Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Eastmain and Beyond

July 20, 2005
Tomorrow morning, Doug and I are going to set out on a 1,000 km journey to East Main, Quebec. We have been invited to participate in a diocesan aboriginal gathering. We'll be collaborating on a workshop on healing. If it is good, it will be very, VERY good, but if it is bad -- hey, let's not go there.

July 26, 2005 (after driving 2500 km and spending three days with fellow travellers in search of hope and healing)
1. Eastmain is one word, not two. The community is named after the Eastmain River, which empties into James Bay. The aboriginal price for gasoline there is $1.06 per litre.
2. The James Bay highway is 620km long. It is intersected by the transtaiga highway, a gravel road which is 688km long. We didn't see the latter because we turned off the JB hwy at kilmeter 350.
3. Archbishop Douglas Hambidge (our keynote speaker) sleeps in his mitre, but he never wears it to breakfast. (That's what he told me, anyway! This amazing man spent two years in Tanzania as principal of a theological seminary after he retired from his ecclesiastical career in British Columbia -- that was his way of getting away from it all. He now mentors rookie bishops in Africa. They call him gamaliel, which is Swahili for "great leader." He can't read Cree syllabics yet, but he can read Anglican liturgy in Swahili.)

December 17, 2005.
I planned to write more about our Eastmain trek once I had time to catch up on my sleep and reflect on my experience, but I didn't get around to it until now. The memories are faint now, but the imprints of the experience are on my soul.
This was the first time I have ever had the opportunity to do any kind of teaching about inner healing. I've been practising it for 25 years or so, but no one seemed particularly interested in what I was doing. Healing emotional wounds through prayer is even more suspect than healing physical problems. 1. It doesn't work. ("You're a nice lady and you mean well, but there is nothing you can do to help.") 2. It's not necessary. ("Once you accept Jesus/get baptized in the Holy Spirit, you are perfectly healed at all levels and are showing a lack of faith if you look further." 3. It's evil. ("Psychology is of the devil and Agnes Sanford was a New Age witch.")

So how did I get this job? I volunteered. Doug had a three-hour slot to fill, so he welcomed a little extra input. He put lots of fences around me, though. I was to speak for one hour and one hour only, after he had introduced the topic. That would give him an hour to clean up any misconceptions I might have spread.
I decided I was not going to spend that precious time making speeches which nobody could recall afterwards. I wrote down the basics, as simply as possible, because English is not the first language of my intended audience. I decided to leave my actual presentation under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit in real time. That's the way I usually work. One advantage to that method is that I never know what's coming next, so I don't get bored.

Soon after my arrival, I started hearing, "We hurt. What can we do to help ourselves?" That was marvellously refreshing -- no denial, no fancy footwork, no blaming of Whitey or the Evil Federal Government. Just the question: WHAT CAN WE DO? These people were ready for anything positive we could give them. The intimidating question for me was, "What makes me think I have anything to offer?" These people have a painful history, a difficult present, and an uncertain future. I didn't know if I would be strong enough to cope with what they face every day. I had no answers to catapult them into a new sunrise of peace and good will and prosperity. If anybody should be teaching anybody, they should be teaching me. I realized that I was completely inadequate to the task I had so confidently undertaken. I had nothing to offer but myself.

Our first workshop went smoothly. There was a little bit of interchange, and most of the people stayed awake for most of the time. I did a lot of storytelling and a couple of spiritual exercises. In the evening, I walked out to the sweat lodge and had some conversation along the way, but I chose not to participate in the ritual.

Despite the fact they they use holy water in this traditional ceremony of purification, it's still too much of a stretch for me. A non-aboriginal lady who underwent it for the first time that week-end said she was glad she did. Next time I'll bring along a long skirt (the obligatory attire for women in sweat lodge), just in case.

The next morning, I woke up in a fog of tears. I could feel pain everywhere. People were allowing themselves to open up. I got into a deep conversation over breakfast and started praying for people as the opportunity presented itself. As we were gathering for our opening session, I felt I had to speak publicly and encourage everyone not to hold back the process that was unfolding. As so often happens in these occasions, I didn't know what I was going to say, other than the first sentence.

I asked Archbishop Hambidge to give up some of his time at the mic to allow me to speak. After some consultation with the organizers, my presumptuous request was granted. I said something like: "I feel tears in the air this morning. Don't hold them back. Share them. If we can freely share who we are -- share our experience, strength and hope as well as our tears and regrets and bitterness -- then the answers will come, not from us, but from God." The translation that followed was so extensive that I suspect some commentary was added. I took that as a good sign. I had been heard. I had also heard myself. If I can be who I am, without masks or weapons or clever ideas, and share that without trying to create any kind of impression, then the answers will come. Not from me, not from my fellow travellers, but from God. That simple insight was enough to demolish my entire ministry model.

At our second workshop, one of the presenters came in early and flopped down on the couch. I can't remember exacly what he said, but the intent was, "I'm beat. Sock it to me." I laid hands on him and told him to breathe deeply. He floated off somewhere, then floated back, opened his eyes, and smiled. "That feels wonderful."

When my turn came in the workshop, I talked for about ten minutes, and then asked the group to lay hands on me. They did a great job. I asked, "Who's next?" This unleashed a joyful and powerful session of healing prayer that involved all of us. When we finally wound down, we were too tired to do anything more, but nobody wanted to leave. We knew God had been in the room with us, and we wanted to savour the moment.

From then on, everything went by too quickly. I wanted to stay forever. Our time together was precious -- a sharing of strength and courage and laughter and pain. We were family. We belonged to each other. Nothing was more important than that.

Archbishop Douglas Hambidge spoke about identity and empowerment. "When we know who God is, who our brothers and sisters are, and who we are, that is empowerment." His ideas were not revolutionary or slickly packaged, but they hit home. He believed what he said because he said nothing that he did not believe. In Africa, they call him "Gamaliel". Great leader. He deserves the title, although he would be the last to admit it. This is a man who has achieved much more than could reasonably be expected. I usually envy such people, but I fell madly in love with him instead. He lifted me up and showed me new possibilities for living. When I finished praying with my healing team at the final eucharist, I went over to his team and asked them to pray for my ministry -- that it would truly follow God's path.

I believe that our prayer is being answered at this very moment.

July 6, 2006.
Here I am, almost a year later. It's been a tough year for me. I decided that I was empty and needed to discover my identity as a child of God. I decided to give up the performance thing and learn how to look after myself as God longs to look after me. I've made progress, but not without physical symptoms and anxiety attacks. I've had days of living in the moment that were so beautiful that it seemed impossible that they would ever end. I've had days of living in fear and rage and a body that would not do what I want.

On August 15, I am going to Mistissini with my husband. All the churches in town will be invited to attend. Instead of the intimate circle, we will face a crowd and speak through a translator. I am starting to jot down some notes about belonging -- belonging to our community, our God, and our authentic selves. According to the Linns (Dennis, Matthew & Sheila), addictions are our misguided and often self-destructive attempts to phone home when we have lost our connection.

I didn't get far before I started asking myself what my addictions are and why I chose them over other addictions. #1 Worry -- an attempt to control the future. #2 Happy helping -- distracting myself from my own pain and needs by focusing on the needs of others. #3 Food, which helps me feel connected. It's not food I crave as much as fellowship, and the pleasure of the person who prepared it.
I don't have time to divest myself of those three compulsions by August 15, let alone my innumerable other defects of character. So I have a choice: don the Hallowe'en costume of perfection, or bring myself just as I am.
I have nothing to bring to the circle but myself. That is the hardest lesson I have learned this year.

February 10, 2007.
In Mistissini, we stayed in a three-star hotel by the lake, across from Elder's Point, the traditional teaching centre. The community looked more like an urban subdivision than an isolated First Nations reservation. Money is flowing in from the James Bay electrical power project, and the members of the band council are doing their best to make sure that the cash benefits the community. The rapid transition is generating some future shock.

There was no need to worry how I would perform before a big crowd. We had just the right number of people for a talking circle. The community was grieving some recent tragedies. Even with the filter of translation, we connected.
The Sunday service turn-out was no bigger than usual, but the Holy Spirit was there. We had two teams laying on hands. Doug and I worked together -- a rare occasion. That alone was worth the whole trip. We were doing something we both felt passionate about, something we hoped would make a positive difference in the universe, bring God into our human circle.

All the time that we were laying on hands, the members of the congregation were praying in the pews, some holding onto each other, some weeping. As we were finishing, the mood lifted. We shared communion with a sense of celebration.

After lunch, I was completely depleted. I went for a walk with our designated dog -- a young black lab who showed up on the deck in front of our hotel room about ten minutes after we checked in and hung around during our entire stay. I felt as if I was carrying a half-ton load of cement, but I kept putting one foot in front of the other. The dog amused himself by picking up various objects and carrying them, practising for a future career as a retriever.

I was told that we had made an impact on the community -- that we would leave something useful behind. I have always been ambiguous about the idea of non-aboriginal people invading First Nations space with teaching and advice. Now I'm re-thinking that. We are all absolutely equal in our need for God's grace, and we all carry the same spiritual power -- the power to bring God closer. Maybe we are meant to be part of each other's healing process.

Doug and I have been invited to the diocesan healing gathering in Chisasibi (another burgeoning community on the Quebec side of the James Bay coast) this coming July. "We want to learn more about spiritual healing."

It's a long drive through the wilderness, but I want to be there. I'm already rehearsing what I want to pass on from my own quarter-century journey of prayer. I could write an entire book, but I will have to keep it manageable. Write down, as simply as I can, what is burning in my heart, give it away, and then trust God to take care of the rest.

I long to let go of everything I count on for identity, self-importance, and self-esteem. I want to get it right. But I won't. I am fallible. No matter how much I prepare and pray and study and compile and sweat, I can't be all things to all people. I can't control the results of my efforts. If I can accept that, there is hope.

September 20, 2007.
The healing gathering in Chisasibi was cancelled at the last minute, leaving me without closure for the strong sense of call I had about this journey. Our attempt to use that time for R&R backfired when Doug was hospitalized with pneumonia in Sault Ste Marie.

I told Doug that I would not be available for any missions next summer, but I'm not sure that is the right decision. I guess I'll have to go with the flow if the opportunity comes up.

I am left with a work-in-progress on the topic of forgiveness. I am wondering -- should I write a book? Is that the meaning of my frustration -- that I need to communicate? I have often wanted to write a book about inner healing, but I was afraid that the time would come when I would be ashamed to be reminded of an earlier, less evolved phase of my development. I keep changing my mind, learning new things, becoming increasingly aware of what I don't know.

If I wait too long, I will realize that I know nothing at all, and will have no motivation to write anything down.

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