People of faith, since the beginning, have been on the move. Even when they settled down for a while, they created ways of practising the journey — of moving from Point A to Point B.
Rome, central to the story and expansion of early Christianity, is full of famous steps. The most famous of these are the 135 Spanish steps which visitors traverse daily en masse.
Millions of Christians have walked the Camino el Santiago which spans almost 800 kms from the foothills of the Pyrenees in France all the way to Galicia on the northwest coast of Spain.
The trails to the castle at Lindisfarne in the United Kingdom attract Christians worldwide every Holy Week to walk nearly 200 kilometres.
People of faith have valued movement as integral to their spiritual growth. Because we are not the same at the end of a journey than we were when we started. This innate desire to be better, to change, to grow and mature — is part and parcel of the life of faith.
The culture of Journeying, so important to the Lenten season we now begin, has its roots in the original pilgrimages to Holy Lands. For centuries, Christians sought a deeper connection with Jesus who walked and lived and died in and around Jerusalem and the Judean wilderness.
When the Crusades prevented pilgrims from traveling to the Holy Lands, Christians ‘back home’ developed prayer walks in Labyrinths — the most famous and oldest in the Chartres Cathedral in France — which symbolized the long journey to meet Jesus.
Indeed, settlers to this country moved here, many of them to exercise and practice their faith in freedom. Mobility, migration, pilgrimage — this is our story, as people of faith.
How we journey is the question. The journey is not only physical, it also describes our understanding of the way things work.
Over the last month, the Ottawa Senators (NHL hockey team) were looking to score more goals. They had lost more games than won. Their star players were not producing.
One of their younger players, Curtis Lazar, decided to give $50 to a homeless person after dining out one evening. The next night, he scored two goals in a routing of the Toronto Maple Leafs — the Senators won that game 6-1. The following game, the Senators won again, 5-1, against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
In an interview afterwards, Lazar confessed that perhaps there was “karma” working here. Meaning, because he had done a good deed, there was a ‘return’ on his righteous investment and he was rewarded with those goals and wins.
I like Lazar and I appreciate his hockey skills and character. At the same time, he reflects a dominant way of thinking. It is really what some have a called a mechanical type of spirituality, with inputs (from us) and outputs (from God). The sequence goes something like:
1. We sin
2. We are punished
3. We confess our sins
4. We change our lives, and do something good
5. Then, we receive forgiveness and grace
Such is the description of a journey towards goodness that hinges entirely on us, and our doing, our initiative. This spiritual journey then cycles back to the beginning and round and round it goes. Essentially, we force God’s hand. Karma is not a belief alien even to Christians, it seems!
The problem with karma is that because it ultimately relies on our good works, we will never achieve the goal. After winning two lop-sided games, the Senators have now lost three in a row. Where does that leave Lazar? Does he have to give $100 next time to poor people he meets?
In recalling the great acts of God in bringing the Israelites to the Promised Land, Moses confesses it is God’s mighty arm that started the ball rolling towards freedom; verses 8-9 of Deuteronomy 26:
8The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
Like the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years, Jesus walks with us in a completely opposite direction from karma. His is not the spirituality of addition, but of subtraction. He goes into the desert.
Try to imagine Jesus’ first moments, entering into the wilderness he would occupy for forty days: The sound of any footsteps is absorbed by sand and rock, lost in the wind or in silence. It is in this barren place that Jesus chooses to retreat, far from what he knows.
Christ chose to retrace the path of his ancestors — in the desert: Abraham. Moses. Ruth. Some of them were responding to God’s call. Some were fleeing persecution. Some were simply looking for a place to call home.
There may very well be value, to our growth as Christians, in embarking on spiritual journeys and earth-bound pilgrimages with some expectations at the destination in mind.
At the same time, we can be assured that Jesus not only waits for us at the ‘end of the line’. Jesus is right there with us, each step of the way. His journey into the desert of testing and suffering shows that there is no place of suffering, pain and loss on earth, to which Jesus is unaccustomed. No place of want that Jesus doesn’t know, intimately. This is more the point.
I like one of the sayings, attributed to Albert Camus, on a Valentine’s Day card I saw: It’s a message of love from one to another: “Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow; don’t walk behind me, I may not lead. Just walk beside me, and be my friend.”
The message of Christianity is that God is not out there, or back there. God is ‘in our skin’, with us. And goes where we go in our journeys of faith and life, through the good and the bad. Jesus is not only the God of our eternal salvation, Jesus is our friend for life, and no matter what.
Jesus resides in the deepest places of our heart and activates our truest most authentic selves no matter where we are at.
Long before Jesus came, the Psalmist knew this gracious truth in his heart: There is no place on earth where God’s presence of grace, love and mercy cannot reach. In Psalm 139 —
7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
Contrary to karma, this journey of faith begins with God’s grace and forgiveness, as it always does. It is in the desert of our lives where we experience this grace because life happens regardless of how hard we try. And because we are already forgiven, already blessed, we can live confident, transformed lives, even in the desert of our lives. As we live out of our freedom in Christ, we can then confess, “Jesus is Lord!”
As God is with us in our deepest darkness and light, we look to those on the move today. Refugees. Migrants. More than the places of the journey, it is the people we must engage.
While the desert wilderness was a time of solitary retreat for Jesus, migrants and refugees live in communities: their solace is in the comfort of companionship and common history and identity with those whom they live alongside. In the Lenten days to come, in our own solitary places, let us pray for those for whom solitude is a luxury. And welcome them into our hearts and minds. (1)
(1) Lutherans Connect, “Welcoming the Stranger” blogpost Lenten devotions, Day 1 (lc2016lentdevotional.blogspot.ca)