It has been over a week now since we had our annual re-committment Sunday at the Calvary Baptist Church. I love that Sunday because we always do some small action to make the act of re-committment tangible: somehow, we are asked to come forward again and make ourselves known to the community of faith. In case you don’t know, the act of “coming forward” is very important in the Baptist tradition; and it is a physical manifestation of committment that speaks to me. In fact, on many Sundays it is all I can do to stay in my seat, the call to stand and be counted is so compelling.
Our “ritual committment” act this year was to write our short prayer for our community on a poster…there were four posters, one in each corner of the sanctuary. When the posters were collected and assembled, they formed a quatrefoil cross, the logo of our community. And the words I chose to write were: Embrace the pilgrimage.
I was thinking a lot about the book I was reading at the time by Diana Butler Bass…little did I realize that the words had such meaning for myself and not just for my community of faith.
You see, this week, I began another stage in my pilgrimage. I began a six-week period in which I am visiting different seminaries and focusing on figuring out the next academic step in my journey…the academic step I have been avoiding for the past two years…kind of what the politicians or a new CEO might call a “listening” tour.
I’m not really a foreigner to the practice of pilgrimage (and no, I don’t say that because I travel a lot all the time). A good friend of mine once said that I gave the impression, to those observing me, that I was always a happy tourist in a strange land…no matter what I was doing. I’m glad that I project an ease on the outside that is not necessarily the truth of my internal process.
And I believe in pilgrimage as a Christian practice. But as I begin this next phase (and please, please, please, no one use the word discernment…after the past three days if I hear it one more time I will scream), I realize that while we all talk about pilgrimage, we very rarely discuss what pilgrimage means in our lives of faith.
If you want the historical meaning of the practice, the Catholic Dictionary has a pretty good summary. But while sometimes we might undertake a physical pilgrimage to a historic place or a monument, related to our faith or to our family or to our past, I think that when I use the word I mean a kind of internal journey. Yes, I mean living in the questions.
As I walked through the events of this week, I realized something new about me and my life of questions. I realized while I am totally comfortable and happy asking the cosmic questions…you know, the kind with no real answers. But I am terrible at asking the kinds of questions that inform my own choices, that guide my own immediate path…questions that really are the nuts and bolts of pilgrimage. I realized that pilgrimage occurs when we notice the little things along the way, the little things in which God speaks the loudest syllables of all.
Here is an example. Thoughout my entire academic life, the truth is that I have never evaluated schools or degree programs on any criteria except one: what is the best academic institution within driving distance of my home. I never asked myself questions about the quality of experience, the size of the institution, nature of the academics, or even more important — would my experience at this institution challenge me and help me develop? And, without the prompting of a good friend, it would have never occurred to me ask questions like –what is the nature and the quality of the community worship…do they value community worship…and so on and so on…
I was stunned by my inability to ask relevant questions that would guide me along my own journey.
But I am a quick learner…realizing the gap in my questioning ability, I stepped back from my experiences this week and I think I did a pretty good job of listening. In two days, I realized that, while I would be so happy at the institution that I visited it, it would neither move me along my path nor help me answer the call that is so strong for me. It would encourage me to stay right in the comfortable place that I currently stand.
But the last few days did strengthen that sense of call. And I had an amazing time worshipping and learning with people that I was honored to meet, people of strong faith, with earnest hearts seeking to create an inclusive and loving world through their expression of that faith. In their example, they showed me new ways of expressing that faith and revealed to me paths that I did not think possible.
And they reminded me, that even when I don’t ask the right questions, I have my faith. We’ve come this far by faith, as the song says, and we can’t turn around. I’ll make the next step by faith, too, questions or no questions.