Look up the word. It entails a religious person doing something. The religious person who has read the holy scriptures, prayed the written prayers, and sung the hymns of old is moved out from the shadow of the Bible and into the light of the stories it tells.
Demons get cast out of people.
Thousands are fed.
People walk on water.
Water turns to wine.
The dead are raised to life.
The more educated I became about the Bible, I found myself coming up with reasonable solutions as to why the stories it told weren’t actually true. They were just folk tales told to kids back then, giving answers to life’s tough questions.
Red Seas can’t actually part.
The lame couldn’t really have been healed.
Jesus couldn’t have turned a few fishes into a Sizzler buffet.
And there is no way Jesus really stepped out of a tomb after being crucified.
These were only stories that had some moral lesson in it…right?
And so I went to Israel on pilgrimage.
And here I am today, writing to tell you I had it all wrong.
I’ve been to the hillbilly town of Nazareth. I’ve sat at the Sea of Galilee where Jesus fed more than five thousand people. I’ve sailed the sea where Jesus walked over the waters. I stood above the house where Jesus taught Peter and the Apostles, and I’ve even baptized people in the river Jordan.
By day two in Israel I could not stop the tears from streaming down my eyes.
I was terribly convicted. I found that I had domesticated Scripture. As long as I told the Bible how it should behave and highlighted the passages that best suited my lifestyle, it could be that book to help me when I called for assistance. I was its master and it worked well that way.
Pilgrimage, however, offers a different kind of outcome than I had planned.
The stories I read in the Bible were journal entries describing spiritual lessons that challenged this physical realm called earth. These storytelling priests described a backwards kingdom whenever they encountered God and maybe that explains why Scripture often seems ridiculous to me.
It’s into that ridiculous story that God calls us.
Scripture challenges us to imagine a world run by God. In that world the poor are rich, the blind can see, the first are last, enemies are my friends, people can command the oceans, and special needs kids can talk. I read that and I wanted to believe the Bible but, “surely God, you don’t do this today.” And so, at just the right time in my life, God called me to pilgrimage. He called out from across the ocean and said, “Come Shawn!: taste, see, feel, and experience.”
And everything I wanted to believe, I now do.
I know now what God wants us to see. I know exactly what everyone in our church needs to do to see what God wants us to see. And so I ask you, the reader, do you want to see? If not, all you will ever know about God is what others tell you. But if you want to see, get ready for the pilgrimage. For God is only experienced in that. When you say to God, “I’m with you, where else can I go?” you invite God into your story. And we don’t read the stories of a sedentary God. No, this God, when invited in, does the unimaginable. I can testify to it! God has taken me, this broken boy from a troubled home and set his course straight. He has taught me that mute sons have much more to say and teach than I could have ever imagined. He has given me a loving wife, a brilliant daughter, and a stable home life. Where I’m from that doesn’t happen. But it did happen…and because I went to the land of miracles God showed me how the kingdom really works.
If only we invite God in, if only we dared to believe and follow His ways…
That proverbial Red Sea in your life would split to allow you to get through it.
The life trials you never wanted would become your saving graces.
And healing might come in the acceptance that life serves us what it will and God won’t let us walk it alone.
Pilgrimage is us waking up each day and realizing that the God of the Bible is waiting for us to open our eyes each morning. He has called us to taste and see life, in all it has to offer, the good and the bad, knowing that he will let the storm rage on simply to get us to stop trusting in ourselves and to instead, trust in the God who is Lord of the seas.
The Psalmist writes, “I lift up my eyes to the hills, where does my help come from?” His answer, “my help comes from the Lord, the maker of Heaven and earth.”
He writes a song that only a person who pilgrimages with God everyday could write.
May each day be a spirit filled adventure that shapes and redefines who we are.
One can prepare for a trip…
That’s what all of us here did. The 2CC Israel pilgrims packed our bags and imagined going on an adventure that would take us to the place where Jesus walked. For me, my imagination filled with all of the things that I had learned about in school along with all of the stories I had read in the Bible.
However, within the first day, the reality of what I was getting myself into quickly began taking shape as a world I never saw became real.
Here is an account of one of those instances.
Our guide and seminary professor Dr. Widbin, brought us to a hillside where the popular prophetic hillbilly/rabbi and his disciples had drawn a crowd of people. On that hot hillside many of us huddled for some of the shade under the single tree there. Dr. Widbin began telling us a story all of us had heard before but he prefaced with this caveat, "this may challenge you a bit." He knew we had read this as a story of magic, awe, and wonder...a divine intervention that while powerful, presents Jesus as one who did things that today, we as believers, could only fathom in our wildest of imaginations...
Bob at the hillside where Jesus inspired the miracle.
Crowds drawn, families would have covered the hillside, rushing to find a good spot like all of us had, parents would have surely brought along at least some snacks for their kids so that they could enjoy what the popular prophet Jesus would bring.
Maybe a healing...
Maybe a transfiguration...
Maybe a resurrection...
Maybe a mind-blowing sermon...
Maybe even...feeding all of these people that had come to see him.
And so Jesus looked out and began to tell the people about how the kingdom of Heaven operated. The kingdom of heaven is like...
It is like a person who had brought food to a picnic for themselves. They arrived to the picnic and found that some people didn't have any food. It is a place where people might dare to offer a small portion of their food with those around them.
The crowds likely thought, as all would, this a kind gesture, "ah Jesus, what a wonderful teaching."
He wasn't done...
The prophet continued... The kingdom of heaven is like a person who brought a picnic for themselves and then gave it all away to those who didn't have any food.
And now, the crowds, maybe they began to think Jesus had only become so popular because he was a tad bit crazy.
"All of it? What about me?, My children, my family first..." the crowd would have thought...as I would have too.
One parent may have thought, "maybe we should leave. It's getting late and we only have a little food for our kids, this man is silly."
But then it happened. One of the kids in the crowd, unwrapping the bread and small fish their parents had packed for them to eat walks up to the prophet and says, "like this Rabbi?" and hands Jesus the bread and fish.
A child sharing all their food with a stranger.
Then it happened.
The child had set off a chain reaction of generosity.
Looking in their baskets, led by the likes of a child, the people began to see what Jesus was teaching. Sharing, exchanging, feeding one another, looking out for one another, making sure no one had any need...
Thousands were fed that day because Jesus had brought the people the way of this kingdom he had been talking about.
This was the miracle he brought. A new paradigm, a new way of living, communal living , it was a kingdom that even a child could understand.
Jesus' miracle became more than just a text I once read...it became something I could imagine to see happening in my own community. If only I would stand up as he and challenge us to live lives of selflesslessness. Jesus taught his hearers that God was in this exchange, God would be found in the giving, and that it was this heart that he hoped all his disciples would adopt.
May we read the story today and ask, "how might I be the catalyst for a movement of Christ-like selflessness in my home, work, friendships, and the like?"
If a child could do it, I'm sure we could find a way as well.
What is it you and I are holding onto that is keeping the Kingdom of Heaven from finding its home in our genuine love for one another as the people of God?
You can begin at home, work, school, our churches, or anywhere but today we ask, "God lead me in your ways and help me to serve those you would have me serve just like you do 2000 years ago."
I received an article titled "The Teenage Spiritual Crisis." In short, it talked about young people, their faith, and how church has...simply put...failed them.
The spiritual yearning is there but these young people don't come to church, they don't see the Bible as God's authoritative word, and they are jaded in the reality that God seemingly hasn't done anything in our world since Moses. And so we confirm them, asking the confirmands if they believe all the stuff we told them to believe. They nod, take their certificate, and head off to celebrate with the family. Sent, likely not to be seen again.
Do young people not want God?
Don't they understand how church works?
I tend to blame teachers, institutions, and those charged with running the churches when people choose to walk away from Christianity. We're stuck in our ways, we know God, we come to church, and everyone who doesn't is lost.
But I think it's the church who is lost today.
Trying Something New
The other day we had our evening service (Evensong) in the labyrinth located in the back of the church. To our surprise, Ellie and I found a young couple actually walking it as we began to set up for our gathering. We introduced ourselves and let them know we were having service at 5pm. They had other plans but seemed genuinely interested.
It made me happy to see people seeking spirituality, pondering God, and even acting out in some expression of that.
We practiced for Evensong at a park on Greenwich Avenue earlier this week, guitars and all. A young lady who had been eating lunch, came up to us, and expressed her gratitude for the “nice backdrop” we had created for everyone. People were drawn to us, they are drawn to our church, they are drawn to God.
It's capitalizing on those moments where we find the person drawn.
What can we tell them about God, about faith, and how we integrate that in our everyday lives?
My hope is that we will be a community that can answer these questions because right now, I don't think we offer much for that couple in the labyrinth, for that young lady at the park, and the thousands that walk by our church, never daring to enter its doors.
Not to be fooled, these young people have observed that a lot of people can "play church" but as soon as those doors open and service is over, God can often get left behind. So they don't go into the building where people play religion. Young people want the real stuff, they want real Christianity, one that challenges how we think and behave. They want to follow Jesus who was a political radical teaching that down is the way up and that great people sit after everyone else is comfortable. They wouldn't see political figures as saviors because they'd already have one. They'd participate in outreach every single day and not once a month. Each day would be baptism, each day confirmation, for all Christians are called to lay their lives down at the foot of the cross, earning them that once derogatory slur, "wannabe Christ!" (that's what Christian literally means in its original context).
And so as someone who is part of the problem, working for the big house of God, I have to critique.
Why are people not attracted to our church?
Maybe it's because we're not doing anything that is attractive.
As that someone who is part of the problem, as someone who knows whats wrong, I can't be quiet. As an employee at God's house I have to reimagine a church for those who have left and given up. Resources need to be shifted, new songs need to emerge, and programming needs to be rethought as to how it serves the soul.
But not just me. Everyone of us called to follow Christ are pulled into the work of critiquing and reimagining.
No more hand me downs. God has called all of us to go. To do whatever it takes for those young people to be drawn to God...and when they are drawn, like the woman who met Jesus at the Well,
A conversation will begin.
Religious questions get answered.
Thirst will be quenched.
Chains will be broken.
And Saviors will be worshipped in that building that was designed to do this work daily.
TLDR: Maybe it's time we start doing more attractive and effective stuff.