Sunday, July 19, 2009
The Journey of Faith: based on Genesis 12:1-4a; Hebrews 1:1-3,8-19. Preached at Blossom Hill Mennonite Church on Sunday July 19, 2009
Remember Willie Nelson's song On the Road Again? It is a traveling song that reminds me of the exhilaration of being on the road. The lyrics go like this:
On the road again
Just can't wait to get on the road again
The life I love is makin' music with my friends
And I can't wait to get on the road again
On the road again
Goin' places that I've never been
Seein' things that I may never see again,
And I can't wait to get on the road again.
As a musician I have known that feeling of the wind in your face as you move on down the road to unfamiliar and unseen places, meeting new people, and encountering new adventures along the way. It is the pioneer spirit. But, some of us, like my daughter Toni, are settlers. We like to stay put and enjoy the familiar and routine. The idea of journeying is unsettling. That's okay. But, journeying and pilgrimage are significant metaphors for our faith. As a matter of fact, the parents of our faith, Abraham and Sarah, set off on a literal journey that became an archetype of faith as journeying.
We are a people on a journey of faith. Our faith is like a pilgrimage. God calls us to be on the road again. It is not always a literal movement in space and time. It can be a movement of the heart, a spiritual journey toward the territory of God's reign. Journeying is a fitting metaphor for a life of faith. We move across straight and crooked, rough and smooth pathways, treacherous mountains, lush and peaceful plains. Faith, understood as a journey, is dynamic, moving, changing, instead of static, settled, and sedentary. We move toward a destination.
As a metaphor, journeying or pilgrimage has been historically used to describe faith. St. Augustine spoke of faith as a journey toward the City of God, our heavenly abode. He said that as long as we are in our mortal bodies, we are "pilgrims in a foreign land, away from God." John Bunyan's classic Pilgrim's Progress is an extended allegory of the Christian life depicted as a pilgrimage toward the Celestial City. Journey stories like the Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings vividly portray the hazards and hallelujahs of our human pilgrimage.
In the eleventh chapter of Hebrews are listed the heroes and heroines of our faith. The faith of Abraham and Sarah is connected to their journey to an unseen land. The father and mother of our faith were people on the move. God told them to pack up their house, hairdryers, hounds and head off to an unfamiliar place. They had to leave behind their old gods, their old friends, and their old ways and walk out onto the landscape with only the wind of God at their backs. Abraham and Sarah ventured off in obedience to the crazy call of God to become sojourners and pilgrims.
Our faith is grounded in a people on the move. Their journey becomes a symbol for our lives of faith. Hasn't your faith been challenged by twists and turns in the road and the steep hills? A doctor walks into the examination room with a chart and we may be at a turning point. The boss calls you on the phone and says, "We’re gonna have to terminate your position due to budget cuts" and you find yourself on a whole new adventure. Haven't we experienced forks in the road like when this church was called upon to make a decision concerning which way it would go? We have known those sunny rest stops along the way of life, those peaceful valleys, haven't we? A day away by a still lake. A quiet moment of reading. What about mountain top experiences? A church retreat energizes our faith. A meeting with a counselor or spiritual director sets everything in place. We move along life's journey in faith that, with God's guiding hand, we are heading in the right direction.
On the road of faith God calls us forward through sunshine and rain, rough paths and smooth, with companions and alone, toward an unseen destination. We are a people on a journey of faith, which means we are sojourners and pilgrims in this world. There is this kind of "holy unsettledness" a “sacred insecurity” about our lives. As pilgrims on a faith journey we live with a consciousness of the impermanence of our human existence. We dare not cling too tightly to the things of this earth. For this life passes by like the countryside seen through the window of a moving train.
Or a boat. Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi wrote a poem that made me reflect on life as a journey that so quickly passes by. He put it this way:
In a boat down a fast-moving creek,
it feels like trees on the bank
are rushing by. What seems to be
changing around us is rather
the speed of our craft
leaving this world
I wrote a poetic reflection on Rumi’s verse on this blog that went like this:
O Life, slow down the speed of
passing trees and months and years.
In the wake of the boat I see
a child running with abandon in the lemon orchards,
a youth playing wildly on the drums,
a young adult studiously reading books,
a man seriously preaching in a small church,
a middle aged adult sadly packing to move,
an older man wistfully watching his grandson play.
O Life, slow the passing trees,
the speed of the boat
that is leaving this world.
Friends of our youth, with whom we laughed and cried, are now gone. The children we once held in our arms and pushed in the swings have grown up and moved out on their own, well, some of them. The years pass and nothing stays the same. Life is impermanent. We cannot cling to a world passing by. We must move on. This doesn't mean that as sojourners we despise our earthly home and think only of our heavenly abode. It does mean that in many ways we have to pull up those stakes embedded in the past or the way things have always been and move our tents to new plains.
We are sojourners and pilgrims. And like Abraham and Sarah we are foreigners in the land, or to use a phrase of Stanley Hauerwas, we are "resident aliens." We are never fully at home in this world, in our culture, in our nation, in our communities. We are citizens of the city of God, which lies ahead of us. A second century letter to Diognetus describes the lifestyle of early Christians in this manner:
For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, or by speech, or by dress. For they do not dwell in cities of their own, or use a different language, or practice a peculiar life....yet the citizenship which they exhibit is wonderful and admittedly strange. They live in countries of their own, but simply as sojourners; they share the life of citizens, they endure the lot of foreigners; every foreign land is to them a fatherland, and every fatherland a foreign land... They spend their existence upon earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.
Our call as God's people pulls us forward toward vistas beyond the limits of human allegiances and loyalties. Ties of family, country, culture, and ideology became relative when you are on the road toward an unseen county. We live footloose in this world.
This does not mean we always know exactly where we are headed or where our path will lead us in this world. Abraham and Sarah set off for an unseen land. They threw caution to the wind of God and set sail for God's promised land into an unknown future. And God went with them on the journey. When we follow this God-on-the-move, we don't always know the road ahead and where it will take us. We listen for the beckoning voice of God calling us forward and we follow in faith. The call may come as a still, small voice, a deep desire to follow our gifts and dreams, an open door of opportunity, a closing chapter of our life, or an inner movement that calls us to step out and risk doing something new as we reach fork in the road or a new untrodden path. And we go forward in faith not knowing exactly where the road leads.
Forty years ago, when I was in 20 years old, the road ahead of me seemed clear. I was going to be an illustrator or a Rock musician, dreams I had since childhood. After high school I had moved to LA to record an album with Bob Keane, producer for Ritchie Valens, at Del-Fi Records and majored in art at Los Angeles City College. I didn’t expect to meet Richard Gant and have him drag a young hippie Rock musician all over LA to monasteries, cloisters, Catholic masses, Jesus Freak meetings, Charismatic and Pentecostal services! Those were odd new road stands along the highway for me.
I was not expecting to be pulled off the road I was traveling by the US Army and end up filing for conscientious objector status. The military was, in my opinion, a rough road to be forced down. Then again, I wasn’t expecting to have trumpet player Terry Moretti to just happen to come in the back of the Army pharmacy where I worked in Augusta, Georgia and lead me down the road to Atlanta, where I would play drums in a soldier show and tour the South. And upon returning to my home in Southern California and in a Southern Baptist church I wasn’t expecting my path to be crossed by an independent young woman by the name of Iris Illeana De Leon, who played clarinet in the same high school band where I played…guess what. We have now traveled together on life’s journey for 37 years.
During that period of my life journey I had an experience I described as a persistent inner voice calling me to become a minister. I struggled with this call, wondering whether it was my own voice or God's. I still wonder about that. But, at the time I concluded that it must be God's voice. So, I let go of a vocation I wanted to pursue in art, packed my bags, and headed off onto an unknown landscape with Iris beside me. We did not know where we were going to end up, but we went out in faith. We lived on the Riverside campus of California Baptist College, where Purpose-driven Rick Warren was a fellow student, and later in a converted garage in Ontario behind the church where I was a youth pastor.
The next leg of our journey took us the San Francisco Bay area, where I went to Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, studied ancient languages and swept ancient floors. Our path fell on pleasant places, lush hills, and fertile valleys as we made many close friends and were part of an innovative, progressive congregation in San Francisco. Together Iris and I ministered to street people in the Lost and Found coffee house we started, where every Friday candlelight and Christian rock music burned the night away. My passion for theological study raised aspirations for pursuing a doctorate and teaching following my graduation from seminary in 1978. But timing and finances diverted my path. We ended up back at our home congregation, where I was co-pastor, minister of youth and education. There were rough roads ahead along this highway.
The questions seminary taught me to raise were not so welcome in my fundamentalist congregation. To question certain faith assumptions was enough to get you called into the lead pastor's office for an inquisitorial examination. I was forced into an ecclesiastical corner to resign. The road ahead soon covered over with a thick fog.
I had spent five long years of preparation for ministry only to find myself painting signs, changing car tires, and hanging out of helicopters over the ocean! This was not what I had been called by the god of Abraham and Sarah to do. I wandered in the wilderness for three years in a deep fog straining my eyes and my heart looking for a pathway back on to the roadway to church ministry. Where was this god who had called me to sacrifice my deep desire for a vocation in art or music in order to follow a call to ministry? I didn't understand why I was forced to travel that crooked road then and I still don’t understand why.
By the grace of God, sheer luck, or through having a Christian brother, I met a character actor, Greg Walcott, who performed in numerous TV shows and movies, including the infamous cult classic Plan Nine from Outerspace. Greg was also my brother’s pastor. He was creative spirit, who had lad the groundwork for church renewal of Southern Baptist congregation in Burbank, California. He sparked my dreams with his new vision for the church. With a call I was on the road again back to the Los Angeles area. When I got on the saddle in Burbank I brought into practice some of the new, creative ideas I was exploring about church. Within a year Greg’s and my dreams were squelched by congregational members who began to see that the changes necessary for church renewal were too much, too soon. So they began resisting the changes. Those who originally welcomed a new vision ended up wanting to keep things pretty much the same as they had been. The people were settlers at heart. Both Greg and I resigned at the same time and we moved on to new roads. The other day I watched Greg on TV in the movie Norma Rae and reflected on the grace of our paths have crossing once long ago.
I took a road leading to my first pastorate back to the San Francisco bay area in a small Southern Baptist congregation in Alameda, California, a city by the bay across from Oakland and Berkeley. Finally, after ten years I was where I felt I was called to be….in a lead pastoral role. Iris was always beside me, working in secular jobs, and coming alongside us was a daughter, Toni, and two adopted children, Andres and Isabel.
My path crossed that of Dr. James Wm. McClendon, Jr., a fortuitous meeting. Jim was a baptist theologian at Berkeley's Episcopal Divinity School and a member of my small congregation. While teaching a course on Anabaptist history he suggested I might find my spiritual roots in the 16th century Anabaptist movement. My study of the Anabaptists led me to take another unexpected road in my life.
In 1987 I became a Mennonite and was called to be pastor in Houston, Texas. Where would this new road lead me? Well, starting out on this new road was exhilarating and exasperating. The first year the congregation doubled in size. Around the same time we had a major conflict over peace. I had joined a peace church tradition and our congregation was fighting over peace! I didn’t get it then. I don’t get it now. There is not enough time to tell the road stories of many stormy Sundays and dark valleys, hilltops and hallelujahs on my ten year journey in Houston. But, it must have been the sheer grace of God, or simply my not wanting to give up on God and church that kept me in faith and pastoral work.
Another path opened up. This time it was Iris’ call. She was called to lead peace and justice work for Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Again we packed our bags and headed down the road again. This new road ended in Lancaster. After 8 months sitting along the roadside, unemployed, my seemingly dead end trail led to Bethel Mennonite Church, the best available option for a minister who had balanced himself along the edges of the church for so many years.
For five years I found myself in a congregation that not only was not the best fit for me, but had been traveling down a hill of decline. Bethel and Blossom Hill Mennonite Church even had conversations about merger for Bethel’s survival when I was their pastor. At the same time, new avenues opened up for me through my involvement at Lancaster Theological Seminary----doctoral work, ministry supervision, as pastor preceptor, adjunct teacher, resident drummer, and on and on. With Bethel coming to a dead end, as well as 29 years in pastoral ministry, I was ready to get off that road.
Out of nowhere a new pathway opened through the dense forest into a totally new landscape. In 2002 I became Minister of Peace and Justice with Mennonite Mission Network. In that same year I started, with Heidi Beth Wert, Drumming for Peace, which has taken me across the US and to places I could never have imagined, even as a young musician. Frustration with the tough road of church ministry even led me down another path of rediscovering my passion for art, which has just started taking me to new vistas and possibilities.
It has been a long journey. Now, one long and winding road is coming to an end. At the same time my job is ending with Mennonite Mission Network Iris is taking a position as Executive Conference Minister for Pacific Northwest Conference. We will be on the road again to Portland, Oregon. After 36 years of church ministry I have my eyes set on taking an untraveled path, a side road I haven’t been able to take in all these years. I am hoping to explore my creative gifts more fully and pursue work outside the institutional church. This time intentionally.
In many ways it is a scary, unknown, unpredictable, risky adventure after having been on one winding road for so long. But, with the sunset drawing nearer there is this “off the beaten path” that I want to pursue. Who knows, I may end up back on the same old road I have tread for so long. But, a road less traveled has presented itself in my life as a strange new opportunity, an odd crossroad of grace. I want to step out on this new path that may take me further toward the margins of the institutional church. And maybe I will also find the divine Gypsy dancing beside me as a traveling companion.
I share with you these snapshots of my life journey to simply show you how life has twists and turns, unexpected crossroads, and new paths that open up out of nowhere as we try to find our way home. Along our life journey we can trust, even when the road ahead seems foggy or crooked, that our paths will always lead toward home, for our future is guided by an unseen Traveling Partner. The destination may not always be in sight. But, we move forward into an unknown future in faith that an unpredictable, sacred pathway unfolds before us, even when we do not see the hand of a Guide. We step out in risky faith, at times not even knowing where we are going.
We have a vision of an unseen city that looms on a far horizon and draws us ever forward. As a pilgrim people, like Abraham and Sarah, we are looking for that city. Every city, every human habitation will leave us longing for that place where we experience life in its fullness, where our gifts flower and flourish, where peace and justice dwell. We look for that city whose builder and maker is God.
Can you see that city looming up over the horizon? Does the sight lighten your step, quicken your pace, and renew your energy? The city beckons us all forward. We are all pilgrims and sojourners in this life. That is the nature of our spiritual journey. As St. Augustine once said:
This heavenly city, then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained.
It is this vision of a new community, a new citizenship, a new city that keeps us moving forward, even though we may not see all the winding, wonderful and weary roads ahead. As a pilgrim people we allow the wind of the Spirit to blow us wherever it will in this transient world, trusting that our final destiny is an eternal city. As spiritual children of Abraham and Sarah, we are a people always on the road again.
Even as I pull up my tent pegs and head down a different road, I am reminded that we are all sojourners and pilgrims on a journey of faith. We are all called to step forward in faith, trusting that an unseen hand is guiding all our winding pathways to that city that lies just over that distant horizon.