At 3:50 a.m. Deanne, our daughter Sarah, and I met the other young people headed to Nicaragua for their mission pilgrimage trip: Cooper, Anna, Emily, John, Peter, Edie, Alice, Claire, Mary, Katie, Megan, Hal, Molly and their chaperones Sharon, Mark, Kurt, Leigh and Tim. Hopefully, at this moment, they are worshiping somewhere in Leon – praising God in Spanish and having a sensory and spiritual overload.
You can’t help but be changed by moving out of your comfort zones. I remember going to southern Mexico for a week, sleeping on the floor and watching the rats run on the beams overhead, drinking orange fanta, watching the local volcano smoke and teaching the kids “pato, pato, ganso!” which is “duck, duck, goose.”
I doubt our kids will change any lives in Leon. But I do want our kids’ lives changed. What I pray for them is that they will find God and feel God and come back a little different and slightly dangerous.
Wayne Simsic, a professor at Ursuline College, differentiates pilgrimage from a tour or a retreat:
“A pilgrimage is a movement towards God, opening every sense to receive God – being aware of each step as walking on holy ground, tapping into deep attentiveness – being aware of self and others, space, time and history.”
Clover has organized pilgrimages to the Holy Lands, to Turkey and Greece and just last March to Rome – and before that there were pilgrimages to Iona, Nicaragua and Ghost Ranch. We claimed the title “pilgrimage” when 35 of us went to Washington, D.C. last October to walk the path of African American history. We are a pilgrim church.
Anne Wilson just got back from Spain where, she said, she walked a section of one of the truly ancient pilgrimage walks: El Camino de Santiago.
These pilgrimages expand the spirit, open eyes, hearts and minds to God. Walking in the footsteps of the saints, martyrs, apostles, Jesus – is powerful stuff.
God called Sarah and Abraham on a pilgrimage that changed world history. Sarah and Abraham moved from place to place, from site to site – Shechem, Oaks of Moreh, the hill country east of Beth-el – building altars and invoking the name of the Lord as they headed by stages toward the Negeb. The Negeb is, of course a desert – barren and brutal – picture the Dead Sea, Masada. Pilgrimages aren’t always pleasant – you have to be willing to look for God and feel for God and yearn for God in the strangest places where, at times, God doesn’t seem to be present at all.
This morning I want to talk about the pilgrimage which is not so exotic. Perhaps the sermon should have been entitled: “How to go on pilgrimage without going anywhere.”
Pilgrimages to historic sites and faraway places aren’t affordable for many, aren’t possible for those who don’t have free time, or who are set in place by sickness, or by care giving, or whatever.
It is nice to have a destination – but sometimes the most important pilgrimage is the pilgrimage inward. As Thomas Merton once said: “The geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out of an inner journey.”
Marcel Proust once wrote: “The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
Sometimes you have to go. When we were young it was important to get away from Cleveland, or the family – to push the limit. To find, as the Dixie Chicks sing: “wide open spaces,” where there is freedom to “make the big mistake,” “seek new faces” and “reach for higher stakes.” These movements away from are natural and good – they need to happen.
Sometimes we try to run away from God – but frankly, I believe that what we end up doing is moving directly into the loving arms of a God who will not let us go.
Sometimes you have no choice but to stay. But I think of a great pilgrim; Martha Harry who inspired my mother so deeply. A brilliant woman, traveled all over, read everything – became totally blind and for the last – perhaps decade of her life – pretty much stayed in her nursing home in Washington D.C. And yet she kept pursuing God into the darkness, into the blindness – she was a character – but she saw things and knew things – each day was a journey in discovering.
I think of pilgrim John who has cared for his wife who has Alzheimer’s for the last 10 years. Not a choice that everyone can or even should make – he has resources that many of us don’t have – but he cares for his wife so tenderly… does she even know him? He does not use pilgrimage terms – but this past ten years has been transformative for him and called him towards God.
I think of the pilgrim whose last name is Kennedy who I read about many years ago who became disabled. She wrote this: “You are going to think this is nuts, but becoming disabled is a marvelous thing to go through. Even if a lot of it is hideous, it’s a privilege, really, like an odyssey to hell and back… if everybody could do it, and come out of it able-bodied, I’d really recommend it.” As Helen Keller – another pilgrim, said: “Life is either a dangerous adventure or it’s nothing.”
And you are on journeys of life: The young seeking to find location, direction and identity.
Many of us feeling the years and feeling our mortality.
I called my folks the other day and I told them that I woke up with a back ache and was going to have a “procedure” in the near future (I shall spare you details – but everyone over 50 has had one! – it involves drinking a yucky solution) and Mom said, “You sound like one of us old folks!”
It is all about how you frame your life and interpret your being. I encourage you to get new eyes, even if you are going blind. I want you to take each step, even if you can’t get around like you used to, as if you were walking on holy ground.
Claim for yourself the title of pilgrim. You don’t have to go anywhere. And you can still have lots of fun – because on every pilgrimage that I have ever gone on – there is laughter and “limoncello,” and pictures that should have been destroyed, and lots of “aha” moments.
I love the words in chapter 12 of Hebrews: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Those are verses to walk by.
Think how it might change your life and the way you perceive it, and the importance you give to it, and the choices you might make if you claimed that you were on a pilgrimage and every step was holy and full of God – looking to Jesus – on a pilgrimage to the “throne of God” – to a throne not where the great judge sits, ready to tell you what you did wrong – but where the divine innkeeper is – to welcome you home.
Home – the place you have been searching for all along, with food and drink and fellowship – as you complete your travels.