Our wayside pulpit today bears a quote from one of our Unitarian ancestors, Henry David Thoreau.

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1 Our wayside pulpit today bears a quote from one of our Unitarian ancestors, Henry David Thoreau. The quote reads: It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see. It s a bit ironic that I chose that quote for the sign this week, because as a young college student I had immense distain for Thoreau. In my mind he was just a little ridiculous. Here was a young man, a Harvard Graduate, from a well to do pencil-making family, who had gone to a pond called Walden to do an experiment of self-sufficiency- what we d now call going off the grid. Yet he had only really moved to the edge of town, his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson supported him financially, and in fact lent him the land he built his cabin on, and his mother did his laundry the entire time he was living in that little cabin. It bothered me, when I read his works in college, that he wrote at length that everyone should spend their days walking around like he did, instead of doing boring things like being a professional farmer or having a trade or a shop. To my adolescent mind, he seemed the epitome, the ultimate example, of entitled pompous brat. Now, that isn t to say I didn t appreciate his writing- I thought his descriptions of nature and his essay on civil disobedience to be utterly beautiful- but he seemed so hypocritical to me. He wasn t self-sufficient- how dare he write so condescendingly about those who were working hard to support their families and had not wealthy famous friends to depend on. It was hard for me to take him seriously, even as I loved quotes from his work like the one painted on a sign by modern day Walden Pond: I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I have always loved that quote Still Still It was so very easy to roll my eyes at Henry David Thoreau. Or David Henry Thoreau, as his parents named him. And then, in seminary, I learned something new about him. I learned that Thoreau had had a brother, named John- a brother he loved with his whole heart. They had opened and run a school together, built a boat to travel rivers together, competed for the same sweetheart.

2 And then John got first Tuberculosis and then lockjaw and died in Thoreau s arms. Henry David Thoreau was bereft. Utterly bereft. He built that cabin by the pond on the edge of town because he needed to do something to honor his brother, because his brother s death had fundamentally changed him and because he was grieving the loss of his beloved sibling. Here s that quote again. Listen to it with the knowledge that this was a young man who had just lost his brother. I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life I still think the man should have figured out a way to do his own laundry. But knowing how grief changed and shaped Thoreau s life changed the way I looked at him I believe that when Thoreau ran to the woods he was looking, not just for life, but for grace. He needed to find a way to gracefully shift his sorrow into some new understanding and way of being. He was a part of the Transcendentalist movement, after all, part of that group of thinkers and reformers who believed that every soul had access to divine inspiration, and that the natural world was a good place the best place-to go looking for that inspiration. Of course, the transcendentalists are far from the only folk to think that walking in Nature is a good way to seek divine grace. This is an ancient thing- this idea- this concept of going out to find grace. And Thoreau is far from the first person to go walking after losing a loved one. I have thought a lot this past year about grief and how it can transform and be transformed. In part I did this thinking because I was working as a hospital chaplain, and had the great honor of being present for deaths and present to families and individuals at the time of death. And I did this thinking because during this year my family had our own share of loss. Both of my paternal grandparents, my Mimi and Poppi, died- one after the other.

3 It was unexpected, and sudden, and difficult for all of us. I did my fair share of sobbing in awkward places like airports, and my poor sister found out about the first of those deaths while in the middle of her bachelorette party in Disneyland. It was a tough winter, for everyone. It was hardest, though, for my father. And the day his mother died he experienced a rift in the world- a tear in the fabric of the sky. He tells me that he was on the road and looked up, and felt the universe rip open. He s reluctant to label this a mystical experience, because he s an atheist Catholic, or lapsed Catholic if you will, and that doesn t fit in with his understanding of himself or the world. He sees himself as an atheist first, a fundamentally non-mystical person I have never seen him so shaken as the day of my grandmother s funeral. The words and the form of that funeral mass flowed around us and he shook with grief. His parents death seemed to have shaken him altogether, shaken him out of his quiet confident joking self. I imagine some of you have seen this in someone you love, or in your own reflection- that lost look, that sense of being knocked off your feet, on top of the sudden huge sadness. Like Thoreau, my father loves to walk, with a backpack on his back and a long path spread before him, and he loves to travel. So I suggested to him that he go walk across Spain. More specifically, I told him he should go walk the Camino del Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage that can begin anywhere in Europe and lands at a Cathedral in Santiago, Spain before continuing to the sea. Some of you may have heard of this, or remember the Martin Sheen movie, the Way. My dad got the guidebook I mailed to him- with a DVD of The Way - and called me a day later to say he d booked his tickets. My father, my darling cranky atheist of a father, went on pilgrimage.

4 He laid rocks from my grandparents house at the foot of the Iron Cross at one of the path s highest points.just as people had been laying stones there for hundreds of years, and much the way people lay rocks at the site where Thoreau had built his cabin. My dad drank wine and ate paella and slept in the dormitories of historic alberges with people from all over the world, because like Thoreau my father loves to walk alone, and he loves to sit and talk with folk. He shared chocolate with a tired couple from Korea, celebrated the first sight of the sea with a group from Australia, and travelled for a brief while with a Presbyterian minister from Santa Barbara, of all places. He walked across fields and down Roman roads, rested beside old stone bridges and modern sculptures, delighted in the cathedrals of tiny towns that haven t changed much in a thousand years and trudged through sprawling modern cities. He went where millions of others have gone before him, honoring his parents and their Catholic faith and his own heart. My dad has no church, and no priest, and no belief in God. He is a Catholic, though, and he walked the Camino as a Catholic- step in step with his fellow pilgrims the way Catholic folk have for ages. I think the folk he walked with ministered to him as he walked, reminded him of his own great kindness and capacity for joy, respected his sorrow and were with him in finding his way back to himself. Most of them weren t Catholic, or atheist, or American or really into making puns as he is, but they ministered to him all the same. Across differences of religion and language and culture This is what we can all do for each other, this ministry. Religion is not just what we do inside the walls of buildings such as this one. Nor is it just the work of clergy, and church leadership. The work of our shared faith goes beyond Sunday mornings, beyond even the people of this congregation. These days my father wears a sea shell pendant around his neck, the symbol of the pilgrim. The certificate each pilgrim who has walked at least the required distance earns when they reach Santiago resides in my parents living room. And he mailed me a seashell and a rock from the beach at the end of his journey.

5 If you stop by my office sometime I can show them to you, as well as some of the thousands of pictures he took. These are simple physical things, tiny pieces of what has changed and strengthened and grown in my father since the day my grandmother died and the sky ripped open. Those are easy things to point out as the stuff my father brought back from Spain with him. They aren t the important thing he returned with. What he brought back with him, what shone out of him when I saw him the last time I went home to Tennessee, was grace. The grace that comes to us when we are cared for, and seen, and heard The grace that comes from honoring our roots and living courageously and whole heartedly The grace that can be found in traveling quietly through the natural world with one s senses and heart awake to what is. I tell you this story, with my father s permission, in part because you would not guess this part of his story from a casual conversation with him, any more than you would guess Thoreau s great grief for his brother from a casual glance at his writings. Each of us has a story, a journey, a heartache of our own Thoreau took his grief to the woods, and my father took his to Spain. We all grieve our losses and honor our dead differently. We can never know someone else s story completely. But we live out our call to love and honor each life on this planet by going out into our days with curiosity and respect. And each of us can seek joy and transformation, each of us can find some way to let our grief lead us into grace. Not all of us can step away from our lives the way Thoreau or my father did, and not all of us need to. But each of us has the capacity to be awake, to be aware, and to live our values with love, and with whatever grace each of us can find. May it be so.

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