Saturday, March 21, 2015


I’m going to give three talks this coming week at Our Lady of Peace church in New Providence, NJ, on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings at 8:00. (You're all invited.)

I’m used to giving retreats, days of recollection, and of course homilies. But that’s exactly the problem: It can get “old,” and I forget the great privilege and responsibility that’s involved in preaching and teaching. So the following random reflections are for my benefit, to help me get focussed for next Monday night. You may peek over my shoulder if you like.

Where does anyone get off giving others advice on spirituality? In one sense it takes a lot of nerve to get up and tell people how to live a more authentically Christian life. Doesn’t it seem to assume that I as the speaker have some sort of expert knowledge of the topic which I am imparting to my listeners? Frankly, if that were the case my job would be much less challenging because I could just amass a bunch of facts from reliable sources and present them as a classroom lecture.

There are lots of profitable ways of seeing my task next week, but “giving people information” is certainly not one of them. So what am I doing?

Here’s one way of seeing it: I’m not going there to offer people insights but to introduce them to Someone. Since every human being is a mystery that can never be fully fathomed, this mst be even more true of Jesus. Maybe I can suggest to folks some more ways to meet Jesus in their daily lives.

But if I’m going to talk about about our relationship to Jesus, doesn’t it assume somehow that I have a relationship with Him? And if I preach about imitating Jesus’ patience, how important is it that I myself be someone who imitates the Lord’s patience in my life? So there’s got to be more to it than being virtuous -- I know this because I’m well aware of how far I fall short in that department.

I came across an image just yesterday that might describe my situation better. It was in a book entitled AWOL on the Appalachian Trail in which the author describes via a daily journal his experience of hiking the entire AT from Georgia to Maine. I was attracted to the title not only because I’ve hiked along the AT with our students many a time, but also because of the theme of the journey, which matches the lenten spiritual pilgrimage I’m on right now.

Early on in his long journey the author describes coming to a trail shelter (a wooden lean-to closed in on three sides) where he would spend the night. The first thing he did was to read the “trail log” located near the shelter, to see what people ahead of him had written.  A backpacker who had spent the previous night in the lean-to had noted in the log that the lean-to was infested with mice, so you better take precautions to keep your food safe. He suggested that one might want to use the strings hanging from a beam inside the lean-to to tie your food bags out of reach.That was an important bit of advice considering that there were no grocery stores nearby where yu could replace ruined food. Was the hiker who wrote that entry posing as an expert? Obviously not. He was just sharing with the people coming behind him his own experience. 

Like that hiker, then, I can think of myself as someone writing in the trail log for people who are hiking with me on the same trail.

At the campsites on the AT in New Jersey you see large yellow signs  with big block lettering that warn: “YOU ARE IN BEAR COUNTRY!” They then give several steps that you need to take in order to avoid a potentially nasty encounter with a curious or hungry bear, -- or worse, with a she-bear who thinks you are threatening one of her cubs. You read some of these helpful directives and say “Wow! I never thought of that!”  

So, I guess I try to present myself as a fellow hiker who’s simply presenting some of my own experiences, hopefully in such a way as to help my fellow backpackers along the trail. I hope that some of my conferences have the ring of authenticity - like when we teach our backpacking freshmen “You have to keep your eyes on the trail right front of you. All it takes is one little distraction: you start to look around while you’re hiking and the next thing you know you turn an ankle on a rock.” Ouch! I’ve done that myself.

Maybe that’s part of why people who review my books often remark that I come across as "someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously." How could I dare take myself seriously when I’m describing how the mice in the lean-to ate my lunch, how I tripped on a rock on the trail and landed upside down in a laurel bush?

Oddly enough, though, my conferences can’t be about me at all. I have to always be pointing to Jesus and my relationship with him, including rough spots as well as the smooth ones.

Another thought: I can also point out humbly to my listeners the big yellow signs that have been posted along the trail to help us to stay safe - a way of thinking of Sacred Scripture.

In any case, luckily for me, the bottom line is that it’s not me who will be giving the conferences, it’s not me who will choose the right words or who knows just what certain people in the congregation need to hear at that moment.

But if you've read this far then I'll tell you that I’d certainly appreciate any prayers you may care to offer for me and for the folks who will come on Monday night expecting to hear a word from the Lord.

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