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The Cool Side of the Pillow

Camino de Santiago

Camino de Santiago

One of the oldest spiritual practices is the pilgrimage, traveling to some place as a religious journey, going to a holy site and in doing so, symbolizing the journey of the spirit through life. There are famous ones – the route across northern Spain, the Camino, ending in Santiago de Compostola where, supposedly, the bones of St James are buried. My daughter walked that some years ago and it has been in my thoughts often.

In Buddhism, there are sites connected with the Buddha – last year I loved Colin Thubron’s book To a Mountain in Tibet about Mount Kailas, a destination for both Buddhists and Hindus. There are Buddhist pilgrimages in China and in Japan.

The Khumb Mela is a Hindu pilgrimage to the river Ganges – over 100 million went on this pilgrimage this year [that ’s about the combined population of California, New York, Texas, and Florida -- or the whole of the Philippines, or 300 Icelands]. Jews go to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. Unitarians go to Boston [or Fenway Park or Chavez Ravine, depending].

Maybe the Pacific Crest Trail or John Muir Trail, or the Lost Coast. You may have your own sacred spots – maybe it is a pilgrimage to a childhood home, or to a cemetery, or a place in the natural world. Maybe Trader Joes.

[Listen Here]

One the most famous pilgrimages is the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca – just ending now. It is one of the pillars of Islam, an expectation that every healthy Muslim will take once in their lifetime. It is as important as prayer and giving charity. It remembers events from the life of the prophet Muhammad, and its roots go even further back to the life of Abraham.

You know the story? Abraham and his wife Sarah are around 80+ years old and have no children. God appears to them and tells them that he will make of their descendants a great nation. Sarah offers her handmaiden, Hagar, to Abraham and they have a child, Ishmael. But Sarah becomes jealous and drives Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert. They survive and Ishmael is considered to be the father of the Arabs – and hence of Islam. [Puts an interesting twist on that famous phrase ‘Call me Ishmael,’ doesn’t it?]

When God then tells the 90-year-old Sarah she will have a son, she laughs. Isaac is born – in Hebrew the name suggests he who laughs! Oh that Bible – it is filled with surprises. And so Sarah and Abraham leave their home and wander, until finally they come to Palestine and settle. The rest is history.

The story, though, does not end there. God tells Abraham to take his only son Isaac up onto a mountain, and there, he tells Abraham to build an altar, lay fire wood on it, then take his son Isaac and sacrifice him. As they have traveled up the mountain, Isaac keeps asking his father where the ram for sacrifice is. Abraham says that God will provide the sacrifice.

In the Islamic version, Ishmael is the one to be sacrificed and he is aware of what is going on – and tells his father to go ahead. This is what the holiday Eid al Adha, at the end of the hajj, commemorates.

In both versions, Abraham’s hand is stayed and a ram is found nearby and the sacrifice is

Bob Dylan starts his great song Highway 61 Revisited with these words:

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”

Soren Kierkegaard wrote a book about this incident, Fear and Trembling, in which he imagines
four differing scenarios, from Abraham refusing to actually sacrificing Isaac.

It is meant to be a story about obedience, of course, and it is taught as an example of faith, that somehow Abraham is to be admired. I never really understood the lesson here, and I remember this as one of the first cracks in the armor of my childhood faith, wondering what kind of God would set up such a test, and what kind of perverted faith would be willing to condone something so heinous. It always bothered me. I thought of my father, gentle and kind, but a man of deep faith, and what torture it would have been for him to have something such demanded of him.

It made me think of the demands of faith and the nature of obedience, and just what constitutes the religious life; it made me begin to think about what is spiritually healthy and what now, or where, do we – or at least I – find strength and comfort? It leads me to ask: To what am I loyal, to what do I surrender?

Or, more precisely: what am I willing to sacrifice? I still wonder about that. What am I willing to sacrifice?

Probably not a lot, if truth be known. Probably not a whole lot. I don’t think sacrifice is at the top of most of our desires. Is it? I mean the sacrifice of something that matters.

What would you be willing to sacrifice for your faith? Your son, your daughter, your best friend? How about your house or your car? What about your sofa or your stove? How about 10% of your income? Maybe just that book on the nightstand? Or a table lamp? Your smart phone or iPad? How about? … well, you chose. Maybe your privilege?

When I was little, we used to take vacations every year in Northern Minnesota. My Mom’s sister and her husband lived in a small town, Menahga, Minnesota, a bit south of Bemidji [wonderful names up there] and somewhat west of Highway 61 of Bob Dylan fame. Bemidji was famous for a huge statue of Paul Bunyan and Babe the blue ox, and we would be sure to go over and visit each year. [The statues appear in the movie Fargo and it was startling to see them – and in winter].

It was lake country, and we rented a little cabin at a camp on a lake. We fished and picked blueberries, swatted mosquitoes, went swimming – vacation stuff. I shared a bed with my brother, a rolled up blanket between us so we wouldn’t – well whatever it was we shouldn’t we wouldn’t do at night or in our sleep.

I insisted always on bringing my own pillow from home. My brother was one of those who just always fell asleep and never woke up. I was a fidgety sleeper and would turn and turn until I finally feel asleep. I remember – in those warm summer evenings – always looking for the cool side of the pillow, and when I found it, there was a sense of satisfaction; there was hope and almost a feeling of salvation. Tension would leave and for a moment there would be peace in the world.

That is still true. Know what I mean? The cool side of the pillow, that place when you cannot settle, you find comfort and hope?

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I’ll come back to this.

One of the highlights of our trips to northern Minnesota was seeing moose. They are huge animals and often were seen on the shores across the lake from our cabin. I would row over and watch them when I could. Ever see one up close? They are really huge animals.

They are dying off. One Minnesota population has declined from 4000 to 100 in the last 20 years, and the cause is most likely global warming – their habitat is dwindling and there are too many ticks around and they weaken the moose, resulting in their inability to survive the harsh winter.

Well, if you have been listening closely, so far, in this service, we have Islam, various pilgrimages, the population of Iceland, Abraham and Isaac and Ishmael, northern Minnesota, pillows and moose, the Hokey Pokey, climate change and Bill McKibben. How does this all tie together, you might ask?

Let me go to back to Bill McKibben.

He is one of our modern heroes – along with people like Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry, David Brower and Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold – who have alerted us to the declining health of the natural world and at the same time portrayed our deep dependence and spiritual kinship with the natural world.

Glove Lake, Minnesota

Glove Lake, Minnesota

McKibben's first book was called The End of Nature in which he argued that, for all intents and purposes, there is no more true nature left – the entire planet has been affected by human activity. He does not say this is necessarily bad – just a fact we should accept. His latest book is about energy and energy companies. McKibben founded the group in 2007 named from the supposedly safe level of hydrocarbons in the atmosphere – 350 parts per million. We are now at 400 ppm and there is no sign of it slowing down. 350 is just a dream now.

We have gone past the tipping point – we have changed the earth’s atmosphere too much and we will not go back. Can you realistically imagine Congress adopting meaningful environmental policies?

When I was little, I believed in a loving God, a god like my Dad, who was kind and gentle and on my side. If God made awful demands, like in the story of Abraham and Isaac, I believed that it would turn out all right – that God would provide; things would be well.

But I slowly learned that is not the case. I lost my faith, and, as Klinkenborg says, losing your faith is not all that hard. It is hard at first, but pretty easy soon enough. Before long, it’s like nothing was lost at all. You just don’t miss it. People do it all the time. But, Klinkenborg goes on – ‘What’s hard is losing your residual faith, the desire to believe that the system is working – the desire to believe after belief itself has gone.’

Perhaps that is why you are here – the desire to believe after belief itself has gone. There is the desire – this is true for McKibben; it is true for me, the desire to believe that we can change our ways, even though all the evidence suggests otherwise.

So what should we do? Just turn the pillow over and look for the cool side and go back to sleep? Say we are willing to sacrifice something precious with the expectation that God will intrude so we don’t really have to sacrifice anything at all? Go on a pilgrimage so that our hearts are turned? Stick our heads in the sand? Eat, drink and be merry because we who live with such privilege will be the very last to suffer?

Is it enough to drive a Prius [we should line all of them up some Sunday out here] or maybe we should ride a bike more often? How about switching out all our light bulbs to LEDs and composting all our organic waste? Are backyard chickens part of the answer? Do we stop eating red meat?

Does any of that make a real difference anymore? The answer is probably ‘no’ but if it helps us feel better about how we live, then those are the right things to do. They are certainly not wrong. It is better not to add to a problem even if we cannot solve it.

Is there anything we do that matters or that can make a difference? McKibben says this: Live in places with strong communities, and strong communities come about because people make them. Build strong communities. Not communities of privilege – we have plenty of those – just look around you – but communities of opportunity, communities of inclusion. This is our residual faith, that in spite of it all, we can make a difference, if we are together.

For much of my life, I thought that the cool side of the pillow would be found in how I thought – whether there was a god or goddess or not, whether there was life after death or whether the soul was immortal. I thought that maybe the cool side of the pillow would be found in my inward journey – whether psychological, emotional or spiritual – that writing prayers or seeing a therapist or doing yoga, running or walking would give me relief from the weariness of the world. That maybe I should go on a pilgrimage, walk the Camino, do the Pacific Crest Trail. Do a journey.

All of those are good things – they can be very good things – but McKibben is right – the cool side, the side that gives me rest, that comforts, that gives me hope, that brings rest so that I can begin again, is in community. It is in community that we dive deep, in community we find our whole selves, in a community we can throw our whole selves in and dance.

Put very bluntly, my question for you today is this: what are you willing to sacrifice so that the world might be more of what we hope it could be? And, as you look to call a new senior minister and have a conversation with Tony Robinson today, what are you willing to sacrifice to help this congregation, this beloved community be what it could be?

In community we can believe. We have no other choice.


So tonight, or any night, when worry about the world keeps you awake, and you turn your pillow, seeking the cool side of the pillow; remember this place here, this community, and understand that here, right here, in this place, is the salvation of the world.

Sweet dreams.

Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson
Neighborhood Church

Thursday, 24 October 2013