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One goes on pilgrimage expecting life changing moments. Through a controlled series of “adverse” circumstances, each person is challenged to adjust to radical time changes that affect sleep patterns, not always knowing whether the sun is up or down, eating at different times of the day and from different cuisines, and not being able to eat at other times that one might prefer. Pilgrims expect to be physically challenged with climbing and running, not surprised by the occasional stumble and fall. Pilgrims expect to learn that we all have our limits, and also that, with God’s help, we can stretch beyond those limits with grace and discover inner strength that we didn’t know we had. Pilgrimage leaders expect that some will push the boundaries and that others will need to be encouraged to keep up with the flow. All of this, we knew, would be part of being a pilgrim.
What we hadn’t anticipated was that all of that would happen in the first 24 hours before we ever left Atlanta.
Jesus said: “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you.”
We never got “haggis” to my joy, but we also never got a Scottish Egg, which I was really looking forward to. We did, however, get very nice meals and had lovely accommodations. The “food” that was set before us was life away from home. The mixture of sometimes very difficult and awkward conversations in the context of exquisitely beautiful scenery was the gastronomic equivalent of a diet made up of vegetables and oatmeal for an entrée followed by a platter piled high with rich desserts. It was clear each day that we received for our nourishment both what we NEEDED and what God graciously poured out onto us, our plates overflowing.
We quickly learned that each day we had two choices. We could choose to “eat what was in front of us” and look for the presence of God in the circumstances and be grateful OR we could complain about what was in front of us, focus on ourselves to the exclusion of the group, and sulk. At first, choosing the first option was a disingenuous gesture and sort of a joke. By the end of the week, it was a habit that made sense because of the positive effect of that choice on the individual and on the whole group.
One of the pilgrims remarked that the published itinerary had omitted three of the holiest sites we visited: Gates T14, T17, and D38, places where much spiritual formation happened. And he’s absolutely right.
Imagining that going on a pilgrimage to Scotland is about seeing Scotland is like becoming a Christian so you can get to heaven. The kingdom of God has come near to us, as near as the circumstances in each day that play out before our eyes. As the week wore on, and we entered each new day choosing to find God and to give thanks for wherever we were, we started noticing other things. Because we were looking for God, we saw God. “Coincidences” were glimpses of the Spirit showing up. Funny situations were not silly asides, but recognized as refreshers gifted to us by God just when we needed recharging.
And being able to talk about hard things became an important endeavor because what hurt one hurt us all. And if one young person could tell the story of turning his life around, that spelled hope for all of us who from time to time recognize the need to make major changes, to take heart in one of St. Benedict’s oft-repeated mantras: Every day, begin again.
When Jesus sent the seventy out in advance of his personal visits, he knew that it would be a challenge for each of them to manage their pride, their sense of entitlement, and frankly their exuberance. After all, they were bringing news that the long-awaited Messiah of God was here, in their very midst. But, when all you’ve ever known is the story of waiting, even the news that the wait is over can be hard to receive.
Delivering important news requires effective communication skills, and those necessitate strong social connections. And strong social connections are made through seeing each other the way God sees us – beloved, in process, and — above all — imperfect.
Our focus on the pilgrimage was the sacredness of impermanence, learning to see God at work in an ever-changing world and in our ever-changing lives. We learned above all that the stories that once defined and limited us — these stories don’t need to be permanent. We can choose to write sequels to them; to alter the plot lines, even introduce whole new heroes.
We can also think of “looking for God” as “being curious”. We can learn a habit of holy curiosity, wondering why someone is acting or reacting as they are before judging them. All of this takes time, and it can be wearisome for sure.
On the journey home which somehow managed to surpass the journey there in difficulty, one of the pilgrims asked me to remind her of what behaviors would guarantee me sending them straight home so that she could engage in it and hopefully get herself on a plane going home. Fortunately for her and for all of us, even the delays eventually proved to be impermanent and we made it home a mere thirty hours after we set out.
All in all, the trip was so rich that I struggle to find one collect to pull it all together. Not surprisingly I think the most appropriate one is from the service for the ordination of priests, which I hasten to happen one day to some who made this journey.
Let us pray: O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: look favorably on your whole church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia Park, LPC, PhD
July 7, 2019
The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost