January 3, 2021 – A Marvelous Journey

I have never been one who has enjoyed traveling.  When I was young, my favorite part of taking a journey was coming home.  My travels as a child mainly centered around taking my sister, who is 14 years older than me, to or from college.  I dreaded those long hours trapped in the car, the seeming eternity separated from my Atari video game system.  So much so that there was there was even a little song that I sang in the car as these long journeys neared their end.  Since this is the first time we are together, I don’t want to sabotage our budding relationships by subjecting you to my voice and singing that for you.

Even today, when the time comes time to take a vacation I am filled with dread.  I hate the idea of packing. Because I am little OCD, I always tend to overpack, planning for any contingency which could arise or harm befall us.  And because of that, I am always dangerously close to the maximum weight for my suitcases and struggle to get them through the airport.  I believe I have been placed on some sort of terror watch list because whenever I go through airport screenings I am inevitably subjected to a high level of search.  But probably the biggest difficulty for me is leaving the safety of my home and taking a chance on uncertain circumstances, uncertain when I will reach my destination and what it will be like.

The longest journey I have ever taken in my life was the trip home after adopting our son Pax in South Korea.  When we began our journey, we had only received custody two days prior.  Pax was understandably traumatized after being separated from his foster mother and being placed with strangers who spoke a foreign language.  None of us slept those first two nights, and we knew the long flight home would be brutal.

Our journey entailed a 14-hour flight from Seoul to Chicago.  What made this long journey feel even longer was that somewhere prior to boarding the plane, my son contracted the stomach flu.  The entire plane ride was consumed with his crying.  Soon after we took off, we realized he had a fever.  Then came the symptoms you normally associate with the stomach flu.  Amidst all of the sounds of screaming, the changes of clothes, and the dirty looks from other passengers, all we wanted to do was arrive at our destination.  When we finally landed in Chicago, the line to go through immigration was one of the longest I had ever seen.  As the line inched along, we thought this was the final obstacle we would have to face before we were able to finally be home.  But before we could get there, we had to take Pax to an urgent care because he had become so sick.

Today is the day the Christian churches recognize as Epiphany, a reference to the journey of the Magi to find the Christ child.  The book of Matthew tells of wise men from the East who begin a journey to find the source of a light in the heavens.  They leave all that is familiar to enter a foreign land, searching for something based only on this light they have seen.  As so often happens, this long and difficult journey takes some unexpected turns.  Upon arriving in Jerusalem, they inquire of King Herod whether he knew the location of the child they sought.  But they are surprised to learn that the king and all of Jerusalem are frightened.  So much so, these travelers are sent to Bethlehem and told to report back what they find.  They continue to follow the light and finally arrive to find the child they sought.  But they are then warned in a dream not to return to King Herod, so they are forced to return home through another path.

What I find most meaningful in this story of the Magi is their willingness to take this long and difficult journey, not knowing what they will encounter on the way or what their destination will be.  Confident their journey will be worth it, they are willing to endure hardship, willing to face some uncertainty to find the light they sought.  They recognized the value of their journey, even if they did not know how it would end or what they would encounter along the way.  They embraced a journey uncertain of their destination but determined to overcome the obstacles they would face along the way.

The circumstances which surround a journey may be one of the reasons it has become an integral part of spirituality.  Journey in the form of pilgrimages is a spiritual practice for nearly every major religion in the world.  Some of these pilgrimages are a religious requirement, a pillar of faith, as with the Hajj in Islam. Other journeys are taken as a gesture of penance. During the Middle Ages, pilgrims walked the Camino de Santiago to obtain a plenary indulgence declaring their sins were forgiven. Other pilgrimages were undertaken in pursuit of healing, as with Lourdes, or simply because of the pilgrim’s desire to encounter the Divine in tangible ways, such as pilgrimages taken to the Holy Land to walk in the footsteps of Christ.

At first glance it appears that each of these journeys are tied to a destination. But the pilgrimage is much more about recognizing our true selves, discovering who we are, how we see ourselves in relation to the Divine.  It is a time of self-exploration, of reflection.  Pilgrims taking these journeys leave behind what is comfortable, what is known, not just to travel to a destination but to be transformed.

Any journey can take on the dimension of a pilgrimage when we approach each movement with intention, when we are attentive and listen deeply to all that we experience along the way, when we allow what we hold sacred to be our guide.  When we, like the Magi, leave the familiar—with all the trappings that keep us feeling confident, secure, in control—for places that are unknown and require humility, letting go, and moving bravely in a new direction. When we follow a light.  But unlike the Magi, we are not guided by the light from a star.  Rather, we follow the light within ourselves.

My desire to reach a destination in my journeys occurs for me not during just physical travel, but also on my emotional and spiritual journeys as well.  I have longed for certainty in my understanding of God, to be able to fully embrace a given theology, to say that I have healed from the difficulties I have experienced in life, that I am fully the person I want to be.  But the more I long for those destinations, the more I realize I am still on a journey to finding those things.  And that the journey itself may be my destination.

The poem that Teresa read this morning is one which is particularly meaning for me, and I’m grateful to hear it read today by someone who has been such an important part of my own journey.  Teresa has been instrumental in welcoming me to the Disciples of Christ and guiding me as I journey through ministry and faith.  A journey that has led me here today.

During a retreat I attended two years ago, I was on a difficult leg of my journey.  I was struggling with the difficult decision of whether to leave the church at which I was pastor.  I was also preparing for the loss of a close friend who was nearing the end of his life.  I shared these struggles with a friend who had attended several of these retreats with me.  She too was struggling with where she found herself in her life’s journey at that time.  She had just ended a long relationship and had been on a journey with her mother as she battled advanced dementia.  My friend said that for so long she just wanted to reach a place of happiness, to be in a relationship which fulfilled her, to have the relationship back with her mother that she always treasured, to arrive at these destinations.  In the midst of her struggle with the journey she found herself on, she discovered the poem we heard Teresa read.  And as she began reading that poem each morning, she was able to remind herself to find meaning where she was in her journey, even if she felt she had not yet arrived where she wanted to be, even when the journey was difficult.

When the retreat convened, the leader indicated she wanted to begin by reading a poem.  Having no idea that my friend and I had just discussed it, the leader of the retreat read that same poem “Ithaka.”  That was too much of a coincidence for me not to take notice of how that poem related to where I was on my own journey.  As I began to read that poem each morning like my friend had done, I realized that I did not need to rush to my “Ithaka”, whatever that may look like.  But to find meaning in the journey I found myself on, to find value in the experiences I encountered, to embrace my journey rather than rush to a destination.

Today we begin a new journey together.  A journey I am so excited to begin.  But like all journeys, there is also some anxiety, a fear of the unknown and the unexpected.  And I’m sure that some of you are feeling the same way.  Since we will be traveling companions on this journey together, first let me share a little about myself.  Like some of you, I consider myself a recovering fundamentalist.  I was raised in a very conservative Baptist church, but even from a young age struggled with that theology.  Since that time, I have been on a journey of discovering what I believe free of what was imposed on me by others.  This community was actually a part of that journey.  As I found the courage to leave what was familiar, I found myself reading Bob and Susan’s reflections online not expecting I would one day have the honor of ministering in the same community.

As we begin this journey together, I also want to share some things which I hope will help to ease any anxiety which may surround it.  Assurances I wish to impart for how I will be as a traveling companion.  First, I commit to doing my best for each of you and for this community, to continue the great work you have done together and to explore new ways this community can be even more vibrant.  Second, I commit to be honest with you, even if the truth is difficult to hear.  In this time of transition, there will be choices to be made, changes to consider, and I will do my best to give you my honest viewpoint for the steps ahead.  Finally, I commit to being present for you to the greatest extent possible.  One of my greatest loves in ministry is providing pastoral care.  I consider it a great honor to be invited into the lives of others. I hope I can earn your trust and be invited into your lives as we journey together.

I also ask for a few things from all of you to make this journey less anxious for me.  I ask you to be direct with me.  If I disappoint you, offend you in some way, please tell me.  I ask for your patience and your grace.  Beginning this role is daunting, particularly in the midst of a pandemic.  It is going to take me some time to get to know all of you, get a sense of who you are as a community, understand where you are and where you want to go on your journey together.   But as I told Bob and Susan, I will do all I can to continue the great legacy of the work they have done here.

There was one other thing that was significant about my journey home with Pax from South Korea.  We were told that the adoption was not final until the door closed on the airplane.  Up until that time, the woman who gave birth to Pax could come and claim him.  Even though the journey home was incredibly difficult, it was also the best journey I have ever taken.  Because I knew that no matter what happened, no matter what difficulties we encountered, no one could take Pax from my arms again.  And even though that journey was difficult, I wouldn’t have changed a thing about it.  Even though there was so much uncertainty, even though there was hardship, a light entered my life which would not have been possible if I had not been willing to take that journey.

The journey we begin today will inevitably have challenges.  Like me on that 14-hour plane ride with a sick 2-year-old, we may just long to get to a destination.  But it is not a destination, not an Ithaka, that brought me here.  It is the journey, sharing this journey with each of you.  And even if we never reach our Ithaka, I am confident our journey together will be a marvelous one.  Amen.