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I'm Chris. Seminary student. Aspiring pastor. Creative-type/Adventurer/Goof-ball.

The Hike.

I went into the wilderness to find God. At least, that’s what I felt I was supposed to do as a recent seminary graduate and with the looming commitment of becoming a pastor at a thriving and creative church in St. Louis. So I flew out to California, took two buses from Fresno to Yosemite, and began a 200+ mile trek in the mountains over a two and a half week period. 

It was nothing at all what I expected. 

First of all, I wasn’t alone nearly as much as I thought I’d be. There are over a thousand people going north on the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. So not only did that make my trek seem less impressive, it meant I was running into people all the time. Secondly, this kind of exertion does not lend itself to spiritual reflection as if I was some sort of Disney princess pastor traipsing through the forest with God. Frankly, it was monotonous and painful and exhausting. It’s been four days since I got off the mountain and my joints and muscles and tendons are still giving me pains. And lastly, I realized that this kind of experience is not about playing hide and seek with the divine, as if God was hiding somewhere away from civilization. Rather, I found myself being deconstructed and broken down and changed. 

Within my first few days I ran into a group of guys who worked in Silicon Valley. There were no other camping sites in the area and I had just finished a 17 mile hike and they begrudgingly let me set up my tent and hang with them. Turns out one guy was a former evangelical who had been burned by the church and the rest were more or less agnostic. So rather than focus on religion, our conversation eventually turned to the tension between nature and the day-to-day lives we live. I pointed out that we spend most of our time in completely artificial worlds: artificial lights in artificial buildings where we get to in our artificial transportation after eating our chemical-filled, artificial foods. And when we’re done, we go home and turn on a box and stare into more artificial light. 

Naturally, these guys who invested their lives in the technological world did not enjoy this line of thought. A few of them actually recoiled a bit. One guy, an older software developer for a famous car company, eventually said, “I LIKE my artificial world!” He went on to explain how he was free to create things in that world, and that this was part of what it means to be alive and human. And he had a point. But I pushed back. At what point do we create our own little worlds around us to the point where we no longer have the need to be in touch with what is real? If we surround ourselves with enough pleasures, we simply deny the things we find uncomfortable. 

Later on, I read a quote by John Muir, the namesake of my 216 mile trail: “Living artificially in towns, we are sickly, and never come to know ourselves.” 

Little did I know that this would set a theme for the next two weeks as I found myself separated from all the little pleasures that have surrounded my life: hot water, shelter, a bed, tasty food, entertainment, transportation, and all the countless little comforts I have as a citizen of the developing world. The spiel I had given to these group of guys became my lived reality. My artificial world had been removed and I was left in the wild.

Initially I was just unhappy. But unhappiness quickly became regret and daydreaming. I constantly thought about turning around or going back. But for whatever reason, each foot continued to drop in front of the other and I continued moving forward. By the eighth day, I was a mess. I set up camp alone after a day of hiking and found my emotional state wavering. My breaths became short, my eyes suddenly watery, and as I dipped my Nalgene bottles into the nearby stream, I began to cry. 

It was just so lonely.

As the sun set I fell asleep in my tiny tent wondering if I had always been this fragile.

Days passed and I occupied myself with fellow travelers. I found myself appreciating the company of others more than I had in a long time. But it also kept me from my thoughts. Eventually I had to hike alone again, but things were changing. I was getting stronger and my pack weighed less. I figured out a system to wash my clothes and make my meals with less trouble. I was getting better as spotting campsites and I could cover more miles. But even though the day became more bearable, the nights got worse. My dreams had me tossing and turning, unable to distract myself from my deepest feelings.

And then it was day 16. I had covered 180 miles and was on my way to summit the last mountain pass before my destination. I was counting down the days, but my excitement was tempered since I had spent the night dreaming about my deceased father. As I hiked, one foot in front of the other, the tears came again. This time I wasn’t pitying myself, but ashamed: Ashamed that I didn’t try harder, ashamed that I didn’t call back when I said I would, ashamed that he died in the arms of a nurse and not friends or family. And then I prayed. I prayed and cried and walked and it all came out. All the little artificial walls I had built finally came tumbling down and I was feeling the full weight of losing a father I barely knew. 

And then the 13,000 ft. pass loomed ahead and my steps moved more slowly and my tears and sobs shifted from sorrow and healing to disbelief and hope. I was going to make it. Step. I was actually going to make it. Step. Doubt didn’t stop me. Step. Fear didn’t stop me. Step. Regret didn’t stop me. Step. Oh God oh God oh God. 

And that was the closest I came to a spiritual experience. When all my little walls came tumbling down and my raw and exposed self summited that pass, I finally realized what I was really looking for. It wasn’t God. I never lost God. 

I was looking for me.

This morning at the synagogue I leaned over and asked the Rabbi one last question that’s been on my mind. “If the Messiah is so central to both Christianity and Judaism, why does God warn the Israelites when they ask for a meschiach/king? If God didn’t want it in the first place, why is it so important to us still?”
Rabbi: “the things that often separate us from each other and God tend to be instruments in healing the very thing they helped damage. In this case, the desire for a king that pushed God away has been flipped on its head and used to reconcile people to God instead of replacing God.”

Ten Commandments of Healing the World

Tasked my book study at the synagogue to write their own “10 commandments of Tikkun Olam” (healing the world). Here are some noteworthy responses:

  • Take advice from my elders (from a guy in his 70s)
  • Always be nice to my wife.
  • Be careful with how you use words. No gossip.
  • Remember to “leave the corners of your fields” for the poor to glean. So always be cognizant of how you can discreetly help the poor.
  • Treat your children as individuals.
  • Honor your parents as you are growing up. Do not forget them when they are old.
  • Don’t talk smack.
  • Take really good care of yourself so you can take really good care of others, especially those who need you.
  • Help other people pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
  • Fight to remove obstacles that hold you and other people back.
  • Do not misuse words—whether by lies, (true) gossip, or oppressive speech. Even positive words can do harm. 
  • Do offer comfort to mourners and use your own grief to cultivate compassion.
  • Do not commit adultery or other actions that damage a marriage. 
  • Do give my children support, love, and guidance to find spiritual peace in their lives. 
  • Thou shalt say “I do not know.” 
  • Be there for people in happy times as well as sad. Celebrations are lonely with no one to share. 

Suppose you scrub your ethical skin until it shines,
but inside there is no music, then what?

Mohammed’s son pores over words, and points out this and that, but if his chest is not soaked dark with love, then what?

The Yogi comes along in his famous orange. But if inside he is colorless, then what?

_ Kabir

There is a lot of anger, frustration, and misunderstanding in the peace movement. The peace movement can write very good protest letters, but they are not yet able to write a love letter. We need to learn to write a letter to the Congress or to the president of the United States that they will want to read, and not just throw away. The way you speak, the kind of understanding, the kind of language you use should not turn people off. The president is a person like any of us.

Can the peace movement talk in loving speech, showing the way for peace? I think that will depend on whether the people in the peace movement can be peace. Because without being peace, we cannot do anything for peace. If we cannot smile, we cannot help other people to smile. If we are not peaceful, then we cannot contribute to the peace movement.

I hope we can bring a new dimension to the peace movement. The peace movement is filled with anger and hatred. It cannot fulfill the path we expect from them. A fresh way of being peace, of doing peace is needed. That is why it is so important for us to practice meditation, to acquire the capacity to look, to see, and to understand.

_ Thich Nhat Hanh

Nuggets from the Rabbi

Nuggets from the Rabbi today:
"A lot of people confuse sexual attraction or the desire to not be alone with love."
"Take it slowly when preaching. Let people digest. Let them breathe and swallow… or your message will be lost."
(Referring to the lineage of the Messiah) “He’s the descendant of incest, adultery, and deception. His heritage is not pure. It will make him sensitive to those on the margins of society. Redemption doesn’t come from purity. It comes from pollution.”
"Every Rabbi has one sermon and he preaches it all his life."

If we think the truth is too shocking, we find a skillful and loving
way to tell the truth. But we have to respect the truth. There are
those who verbally abuse people and make them suffer and then
say, ‘I’m only telling the truth.’ But they tell the ‘truth’ in a violent
and attacking way. Sometimes it can even cause the other person to
feel great suffering….
There can be goodness in suffering, but we don’t want to make the
other person suffer needlessly. We can minimize the shock and the
pain. We try to convey the truth in such a way that other people can
hear us without suffering too much. The important thing is that they
feel safe….
Sometimes you can begin by telling another story, the story of
someone else whose situation is similar to the person you are
speaking to, so that he or she can get accustomed to the idea. It’s
easier to listen to the story of another person…. Sometimes the
person you are speaking to will come to the conclusion
independently and learn from the case of the other person. It takes
a lot of practice to tell the truth in a way that the other person can
hear.

_

Thich Nhat Hanh, “The Art of Communicating,” p.p. 54-56.

This. 100 times over, I wish more people understood this.

Mourning and Night

I’ve been teaching an evening class every Monday at the synagogue where I’m interning (long story) and in the middle of our class we dismiss for 10 minutes to join the evening minyan. Minyan is a short prayer service and this particular congregation gathers every morning and evening outside of the Sabbath.

Tonight I noted a middle aged man and a teenage boy standing at the back of the room who had been to every service I’d seen. Now during each of these services, there is something called a “Mourner’s Kaddish.” This prayer is said only by those who have lost a family member in the last 12 months (or on the commemoration of their death). They stand and speak while the rest of us sit. 

Tonight I happened to glance back at the young man and our eyes met for a moment while he was standing and reciting the prayer.

And it hit me. 

The reason this teenage guy was there was because he had lost his mom.

Now in Judaism, after you lose a parent you’re supposed to say this Mourner’s Kaddish multiple times a day… for a year. The only problem? 

The Mourner’s Kaddish is only supposed to be said among community: Ten or more adult-aged (13+) Jews must be present. 

After the service and the resumption of my class, I asked about the father and son. My helpful class explained that not only did the man and his son come every day, they came every morning and every evening. 

This father had committed to taking his son to minyan for a year, morning and night, to help him mourn. To honor his mother. To pray. 

And they have to do it as a community. They aren’t allowed to mourn completely alone. Their grief is visible and their loss is remembered every single day. 

In such a sad circumstance, it was encouraging to see religion play an active role in guiding these men through their grief and loss. 

It’s these moments that make everything clear. It’s these moments that remind me why religious communities are so important.

We can’t do this alone. 

Our Rabbis taught: Deeds of loving-kindness are superior to charity in three respects: Charity can be accomplished only with money, while deeds of loving-kindness can be accomplished through personal involvement as well as with money. Charity can be given only to the poor, while deeds of loving-kindness can be done for both rich and poor. Charity applies only to the living, while deeds of loving-kindness apply to both the living and the dead.

_ B. Sukkah 49b

Stories from Japan

Back home from Japan and wanted to share a few noteworthy experiences:
1. Was late returning to a tour bus and so it left without me… with my backpack (AH!). So I found myself running two miles through the streets of Kyoto and arrived, sweating and huffing, just as the last agent was about to leave. They got me my bag.
2. Drank sake with new friends at a dive bar full of tired-looking Japanese business men in suits.
3. Borrowed a bike from a temple where I was staying, rode through a sleepy town at 6am to watch the sunrise from a local temple… which ended up not being open yet. Instead, watched the sunrise from a 7-11.
4. Meditated with Zen Buddhist monks in a temple on a holy mountain in a 1200 year old graveyard-forest.
5. Missed my 9-hour overnight bus back to Tokyo, begged my new Japanese friends for a place to sleep, and took a last-minute bullet-train ride the next morning to get to the airport.
6. Wasabi Kit-Kat bars.

Trip to the zoo in the snow. 

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.

But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people; first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy.

A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.

A human being is part of a whole, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest -a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us.

Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Only a life lived for others is worth living.

_ Excerpt from Albert Einstein’s “The World As I See It.” 

New Article: 3 Roadblocks to Happiness

If you’re feeling a general dissatisfaction, here are a few things you might not be doing.
Read more at http://www.relevantmagazine.com/life/3-roadblocks-happiness

Got my reservation to backpack the John Muir trail in the Sierra Nevada mountains for 17 days this summer. Truth is these kind of things scare me, but this is the only life I’ve got. #lifeisastory

Got my reservation to backpack the John Muir trail in the Sierra Nevada mountains for 17 days this summer. Truth is these kind of things scare me, but this is the only life I’ve got. #lifeisastory

Whatever you do with your life—whatever you end up achieving or not achieving—the great gift you have in you to give to the world is the gift of who you alone are; your way of seeing things, and saying things, and feeling about things, that is like nobody else’s. If so much as a single one of you were missing, there would be an empty place at the great feast of life that nobody else in all creation could fill.

_ Frederick Buechner