Archive | February, 2016

My last pilgrimage

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I returned last night from my seventh pilgrimage to Israel.

Except for the people who stayed behind for a visit to Petra (across the border in Jordan), everyone returned safely and in good health. I always breathe a big sigh of relief when everyone finds their luggage and waves goodbye at the airport.

I also resolve never to go again. “This is definitely the last pilgrimage for me,” I told myself last night. Frankly, I’m not sure how excited I can get about one more boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, or one more visit to the souvenir shops in Bethlehem. I have had my fill of olive wood trinkets, long lines at holy sites, and 6:30 wake-up calls from the front desk – “Please have your bags outside your door by 7:00!”

But then, a few years will pass, and another group will convince me that it’s time to go again. I have given in each time.

During my first visit I cried pretty much every day for the first three or four days. Maybe it was the jet lag, but something about seeing the Sea of Galilee for the first time brought waves of tears. Members of that tour group probably wondered how much blubbering they would have to tolerate from their pastor. A lot, as it turned out. Every new site brought more tears.

And I still cry, more than 20 years after that first visit.

Last week I found myself for the first time at the synagogue in Nazareth where Jesus preached for the hometown folks and nearly got himself tossed over a cliff outside of town. The structure has been rebuilt several times, but the floor, we were told, was the original. I had my doubts about that, as I did with the authenticity of many of the sites we visited, but still … I found myself there last week, reading the story from Luke’s gospel for members of my tour group who were seated in small plastic chairs, and I was weeping over the thought of it – that Jesus had once stood somewhere near there and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The scene has never been more vivid in my imagination.

This, I have come to realize, is the meaning of pilgrimage. No one knows anymore where Jesus preached that sermon in Nazareth – or where exactly he was buried – but none of that matters. We go to breathe the air, smell the smells, hear the sounds, see the rocks (they are everywhere), and then remember the stories. We go to have our faith deepened and renewed, to see for ourselves where all of it happened, to have old stories come alive.

My only souvenir this year was a little twig from an olive tree at the Garden of Gethsemane. I tucked it into my travel Bible where it will stay until the next time I go. Can you imagine how many pilgrims over the years have pulled on the branches of those trees?

I am glad I was there … again.

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A little something for Ash Wednesday

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I prefer my spiritual experiences to be as tame as possible. I like to decide when and where they are going to happen. If possible, I prefer to pray when it suits me, when it is not an interruption to my busy schedule.

Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness were anything but tame. In Mark’s account of the experience, the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness, suggesting to me that he didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. Mark’s gospel, with all of its stories about demons and exorcisms, takes the spiritual life very seriously, more seriously than I usually do.

For Jesus, his time in the wilderness was not a time to contemplate a beautiful sunset or to remark about God’s majesty in creation, which is what usually counts as a religious experience for most people I know. Instead, it was a difficult and heart-wrenching time.

Not eating for 40 days must have heightened his other senses, and when Jesus encountered the devil in the wilderness, he needed to be alert. He needed every bit of strength he could muster. He was challenged, I assume, as he had never been challenged before, a young man coming face to face with nothing less than the meaning and purpose of his life.

As Diogenes Allen, my seminary teacher, puts it in his classic book about the temptations (a parent who names a child Diogenes should not be surprised when he grows up to be philosopher), Jesus was challenged specifically on the issues of material comfort, personal security, and prestige, and in all three areas Jesus – rather remarkably to me – chose faithfulness to God.

I must say, I have never been quite as courageous as Jesus was in these areas. I like material comfort, personal security, and more than a sprinkling of prestige.

My own wilderness experiences have never been times of my own choosing. When they happen, I always want to be anywhere but in the wilderness, but there – more than once in my life – is where I found myself. And believe me, there is nothing pretty about the wilderness. Jesus, we are told, faced wild animals, but the wild animals in my own life have not been wolves and hyenas. More typically they have been my own thoughts, my awful habit of making excuses for my behavior, my eagerness to confuse my own will with God’s will for me.

As I enter this season of the year known as Lent, I am aware that the seasons of our lives are seldom the ones we choose. They do not start and stop based on church calendars. They almost never begin with a pancake supper at church. I usually find myself in the wilderness when I least expect it.

Even so, I invite you to join me during this Lenten season in following Jesus who showed the way for us, who demonstrated courage we will never equal, and whose victory over sin and death makes our own victory possible.

(Note: I submitted something like this to my church’s Lenten devotional guide this year.)

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Have I learned anything?

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Can I help it that I am looking back quite a bit these days? Older men tend to do that.

I look back partly because the tread on my tires is showing some wear, and it’s interesting to think about where I’ve been.

Also, I wonder if there’s anything that I’ve learned along the way.

A few years ago some seminary classmates and I applied for a Lilly Endowment grant. Our project sounded important, and the grant application was apparently quite convincing. We said we wanted look back over our decades of church experience and discover if there was anything worth passing along, perhaps to a new generation of pastors.

We even adopted the African word “sankofa” as the name for our group and the title of our project. But that decision may have exhausted our supply of creative energy. (Sankofa is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates – roughly – to “go back and get it.” The symbol is a bird turning around to find an egg and creating a heart shape.)

Don’t get me wrong. We certainly had fun with the grant money. We traveled around – Montreal, Pittsburgh, Austin, and I may have forgotten a place or two. We enjoyed good meals, and we played cards late into the night. I seem to remember that a good bourbon was a part of our research as well.

We somehow convinced well-known theologians in each of those cities to spend a week with us. In the mornings, we would crowd into their book-lined offices, ask serious questions, and then listen as we remembered how much fun it was to be a theological student. In some ways, I now realize, we were reliving our student days.

When our money ran out three years later, we hadn’t published anything, and frankly we hadn’t thought of anything that our vast experience of church service had taught us, nothing that a newer generation of pastors might find worth knowing.

We worked and worked and came up empty.

In the years since the grant ended I have thought often of our project, but haven’t thought of anything that we missed. Ministry has changed so much since I started that I find myself wondering if I really know anything that a new pastor might want to know.

On the way to the train station yesterday morning, I found myself walking with a neighbor who was on his way to a card game with some other pensioners in our village. Our conversation turned out to be unexpected gift.

After a few minutes of German, which he gladly indulges me whenever we meet, we switched to English, and I asked him what he did before he retired. He was an engineer, he told me, at work on ways to store energy. Energy from the wind and sun isn’t worth much, as it turns out, if you can’t save it for those times when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

Unfortunately, he said, research today is almost entirely in batteries, not in the interesting methods he spent his life exploring and perfecting. I asked him how it felt to have devoted his life to something that no one today considered valuable.

He didn’t hesitate with his reply. He told me that the enjoyment was in the work – the endless fascination of it, the sense of discovery, the joy of progress. He seemed to have no regrets.

We reached the train station too soon, I thought, and so I headed up the steps to Track 3, and he kept going to his card game.

I think I would enjoy playing cards with him and learning from him. He has something to teach me.

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