As I reflect on our recent trip to the Holy Land and its successes, I think one of the key ingredients was the OPEN HEARTS of the pilgrims that went with me. Everyone seemed ready to embrace new experiences, food, cultures, and meet new people.
I wonder what our “normal days” would be like if we approached them with the same openness of spirit.
One of the books I have been reading lately is the wonderful book by Lois Tverberg called Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewish Words of Jesus Can Change Your Life. In it she lays out the common but unusual practice of how Jewish rabbis of that time taught their disciples – not with textbooks or course syllabus, but inviting them to literally follow them as they traveled and taught – to “walk after” them and learning from them by “covering yourself in his dust.” “You should follow so closely behind him as he traveled from town to town teaching that billows of sandy granules would cling to your clothes.”
Walking with Jesus, both literally and figuratively, was understood to be the way of a disciple. This is how your heart is changed. This would be how your overall lifestyle, your walk in life, would shift.
I was thankful for the openness with which those 18 pilgrims that went with me to the Holy Land engaged in this “walk.” They brought their whole selves – their joy, their willingness, their brokenness, their nervousness – all of it.
As we walked together, we certainly got good and dusty.
I pray that as you engage in your daily routine today, you look for ways that Jesus is inviting you to walk in his way. Is it listening extra hard to a friend in need and responding in grace? Is it turning from a craving to engage in more healthy behavior? Is it seeking more joy? Is it making a life change? Perhaps it has to do with nurturing a grateful heart.
In whatever way your walk in life goes today, may you walk with deliberateness in the footprints of the great Rabbi who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Following in the Way of the Rabbi Jesus, my group of 18 disciples, most of which are part of the life of Maumee Valley Presbytery, ventured off to the Holy Land about 11 days ago to begin the “Journey with Jesus” trip that began in Bethlehem, through the Galilee, and ending in Jerusalem. It has been hard to find time and space to write and reflect on our time there, especially as I was also asked to serve as bus captain for the Orange Bus, and so the added responsibilities of melding my 18 into a group of 4 from Virginia and 5 from South Dakota.
But here I sit, nearing the end of these 11 days, in the same dusty clothes I was wearing 36 hours ago when I walked the Via Dolorosa – the Way of the Cross – and pondering in my heart the power of this year’s pilgrimage.
This trip was different – on both a personal level, but also in the way it was structured. So it both felt different and was different, partly because this is my 8th trip to the Holy Land and I wanted it to feel fresh and new for me personally and the others who were going on their second or third pilgrimage, but also because of a deeper, personal desire. I had a great need in my heart to retrace my own previous footprints, and discover new paths as I follow the Way that has been laid out for me by the Great Rabbi I call Lord. And I invited others to join me on this path, that retraced not only my previous steps, but steps that followed the timeline of the life of the Rabbi Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, taught around the Sea of Galilee, visited Samaria and the Woman at the Well, and eating and praying and teaching during his last days on earth in Jerusalem. This retracing, this trip, has filled my heart – on so many levels. But more on that in coming reflections. Let’s back up and talk about the process of pilgrimage for every Christian.
Our Journey to the Holy Land may be coming to an end, but the power of this pilgrimage is just beginning.
Every Pilgrimage has 3 stages. First, there is the PREPARATION for the journey. This is at the very least a MINDFULNESS, but more often for a Christian includes some sense of CALL. In some there is a deep desire – a yearning. Others only have a mild itch. Yet others are not certain of their motives or desires, and that is OK too. Certainly my first pilgrimage I was more filled with WONDER and CURIOUSITY but knew little about my call.
But whatever the motivations, for everyone there is a definite sense of preparing for the journey, from packing bags, to requesting time off work, etc.
This preparation stage is key for an effective pilgrimage. Without it, there does not come a SEPARATION from regular routines, from family, from community. In order to open oneself to a spiritual pilgrimage it is essential to leave behind much of our daily obligations, especially in our world of technological bombardment. It is only when we separate, and move to the desert (literal or figurative), that God can reveal new paths.
The second stage in every pilgrimage is the JOURNEY/VOYAGE itself. For me, the key of this stage is recognizing that the Journey is an entity in and of itself. This means embracing the experience, whatever it is.
For us it was embracing this new community we had just become a part of – the Orange Bus. Who were these other pilgrims? Some of them I knew very well. Some I knew but only because of our Zoom classes we had beforehand, or had only spoken to on the phone and only knew their voices. Others I was meeting for the first time.
Obviously there is an element of FRIENDSHIP and COMPANIONSHIP along the way. This is a key piece for every Christian Pilgrimage, because our religion is primarily a “WE” religion and not an “I”. As we become AWARE of the others traveling with us, there is an opportunity to EXPLORE and UNDERSTAND their hopes and dreams, their excitement or reservations, their struggles or tensions. We also begin meeting others along the way. They can become powerful instruments of God’s grace along the Way. To this journey – this pilgrimage – we each bring our story. These friendships and companions we encounter on the Way can help illumine, articulate, and understand the story that brought us there to begin with.
For many of us we found that in Leo, our Palestinian Christian guide. He shared abundantly from his faith, and guided us down streets he had grown up on and knew very well, welcoming us into his story, introducing us to his friends, and opening his heart. He had a gift for helping us feel safe. This makes it easy to open one’s heart and engage in the key piece of every pilgrimage: IMMERSION
There is a rhythm or a shift within every journey that must occur if it is to become a pilgrimage. And it relates to this immersion. At some point one goes from being a mere OBSERVER of this new landscape to becoming a part of the landscape itself. In fact we lose our role as an observer and we become part of the landscape. We begin to become a part of someone else’s story.
For some of us, that “someone else” is Jesus. For others it is the Palestinians or the Israelis and their story. For others it can be the stories of so many pilgrims that have come before us, also taking similar paths and following the same Way. This is again where Leo shined. With him it was easy to become part of someone else’s story.
It is in this new community we are invited to DISCOVER this new landscape, this new land and people. It is in the midst of this time of discovery we are invited to be absorbed in someone else’s story and discover new parts of our own. It can be a place of OPEN DOORS and planting of new desires we may not have even known we had. It can also be a place of new DISCOVERY about ourselves
The third stage of every pilgrimage is the RETURN/TRANSFORMATION. As we return from every pilgrimage the reality is we are a different person than when we set out. Often it takes time to process or understand what has even happened. The transformation may be more like a slow metamorphosis that takes time to fully grasp what God has been up to in your life. This was certainly the case for me. I don’t think I grasped the impact of my first journey to the Holy Land until a few months after I had been there. In some ways I am still working out its implications and impact in my life, over 25 years later.
But we need to trust that with our intention to be pilgrim, the Pilgrim’s Way is set in motion.
There is a great Negro spiritual I sang when we were down on the Lithostrotos, the courtyard of the Antonia Fortress, and the ancient paved road during the Roman times, where Jesus was most likely stripped and whipped and tortured by the Roman guards.
I want Jesus to walk with me. I want Jesus to walk with me.
All along my Pilgrim Journey. Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.
In the desire is the reality that he will.
This is what I hope to explore as I seek to unpack this most recent trip. I will offer a series of Morning Reflections tracing these Footsteps of the Great Rabbi Jesus, and the ways in which we have walked and desire to walk with Jesus, as we seek that Return and that Transformation.
It was not too long ago in the Presbyterian Church that the celebration of New Year’s was a bigger deal than Christmas. It’s true!
The liturgical traditions of Advent and Christmas were more popular in Roman Catholic and Lutheran congregations. Presbyterians were not so bound to a liturgical calendar as we are today, and instead we found ways, particularly in America, to frame secular holidays with sacred meaning. While others celebrated New Year’s with extravagant parties, many of us Christians were choosing to usher in the New Year by going to church, and gathering around the Lord’s Table to celebrate communion. They were known as Watch Night Services, and were particularly popular in our African-American congregations.
Watch Nights have a strong theological vision, and I wish we celebrated it more robustly in our churches these days. These services give us a foundation in time that stresses the sovereignty of God – starting all new things with God at the heart of our time. Beyond that, it is a chance to turn the page, put the past behind us, confess, re-form. How Presbyterian!
It was our African-American congregations, who couldn’t imagine celebrating New Year’s Eve without their church family, and who brought a history of plenty of uplifting joyful music and long prayers, that really helped us blaze a tradition of Watch Night services. The tradition goes back quite a ways further, but the fuel for Presbyterian congregations in America probably got its start all the way back on December 31, 1862, when blacks were holding vigil for the Emancipation Proclamation to go into effect on Jan 1, 1863. It was “Freedom’s Eve”.
As the tradition developed there were often candlelight Watch services, with candelabras with 12 candles, one for each month of the year, and Presbyterians would recount the major events in the life of the congregation for that month. Baptisms, marriages, deaths, mission trips, confirmations – these were all fair game.
As the New Year came, with the bells tolling at midnight, the congregation would be gathered around the Lord’s Table, celebrating freedom and new life. It was a time to renew their covenant with God.
Often on New Year Day one of the readings ties us to the covenant and the beginning of Hebraic identity. Abram is given the instructions, details, and signs of the covenant: “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
I am struck by the PROMISE. Into our world full of broken promises, God speaks words that never erode. Today promises are thrown around as more of a convenience to the one making them.
God does not run away from the promises he has made. No matter what we do, nothing can undo what was done at the cross on our behalf.
What I love about baptism is that you can’t undo it. God’s YES is stronger than any NO we muster. God has claimed us as his own, and that is final. We live with a promise that will never be ripped away from us.
What a way to start the year off. So take a moment to pause and look back to our roots in Abraham and Sarah, but also our roots in baptism, and to the beginning of God’s love affair with us, a love that will never die.
May your New Year be bright! And may the Light of Christmas continue to surround and fill you.