“We Shall Not Cease From Exploration…” – 5/29/11 – Mark 1:9-15

I want to frame what I have to say here with this quote that is printed on the front of the bulletins.

“We shall not cease from exploration,

and the end of all our exploring

will be to arrive where we started

and know the place for the first time.”

TS Eliot


 I first encountered these lines during the time that Abbie and I were in Mennonite Voluntary Service in St. Louis almost ten years ago.  They are posted multiple times throughout the displays in the Missouri History Museum.  This museum is one of several free attractions that St. Louis has to offer and being a poor VSer in search of cheap entertainment and education, it was a perfect place to spend an afternoon.  It was a fitting quote for St. Louis to claim for itself – the launching point and supply city for much of US westward expansion beyond the Mississippi River.  The human impulse to explore, to push out into unknown territory.  Sometimes a bloody and murderous venture, as history can testify, but also many times a chance for positive growth and discovery.

The words have stayed with me.  They struck a chord with me at the time because exploration was exactly what I was doing at that point in life.  Exploration: Landing in a new city, exploring the history and the make up of this place.  Going to museums, riding my bike up and down blocks and blocks of old brick homes, neighborhoods, encountering wealth and poverty, beauty and devastation, looking for ways that all this connected to the world I knew and nearly overwhelmed with what I didn’t know and understand.  Exploration: Married for less than a year, just starting out on this grand journey of marriage and the intimate sharing of one’s life with another human being, with all the joys and struggles that this involves, especially in that first year, Abbie and I trying to find our equilibrium together.  Exploration:  A college graduate but far from settling on any particular vocational path.  Hoping that this VS experience – working with Habitat for Humanity and a non-profit peace and justice organization, living in community, relating with a local congregation – hoping these experiences would provide some kind of guidance as to my life path – either adding to the list of things I knew I didn’t want to do in life, or presenting better clarity about what to pursue.

The first line sounded exactly right: “We shall not cease from exploration,” but what about the rest, “and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time?”  These are words that a 24 year old can only accept in faith, having no experience yet to prove them true.  Consider it some kind of riddle about the future, as a heads up about what to look for in the decades to come.  “Arriving back where we started.”  Really?

A gospel passage I have come to pair with these words from TS Eliot is Mark 1:9-15.  Each of the gospels chooses to introduce Jesus in a different way, but Mark’s introduction fits exactly into this pattern of exploration.  It begins, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”  Upon Jesus’ baptism he hears the divine words spoken to him that he is the Beloved Son, a radiant child of God.  He is then immediately driven out into the wilderness for a vision quest type experience of hearing a second set of words spoken to him, the devil’s counter to that first voice of divine blessing.  After this Mark notes that Jesus “came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, turn, and believe in the good news.”  Jesus starts in Galilee, undergoes a transformative, life affirming, vocational discerning journey, and then arrives, back in Galilee, ready, for the first time, to live out his gifted life and share his message, share himself, with the world.  In this case it is a literal arriving back to the geographical place where he started. 

A return to home is one of the reasons I have come to associate this TS Eliot quote with this upcoming Sabbatical.  As it is shaping up, our family will have a full two months back on the farm where I grew up, living with my mom and dad, the final month being back in Cincinnati for Eve to start kindergarten.  And starting kindergarten feels in its own way like an arriving back where we started, and knowing the experience for the first time, now through our daughter.  One of the joys of my early adult life so far has been the transition that the place of home has become for me.  Despite being a place of safety and nurture, at some point, home became primarily a place I was trying to leave.  This is not an uncommon experience, I understand.  Home is a place we are trying to differentiate ourselves from, to set out on our own course, to explore and discover the world that we’re sure is bigger, more freeing, and, above, all, more exciting, than home.  We set out from home to find ourselves in the world.

What a remarkable and unexpected turn of events when I discovered at some point along the way that it is also important to return home to find oneself.  That it’s not a matter of simply leaving, but more a matter of expanding, and that home remains a part of who one will always be.  And, to my great surprise, that home is an incredibly spacious place to explore.  Who knew?  For us this summer, this spaciousness means that we are temporarily moving from a property that is 30’x90’ to a farm that is 150 acres.  But for me the spaciousness has more dimensions than that.  It involves relationships with family and friends, unstructured time, and closeness to the earth.  I would like for this Sabbatical to be a time of exploring the spaciousness all these things.      

Cosmologist Brian Swimme talks about what he finds to be one of the more compelling theories in evolutionary science of how humans came to take a different path than chimpanzees.  The theory is that a subtle mutation occurred that affected the rate of development of our ancestors.  For those that became human the rate of development actually slowed, such that we remained in the stage of childhood for an extended amount of time.  Childhood being the stage of play, of freedom and curiosity, of having less fixed genetic programming directing our actions.  Such that the defining characteristic of the human creature, that makes us unique among the animals, comes to be first of all not really knowing who we are.  Of being stuck with this childlike question of identity, which we ask our whole lives.  But also the characteristic of wonder and awe and the ability to be fascinated by existence.  Brian Swimme uses the example of a forest fire, and how when there’s a forest fire all of the instincts of other animals drive them out of the forest for safety, but the human will actually walk toward the fire.  Hmmm.  Fire.  Interesting.  Why do we do that?  This, of course, could be a problem.  But apparently our ancestors were smart enough to survive their curiosity.  So when Jesus says that we must become like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven, part of this could mean that we must recover this gift of how we are oriented in the universe.  We are oriented toward playfulness, toward wonder and awe and being fascinated with even the most simple things.  If this theory is correct, then exploring is indeed in our DNA. (To listen to a Swimme talk about this, go HERE)

We have an innate orientation toward ceaseless exploring, but one of the things I am also coming to appreciate in adult life is the gift of stability.  This is the stage of life when become more like a plant.  We send down roots in a particular place, and stay put for a while.  We choose a city, a neighborhood, a house, and make it home.  We look out at the world from this certain perch, this place, and we focus a good amount of our energy on caring for this small plot that we’ve been given to tend.  Our work, our household, our church, become the places where we live out our calling.  It doesn’t mean that we stop exploring.  We just learn to explore in place.  We go for depth rather than just breadth.  We realize that our own souls are endless worlds in themselves to explore.       

But even exploring in place doesn’t appear to necessarily be a permanent condition.  At some point the human plant decides it’s time to be a roving animal again and regains a freedom of mobility.  This is what happens in what I like to think of as the third half of life, affectionately named in honor of the Car Talk guys who always have a third half of their show on the radio.  The first half of life is that formative, mobile, exploratory time that runs through young adulthood.  The second half is that time of greater stability of exploring in place and giving one’s energy to household and vocation.  The third half of life, in many ways holds those exploratory possibilities of the first.  I see this in some of the empty nesters and retired folks of our congregation.  You have new found freedoms to travel, to explore and pursue interests that you didn’t have time for before, to rediscover this orientation of awe and wonder and fascination with the world.  Maybe being called a roving animal doesn’t sound like that much of a compliment, but it’s a great gift that I see in many of you as you live in this era of new freedoms.  Arriving where you started, and knowing the place for the first time.  I see this in my parents as well.  They’ve stayed planted on the farm, but they have discovered anew the joy of garden and farm work together and have ventured out into involvement with their local farmers market.  They’re exploring activities that weren’t available to them when us kids were running around the house giving them all they could handle.  So now we’re going back home to remind them how nice it has been to have a quiet house for a while!      

How is it that we can come to know something for the first time, even if it’s been a part of our lives all along?  My hunch is that we have to allow these things to become strange to us, things with which we think we are familiar and know all about, but have barely scratched the surface.  One of my seminary professors was fond of saying that for many the Bible suffers from over familiarity.  We who have been in the church for a good part of our lives are familiar with these stories, we think we know them, so when we hear them it’s difficult to hear beyond ourselves.  It’s hard to explore and approach it with awe and wonder.  Her suggestion was that we have to let the text become strange to us again, however that might be.  Whether it be through studying the culture in which it was written, studying the original languages in which it was written, reading it from the perspective of someone in a whole different life setting, whatever.  We allow it to become strange so that we can start to know it again for the first time. 

For me this also relates to the earth and the ecology of living things.  Something I grew up around, but which has become fairly strange and unfamiliar.  Distance from the earth makes it a strange wonder indeed.  How is it, again, that these small seeds grow into plants that our body metabolizes into energy?  Coming from a long line of farmers, it’s also a wonder for me how this knowledge and familiarity with the earth can be lost so quickly.  The transmission to the next generation is certainly not automatic.  I’m not sure that farming is my future, but I’m also not sure I want to allow all that wisdom and love for the earth to stop in my generation.  I want to feel it, to know it, to live it, and to pass it down to our girls and let them do with it whatever they are able.  I want to live in awe and wonder of these things.  I wonder, as I move through life, what all will become strange and unfamiliar, and what all I will have a chance to revisit and come to know for the first time.

Whenever I have made known to people, or talked with them about having a Sabbatical this summer, one of the most common responses has been, “Wow, a sabbatical.  I think I need a Sabbatical.  Where can I get me one of those?”  One of the ways I have responded to this is to say, Well, I don’t know, can you get yourself one of those?  Is there any possibility of carving out some intentional time to focus on rest and spirituality?

I wonder if this recognition of the goodness of Sabbatical isn’t tied closely to that inherent drive that we all have to continue exploring, and the frustration that accumulates when we feel like we’re overwhelmed with activity that crowds out that drive.  Hopefully, we find ways to build that into our weekly cycle of living, Sabbath taking, but hopefully there is also opportunity to have extended periods, weeks, maybe months, of Sabbatical.

I want to close with three short quotes that I hope help tie some of this together.  The first isn’t really a quote, but something I have heard said by a number of different spiritual leaders over the last number of years.  It is that of all the spiritual disciplines, of all the biblical teachings, that Sabbath keeping, could very well be the most counter cultural radical act of faith in our time.

The second is a quote from Paula D’Arcy.  She says: “God comes to you disguised as your life.”  If this is the case, then paying close attention to our life, and tending to this spirit of awe and wonder and curiosity is indeed a holy act.

The third is to repeat, one more time, these lines from TS Eliot, which bring us full circle, even though none of us have fully completed that circle yet.

“We shall not cease from exploration,

and the end of all our exploring

will be to arrive where we started

and know the place for the first time.”

My final note is one of gratitude for releasing us for this time and supporting us in this way.  We wish you all the best this summer during your Sabbatical from me, and we trust that we will all arrive back together in September with some fresh perspectives and renewed spirits.