“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Last week was a big week for the children of the church. In addition to each class presenting a song or a Bible verse to the congregation, we listened to the third graders recite their memory work and sing “The Books of the Bible” song to a proud congregation. We enjoyed seeing the third graders examining their Bibles after receiving them, rubbing their fingers over their names imprinted in gold lettering. Those Bibles represent a big step forward in their journey of faith. They will carry that Bible with them through life. It may have been an important moment in the children’s spiritual journey.
The idea of journey is a vital part of our faith. Carl Schenck of Eden Theological Seminary wrote that we can understand the stories of Biblical people even better when we consider the Bible as a travelogue. It begins with Adam and Eve, driven from the Garden of Eden, going out on a journey, they knew not where. Then we pick up the story with Abraham and his family, and how God called them to leave their homeland, their familiar surroundings and to go to a place they knew not.
The rest of the Old Testament continues the story as Abraham’s great grandson, Joseph, goes down to Egypt and eventually takes the whole family with him, and they become enslaved there, and there’s a long period of quiet. But then Moses comes on the scene; and there are the plagues and there’s the parting of the sea, and then what? Forty years of wandering in the wilderness. On and on it goes in the Old Testament but in the New Testament we find the same thing.
How does the New Testament begin? It begins with Joseph and Mary going down from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the great enrollment. According to Matthew’s Gospel, shortly after the birth of Jesus, under the threat of King Herod, the Holy Family leaves Bethlehem and goes to Egypt. And then after Herod’s death they leave Egypt and go back to Nazareth; and so it is they are on the road, they are traveling; they are journeying all along. When Jesus is grown he leaves Nazareth and goes down to the Jordan River valley to be baptized by John, and then is driven into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. Then his whole ministry is an itinerant ministry of one who comes and circulates through all the little villages of Galilee with the one message that the reign of God was dawning upon them.
We only have one recorded time when Jesus did not walk on a journey and that is that Palm Sunday journey from Bethany into Jerusalem, just a short mile
journey, long in significance and meaning. And then only five days later…carrying his own cross. And then Easter. Many people say Easter is a track meet. Easter, when the women come out early in the morning to the tomb and find it empty and then run back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples, and they run out to see what had happened. And then by Easter afternoon we have the pilgrims on the road to Emmaus meeting the risen Lord. And what’s the rest of the New Testament? In many ways most of the rest of the New Testament is the apostle Paul, and when we think of Paul what do we think of; we think of Missionary journeys.
The Bible is not a story of a settled down people who have all the answers and know just exactly how everything is to be and all they have to do is to fall into the pattern and stay there. Rather, the Bible is a story of people who are always on a quest; always on the move; always going somewhere; always being called or sent by God to places that they did not know. Each seemed to be on an inward journey as well. What went through the hearts and minds of those people as they embarked upon their journeys? How did they feel as they drifted into unfamiliar territory? Maybe there were moments in their lives when they saw the places where God’s presence seemed near. There may have been moments of clarity in which they felt as if things gained perspective suddenly. You know that phrase, you can’t see the forest for the trees? Maybe they felt as if they had been raised out of the trees to a higher place to see the forest. But each of the journeys holds something in common. When life’s surprises, twists, turns, and perplexities left them confounded, they turned to God. When life made no sense at all, they turned to God. And also, when the real joys of life, the tangible landmarks of time were celebrated, they turned to God. When life’s wonderment and the joy of being alive never felt better, they turned to God in thanksgiving.
That is what the Bible is all about, the spirit being nourished in those moments of being with God. We, like the people of the Bible, are on a spiritual journey looking to nourish our spirit. We might consider it an inner or inward journey. It is a journey of the heart and mind, and yes, the spirit. There are moments in our lives when we feel connected to God. In those times we are soaring. There may be moments when we feel as if our spiritual life has been plugged in to its energy source because God is Spirit. When we feel those moments, we need to stop and really look hard at how we feel. Those are moments when we are feeling more human than ever.
There are two poems that receive a lot of attention on youth Sundays. One is about walking on the beach and seeing two sets of footprints in the sand, and then there is only one set in the sand when things get difficult. “That was when I carried you,” says the Lord. The other is looking at the back of an embroidered design. Finally turning over the backside jumble of threads reveals a beautiful picture on the front. These two images summarize what the spiritual journey entails. There is an intense examination of where God is in the picture. Or there
is direct questioning of God. Or there is contemplation of why things are happening as they are. Or there is an understanding of God’s presence and peace. Or all of those things.
The spiritual journey does not mean that you have been to seminary, or even learned new belief or dogma. In fact, it may mean discounting something you thought you already knew. It may be peeling away the layers of the conditioned self until we get nearer to the core of who we really are: children of God. Paul reminds the Philippians that their “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20–21). I can see why they would need to be reminded of that. The distractions of the world make that easy to forget. Or maybe they chose to avoid that fact a little too much because they felt uncomfortable with it. Whatever the reason, they did not realize that spirituality is the most powerful, most beautiful, most awesome part of being human.
According to the famous scholar Joseph Campbell, we are all familiar with that great storyline of Western civilization, the archetypal journey. He writes that in the archetypal journey, a hero leaves the world he knows to travel to a place of wonder in search of something. He encounters strange powers, engages in battle, and eventually he either gains or loses what he was searching for. Often, he then returns, always changed, to the world from which he had set out. Even though this journey metaphor lives deep in our collective Western psyche, we have trouble inserting ourselves into a storyline within the context of a spiritual journey. Maybe we need to be reminded like those Philippians that we are citizens of heaven. It is something that we seem to know but take for granted.
Since there are many paths to take and each journey as unique as the person taking it, it is challenging to even begin to talk about heaven or other spiritual matters to our friends and family. Yet moments of spiritual development should be cherished, not hidden. When big questions of life and being come into focus, questions like, Who am I? What gives life meaning? Or, what is my purpose in life? What is God’s love and grace? Do I fit into God’s plan? Does God love me? we should celebrate them. These are the real questions of life.
Questions in our spiritual journey are more like rest stops than mile markers. Since our spiritual lives are sometimes more about questions than about answers, that should bring great comfort. Knowing that God is with us in our questioning is what faith and trust are all about. Jesus Asked is the title of a book by Conrad Gempf, a British scholar. Gempf makes an interesting claim in that little book. If Jesus were alive today, and you were to encounter him on the street, he would be more likely to ask you something than to tell you anything. What would he ask? Now that is a question that could cause anyone to need a rest stop!
Asking questions is part of the heritage of the church. The disciples spent their days in Socratic dialog with Jesus, asking questions and discussing his answers. When our spiritual selves are given enough room to ask about God’s presence, we learn something about ourselves. We consider our choices. We seem to stop, to pause, to take the big picture into account and where we fit into it, and maybe
where our family fits, or our loved one. So many times in life we watch our lives go by almost like a spectator. And we look back like Ebenezer Scrooge. Remember when he looked back at his life? We may look back and say, “That was me?”
Even though we spend much of our lives unintentionally isolating ourselves and setting limits on our interaction with the spiritual, it can suddenly break through. Karl Rahner, the great twentieth century Canadian theologian, once described the spiritual as that dimension which God has provided that enables us to transcend or break out beyond ourselves and the limits of self-isolation, self-preoccupation, and self-absorption.
When it breaks through, we are suddenly confronted with a spiritual awareness, maybe a truth, or a question, and life comes into focus. This can happen in times of great joy. Or the break through can happen in times of tragedy. Sometimes it surprise us, and sometimes we can almost predict the break through is coming, but we can’t predict the magnitude of their quake. We are like the woman from Cleveland who accidentally ran a marathon. She lined up thinking she was racing a 10K but four miles into the race she realized she had gone to the wrong starting line. So she just kept going, finishing the race in four hours and four minutes. Later she was asked what she was thinking when she realized her mistake. She replied, “This isn’t the race I trained for. This isn’t the race I entered. But, for better or worse, this is the race I’m in.” We might need her response one day.
The spiritual journey itself is part of the destination. God seeks to know each of us in our lives. We don’t have to expect to find God only in the grand moments of life. We should seek God in the day-to-day living, in our homes, across our desks, in our going out and coming in. It is too easy to imagine the Divine as being somewhere far away and out of reach. So, instead of tuning in to the “still small voice” of God within, we bombard our hearts and souls with the blare of outside voices that demand from us first one loyalty and then another. As a result, we may tend to lose our sense of direction altogether. We may drift until our ship hits a rock and the jolt wakes us up. We can find God in our daily lives. It doesn’t have to be a dramatic conversion experience, although many most popular stories about spiritual life seem to begin that way.
One story that we might relate to happened in the early years of the sixteenth century. A young French soldier named Nicolas Herman was wounded in the war. He returned home to recuperate and eventually joined a Carmelite monastery where he was assigned to work in the kitchen. In later years he would write about how his soul discovered intimacy with God by prayerfully inviting God into each and every assigned task, every conversation, and every relationship as he worked in the kitchen. He once wrote that he felt nearer to God in the sanctuary of the kitchen than in the liturgy of the chapel. The experience changed his life and those around him. His written reflection, titled
The Practice of the Presence of God is still considered a great spiritual classic. It continues to change lives.
God has created us as individuals with different interests, abilities, and strengths. God works in a variety of ways to be in relationship with different people. We are all different and we each have our own journey. Each of us is called into a unique mystery of faith. Some of us are being called to leave behind superficial pursuits to find the key to deeper meaning. Some of us are being called to move beyond trepidation and anxiety to find the key to greater courage and purposeful action. Others are being called beyond despair toward the realm of lasting hope. Others are called to let go and move beyond perpetual anger and frustration to a place of patience and perseverance or the unfamiliar terrain of forgiveness and reconciliation. Some of us are being called to enter into silence and face ourselves, to end the bad habit of self loathing and learn to recognize new worth as a child of God.
Our growing edges are so vast, so different according to our character and temperament, and the different and various stages of each journey are so complex, but we share one thing in common: everyone is being called to the spiritual life. Since we are made in the image of God, and God is Spirit, we need to remind ourselves of the quote by the French scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Whether it is a big event or something very small, the next time you suddenly find yourself at a rest stop on your spiritual journey, and you feel the words of God to you from Psalm 46, when God says: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10), may your reaction be that of King David, “I have stilled, and quieted my soul.” (Psalm 131) Amen.