A service of celebration is planned for Saturday, July 25th at 2:30pm at Montview Blvd Presbyterian Church in Denver,

Dr. Jim Erdman, Sacquoy Head, northcoast of Rousay, Orkney

Dad died Wednesday, February 4, after a battle with cancer (see the obituary I've written further down below). Immediately below is a tale about my dad and a window into what he taught me: what I will always carry with me, the riches received that I get to pass on to others.  It's an excerpt from a book I started a half-dozen years ago but haven't touched since 2010 (other book projects bumped this book on spiritual practices and put it on the back burner).  The book's provisional title is Sainte Terrer: How to Make an Altar of Every Day Life.  The excerpt will explain the odd French title.

I grew up hiking and fly-fishing, backpacking and picnicking in the Colorado Rockies.  My father is a scientist who’s spent his life in a love affair with these valleys, streams, and peaks—the granite and pine, trout and Columbine that populate this magnificent part of the Earth.  When he and I stand in the same valley we experience it very differently.  He sees the subtle moraine laid down eons ago by some vast, retreating glacier.  He feels the mighty forces that belched this rock from Earth’s belly billions of years ago.  He imagines the achingly long, painful processes that twisted and tilted this ancient rock into the peaks we now traverse.  He can tell me exactly why a certain conifer grows on this side of the valley and not on the other, why schist appears here and not there, what we might expect when we cross over yonder pass between those two ten thousand foot spires. 

Dad will correct you if you call what we’re doing “hiking”.  And because of the way he loves this land, he’s got good reason to.  We’re walking, he says—or better, “sauntering” . . . not hiking.  To support his argument, he’ll paraphrase Thoreau and shout something like this over his shoulder as you follow him along the trail:

I’ve only met one or two persons in my life who understand the art of Walking—people who had a genius for sauntering.  Sauntering’s a word that comes from what folks used to call those fools who roved around the European countryside in the Middle Ages asking charity, pretending they were going a la Sainte Terre, that is, “to the Holy Land.”    

The village kids would laugh and point at these crack pots saying, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer!”  

A Saunterer.  A Holy-Lander.  

Know this, my son, there are those who never know the ground beneath their feet as holy; they’re mere idlers and vagabonds, not true saunterers.  What we’re doing now, if you’re aware of the ground beneath your feet, is what true sauntering is all about. (Adapted from Henry David Thoreau's little book, Walking)

Sauntering’s what my father aims to do.  When he does, and I’m with him, I can see it in his eyes—that misty-eyed gaze of those who, after a long journey, finally glimpse the Holy City rising before them in the distance.  He is a Sainte-Terrer.  These mountains, trees, and rivers, lazy fawns and ambling bear are his Holy Land.  And each high mountain stream, teeming with brook trout, is Jerusalem to him. 

But there are many who never go to the Holy Land in their walks.  They hike.  It’s not that they intend to miss the mystery that is this Holy Land.  They know there’s more here than meets the eye; they just don’t know how to see it.  They’ve got no real training in sauntering, in holiness.  They are “idlers and vagabonds” across these mountains, when they intuitively long to be Sainte Terrers, Holy-Landers whose love gives them eyes to see all that’s beyond first- and even second-glance. 

I think it was these walks with my father that made me hunger for holiness before I ever knew what it was.  I realize now that his love of the divine in every blessed thing upon this Earth and the way he encountered them taught me my first rudimentary practices for pursuing the Holy and finding It.  

Sauntering with my father upon this sacred Earth, I first learned that there is always more than meets the eye.  But this “sight” was not learned by happenstance.  My father had very specific guidelines for our forays into the wilderness, and he was not always kind if I ignored them.  He taught them to me to keep me safe, of course, to ensure that I could survive in this land if I became lost or hurt.  But even more, he taught me these guidelines and simple practices so that I would know how to move slowly and gently, even reverently upon the Earth, my eyes and ears no longer dull to the goodness of God that’s always all around me no matter where I find myself to be.  

Keeping safe is one thing, and I’d pay a pretty penny to keep myself alive—though there’s not any real beauty in just staying safe, keeping yourself alive.  But keeping myself alive to awe is quite another thing, and anything that can do that is priceless. 

 

An Overview of Jim Erdman's Life:

James Allen Erdman, was born December 20, 1935 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Robert and Esther Erdman.  He died peacefully on February 4, 2015 at his mountain “hermitage” high in the Rocky Mountains near Red Feather Lakes, Colorado.  He’d fought a brief struggle against Mesothelioma, cancer of the lining around the lungs.  He was 79.

In the early 1960s, Jim was a member of the Wetherill Mesa archeological team that helped expand Mesa Verde National Park (near Cortez, Colorado) to include some of the most remarkable ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings, including the famed “Long House”.  There he completed his research in botany and earned a PhD in plant ecology from the University of Colorado, Boulder.  Later, he taught at Fort Lewis College, Durango, Colorado, until he became a geobotanist for the United States Geological Survey in Lakewood, Colorado, a position he held until he retired in the 1990s.  Jim’s scientific research contributed to non-invasive and more environmentally friendly techniques for mineral exploration, the control of noxious weeds in prairie ranch lands, and the management of wetlands and other natural resources.  A pioneer in his field, he presented his research in the Soviet Union, China, Scandinavia, and at symposiums across North America.  

 A writer, activist, and provocateur, Jim was deeply concerned about the environmental challenges before us.  He contributed generously to political causes he felt would contribute to the flourishing of the natural world.  In later years, he combined a keen understanding of natural science with insights drawn from history and anthropology in order to address the cultural and political mistakes he felt certain are leading us toward disaster.  His final paper, “A Sketch of Three Cultures—Past, Present, Future—Weld County, Colorado” (2013) focused on the interaction between the natural world and its human inhabitants and directly challenged the threat posed to both by the fracking industry.  He concluded that paper with a quote from an unknown author, typical of his outlook: “The human spirit needs places where nature has not been rearranged by the hand of man.”

Jim was above all a naturalist, in love with the all things wild and wonderful.  Only months before his death he was still climbing fourteen thousand foot peaks, and curating nature walks at the Soapstone Prairie Natural Area in the wilderness north of Fort Collins.

Jim was preceded in death by his wife, Mardi Erdman (died 1994), whom he adored.  He is survived by his sister, Betsy Germanotta of Boston, Massachusetts (married to Dante, deceased), brother, John Erdman of Milwaukee, Wisconsin (married to Maritsa), and sons, Chris Neufeld-Erdman of Fresno, California (married to Patty) and James F. Erdman of Blackhawk, Colorado (married to Karen).  He is grandfather to seven grandchildren: Josh, Jeremy, Katy, Sarah, Hannah, and their spouses/partners (from Chris and Patty), and Jake, Kasey Rose, and their spouses/partners (from James and Karen); he also has three great-grandchildren: Mason, Carter, and Ellie. 

A service of celebration is planned for Saturday, July 25th at 2:30pm at Montview Blvd Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado. All are welcome.  

Posted
AuthorChris Neufeld-Erdman
CategoriesBE
17 CommentsPost a comment

We all pursue happiness, but it remains so elusive.  Yet happiness is so basic to human yearning.

How can I be happy?

How can happiness pervade my life, lifting me from my preoccupations and from the grumbling that seems to go on inside my head, dragging me down?

Is there something I can do, a simple spiritual practice, available to all, that can open me up to happiness?

David Steindl-Rast, a monk and interfaith scholar testifies that happiness is born from gratitude.

Here is an inspiring lesson in slowing down, looking where you’re going, and above all, being grateful.


Posted
AuthorChris Neufeld-Erdman
CategoriesBE
Photo  by   tinyenormous

Photo by tinyenormous

I've got to say a little something about the beauty of our humanity.  Yours.  Mine.  Everyone's.

I said things kinds of thing last Sunday in a sermon.  And it struck a chord.  It seems there's a darkness and heaviness that lies heavy over a lot of us.  Maybe this is a time when seeing the beauty of ourselves is, for a lot of us, particularly difficult.

And so, to convey something of our essential beauty, I'm exploring the words of two witnesses to this beauty:  Jesus Christ and Dante Alighieri.  Jesus likely doesn't need an introduction, but maybe Dante does.  He's the thirteenth century Italian genius, who's epic poem, the Comedia or Divine Comedy, may well be the ultimate masterpiece exploring the inner work of spiritual transformation.

Dante begins his vision of the path of inner, spiritual transformation with these words:

“I woke to find myself in a dark wood.”

The spiritual journey is a journey, often dark and frightful, to discover what is within us all the time. 

And what is within us?

Jesus said, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5).  He means that there is within each of us a light that comes from God and will never be put out.  The problem is that there are forces in our lives that have distanced and disconnected us from that light—the parent who told us that we’d never amount to anything, the relative or neighbor who abused us, the loved one who abandoned or neglected or betrayed us.  These kinds of things lead us to believe false things about ourselves—things opposed to the truth Jesus tells us about ourselves.  

“You are the light of the world,” says Jesus.  But we say, You gotta be kidding.”

Jesus means to open us to a deeper truth too long hidden from our eyes.  He means to soften the hard ground, to give light within where too much darkness abounds, to bless where shame and pain hold us in an inner prison.  Sin loves the shame the shrouds our souls.  Sin exults in the pain that blankets the inner light.  Sin is the great deception that would lead me, for example, to believe that I’m worse that I really am.  Of course, it can also lead me to believe, in a self-inflated way, that I’m better than others. 

The work of transformation isn’t easy work.  It’s a journey from darkness to light, from falsehood to truth.  It means suffering—for all that is false and ugly must be pulled from me.  The things I cling to, the things that hold me captive must go—my illusions about myself, my addictions, my failures . . . all this must go, and none of it will go without a fight.

Embracing the truth about myself, the light I hold within me, will mean that I must journey through suffering into wholeness, from ugliness into beauty, from fear into wonder.  It’s a journey into the depths of my beautiful, God-breathed soul—a soul made by God, cherished by God, held by God.  It’s a journey into freedom.  But that I have trouble seeing that beauty doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.”  

Something inside me scoffs and hisses in my head, but something else within me hopes and wonders.

Am I?  Are you?

In a dark wood it’s hard to see anything at all.  And so, we, as did Dante on his journey into the depths of fear and pain, will emerge in paradise, through suffering, to find the light Jesus says was there all the time.  Dante ends his great poem with these lines:

“As in a wheel whose motion nothing jars/By the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

That love and light is within you and me, it holds the center of our lives.  Our spiritual work is to become what we, made in God’s image, already are and will more fully become . . . sooner or later.

Posted
AuthorChris Neufeld-Erdman
CategoriesBE

 

Blaise Pascal said, "In difficult times carry something beautiful in your heart."

I like that.  

It's so easy to find ourselves overwhelmed by what's broken--by darkness, fear, and trouble.  And there's plenty of all that around us.  

Instead, carry something beautiful in your heart.  It'll hold it all that at bay; it'll push back against the darkness that sometimes feels so suffocatingly powerful--both the forces outside us and inside us.

Beauty is bigger, more powerful.  It has a force of light and the eternal about it.  It is a source of hope.  

So to any of you who find the shadows drawing near you.  If winter's lingering long in your soul, the earthen clay of your heart hardened by whatever it is that creeps around inside you, making you feel dull, bleak, cold and hard . . . then here's a little beauty that can--if you hold it to your heart, feeling its warmth--bring a little of the greening power of spring to the winter of your life.

I suggest you find a way to just sit with this after the eight minute visual poem is finished.  Don't hurry or let another task pull you too quickly from the beauty that wants to carry you through whatever difficulty gnaws at your heart.  

And take care that you don't do too much theology or philosophy or science.  It's a poem.  If you try to explain it or debate it, you'll have missed it.  

Peace.


Posted
AuthorChris Neufeld-Erdman
CategoriesBE

Despite the rage over mindfulness these days, I confess I’m a slacker.

Sure, I’m all for the focus meditative practices bring into my life.  I practice at least twenty minutes of meditation once a day.  Sometimes more.  I have for years.  Meditation centers me, pulls me away from the continual lure of distraction, and helps me train my mind not to follow every thought wherever it wants to take me.  Through meditation the cage full of monkeys in my mind grows calm and still—or more calm and more still than it otherwise would be.  

Photograph by Peter Hapak for TIME

Photograph by Peter Hapak for TIME

What’s more, meditation involves me in more than mental health exercises that balance the brain and free my body from many of the stresses of the modern age.  Through meditation, I draw my renegade mind down into my heart and become more fully integrated as a human being—rooted in a non-grasping experience of the love of God who gives me a deep sense of belonging, meaning, and empowerment.  I wouldn’t likely know all this without this kind of praying.

That said, while I practice what many call mindfulness, and I’m grateful for its growing popularity and the broadening of its practice, there are at least two reasons I’m slow to jump on the bandwagon.

 

1.  The term for me is a turn off and, therefore, unhelpful.  

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be full of my mind.  I’ve had enough already of all that goes on inside it.  I want less of my mind not more.  And mindfulness conjures up in my head visions of an oversized brain.  Of course, Jon Kabat-Zinn and others will tell me I’m mistaken, and I maybe am.  They’ll tell me that mindfulness isn’t about thinking.  I get that.  But mindfulness is a word like playfulness and joyfulness, awfulness and hatefulness.  It is the state of being as full of mind as I might be full of hatred.  

And I don’t want to be full of my mind.  

To be fully and authentically and robustly human, I want my mind to find its proper place within me.  And I don’t think that place is to fully dominate the rest of me.  

Now of course, I know that’s not what mindfulness practitioners are after.  But words matter, and frankly, the word just doesn’t help me to get where mindfulness is supposed to take me.

I’d rather experience the presence of mind.  That is, I’d like to cultivate a mind that’s more present to my body and my heart (or soul)—a mind that knows and values its place within the larger household of my being.  

So, when I become still and silent, I’m neither filling myself with my mind nor am I emptying it.  To help my mind become present to the rest of me and to God, I pray this prayer that I’ve drawn from the ancient Christian tradition and recrafted for today:

I still my lips that my mind may seek;

I still my mind that my heart may seek;

I still my heart and hide inside the Deep Silence,

'till What I seek finds me.

Following this prayer, I just sit and bring my full self to full attention before God.  Click HERE for an example of this kind of meditative practice.

In this way, my body, mind, and heart are drawn together in a unity of surrender and presence before God, and I avoid privileging any one of those parts.  I mean no disrespect for those who practice mindfulness and who draw their practices from other religious traditions, but for me the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ honors the fullness of my humanity—all of me and not only one part.

Someone will say I’m splitting hairs over words.  But hey, if mindfulness is a useful word for you and helps you find the balanced humanity we're made for, more power to you.  But for me, and for a number of others I suspect, it’s a word that doesn’t carry me where I need to go.  

 

2.  There are benefits that come to a wandering mind.

While there are many benefits that come from mindfulness training—focus, clarity, release from the relentless machinations of the mind’s thinking function, and an increased ability to be present here and now—there's a downside to all this.  Current research on mindfulness training shows us that there are real benefits that come from a mind that isn’t so taut, so disciplined, so focused on one thing . . . or no-thing.  

This doesn’t mean that we want to celebrate distraction.  No, distraction’s an epidemic today.  And if mindfulness can help heal us of the disease, I’m all for it.  But studies show that a mind that is too focused may not have the necessary freedom to wander down the interior paths that can lead us to insight, discovery, and creativity.  

A week ago last Sunday, the New York Times ran an article called Breathing In Verses Spacing Out: Is Mindfulness Always Best?  “Mindfulness could have unwanted side effects,” writes Dan Hurley.  New studies in mindfulness show that “raising roadblocks to the mind’s peregrinations could prevent the very sort of mental vacations that lead to epiphanies.”  

What this means practically is that the practice of meditation or contemplation—my mind present to the rest of me (that is, in my body and in my little part of the world rather than following my thoughts wherever they wish to carry me)—meditative practice can create an inner space that’s free enough from the relentless distractions of our modern world so that I can allow my mind to graze freely like a horse in an open pasture.  Contemplative practices like “mindfulness”, tether the mind, or fence it in, so that it doesn’t wander too far afield.  But if the mind is too tightly corralled the mind doesn’t have the freedom to discover new things.

So, yes, let's practice the presence of mind—focusing our awareness on the here and now—so that we can heal ourselves of the relentless distractions that pull and claw at us.  And then let us let go and let the mind wander with freedom so that our creativity can flourish and we can stumble upon those epiphanies (or let them come to us) that make life interesting.

Posted
AuthorChris Neufeld-Erdman
CategoriesBE, DO, PRAY
3 CommentsPost a comment