Making a Home in the Wilderness

Shannon wearing a dark rain coat, dark green bucket hat, and a barely-there smile. She looks tired. There are pine trees in the background.
It’s me in 2001!

“Spirit, when we cannot part the weeds
Of our own traditions and old languages,
When the old pathways feel choked
With briars and thorns,
Would you make a path in the wilderness
For us to find you in new ways, 
New words,
New practices, 
New permissions? 
Would you meet us in the wilderness 
and set out a feast? 
We are hungry and thirsty.
… 
We will tell you the truth of our lives
And of this world.
And we will listen to the truth you speak back…”

-Sarah Bessey “A Rhythm of Prayer”

“Wilderness” is such a rich metaphor for spiritual life. In the Light House virtual community where I’ve been travelling with other contemplative women for the past year our theme in March was “Wilderness” and I was amazed by the multi-faceted richness of the theme. I love the solace, respite, wisdom, and healing that I’ve found in physically visiting wild places, and I also know the fear and longing that happens when I’ve found myself in the metaphorical wilderness outside of my faith community or life in general.

One community member spoke about how we contemplatives, as light-bearers, can be companions to others in the wilderness. I had fun thinking about metaphors for this: guides, sign-holders, rangers, flaggers, trail-blazers, lookouts, scouts… I could go on! And it made me think about how there are probably those who, through experience or disposition or training, are better equipped for the wilderness, and perhaps even called to be there for others.

I was involved in Girl Guides (like Girl Scouts in the USA) growing-up, and spent much time learning to navigate wilderness and developing tools to find my way through it. And here I don’t just mean literally learning how to pitch a tent, cook over an open fire, and use a compass to find my literal way through unknown areas, leaving trail markings behind for myself and others (although yes, I learned all these things and more). But I mean all of these things in a metaphorical way as well – making shelter for myself and others by being welcoming and taking on leadership when required, nourishing body and soul together, and using what we do know to navigate the unknown. One could say that much of what I learned made me who I am today.

In my twenties (2001) I was asked to help out as a last-minute replacement leader for a big summer Girl Guiding event. Thousands of women from around the world were descending on a small patch of wilderness in the interior of the Canadian province I live in, BC. We were all scheduled to arrive at different times so as not to overwhelm the area. My Mom and my sister were also headed there with a different small group than the one I was with.

My group travelled through the night, on a bus, and arrived rather bedraggled around 6am. We hiked to our designated area, carrying our equipment, and before we could set-up camp, we had to clear the spot that had been staked-out for us. It was difficult and tiring work and even more so since we were exhausted from the journey. We used gardening tools and our bare hands to try to tame our little stake of wilderness. Once we had cleared, our energy for setting up our tents and tarps waned, and then it began to rain.

My sister and I smiling and standing side by side with arms around each other's backs. I'm in a black and blue rain jacket with a green bucket hat, my sister in a yellow rain jacket and straw cowboy hat. In the background are women milling about and scrubby pine trees.
My sister and I

The co-leader I came with and I did our best to lead the charge, but in our own exhaustion I accidentally gave her a black eye while wielding a piece of equipment! Things were not looking good, and I realized what we really needed was help. So I went out to find my sister and my Mom, who I knew had arrived the evening before. Scouring the maps I found the area I’d likely find them in, and after a bit of a hike through the rain, I came upon their group’s camp site. As I walked up to those familiar faces and stepped under their shelter and out of the rain, I started to weep. They welcomed me in, hugged me tight, handed me a hot cup of tea, and pulled me into a chair by their fire. Overwhelmed by the hospitality, I could barely make out my plea: “I can’t stay, we need your help!”

Immediately my sister and her friends sprang into action. They picked up their tools and headed off to help my bedraggled group, while I lingered a few minutes to finish my tea with Mom. My sister and her friends taught my group some new tricks and guided them through the process of setting up the camp, never taking over, always assisting and supporting. It was just the confidence boost they needed, and to have young people only a couple of years older to mentor and shepherd, they no longer felt like they’d been defeated by the wilderness.

My Mom and I smiling and standing side by side with arms around each other's backs. I'm in a black and blue rain jacket with a green bucket hat, my a blue bucket hat and clear plastic raincoat. In the background are women milling about
My Mom and I

The struggles of that experience didn’t end on that first day, but, the sense of community support fed and nourished me for the rest of the week. I learned a lot about resilience, about asking for help, about letting go of control, and of trusting my own inner resources when things got tough. The leader who I replaced had chosen activities I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen for myself, and there are other stories about mountain climbing and interpretive dance from that week that I will save for another time! Most of the week was spent outside my comfort zone, and I grew all the more because of that.

When we left, that piece of wilderness we tamed on the first day had been transformed into a campground where others could then visit and enjoy the beauty of that landscape. The work we did paved the way for others. Through the years I’ve often returned to this story and the lessons of that week. Wild places in me were also transformed that week.

I think that it parallels other experiences of wilderness I have had, ones not so literal: the interior wildernesses of feeling alienated from the holy and my community. Asking for help, and recognizing that there are others who have been in similar situations, I believe are both essential to navigating our wildernesses. And because I’ve learned to navigate those wildernesses, I can be a guide for others.

The Pleasure of Anticipation

There’s something about patience and anticipation heightening enjoyment and pleasure, don’t you think?

Last May I was ecstatic when my local farmers market started offering an option to order fresh produce online and pick it up at a local farm. We were still in a time with COVID restrictions when it was really difficult to find fresh produce that was good quality, and going to grocery stores felt scary. This option seemed perfect.

Fast forward to my third order and the photo above. The strawberries were sitting in my kitchen, and I’d been anticipating this moment with these strawberries for two weeks. Two weeks before I’d seen other people with strawberries on farmers market pickup day, and I was very envious as strawberries had been sold out when I placed my order. I vowed to get some.

Four days later I went to place my order six hours after orders opened, strawberries were sold out.

On pickup day I looked longingly at the strawberries in other shoppers’ boxes again.

I got home and set an alarm in my phone for 10 minutes before orders started. I ordered as soon as orders opened, and rushed to the virtual checkout with strawberries in my virtual basket (asparagus was sold out before I made it to the checkout though). I checked out with strawberries, and then I waited for three days for pickup day.

When I picked up my order I could *smell* the strawberries, and they looked like the most beautiful berries I’d ever seen. I resisted the urge to grab one right then and shove it in my mouth, at that time COVID was feeling very scary, I wasn’t yet carrying hand sanitizer with me all the time, and I felt I must be vigilant about washing my hands before eating them.

So I waited until I was home and washed up. I finally picked one up, rinsed it off, and popped it into my mouth. Of course, THEY TASTED AMAZING!

I think they were so amazing partly because they’re local and organic and freshly picked, and partly because of the weeks of patient anticipation of the joy and pleasure to come.

How wonderful is it when we have the time to really notice and savour our desires! It can make satisfaction all that sweeter.

Easter 2021 – some good news

John 20:1-18

There are a lot of choices to be made before an Easter service finally comes together. What anthems should the choir sing? Who will preach? What hymns will the congregation sing? Which gospel’s scripture account will we read? What angle will the preacher take on that scripture? How many Hallelujah’s are too many? Which aspect of the doctrine of the resurrection will be the focus? What is the Easter good news for this year?

Well, looking back over the past year, this preacher has to say that good news can feel hard to find. Rising violence against those of Asian and Pacific Island descent, the need to still remind people that Black Lives Matter, women driven out of the workplace in droves to stay home and care for children and vulnerable family members amidst a pandemic, rising daily COVID case counts, increasing disparity between rich and poor, an earth that we continue to wreak havoc on and treat like so many disposable items in our culture, all the while thinking we can surely just figure our way out of all this mess.

*breathe*

Good news is hard to find.

And so I turned to the gospel stories, to companions in Biblical interpretation, and to a belief in the fundamental goodness of the world. I persist to demand hope, to demand a blessing for us, to demand good news, to demand the right to celebrate resurrection. Not out of some innocent or naive wish for it to all to just “return to normal”, but from a stubborn belief that life does prevail.

Now, if you were to look back at my previous Easter sermons you’d hear me preach on different parts of the narrative that stand out as important.

The importance of remembering the tragedy of the cross and not moving too quickly to the resurrection. The fear of the disciples about what was going to happen next. The reminder that the resurrection of Jesus body means bodies matter to God, they aren’t just soul containers, bodies are of value.

The scripture I often turn to is in Mark, the gospel where Jesus and the disciples are always on the move. And it ends in this same sense of movement forward, a non-ending where we the reader don’t know what’s going to happen next after they find the empty tomb. I appreciate Mark’s call to the reader to decide what to do next.

But this year I found myself unfulfilled in going back to what was important in other years. This year I needed more assurance, more enthusiasm, a true celebration of resurrection. And I found myself drawn to the version in John, which you could read as a call story of a disciple – Mary.

The slice of John that is John 20:1-18 begins in the dark – which is John’s reminder to us that the characters who we meet in the dark don’t yet understand what is going on. Mary Magdalene finds the empty tomb and runs to tell two of the disciples. They all come back and confirm it is empty, and the two disciples return home.

But Mary seems not satisfied with just leaving. She weeps there at the empty tomb, and I imagine her slowly being bathed in golden morning light when eventually, Jesus calls her by name, and Mary sees the risen Christ. Her first inclination is to hold onto him there in the garden, but Jesus challenges her to instead go and tell the good news that he is ascending to the father.

Mary does indeed follow this call to be a disciple, to go and proclaim, but not initially in the way Jesus told her to, instead she sums up the experience in five simple words: “I have seen the Lord.”

Mary, here, is our first Easter preacher, and says it better than I ever could, simply “I have seen the Lord.”

Death and darkness may be all around, but I have seen the Lord.

Fear and uncertainty may cloud our eyes, but I have seen the Lord.

I may not know what the future has in store for us, but I have seen the Lord.

In these times, we too are called to share the simple good news that in spite of all that is around us, death does not get the final word, you, like Mary, are called to be a disciple and to share the good news, and it doesn’t have to be complicated, simply that you have seen the Lord.

Two nights ago, a colleague of mine, Rich, appeared in my dream. Rich died of cancer just over a month ago. In my dream he was happy, healthy, had his usual good-natured sense of humour, and I was so excited to sit and talk with him. I don’t remember all we said, but I felt like I’d been gifted with his care once more. Rich was a man of deep faith who wanted to spread the good news of Christ. In that dream I saw a glimmer of Christ’s resurrection, a reminder that death is not the final word.

I don’t know about you, but I feel like I am coming out of perhaps the darkest and coldest winter I’ve ever experienced. When the snow and deep cold came for a long stretch of time in mid-February of this year, I was sure that some of the plants in my patio pots had given up, my Hellebores in fact had toppled over and looked like they’d never lift back up. I too felt toppled over by the months of dark days and disconnection. But here are the Hellebore’s blossoms, and today there are more buds still yet to bloom. So it is with my soul.

A white china bowl with burgundy Hellebore blossoms from my garden floating in water.​
A bowl of Hellebore blossoms from my garden.

And while daily case counts for COVID are up, and words like outbreak and exposure have become a normal part of our vocabulary, I also can no longer keep track in my mind of how many people I know who have already received their first vaccine dose. “Sorry I can’t make it to your Easter service sister” said Joy the other day, “I have my appointment booked on Sunday morning for my first vaccination.” And she proceeded to tell me the story of how two persistent people on the phone did not give up on getting Joy booked for that appointment as soon as they possibly could. Bending rules and coming up with creative solutions so my immune-compromised sister could be safe.

And I think of those who stand at the foot of ancient trees here in BC to protect them, because all life is sacred.

And I think of the church members I know who are persistent in protecting the rights of transgendered people, because trans rights are human rights.

And I think of each of you, putting on your mask every time you go out because you care about your neighbours and you don’t want them to get sick.

And I can tell you with Mary’s exuberance and enthusiasm and spirit of celebration, that I have seen the Lord! In so many ways on so many days, I have seen the Lord, I have heard the Lord, Christ lives! Hallelujah!!

So, why do you weep, brothers and sisters? What are you looking for here in our protected virtual garden of church? Do not hold on to what has been, go and proclaim the good news that death is not the final word, that you believe in life, that you have seen the Lord!

Easter

Easter Talk 2015

Poem:
“Easter morning”
By Bruce Prewer

Black light transforms
the clouds in the east,
the swamphens wake
at this new dawning.

Against the sky
sacred ibis wend
like angel forms,
to hopeless mourning.

The sun comes up
and the magpies sing.

God is alive
in everything this Easter morning.

hand holding crocus

In the gospel of Mark, everything happens Immediately.
Immediately he goes to the next town.
Immediately he moves along.
The story pushes forward at a brisk pace, leading us across the countryside, following this Jesus who never seems to stop moving ahead to spread his message. No pausing to erect monuments, no attempting to persuade. If you aren’t liked in a place, shake the dust from your sandals and move on.
My experience of reading Mark aloud all in one was one that seemed to move ahead too quickly. I read it aloud with my sister one day while I was in grad school and I remember being surprised at how the story flew by. That afternoon sticks out to me as one of those frozen moments in time we have. There are all these wonderful things happening in the story, these beautiful healings and teachings and parables, and then suddenly he is heading towards Jerusalem and I know what is about to happen! I feel like I’m in a movie and I want to yell at him to go back, to stay away, to just keep being an itinerant preacher. But there was no turning back. And before I knew it, the story was over, and I felt heartbroken.
Mark ends abruptly, leaving us with little closure.
There is the tragedy of the crucifixion and there is the grieving.
Then suddenly he is gone and with that same sense of immediacy, he is not there!
They are afraid. They don’t know what has happened.

Poem:
Easter Blessing
by Jan Richardson

If you are looking
for a blessing,
do not linger
here.

Here
is only
emptiness,
a hollow,
a husk
where a blessing
used to be.

This blessing
was not content
in its confinement.

It could not abide
its isolation,
the unrelenting silence,
the pressing stench
of death.

So if it is
a blessing
that you seek,
open your own
mouth.

Fill your lungs
with the air
that this new
morning brings

and then
release it
with a cry.

Hear how the blessing
breaks forth
in your own voice

how your own lips
form every word
you never dreamed
to say.

See how the blessing
circles back again
wanting you to
repeat it
but louder

how it draws you
pulls you
sends you
to proclaim
its only word:

risen
risen
risen.

Because Mark leaves us hanging a bit, you

are invited into a space of creative imagination as we wonder where Jesus might be. Where will we find him? How will we see him? How will we know it’s him?
Mark’s immediacy turns into excitement and anticipation.
The tomb couldn’t have been robbed – the stone was too big. What happened? And more importantly, what happens next?
WE decide what’s next! We seek to find out where he is
What happens next both in the scriptures and today, is people start seeing him.
We are in the midst of the church year, the story isn’t over yet, in fact, the story is just beginning…

Poem
The Messiah
by Ann Weems

Look for the Messiah where you will,
but you’ll find him where you live.
He will not be separated and kept apart
from those who cry to him.
He will be found right in the midst
of the daily, routine, ordinary stuff of life.
So wherever you’re living
Look for him.
In the ordinary niches of that living
look for the holy
that the holy might be find in you.

Mary is called out to by the man she thinks is the gardener, yet when he speaks her name, she sees Jesus.
The disciples encounter a stranger on the road to Emmaus and invite him to share a meal. The man breaks bread, and suddenly they see Jesus.
The early church gathers at Pentecost and in hearing one another and witnessing spirit fire they see Jesus.
A young man in the woods prays for guidance and sees Jesus.
A young woman meets a hard living man on the street, invites him to share a meal, and in him she sees Jesus.
A group of friends gather to pray and wash one another’s hands, and in each other’s eyes they see Jesus.
Someone sits at the shoreline watching the sun set over the mountains, and in the beauty and peace of that moment they see Jesus.
We take deep breaths, we feel our bodies swell with air and spirit, and we breathe in and breathe out Jesus.
The resurrected body is your body, is my body, is the earth’s body. Jesus is working to share love and transform the world using your body. Today we celebrate bodies, celebrate love, celebrate life.

Poem
by Jan Richardson:

May we go forward to begin anew.
May we go forward with memory.
May we go forward as his body.
May we go forward in grace.
May we go forward in the fullness of time.
May we go forward to approach this world with reverence.
May we go forward knowing ourselves Beloved.

May we bear this love.
May we proclaim this love.
May we live this love
now and always.

Christ is risen.
Christ is risen indeed!

Day One Entry: Apr 2, 2014

oops & grace

Today the bus driver missed the bus loop, stopped dead, then realized he’d have to go all the way around the long block to have another go at it. Some days I might have been annoyed or frustrated, but today I was slightly amused, and largely empathetic. We all make mistakes – we get distracted, we are thinking about the next thing, we goof up – it happens. So rather than getting mad, I got human.

I thought of times I’ve made mistakes in the job – yes even the chronic, recovering perfectionist makes mistakes – and thought of the forgiveness and grace offered to me and what a gift that was. The gift of grace and forgiveness for each other and for ourselves is a priceless gift, hard to give, even harder to receive. And yet it is a unique and beautiful aspect of our humanity, that we can extend grace to one another.

It’s ok to make mistakes, we all do, so let’s make sure we cut each other a bit of slack and be gracious and forgiving, let’s be human with one another.

13° Mostly Sunny
Coquitlam, BC, Canada

Shannon McAdam

pain overflow

Image

Today I went to see my massage therapist because of residual pain from injuries few years ago that was flaring up again in my wrist, shoulder, back and neck on my right side. Usually it’s the wrist/elbow that’s to blame, the other parts just sort of get pulled along too – though the shoulder has it’s own problems… let’s just say I’m happy that massage therapy exists. It had been much too long since my last visit, I’d had calling for an appointment on my to-do list for months but just hadn’t bothered to do it until a friend who’d seen me in pain pestered me until I called. Thank goodness for friends.

 

So I was laying on the massage table, at the mercy of the therapist, who was working on my neck… and at this point I have to stop and explain something: when one is getting a massage because one has an injury, this is not the relaxing, candlelight, handsome Swedish bodybuilder, soft music, stereotype of a massage situation. No, with this massage therapist I’ve had ice applied afterwards to make sure there’s no bruising. Yes, that painful. Of course the long-term effects are positive, with less pain later on, but in the moment it can be seriously ouchy. The kind of pain where I have to be reminded to breathe.

 

So he was working on my neck and asking, as usual “how does this feel?” – which I have to say sometimes feels like a bit of a silly question because I know that he knows that it hurts, but I suppose he needs to know how much it hurts, what kind of pain it is (dull, sharp, prickly) and where exactly it hurts. And it’s this question of where it hurts that is the point of this story. Because when he asked how the pain was while he was digging into my neck, I told him that it was in the usual spots – neck, wrist, shoulder, but also flowing up into my head. And he said something along the lines of “Ah, you have pain overflow, so much pain that it needs other places to go.”

 

Pain overflow?!?

 

Interesting.

 

And I suppose it makes sense, on a certain level, that something could be so much that it would push beyond where it is. And of course, it got me thinking. It got me thinking about the pain – be it physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological – that inevitably shows up in all of our lives, and how that pain is sometimes so great that it has to overflow into other areas. Sometimes it crosses over – emotional pain overflowing into our physical bodies, spiritual pain overflowing into our emotions, as well as from one part of our lives to another. I think of the people I encounter who are seemingly upset about something that seems simple or trivial to me, but then when I learn that there is something else much bigger and more painful going on in their life, I realize that the emotions I’m seeing are actually pain overflow from another area of their life. It’s the loss of a loved one that makes losing your keys huge and overwhelming. It’s the broken relationship that makes the broken phone screen a devastating situation.

 

I’ve seen pain overflow in people’s lives and it really is difficult to deal with. But I suspect that there’s a way that some pain overflow, especially the emotional, spiritual and psychological pain, can be relieved with deep relationship and in community. When we have people close around us our pain can overflow into their lives too – for better or for worse. But hopefully, if the ones who love us are strong, they can help with the overflow, holding our overflow of pain and making it bearable for us until we are able to hold it ourselves again. This is the struggle and the joy of community – the shared pain hurts all of us, the shared joy invigorates all of us. Joy too, can overflow, and fill the lives of those around us with joy.

 

Pain overflow is inevitable, so let’s hold one another tenderly and share the pain, and with the sharing, ease it.

what do you wish for?

As I rose up on the escalator out of the basement of Sears department store downtown tonight my eyes zeroed in on a big sign atop a pillar dripping with Christmas decorations. “What do you wish for?” it asked.

Hmmm…

I wish for world peace.

I wish for all cancer to go away and stop hurting people.

I wish for common kindness to be commonplace.

Think I could pick those things up at Sears on my way through this evening? Probably Sears wishes that I’d wish for something like a new pair of slippers, some perfume, or a toaster oven.

We are getting the first tastes right now of a season that will play wildly with a powerful human feeling – desire. Desire is an interesting thing, it can just as easily stir us into action as freeze us in place. Desire can spur us to great things, if we follow our desire.

Now you might be thinking “yes, but desire can lead us into bad behavior too”, and this idea of desire may be the one you’re most familiar with, but desire doesn’t have to take us that way. In the Christian tradition we could say that “sin” is in fact misplaced desire. A desire for deep relationship could lead a person through a series of perceived intimate relationships that are not in fact quality deep relations. A desire for belonging can prevent a person from being their true self when they fear their community may reject that true self.

Also, when what we desire seems too big and too difficult to strive for, we can sometimes be paralyzed into non-action. “Why do I not do the thing I want to do?” says the Apostle Paul in a letter to his followers. It’s a question we all face in our lives. We most often know what it is we could do to follow our desires for the flourishing of people and planet, what we could do to make a difference, so why don’t we do those things?

Does desire maybe strike again here? Our desire for safety or comfort or any one of a number of conflicting desires. These are noble desires, but when they get in the way of what we could be doing, they become less noble.

And so as the season of material desire comes upon us, let’s also remember our less tangible desires, the ones that, if we followed them, might lead us into unknown territory, but the ones which, in the end, are the only ones that truly give us a feeling of desire being fulfilled when we pursue them with our whole heart.