There is stretch of parkland that runs along a freeway for many kilometers, that over the years has become a sacred space for me. It is where I’ve regularly run my ’10ks of sanity’ but also where I’ve also strolled with friends, picnicked, taught my lads to ride, and been the site of my adventures into interactive community art installations that open bible text and prompt prayers in the open public unaffiliated green space of the park.
Over the years it has become to me a favourite corridor in the larger Cathedral of Cosmos. The idea of viewing life in the ‘Cathedral of the Cosmos’ is a way I have of locating myself constantly in the reality of sacredness of all space – opening myself to encounter God and others in the framework of grace, and to resist the privileging of some structures (architectural, intellectual and cultural) over others as more likely hosts of Spirit and Word.
Running through this especially beautiful space, of nature and community, has grown in me attention to what I think of as a ‘Short-legged Liturgy’. As I pound along in praise and prayer, I empty out all the pride and pity, loves and longings, sabotage and shame, hopes to hasten the holy, weary darkness, wrought tensions, cries for cracking open of justice across creation, lurking lies, unbearable burdens and broken bits from my my heart.
By the end of my run all of my sins have sweated their way to the surface; there they sit stinking, my stench, out exposed confessed to the world, and waiting for washing in daily baptism.
Although there is much solitary inner world work, the path is peopled to greet with peace.
Yesterday morning, the sun bright in an unobstructed pure blue sky illuminated the entire landscape; the brilliant sparkle of black bitumen before me on the path, the gleaming greens grass beneath and gum leaves overhead. Deep in my own heart discussions, ahead on the path I saw a woman, slight framed, middle-eastern complexion in jumper and jeans, stop under a Lemon Gum that shaded the path. She paused and then extended her arms into the air, her palms unfolded before the sky, fingers elegantly extended in a posture of peace and freedom. Surely this is a prayer I am watching.
She remained like this for a few moments, then moved to set her bag down on a nearby bench, by which time I was not 2 meters from her.
I could not help myself. I stopped and approached her.
“I saw your arms reach up and open under the tree; it looked like a prayer. Were you praying?”
“Yes!” her look of surprise at being addressed by this red faced runner dissolved into a sparkling smile.
“It was so beautiful, I thought it must have been a prayer. I run here and all my steps are prayers too. It is such a sacred place.”
Affirmations and agreements poured between us – two strangers – on the beauty of the world around us, the openness of God we encounter within this beauty and the instinctive response of prayer it calls forth in us both.
“Do you have a particular faith or religion you identify with – or is this kind of prayer here in the parkland your spirituality?” I enquired.
“I am Muslim, and I know Jesus. Because Jesus has spoken to me in dreams.”
I smile back at her. “I know Jesus, too. I follow Jesus. But this place is also my place of knowing and loving God, a place of prayer in a way, that is larger than a christian church, larger than my tradition.”
“Are you a Christian?”
“Yes I am.”
And then a long beautiful peace-filled conversation unfurled in which we affirmed the complexities of faith, which, when lived in the world spills over the boundaries of our religions. We find ourselves drawn by a God who will be known and loved, however it is that we might be found by that knowing and loving.
“Do you know of our prophet Mohammed?’ she asks.
“Yes, I do. I have read a small amount of islamic writings, only a bit…” I confess.
“Our scriptures say that a person can only have faith if God wants it, if it is God’s will.”
Again, I find connection: “The Christian scriptures also say this. That faith is a gift that is given by God. Faith doesn’t come by our own efforts, by trying, by learning. If we have faith, it is because God has given it to us.”
And so we continue to open the scriptures that each of carries in our minds to one another – we talk of Sarah and Abraham, Paul and Moses. We speak of their lives interrupted by God’s voice and truth and love.
She says to me “I am glad to meet you – a Christian. I do know other Christians, but you are different.” (if I had a dollar for every time someone had called me different…) “My neighbour is a Christian but she’s so strict and always worrying and crying. And she is not sure how I can be a Muslim and love Jesus too.”
She continues “I think I want to go to church, but when I talk to Christians they want to teach me things: to give me a Fasi Bible to study. I want to love Jesus. That isn’t just to be learnt.”
Here, this Muslim Christian who prays in joyful expressive freedom beneath the open blue sky, puts her so gentle and gracious finger on one of the sorest points of the contemporary church. Our compulsive behaviour of learning beliefs. Our one narrow epistemology – which has distorted the beauty of our faith – a faith of gift and a faith of grace; a faith of loving and knowing as one reconciling action.
She asks if I go to church. That’s a complicated question, for one who serves across many denominations, has found much grace expressed in the strength and weakness in them all, but only temporary nesting places, before the wind stirs again, topples me from my branch and moves me on. And I have just recently moved on, and belonging is still feeling fragile. But there are also long long long term steady communities and practices that sustain and connect me to others of faith, which I give my whole heart and much time to.
Is it important to have a ‘church’ identity at all? Just this week I had settled on a slightly cheeky ecumenical identity, drawing on the legacy of the late twentieth century Baptist fringe expression ‘The House of the Gentle Bunyip’ associated with the great scholar Athol Gill. I had found a resonance in the identity of Gypsy Bunyip. But I didn’t think I could really make a convincing acquittal of this messy life to my new Irani parkland companion.
I simply say – ‘Yes, I meet with others who follow Jesus, in lots of ways, and running here on the trail is also a way meeting with God even more strongly and beautifully than I might in a church – and today I have met with you, too – a person of great faith.
Our conversation begins to daw to a close, and we speak of the faith we hope and trust for our children, well, young men.
In the end, I say to her ‘You spoke before of Moses. Moses was called a friend of God – he was with God face to face as a friend. That is the faith I see in you, and the faith I seek myself. We are here. face to face as friends. We are Friends of God and Friends of one another.
We shared peace with each other, shaking hands, smiling deeply into each others face, then this Muslim Christian, and this Gypsy Bunyip embraced long, as if friends of many years, and went each on their path onward through the Cathedral of the Cosmos.