A Tale of Tels:  Pilgrimage into Oneness

(Portions of this essay come from a reflection essay written as part of a Journey of Faith Pilgrimage to the Holy Land sponsored by Columbia Theological Seminary in 2006.  It was then published in this form in the November 2012 issue of Science of Mind magazine)

 

I grew up Southern Baptist, but as a young adult, I became a religious prodigal and later wandered into Presbyterianism, where I have been a pastor for twenty years. When my wife Peg introduced me to Science of Mind magazine, I initially found its teachings to be incongruous with my traditional Protestant Christian roots. I even resisted and bristled at most of them, especially those concerning Jesus. However, I kept reading.

Now, having read and studied Science of Mind for over fifteen years, I find its philosophy and teachings to reflect much of my experience and understanding of God. I am especially drawn into the foundational belief that we are all interconnected by and participate in One Spirit. But I haven’t always thought this way.

About the time Peg introduced the magazine to me, she was working on a degree in psychology with a particular interest in mind–body dynamics. I occasionally picked up a book or article she was studying, and the words and ideas of people like Deepak Chopra, Gary Zukav, Wayne Dyer, Joan Borysenko, and others began to resonate. Also, a newly found fascination with quantum physics led to more and more incongruence and tension in my understanding of science, history, and religion. What I had always thought to be separate areas of my mind and life were becoming muddled and confused.

In addition to the authors mentioned above, there were three texts where all of this began to come together. The first was a contemplative devotional book by William C. Martin, The Art of Pastoring, an imaginative interpretation of the Tao Te Ching for pastoral life. The second was the monthly articles and daily readings in Science of Mind magazine, and finally the scriptures of my own tradition—the Bible. The thread I began to see that knotted these texts together was a singular, present force that inhabits and holds creation together: Oneness.

Even as the interdependence and oneness of creation began to emerge for me on a cognitive level, my faith experience was still dominated by a traditional theistic understanding of God as apart, above, and beyond. Then I made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

A Journey to the Tels 

The defining metaphor for the journey, as well as my faith, soon emerged as the tel, a human-made mound filled with history. In the Middle East, whenever one tribe or nation conquered another, they built their cities on top of the destroyed cities of their conquests. Some tels reveal as many as thirty layers of culture dating back to the Early Bronze Age. Many are located along ancient trade routes out in the open so as to be more easily defended. All of them are on or very near a spring, a well, or a stream, because water is life.

There is both a transience and permanence within a tel, with each layer reminding us that no matter how successful, faithful, privileged, or powerful a person or nation may be, it all eventually comes to an end. They also remind us that the past shapes the present and future, that we are the sum total of what has come before us, and that how we live today incarnates the future.

All of this opened new insight for me into how our life and faith are also tels layered with people, places, experiences, sights, sounds, and words that intermingle and create who we are, what we believe, and how we live. So, the excavation of my life’s tel began.

On the night before leaving for the Holy Land, I had dinner with my family in the small Georgia town where I grew up. Afterward, my brother and I visited my parents’ graves, where I reminisced with him about a lost opportunity that my mother had to visit the Holy Land. I reached down and picked up a handful of dirt and grass from her grave and said, “Mother is finally going to the Holy Land.” I put the dirt in a plastic bag and tucked it away in my suitcase. Days later, in the serene stillness and silence of a boat on the Sea of Galilee, I opened the bag and let my mother’s spirit slowly slip into the water.

Also a few days before leaving, I emailed a friend of mine (one who would understand my request) and asked him to go by Velma McCosh’s grave and tell her that I was finally going to the Holy Land. Velma had been a trusted friend, mentor, and teacher, and also a member of a congregation where I had been pastor. She was one of the few people beyond Peg with whom I could share my somewhat unorthodox spiritual wanderings. A truly spiritually liberated person, she had an understanding of God that transcends religion and understood that religion is not God, but the place where the mystery of God gets translated and interpreted. Before her death, she had encountered God in liberating ways on numerous trips to the Holy Land. My friend responded, “Mission accomplished. Tell her ‘hello’ when you see her.”

Exploring the Infinite Mystery 

An entry in my pilgrimage journal reads, “While standing on the rim of the Maktesh Ramon [in the Negev] looking into [110 million] years of history, I could nearly hear Velma talking of the infinite mystery of God and how limited and limiting our religious constructions of God are…I felt God’s breath in the wind. I saw the sunset over the canyon and the twilight turn to the most brilliant starlit sky I had ever seen.”

I emailed my friend, “I saw Velma today. Tell you about it when we meet again.”

I was beginning to truly experience Oneness, and one particular day in Jerusalem stands out as epiphanous. It was a day in and around the Temple Mount area, from the southern steps of Jesus’ time, to the excavations under Robinson’s Arch, to the Western Wall Tunnel and the prayer plaza at the Wailing Wall. What that day’s experience brought together, in one moment, will always be near the center of my understanding and experience of how transient and temporary human efforts become openings into the all-encompassing, infinite, and eternal Presence of One. At sunset, with my hands on the Wailing Wall amid a cacophony of Hebrew prayers and chants, there came the Muslim call to prayer from a minaret overhead, soon joined by bells from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Time and space merged into a timeless sensory moment as three disparate rituals echoed the awesome, infinite Presence of One. It was a threshold into a new reality through which there was no return. After describing this experience in my journal, I wrote, “My God, how big you are!”

I had come to know and encounter in new ways the mysterious divine connectedness in all of creation, and for the first time in my life, I heard the words of Jesus as I think he truly meant them when he prayed, “This is eternal life, that they may know you…so that they may be one, as we are one….As you are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…that they may become completely one…so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” As Science of Mind founder Ernest Holmes says, “God as the big circle and Man as the little circle. Man is in God and God is in Man, just as a drop of water is in the ocean, while the ocean is the drop of water.”

On the pilgrimage, I carried a photograph of my wife, our two daughters, our dog, and me that remains one of my favorite photos ever of our family. It’s of a Christmas Day, and we’re all in our pajamas scrunched together on a loveseat with faces gleeful that we have coaxed our dog onto the sofa as we eagerly anticipate the automatic timer on the camera. It is a moment of pure joy frozen in time.

On the last day in Jerusalem, we visited Yad Vashem, the Jewish people’s memorial to the Holocaust. The images that engaged and haunted me most were photographs taken before the horror: families and friends caught together in the joy of life—smiling, laughing, and loving. I found a quiet place on the grounds and pulled out the Christmas Day photo of our family and wrote in my journal, “Enjoy life when it is good!”

In reflecting on and excavating the tel of my life and faith, I go back to words written to my daughters in a letter accompanied by a few relics of my journey. Here are portions of that letter:

To my dear daughters:

In this olive wood box are four mementos for you of my pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

First is a pottery shard found in ancient dirt and uncovered with my own hands—the remains of a community long vanished from the earth, reminding us that all of the material things we hold dear will eventually be the shards of our time and place. Life and its possessions are fleeting—seek what is eternal.

Next is a smooth stone from the location of one of the first Bible stories you ever heard, David and Goliath. This smooth stone is a reminder that our greatest fears fade in the presence of the slightest faith and courage— don’t be afraid.

Then there is a half-shekel coin, the same amount as the first century (BCE) “temple tax.” To some it was a day’s wages while to others an insignificant sum. Regardless of its value to the giver, it reminds us that encountering the Holy begins with giving of one’s possessions and one’s self. Giving is the beginning of knowing the divine—be generous.

Finally, there is a rough, black rock from a spring at the head waters of the Jordan River which is the literal source of life for a land where people have encountered, worshiped, wrestled with, and rebelled against God for millennia. This rock is a remembrance that you come from holy mystery beyond understanding. Life is a mysterious gift that is part of something infinitely greater than us—embrace it, cherish it, live it.

Embracing the Oneness 

According to Ernest Holmes, “There is One Ultimate Reality, but within the One, there are many experiences.” Stepping across the threshold into Oneness is not abandoning particularity, but rather experiencing a particular path as within the abundant tapestry of Oneness. I am still a Presbyterian pastor and embrace and trust the teaching and mystery of Jesus as the primary lens through which I see and experience life. Yet I now read, sing, speak, and hear familiar words of scripture and liturgy with new appreciation of their expression of and contribution to the One.

We arrived back home to the news that because of a major snowstorm, airports across the northeast United States were closed, including those in and near home in Washington, D.C. After rearranging for a flight for the next day, I phoned my brother for a place to sleep.

He lives in the house where I grew up. And, whenever anyone ended a day of travel at my mother’s house, she usually had a pot of vegetable soup and a plate of cornbread waiting.  Coincidentally, that’s exactly what my sister-in-law had prepared for supper.

With my fill of comfort food, I sat on an old sofa that had been in the house since I could remember and recounted my adventures until I fell asleep midsentence. Sometime in the middle of the night, I woke up, still in my clothes and stretched out on the sofa. I covered myself with a blanket and thought, how many times had I done that in my life? And wasn’t it strange how all the layers of our lives are always with us? I couldn’t help but remember lines from T.S. Elliot:

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

In the still quiet of an all-too familiar place, I realized that my pilgrimage into Oneness was far from over. In fact, the adventure had just begun and is always beginning.