A week ago, I was utterly and completely exhausted when I drove home from the office in the late afternoon. I’d had a hectic travel schedule the past few weeks and assumed I was just sleep-deprived. I changed my clothes, headed out for the walking trail, and reflexively checked my email and Facebook on my phone, wondering what the new crisis or breaking story of the day might be. After all, it’s important to stay on top of current events.
The farther I walked, the more distressed I became until I finally turned off my phone. Enough. Attempting to discern what was going on in my spirit, I realized that I was inadvertently taking on the collective anxiety of our country and world.
Being outside in creation always has a way of grounding me. In unpredictable times, the timelessness of the laws of nature provide solace. As I often do when walking, I prayed, “Here I am, Lord. Speak to me. My heart is open.” And this is what I heard God say, “Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” (a saying from one of the 4th century desert fathers). So, figuratively speaking, that’s what I did all week when I wasn’t working. I read, prayed, and walked.
Sitting in my cell, I heard God calling me to solitude. When I was a child, I would take long walks in the woods and have always known that being outside keeps me centered in God’s grace and hope. I also spent long hours as a teenager practicing the organ in an empty church. Solitude helps me to listen for God’s voice as well as my own heart. These words from poet Wendell Berry spoke to me last week.
“True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources. In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures. One returns from solitude laden with the gifts of circumstance.” (“Healing,” Stanza V, What Are People For? Essays by Wendell Berry)
It is in solitude that I can see my true self most clearly, let go of ego and pride, gain perspective, and recover my passion to make a difference in the world. Over the past ten days, I have seen bald eagles in two different parts of Iowa. One eagle soared above me in the woods, and the other was sitting on the path just a few yards away as I turned a corner. “Pay attention,” they whisper in my ear.
In Native American thought, eagles encourage us to have the courage to stretch our limits, soar into the unknown, and continually expand our view of ourselves and others. Sitting in the cell of my intimate connection to the earth and to God, I claimed the words of the prophet Isaiah 40:29-31, “He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” I am content to wait.
Sitting in my cell last week, I also realized that, laden with the gifts of circumstance, God is calling me to action. The self-integration that accompanies solitude also calls me to enter into the fray of human life in order to advocate for healing and wholeness for all of God’s children.
Last Tuesday was Legislative Day in the Iowa Annual Conference. We began with a prayer breakfast at a nearby United Methodist Church where five legislators were able to join us.
In our conversation, they reminded us of the power of voting across party lines and that the voices of citizens who take the time to call, write, and advocate on behalf of issues are heard. It doesn’t matter what your political persuasion is, they said. Your voice matters, and we want and need to hear from you. We laid hands on our legislators, surrounding them with prayers of encouragement for the challenging work they face every day.
Walking into the Iowa State Capitol for the first time, the sacred nature of the political process overwhelmed me. Hundreds of citizens were milling about the rotunda, many prepared to advocate in committees for bills that were up for discussion. A phrase from Wendell Berry’s quote came to mind again, “Laden with the gifts of circumstance…” The word “laden” can mean “burdened” or “weighed down.” Many of us feel laden by the divisions in our country right now. Yet another definition of “laden” is “fully charged.” Could it be that God invites us to see the circumstances of our lives as gifts that can fully charge us to for action rather than as heavy loads that slow us down?
As a hundred United Methodists split up across the Capitol building to advocate for what Jesus stood for, I realized how important it is to be grounded in the grace and hope of Jesus Christ before acting.
Finally, sitting in my cell last week, I heard God calling me to stand in solidarity with and learn from the very least of God’s children. On Thursday night I had the opportunity to preach at Women at the Well, which is a United Methodist congregation located within the walls of the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, Iowa. Led by pastor Lee Schott, Women at the Well says this about themselves, “We are a diverse community composed of women incarcerated at ICIW, men and women from around the State of Iowa who choose to worship with us, and many volunteers who regularly support our ministries and programs. We gather together to share the teachings of Jesus Christ, and to experience the life transforming Spirit of God.”
The vision of Women at the Well is “to lead the church in love that breaks down walls.” Laden with the gifts of circumstance, what could I possibly share with these seventy women, many young and others old, some imprisoned for months, others for many years, some with family waiting for them, others with nobody on the outside. Sitting in my cell, I realized that there was only one sermon that I could preach: grace.
I was both overwhelmed and fully charged by the gift of this circumstance. The joyful singing rocked my spirit. The fact that this congregation of women, who earn 50 cents an hour working in the prison, could donate $34.00 for Breast Cancer Awareness, moved me to tears. The gift of a painting by an 81-year-old “lifer” invited me to enter into full communion with my sisters. We sit in our cells so that Jesus can teach us the way of love and we can break down the walls together.
A part of me will always yearn for the solitude and restfulness of my cell. At the same time, laden with the gifts of circumstance, I emerge fully charged to see the circumstances of the time in which we live as opportunities for witness, advocacy, grace, and hope.
“From the order of nature we return to the order – and the disorder – of humanity. From the larger circle we must go back to the smaller, the smaller within the larger and dependent on it. One enters the larger circle by willingness to be a creature, the smaller by choosing to be a human. And having returned from the woods, we remember with regret its restfulness.” (“Healing,” Stanza VI, What Are People For? Essays by Wendell Berry)