Reconnecting with the Journey
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RECONNECTING WITH THE JOURNEY
A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on March 19, 2017 (Third Sunday in Lent)
John 4:5-42 (The story of Jesus and a Samaritan woman meeting at a well)
The title of the book we have been discussing during Lent is “The Rebirthing of God,” but author John Philip Newell is really writing about a need for the rebirthing of the Christian faith. God is still alive; we’ve just lost touch with him/her. And so Newell calls for “reconnecting” with God/Spirit/The Ground of our Being/Source of Love, etc. Today, we “reconnect with the journey.”
Journey. I think many people over the centuries have thought about the Christian life as a destination. The point is to get baptized/saved/get your ticket to heaven, and then to just stay there. Don’t slip away. But it turns out that our spiritual life is a journey.
Maybe that is why so many Christians go on pilgrimages – sacred journeys. John Philip Newell served as the Warden of Iona Abbey on the Scottish island of Iona – a place where many pilgrims visit. He writes in the book about the founder of Iona – an Irish monk names Columba who journeyed to the strange land of Scotland in the 6th century and founded the religious community on Iona.
There are also folks who think of life as a destination. Get a job and family and a safe place to live, and then keep everything there. But nothing ever stays put forever.
I love journeys. My idea of heaven is a road trip – preferably with skis or golf clubs. My time here has been a pretty good journey.
It turns out the Bible is filled with all kinds of journey stories: Abram’s journey to a new land; the escape from bondage in Egypt; wandering in the wilderness for forty years on the way to the Promised Land; the exile to Babylon and the return to Jerusalem; Jesus’ journey to the cross; Paul’s voyage to Rome to take the gospel to the heart of the Empire. The people of faith may rest for a little while (like at a well in Samaritan country), but they are usually on the move.
I think that is a very helpful image or metaphor for our spiritual lives. It is not about achieving perfection, or total peace, or having all mysteries figured out; it is about moving and growing and traveling together with God and with others. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, we welcome and want you here.
I think God likes to journey as well. In the beginning of the Bible, God walks through the Garden of Eden, talking with Adam. When the Hebrew people were wandering in the wilderness, camping along the way, God would travel with them and camp with them in a tent. But eventually the people tried to tie God down, locking her up in the inner chamber of the temple in Jerusalem. I guess we like our God to stay put.
So where are you on your spiritual journey? Just starting out? Heading for a land flowing with milk and honey? Lost and wandering? Stuck far from home? Just following the road ahead, putting one foot in front of the other? No matter where you are, God is with you; God is at work. There are things to be learned; there are other travelers there as well.
John Philip Newell invites us to reconnect with the journey. And he sees two important dimensions to our spiritual journeys. The first is “through a journey into the forgotten and unknown depths of our own souls and traditions.” And then he continues, “It will also include an outward journey into the neglected lands and undiscovered territories of other ways of seeing and other religious inheritances.” (p. 43)
In the forgotten and unknown depths of our own souls, Newell invites us to rediscover that we are made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27), or to quote the English mystic Julian of Norwich, who lived six centuries ago, we are made “of God.” There is great beauty in us. Although, I would temper or qualify that by saying that there are a lot of people in our world who do not live in loving, creative, godly ways – including me, sometimes. I would be more likely to say that as we journey into our own souls, we may discover that we are like a beautiful, antique silver tea set – that needs some polishing. Or maybe like a rough diamond that needs to be cut and polished.
Newell tells the story of the Scottish Jesuit priest Gerald W. Hughes, who introduces himself at conferences by saying, “Hello, I’m Gerry, a unique manifestation of the Divine.”
Turn to your neighbor and introduce yourself: “Hello, I’m [name], a unique manifestation of the Divine.”
Many of Newell’s spiritual heroes and heroines seem to be those Christians who journeyed to strange lands – not as missionaries, but as pilgrims. A missionary is one who brings the gospel to a new land, trying to convince the residents there of the superiority of the Christian faith (or forcing them to accept it). But Newell sees pilgrims as those who offer their own gifts as a blessing to others, but are also open to receiving the gifts that new land and culture have to offer.
Jesus went through Samaria as a pilgrim. He offered his gifts: living water, the sustaining food of doing God’s will, himself. But he did not force them on the Samaritan woman. And he was received as a guest by the Samaritan community.
What a different history we might have if Christians had been pilgrims rather than conquerors!
But this is Newell’s challenge to a rebirthed Christianity: can we move into a new phase of our history; a new way of relationship with the world? Can we be open to the gifts of other religions? Jewish, Samaritan (there is still a small community of Samaritans in the middle-East), Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and others? Newell believe this is essential – a new leg of our journey.
It is a journey from where our ego – our need to be right – is at the center of our lives, to where we can serve the Center and truly encounter one another.
This congregation has been open to learning about, and even incorporating the gifts and the wisdom of other religious traditions.
But perhaps the most important group of people today that needs some Christian pilgrims to journey to them and with them are those who claim to have no religion at all – the “nones,” as they are sometimes called (almost 23% of Americans in 2014). The folks who have not grown up with any religious tradition whatsoever, and who see no real need for one.
But meeting and learning about these people will require a very different way of being a Christian community or church in the years ahead of this. These people will probably not come here – to our church building for a worship service. It will be up to us to become pilgrims, finding ways to journey into an unknown territory – with a willingness to listen to and learn from the people we meet there. That will be a good topic to discuss with your new pastor in the years to come. This congregation is, I believe, better able to make that trip than many churches are.
John Philip Newell concludes this chapter with a ritual or spiritual practice from the Iona Abbey. Visitors are invited to go to the bay where St. Columba landed more than 14 centuries ago – the Bay of New Beginnings it is called – and take two of the ancient stones worn by the sea. The first stone represents something to be left behind, and it is thrown away. The second stone represents something that is yearned for, and it is held close and taken back home. We don’t have an ocean bay nearby, but there are plenty of rocks in the hills around us. Maybe you might take a hike into the mountains to find a couple of rocks, and reconnect with the journey.
Robert J. von Trebra