with Rev. Clay Nelson
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”The Path” is from My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging by Rachel Naomi Remen (Thorndike Press, 2001)
Rev. Clay Nelson © 18th March 2018
Once upon a time I was working in a mental hospital doing my clinical training to become a minister. Part of that training required leading a worship service once a week for the patients in my ward. This ward held seriously ill schizophrenics, which meant they were mentally ill, not stupid. They had an uncanny knack of knowing if they were being fed BS. My co-minister, a Unitarian, learned that the hard way when it fell to him to preach on the Trinity on Trinity Sunday. They interrupted him so many times with sceptical, challenging questions he never finished his sermon. So, to avoid this happening to me, when preparing a sermon I would determine where I wanted to start and then where I hoped to end up, but the route I would take to get there was anybody’s guess – shaped through dialogue with the patients. And sometimes the end I thought I was headed towards wasn’t the best ending either and a detour was required. There was no road until I walked it. I could only see it by looking backwards.
I know my experience of making the road by walking is not unique, if only because We Make the Road by Walking is the title of a “spoken” book authored by Myles Horton, the founder of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, and Brazilian educational theorist Paolo Freire.
In 1987 they recorded a series of conversations at what is now called Highlander Research and Education Center. They were trying to capture the essence of the historic work the school did at the intersection of education and social change. It was the school Rosa Parks had attended before refusing to give up her seat on the bus, which brought a young unknown minister to town to lead the Montgomery Bus strike, Martin Luther King, Jr. And the civil rights movement was ignited.
Horton’s approach was grounded in the small, local grassroots education model exemplified by Highlander, locating itself squarely outside the formal schooling systems in the United States. Freire’s was centred within university and state-sponsored programmes of his native Brazil. Each of them in their work had come to similar conclusions: real liberation can only come through participatory education, where people learn and act together. But their starting points and their situations and communities were so very different.
So rather than sitting down to write this book, they decided to have their conversations recorded, transcribed and edited. They were working without a firm agenda but they knew there were some theoretical educational issues they wanted to get at; they had an idea at least of what they wanted to get across.
But they could not get started and they couldn’t see a way to get there.
They started to make lists of what they needed to cover, and then tried to prioritise those lists. However, they seemed no closer to their goal, no closer to that important conversation they both felt they needed to have in order to get their message across.
Apparently, Horton was reluctant to let go of certain ideas. This kept them from getting to the task at hand. Freire finally challenged Horton:
“ I think that even though we need to have some outline, I am sure we make the road by walking.”
I can empathise with Horton. There are times when everything is something important and worth, but where to begin?
I was drawn to their conversation because of thoughts that occupy me about our beloved community of Auckland Unitarians. We face many challenges ahead. Some are practical questions every institution faces. For instance, our historic building has endured years of deferred maintenance. To make the necessary repairs will challenge the resources of a small congregation. Some questions are about transitions that will eventually have to be faced: some of our most dedicated and long-term members who have kept this place going during the hard times have earned a rest. Younger leadership needs to be identified and nurtured to take their places. And then your minister isn’t getting any younger either. How can we prepare for a smooth transition when the time comes?
Other challenges have more to do with our vision and purpose. We are a community that has made covenant with each other to be there for one another. We are here because we have committed to walk together to make the road. But we don’t just exist for our own benefit. Each of those Seven Principles on the wall takes our road out of this building. Unitarians have always been about transforming the world to be worthy of that divine spark residing in each of us. So where are we headed?
We live in a crucial time in history – so many things clamour for our attention; there is so much to do. Each idea, each thought, each task, is so very important, and worthy. And now, facing these political, social and personal unknowns, we may not be sure where to turn, what to do next.
Choosing which and where and how proves daunting. We can’t see the way ahead, at least not clearly. We have a very firm but still a somewhat vague idea of where we want to go. And there are several important items that will need our attention. But we need a path to get us to the door, the destination, the goal. No elected official or professional leader can give us the exact, perfect plan on how to get where we need to go. That is something we must do together.
When Paolo challenged Myles to let go of his ideas about where the conversation should go he was quoting Spanish poet Antonio Machado. His poem frames my sermon today:
Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more;
wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking.
By walking one makes the road,
and upon glancing behind one sees the path that never will be trod again.
Wanderer, there is no road – Only wakes upon the sea.
So, when we get anxious about the way ahead, of all that has to be done, on how to get to the next, “permanent”, settled place, it might be helpful to know that as important as the endpoint may be, the road, the path is our focus now. That is not as simple as it sounds.
We don’t want to trudge forward, blind to everything around us, and inadvertently walk into gorse patch. We need to be ready to notice what we encounter along the way – to take it all into account. To be comfortable with the ambiguity at times. To be willing to take the turns to keep moving forward, making progress. To perhaps even revel in the mystery that is before us and enjoy the surprises along the way. To recognize that when we stumble, or fall, or make a turn that needs to be rethought, or have to retrace our steps and start again, we keep walking, finding our way.
We set out to make the road by walking even when there are obstacles we must remove or step around.
To do this well means that we need several things, beyond a good compass. We need each other. We need to trust one another. We need to have a common understanding of where we are headed… and to understand that the path may be quite different than we expect. And we will have to be okay with that. And be aware that we may disagree on individual details – about what we need to carry on this journey and how we ought to equip ourselves or about precisely where it is headed.
I’m confident we will reach a destination. We are experienced. We have made the road many times. This congregation has been in the road construction business for 116 years. I know we can do it when I look backwards on just one of the roads I’ve made when I sought a way from Sacramento to Auckland. It looks like a well-marked and well-lit motorway now, but at the time there was no road at all. Not only that, the way I thought I had to go was filled with insurmountable obstructions. All of them seemed to shout, “Don’t take the first step!” I obviously didn’t listen. While still pleased nearly 13 years later that I got here, my biggest surprise was discovering that getting here was not the end I thought it was. Along the way there have been individuals and communities that have enriched my life and broadened my perspective. There have been opportunities to work with them to make the world just a little bit better a place. That was an unanticipated and surprising destination and I’m not sure that was the final one. Whatever my ultimate ending is, it is still just beyond the horizon. If I’m ever to get there I have to keep walking, but at least I’m not alone.