Gratitude for the Creation in Which We Minister (Rev. Matt Syrdal)
"Gratitude for the Creation in Which We Minister" led by WilderSoul
Over the years I have worked alongside my church with the Oglala people, the Lakota of the Pine Ridge Reservation. I learned a prayer from an artist named Thurman Horse, who shared his life and shared his song, his unshakable and indigenous experience of Jesus. At the end of his soul-piercing prayerful lament, he closed with these words in a silent and stunned room, Mitakuye Oyasin (roughly translated, “all my relations”, with the sense that “everything is connected”). It is a prayer of profound gratitude meaning I am part of a greater conversation.
Thurman’s gratitude was not a platitude. It was deep. Gratitude arises from a place of prayerful presence which we inhabit. A Gratitude which sails beyond our little self, from a living universe in which we are oriented in the directions and seasons and patterns of life - connected to one another, to the plant and animal worlds - a deep kinship - to the mysterious, deeply incarnating God of Creation.
We have lost the art of conversation in our culture. We keep our neighbor separated from us and enclosed through our exacting words. We label those we fear - just look at this election year. A single word can dissect, divide, damn, and disillusion. With a word we rant in racist, faceless, complacence. We have lost our sense of wonder and wild kinship with the natural world, lost our connection to our bodies and through our bodies to the earth itself. We are lost, alone in the woods.
Gratitude has its roots in the Latin gratus for ‘pleasing, thankful.’ a deeply sensuous, embodied, and heartfelt appreciation shown by the recipient of kindness, grace, gifts, generosity, abundance toward the Giver of such gifts. The word 'pleasing' is used in Genesis as an affirmation of the goodness of the feminine and sensual world of nature which is gift in the most essential and primordial language of ecological nature. Gratitude is a response to this Gift. An exchange that flows in two directions creating its own relational dialectic or gift economy - one could say, its own ecology. Gratitude is at root a relationship - a conversation - with the other and with the World. In this sense gratitude is linked to worship and prayer, not just a human conversation, but one which extends throughout the more-than-human community of Creation.
The church in our age, our humanity, is in danger of losing something in translation we might never recover in our relationship with God in the world. We have inherited a worldview in which the Word comes from outside the world, yet the conversation comes from within. Words set humanity above the world, not as cultivators and co-creators but as colonizers, not belonging but estranged. We have lost the depth and fullness of this deep conversation - this Christ among and within - and the human soul torn out of kinship with a living universe. Poet David Whyte says that the soul “is the largest conversation a person is capable of having with the world.” This relational meaning is important because we live in a relational universe, a “communion of subjects” in the words of Thomas Berry.
As John Philip Newell shares in Christ of the Celts, “[Christ] shows us not a foreign truth but a truth that is hidden in the depths of the human soul. He comes to wake us up, to call us back to ourselves and to the relationship that is deep within all things… Christ discloses to us the sacred root of our being and all being. This has enormous implications for how we view ourselves and one another and how we approach the deepest energies within us and within all things.”
I remember as a young child spending hours upon hours exploring the woods behind my house. On a Saturday morning, I would cross a small creek, by way of a split log bridge between the overgrown blackberry bushes that separated our property from the uncultivated, undeveloped wild woods. As I wandered with only my imagination to lead me, I became lost in conversation with the felled trees carpeted in dew laden moss, enchanted by the earthy, rich smell of peet and the decomposing leaves of the forest floor. The fortresses of old rotted and hollow stumps, became my young portal to explore deeper layers of imagination. Lost in the natural world, time slows to near stop. When you lose sight of the wardrobe, something magical happens. Rather than panic, I experienced a feeling of belonging. A childlike apprehension of the beginnings of a deeper longing, a longing that I wouldn’t understand until much later in my adult life. It was a sense of the numinous inviting me into a relationship with the mysterious life of God.
Christ reveals in us that to become found we must first become lost in the deeper conversation. “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will find it. Jesus' wisdom wordplay on the greek word psyche, speaks to the value and the cost of this deeper conversation. Building up the first identity a first half of life task is crucial and important for all of us. In fact it is necessary to complete the developmental tasks of a healthy adolescence. But Christ invites his disciples to take up their own cross and come follow him if they would enter the the kingdom, discover the deeper life of the soul. To experience this deep gratitude we must often journey through a crisis of grief and loss. Our old way of seeing, and believing, and living no longer seems to work. What's more our center of gravity shifts, and those relationships that once brought us a sense of security and belonging suddenly feel empty because they no longer serve the demands of the soul. Our career goals, acheivements and dreams for our future lose their luster and meaning. It actually feels vulnerable, lonely, even humiliating at times as if we are being dismantled piece by piece, with the fear that underneath the rubble of our old lives and identities their might be nothing left. But this is where a profound grace comes into play, a mysterious depth of encounter and belonging we have never before known. This is what Parker Palmer calls, our one "true life," the life of the soul, the place we were born to inhabit in the Great conversation of cosmos, Christ, and community.
Lifestyle gratitude comes from discovering our true place in the greatest conversation we are capable of having with the world.
As pastors, elders, and leaders we are called to preach and to minister, to heal and make whole from that deeper sermon, Conversation. We are called to participate in what Thomas Berry called “The Great Work” and Joanna Macy calls “The Great Turning.” This is what it means to be Reformed Always Reforming. We all want to be in deeper service to the world. But we must first learn to listen.
WilderSoul explores ancient Celtic and indigenous Christianity exploring practices for listening to the deep conversation between the wild natural world and what is deepest in the soul, listening for the voice of God who calls invites us deeper into the conversation through the community of faith. To cultivate and lead from greater wholeness and healing, and to live in deeper service to the world. Practices such as solo wanders and deep conversation on the land, the way of the circle and art of mirroring to give others the gift of the dignity of their own experience and to witness the deeper story emerging in their lives.
Just as the prophets, poets, mystics, and Jesus Christ drew inspiration freely and deeply from the natural world, using language alive with gratitude and earth-based metaphors of abundance, so we are called to intuit the deeper patterns of the mystery of God in our world for a time such as this. We are called to invite others into a life of wild gratitude.
Aho Mitakuye Oyasin - Thank you for the conversation.
Rev. Matthew Syrdal is Assoc. Pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, founder and lead guide of WilderSoul / Church of Lost Walls, and a speaker, artist, writer, coach who offers workshops, wilderness immersion retreats and intensives in Celtic and indigenous Christian nature-based spirituality. Matt's next Seminary of the Wild is in January 2018. See Matt's other writings on AllCreation, much acclaimed by fellow clergy, here.