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From Dallas to Capetown: Sabbatical 1998 Reflections

Presentation for Rector's Forum at All Saints Church

From Dallas to Capetown: Sabbatical 1998 Reflections
Sunday, November 29, 1998 James Walker

Island Visit

From the initial planning of the sabbatical, I had intended to make a trip to Cuba, to experience Afro-​Cuban liturgical traditions. I had an official invitation to visit from the Anglican Bishop in Havana, and I waded through the complicated process of obtaining legal permission from the U.S. government. And I did get an official license to visit.

To make a long story short, plans for this trip fell through because of circumstances beyond my control. That was very disappointing, but ultimately for the best, in terms of the overall pacing of the sabbatical.

Still, there was something in me that felt compelled to visit an island … one that began with the letter “C”. So, I went to Catalina.

What began as a sort of silly idea, going to an island that began with the letter “C”, turned out to be quite an important experience. I went there with the intent of a 2-​day get-​away — just to breathe some fresh air, read a novel and take walks.

There was more in store for me.

My second day on Catalina, I decided to take a walk to the Botanical Gardens and the Wrigley Memorial. It’s about a 4-​mile excursion, round-​trip, from the Avalon beach — not a hugely difficult hike, but not a small one either.

Memories of painful experiences in a College Christian Community for which I was organist-​choirmaster came back to me in a vivid manner. The last time I was on Catalina was with that group, 15 years ago, attending a pretty scary “Christian Camp”.

Now, in August, 1998, walking up that road to the Wrigley monument, I was struck by what seemed like hundreds of golf carts, passing me on the way (golf carts being the primary automotive means of transportation in Avalon).

I was reminded of an outstanding essay by the late theologian Erik Routley, entitled “Holy Disorders,” which was an important document to me in that whole experience 15 years ago. Routley’s essay addresses the disturbing reality, in church music, of sacrificing standards in favor of that which is easy.

He writes:

Remember that humanity is at its best when doing difficult things, not when doing easy ones. Human nature can always be seduced from goodness and happiness by people who build a motor road up the mountain; walking up it may take longer and produce various muscular aches, but it nourishes certain qualities of which some people are naturally afraid. You may have something to say yourself about what you see, and they don’t want to hear it unless it is what they’ve already said to you.”

As I was walking up that road, a magnificent bank of clouds was sneaking over the top of the mountain, far above the Wrigley monument. Had I been in a vehicle, I would have totally missed the majestic beauty of those mystical clouds enveloping the mountaintop. I experienced a moment of great personal clarity: that I want to passionately grab hold of the full, rich, panoramic experiences of life, on my own feet. I don’t want to settle for a snapshot taken from the window of a golf cart.

And, I want to keep Routley’s words as frontlets to my eyes, especially in our culture of sound bites, immediate gratification and quick fixes. God is in the walk up the mountain. Perspective: a profoundly healing moment.

It is amazing to me how God reveals herself in the most unlikely times and places — like on a whimsical visit to an island that begins with the letter “C”.

A nationally-​recognized conductor and concert organist, James Walker entertains and enlightens audiences throughout the United States, and his solo recitals are broadcast on National Public Radio. Winner of the prestigious Mader National Organ-​Playing Competition in 1986, he is a featured soloist at Bach festivals and regional and national music conventions. Currently James is Director of Music at All Saints Church, Pasadena, California.