go to: click on heading ‘Worship’.

The Practice of Getting Lost

I don’t like being lost. I get agitated when my GPS malfunctions and end up miles from where I hoped to be. Most of us like life when it is predictable and safe. We like to be in control. We don’t look for opportunities to get lost.

But sometimes that is precisely what happens. Due to circumstances beyond our control we find ourselves lost and vulnerable: A suspicious lump needs to be biopsied, our job is downsized, our marriage goes south, a trust is broken.

Just when we think we are in control we are confronted by the reality that we don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know what is around the next bend literally or metaphorically. Barbara Brown Taylor in her book ‘An Altar in the World’, suggests that such uncomfortable, unsettled moments can hold gifts. She writes: “I have found things while I was lost that I might never have discovered if I had stayed on the familiar path”.

This is not to minimize or romanticize how frightening it can be when lost. Yet the author reminds us that some lessons can only be found when lost.

Several years ago my physician informed me I had prostate cancer. I remember the fear that welled up in me at the sound of that one word, cancer. I felt lost as I struggled to navigate the medical wilderness. What was the right treatment plan? Anyone who has had a difficult diagnosis knows what I’m talking about.

Being lost

It has been eight years since cancer became part of my story and fortunately annual tests show me to be cancer free. Yet I resonate with the story of Jacob in the Bible who wrestled with a stranger throughout the night. In the end Jacob survived and was blessed with a new name ‘Israel’ which means ‘he who perseveres’. Jacob, now Israel, received a new name and was also left with a limp, a reminder of how fragile life is.

I have been lost many times. So have you. My time in the wilderness called cancer has taken some things from me and also given me gifts I otherwise would not have. One gift is the memory of being held, comforted by a presence that I call God. I can’t measure or quantify this but I know this to be true. Another is the reminder that life is a gift to be savored, relished, lived as fully and joyfully as possible. Another is gratitude for friends, loved ones and strangers who graced my life in life-giving and often surprising ways.

I’m not sure I would have found or fully understood the depth of such gifts if I hadn’t gotten lost. Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that we each add ‘getting lost’ to our list of ‘spiritual practices’. She isn’t trying to minimize the discomfort that comes in being lost. Yet paradoxically she knows that some gifts are found precisely when we are lost.