Last week, I joined fifteen other pilgrims in the pilgrimage of a lifetime. We made our way through the minsters, cathedrals, and colleges of England, hearing Evensong and Choral Mass, saying prayers, lighting candles, learning our history, discovering our present, and reveling in our walk with God. You can see the daily reflections originally posted on Hickory Neck Church‘s Facebook page reprinted on this blog. In the meantime, I am grateful this week for this incredible group of people who opened up new spiritual discoveries for my own journey!
Tomorrow, I will help lead sixteen pilgrims on a journey through England. There have been countless details to coordinate, communication to send, logistics to handle back home, and preparations for the team’s spiritual guidance. Over a year of planning will come to fruition once we step on that plane, and I cannot be more excited to see what is in store for each person’s spiritual journey.
Many people have asked me why we would go on a pilgrimage. The truth is, there is no simple answer, and each person goes for their own reason. Perhaps at the heart of the reason is to forge a deep connection to God. For some, that connection is enriched with beautiful architecture, sacred art, and beautiful, holy music, all of which can be found in minsters, cathedrals, and colleges on our journey. For others, simply getting out of their routine, going to a foreign place, and taking on the ritual of walking, meditating, listening, and praying is how they enliven that connection. For others, relationship is their mode of connecting to God – relationship with team members, relationship to other pilgrims and Christians along the way, and relationship with our spiritual ancestors, who built these sacred spaces centuries ago. We go on pilgrimage to know God, to walk with Jesus, to be fed by the Holy Spirit. Many of us even go having no idea what to expect, but longing for something deep and abiding.
But we go not just to fill our own spirits – we go to bring back those renewed spirits. We go so we can share our journey with others. We go so we can come back better servants of the Good News. We go so our faith community is richer as a body. We go on pilgrimage for all of us. I invite your prayers for those who go this week. But I also invite your prayers for your own spiritual journey. May your week be enlivened, refreshed, and renewed as we walk together.
Please enjoy this poem found in Ian Bradley’s Pilgrimage: A Spiritual and Cultural Journey. Our team has used it in our own preparations, and would like to gift it to you.
To the Pilgrim
You were born for the road.
You have a meeting to keep.
Where? With whom?
Perhaps with yourself.
Your steps will be your words –
The road your song,
The weariness your prayers.
And at the end
Your silence will speak to you.
Alone, or with others –
But get out of yourself!
You have created rivals –
You will find companions.
You envisaged enemies –
You will find brothers and sisters.
Your head does not know
Where your feet are leading your heart.
You were born for the road –
The pilgrim’s road.
Someone is coming to meet you –
Is seeking you
In the shine at the end of the road –
In the shine at the depths of your heart.
He is your peace.
He is your joy!
God already walks with you!
Today’s parable from Jesus is one of those short parables that seems pretty straightforward at first glance. Jesus describes two men who go to the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee – a law-abiding, God-fearing man who offers a prayer of thanksgiving, albeit one that is full of self-righteousness, comparing himself and his choices favorably against those of others – suggesting in a sense that others are outside of God’s favor and grace. The other is a tax collector – a corrupt collaborator with the government who, full of shame, humbly confesses to God his sins. Jesus tells us the tax collector, “went down to his home justified rather than the other.”
Our temptation is to hear this text and conclude something quite simple: the Pharisee is bad and the tax collector is good; bragging about yourself is bad and being humble is good; being a faithful person who misjudges God’s abundance is bad and being a self-aware sinner is good. The problem with reading the text in this black-and-white way is we miss little details. With such a stark reading, we can find ourselves walking out of church today thinking, “Thank God I’m not like the Pharisee!” And before we even notice, we realize we are praying the same prayer as the Pharisee from the parable!
But this week, I stumbled on a little translation difference that shifted this parable for me. In verse 14, Jesus says, “I tell you, [the tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the other…” But scholar Matt Skinner argues the preposition, “rather than,” should be translated instead as “alongside.” So, verse 14 becomes, “I tell you, [the tax collector] went down to his home justified alongside the other…”[i] Skinner argues there is much more nuance in this parable than we often allow. That both men are praying, both men have faults, and both go home justified in different ways. Sure, the Pharisee limits the extent of God’s grace, and he is unaware of his sinfulness in such exclusion, but the tax collector is no innocent. Both men go home justified alongside each other.
One of the things we have been celebrating this stewardship season is our identity. When we say, “We are Hickory Neck!” we say we are a people who have raised over $170,000 for local charities, who have over 50 volunteers on a given Sunday, who support one another through spiritual offerings like Lectio Divina, Book Club, Bible Study, and Jam Sessions, who nurture children and young families, who welcome newcomers, who work hard, and who have fun. We are all those things are more – I imagine each of us here has a mental picture about what we mean when we say, “We are Hickory Neck!” One of those things is that we walk home justified alongside each other.
That is what I love about this community. This is a community that is passionate about Jesus and take’s Christ’s light out into the world. This is a community that is passionate about caring for one another – where all can feel loved and affirmed, and all can find a place to thrive. This is a community that is passionate about serving our neighbors – those young families looking for a sense of belonging and affirmation, and those retirees looking for a new sense of home. This is a community that is passionate about liturgy, music, having fun, sharing sorrows, honoring history, dreaming about future possibilities, and laughing – lots of laughing. This is a community that is passionate about investing our individual resources into Hickory Neck so Hickory Neck can bless others as Hickory Neck has blessed us. We are Hickory Neck! We are a community who walks alongside each other.
But that’s just me. I want to know what gets you excited about Hickory Neck. I want to know what saying “We are Hickory Neck!” conjures in your mind. At your tables is a list of ideas from our Stewardship Committee. Reread those ideas, and then talk with the people at your table about what you think of that is not on the list. Write them down as you talk, so the Stewardship Committee understands what is important to you as we support and fund ministry. You have about five minutes to chat and make notes, and then we’ll regather with a word of prayer…
Let us pray. God of abundance, we come to you as self-righteous, sinful followers, who regularly mess up. But our heart is with you. We want to be agents of your light and your love. Help us to love you abundantly. Help us to support your kingdom generously. Help us to walk alongside one another, shining your light for others so they may give glory to you. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Matt Skinner, “Sermon Brainwave #686 – Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Ord. 30),” October 19, 2019, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1192 on October 23, 2019.
After welcoming The Kensington School, an independent child development center, on to the Hickory Neck property, the two communities have sought ways to enter into mutual relationship. One of those efforts has been offering a voluntary Godly Play class for students of the school. We began the class in the fall, and have had over 18 children registered for the class. We recently changed the day of the week the class is offered, and so yesterday, I was finally able to join the class. The children were full of life and wonder, and I loved to watch them engage in the story. But probably one of my favorite parts was singing Jesus Loves Me with the children. They clearly knew the words, and it was fun to sing such a familiar childhood song – so simple and, especially in these days, so profound.
My day carried on like any other adventurous day in ministry, and that afternoon, I celebrated Eucharist at a local retirement home. We usually sing a few songs, and the chaplain always reminds me that familiar songs are important, as they bring up many fond memories for the residents. So, without thinking, I chose two, and midway through the final song, I realized I had subconsciously chosen the very song I had sung early that morning – Jesus Loves Me. The same feelings emerged, especially as many of the retirees in that space are in bodies that no longer do all the things they used to do. But they can sing about the love of a Savior – that they, even in their weakened states, are loved.
I have been thinking about a couple of things since then. Hickory Neck has been articulating its mission in Upper James City County, and one of the tenets of our mission is to engage in intergenerational ministry. Knowing our unique setting – a community comprised predominantly of young families and a large retirement community – our parish seeks to minister to both, and in fact, we believe our ministry will be richer as both young and old walk together in Christ. Yesterday’s convergence of three and four year-olds singing the same words as ninety-three and ninety-four year-olds made me hopeful about the potential of Hickory Neck’s ministry.
But yesterday’s experience also made me think about all of us in the middle – those of us who are twenty-three and twenty-four to sixty-three and sixty-four; those of us who are busily going about life, trying to do our part to make the world a better place, and trying to find meaning and joy in this world. For those of us in the middle, I wonder if we might hear the words of a song that seems almost childishly simple as instead something profoundly important about ourselves and our neighbors. Yes, Jesus loves me. But, Jesus also loves you. And, from what I know about Jesus, he especially loves those whom we would like to deem “other,” or as unworthy of God’s love. Jesus loves them too. Perhaps we in the middle can take a cue from those at the beginning and those near the end and remember the simple, profound words that can hold us together, and help us love better.
This past week I have been pondering the notion of compassion. The notion first struck me as I visited one of our parishioners at the hospital several times. Each time I have visited, someone else had already visited or was on their way to visit. Having been to many a hospital room, I know this is not the norm. Often, people in the hospital are there without much support. To see the community rally around this parishioner – both fellow parishioners and personal friends – was such a potent witness to the power of compassion.
Midweek, our own parish began to wonder how we might show compassion to our neighbors in need who were struggling due to government shutdown furloughs. As we shared ideas as a community, and as we checked on our own parishioners, we discovered that several of our parishioners were already acting on behalf of our neighbors in need. In fact, several parishioners were quietly gathering funds to support our local Coast Guard members. I was so proud to learn about the quiet, unassuming compassion of our church.
Finally, my daughter and I paid a visit to a Children’s hospital for some routine checkups. As we were waiting in three different waiting rooms, we watching families pass us by with children who were much sicker, or who had challenges that I will never face with my children. I found myself humbled by journeys I could not imagine, and wondering how I might move from sympathy to compassion.
My ponderings reminded me of something Father Gregory Boyle articulated in his book Tattoos on the Heart. Father Gregory teaches a class in the local prisons, and in one of the classes they talked about the difference between sympathy, empathy, and compassion. As the inmates discussed the topic, they agreed that sympathy is the expression of sadness for something someone is experiencing. They defined empathy as going a step further and sharing how your own similar experience makes your sympathy more personal. But compassion was a bit harder to define. Father Gregory argues, “Compassion isn’t just about feeling the pain of others; it’s about bringing them in toward yourself. If we love what God loves, then, in compassion, margins get erased. ‘Be compassionate as God is compassionate,’ means the dismantling of barriers that exclude.”[i]
I wonder how God is inviting you this week to step beyond sympathy and empathy, and step into compassion. That kind of work is not easy, and will likely mean getting a bit messy. But I suspect that same kind of work takes us from looking at the world around us and saying, “That’s too bad,” or “I’m so sorry,” to “Let me walk with you.” That is the sacred spot where we experience God between us. I look forward to hearing about your experiences of accepting God’s invitation to compassion this week.
[i] Father Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (New York: Free Press, 2010), 75.
One of my favorite podcasts has become “Stayed Tuned with Preet,” a podcast hosted by Preet Bharara, former U.S. Attorney, that addresses issues of justice and fairness. The topics vary pretty widely – from law enforcement, to the psychology of leadership, to the opioid crisis, to gun control, to the #metoo movement. What I appreciate about his podcast is he breaks down a lot of the complicated legal matters in the news into terms I can understand, he shares his passion for justice, and he tries to frame a current specific issue in the broader context of justice in society. Admittedly, there are times when I listen to Preet’s podcast and begin to wonder if there is any hope. But what Preet always does at the end of his podcast is tell a story of hope – sometimes entirely unrelated to the current episode, but always life-giving.
What Preet does is what I try to do in preaching. I am always looking for the problem in the scriptural text assigned for the day (and the related problem in our modern lives), and the hope in the text (and the related hope in our everyday lives). Sometimes finding the hope is harder than others. This Sunday, we get the text from I Samuel where the people finally ask God for a king. That may not sound like an unreasonable request, but you have to remember that God just spent a generation’s lifetime liberating the people from an overlord – from Pharaoh. And despite God’s faithfulness, and the warning God’s prophet gives them about what life will be like under a king (spoiler alert: it’s not good!), the people stubbornly demand a king anyway. In Samuel’s warning, he says, “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” As I have been praying on this text this week, I have been wondering where the hope is.
Last night, I sat in on a conversation on racial reconciliation, and we wondered the same thing too. As we look at the world around us, and see the deep divisions among us (on every issue!), and see the ongoing prejudice among us, many of us found ourselves wondering where the hope is. We spent time talking openly and vulnerably about where our hope is being dashed and the moments that seem irredeemable in life. But after some time, our conversation shifted – from the moments that were irredeemable to the ones that were redemptive. We began to talk about how and where we find hope. And each bit of hope shared brought more hope into the room. Though we all come from different backgrounds, we seemed to conclude the night convinced that God, through the instrument of the Church, was going to be the source of hopeful change in the world.
I am wondering where you are finding hope today. Whatever is going on your life, whatever is dragging you down today, what are the glimmers of hope that are sustaining you? I could preach to you about how God is always our source of “big picture” hope, but I think more often God provides us with little glimmers of hope that leads us on the path to that big picture hope. Those glimmers are our food for the daily walk with Christ that nourish our souls and keep us out of the dark and searching for the light. If you have not found the hope today, keep looking. And if you get to the close of the day and are still not convinced, reach out for support. You are not alone.
Tomorrow night is the longest night of the calendar year in the northern hemisphere – the winter solstice, when the earth reminds us how little light these days have. We mark the longest night at our church with a service called Blue Christmas, acknowledging the ways in which Christmas can also be devoid of light for many of us. For some, the reasons are obvious: grief over the loss of a loved one, broken marriages or other relationships, illness, or loneliness. For others, the reasons are a bit more ambiguous: a recognition that the world around you seems filled with happiness, and yet, there is a dull sadness or pain aching inside that is oddly out of place.
What is interesting about the Blue Christmas service is that there are years when I feel like I really need the service, and there are years that I do not realize how much I needed it until I am there. I think that is because there is a way in which our culture romanticizes Christmas, creating inevitable shortcomings. Even when you are happy, have created the perfect meal, are enjoying a long-held tradition, there is someone who is not there, some hurt that is not addressed, some bit of life that is unresolved. All of that is true most days – but the expectations of Christmas are unrealistic that cannot be met fully.
I think that is why I cling to Mary so much this time of year. Mary always lived in a world of joy and sorrow, of blessings and curses. The news of her pregnancy made her shout for joy, but also reminded her of how broken the world was to need such a savior. The joy she experienced of new birth was matched by the promise of sacrificial death. Mary lived in the “both-and;” the ambiguity always present in life. I like to suppose she cherished the joys as much as she could: the joys of a baby kicking in her womb, even as the neighbors stared and judged her unwedded state; the thrill of holding a new baby, even in the most rustic of accommodations; the miracle of new life, even if the miracle can only really happen in his death. It is in times like this time of year I long to hold Mary’s hand and walk with her for a while.
If you need a place to put your messy feelings this year, or you need a Mary to walk with you, I invite you to join us for our Blue Christmas service. But if you cannot make it tomorrow, know that Hickory Neck is a place that always has an open hand, ready to walk with you whatever the time of year is, and whatever you are facing. You are not alone.
Teachers and group facilitators know there are different types of learning styles. Some people need to see something in writing in order to follow what is being presented. These are the folks in church whose head is in their bulletins when the scripture is being read because they need to see the words, not just hear them. Some people need to hear information orally to absorb information. These are the folks you will see looking away from their bulletins during readings at church, preferring to watch and hear the words of the lector or celebrant instead of follow the words on the page. And some people are what are called kinesthetic learners, who need to touch, feel, and do something in order to grasp the concept. These are the folks who experience God more like our two disciples today – walking, talking, listening, and breaking bread.
I have been thinking a lot about walking this week. Next month we will be talking about the Christian tradition of pilgrimage – a moving journey with God. I think one of the primary reasons we walk, why we take pilgrimages, is because we sometimes just need to move in order to see God. If we think back about Christ’s years of ministry, much of his sacred, life-changing moments happened while walking: the woman who grabs the hem of his garment and receives healing while Jesus walks; the blind man Jesus encounters while walking in the city; the grieving mother Jesus meets while walking past the funeral procession. Though Jesus certainly spends time sitting and teaching in homes, in gardens, and on mountains, much of his ministry isspent on the move.
Back in Advent, we had a clergy retreat. The day was filled with all sorts of activities – conversation, silence, prayer, and readings. But perhaps my favorite part of the day was when the facilitator assigned us to another person in the room and told us to go for a walk. One person was to speak about whatever was on their heart and the other was to listen. At the end, when the speaker was done, the listener was invited to reflect back about what they had heard and where they heard God moving in the speaker’s life. What is interesting about taking a walk with someone – either being the listener or the speaker – is that you cannot really make eye contact. Your body is busy watching the path in front of you, avoiding rocks or holes, and navigating turns. Meanwhile, your mind works harder to focus – keeping your body moving while allowing yourself to speak or listen. In some ways, that kind of walk is reminiscent of a confessional. Two people, side-by-side, confessing what is on their heart, without the piercing judgment of eye contact. Somehow the seemingly simple act of taking a walk with someone becomes profoundly intimate and sacred, something I am not convinced happens as well when we are sitting still.
The two disciples may have been having the same kind of conversation on that road to Emmaus. They have a lot on their minds: those last days of Jesus’ life; his arrest, crucifixion, and death; the testimony of the women about his resurrection. Everything in their lives has been upended, and they are confused, sad, and lost. But as they walk, Jesus appears on the road alongside them. Together, the three of them keep moving, sharing hopes, dreams, and fears, while also reflecting where they see God in the midst of this turbulent time. While their bodies are busy with the steps of that dusty road, their minds and hearts are opening up through their conversation. The noise all around them fades, and the clarity of truth breaks through. Though they do not notice the feeling right away, later the disciples remember a distinct feeling of their hearts burning within them.
Most of you know by now or will soon figure out that I am a planner. I like to sit down and think through challenges. I spend energy considering the various possibilities, weighing consequences, and working through solutions. I will do research, talk to people with experience, and try to gauge reactions. In general, being a planner can be a great asset. The challenge for a planner is moving. There comes a moment when you have to move on what you have and make a decision or start the planned action. And although this will come as no surprise to the more spontaneous folks in the room, sometimes, you have to get moving without doing all the planning. Sometimes, you just have to take a walk – get out and start doing, and clarity will come. Sometimes Jesus does not show up until you are on the road.
That is what is interesting about our story today. The two disciples today are overwhelmed and stuck. They do not know what to make of all that has happened and they especially do not know what to make of the women’s testimony. They could have stayed in that room with the other disciples, worrying and talking through the possibilities. Instead, they get up and walk. They walk, talk, confess, listen, and learn. Their hearts burn within them only when they move – only when Christ comes alongside their moving bodies and reveals truth to them, helping them understand the fulfillment of Scripture in all that has happened.
I wonder if Christ is not inviting us to do the same today. A couple of weeks ago, I celebrated my first anniversary here at Hickory Neck. It has been an incredible year of growing, relationship-building, serving, and sharing in fellowship. As I have reflected back, the year has been full of good work, growing discipleship, and energized mission and evangelism. We really have had a very full year. But one of the things I keep remembering, and now our Vestry has begun exploring, is the conversation I had with our Search Committee and Vestry over a year ago. We talked extensively about dreams, many of which had already been articulated. The one that captured my heart was using the blessing of this property to begin some new ministries – ministries that would serve those in need in our community and would reflect the distinct nature of our neighborhood. Knowing that we have an abundance of retirees settling in Williamsburg, and an influx of young families moving in as well, Hickory Neck began to dream about how we might serve both constituencies – with childcare, elder day care, or both simultaneously. The dream was what drew me in, and as colossal as the dream sounded, the dream also sounded inspired and full of the Spirit.
For the last year, we have been sitting, getting to know each other, building trust, and growing in our love of Christ. But now, your Vestry has started taking some walks. Your Vestry has started meeting with leaders, service providers, and member of the larger community. The idea is to walk alongside others, hearing their stories, and listening for the Spirit. We are also sharing our dream, and making sure our vision is in line with what the community needs. We are taking those kinds of walks that lay bare our concerns and fears, but also confess our deepest hopes. Of course, we could avoid these conversations, staying in the upper room with fellow disciples – fellow Hickory Neck-ers. But instead, we are taking a cue from the disciples today, hoping that on our walk, our hearts will burn with a sense of the presence of Jesus.
The disciples and our Vestry are issuing a similar invitation to us today – to move out of the comfort of familiarity, and to start walking the way in the hopes of encountering Jesus. What they have learned is that sometimes, in order to clear our heads, in order to get un-stuck in our current path, in order to go deeper with God and to find Christ in our midst, we need to move. We need to walk, talk, listen, confess, and learn. We need to step out of our places of comfort and familiarity, and start moving. On those walks are where we encounter Christ, where scripture becomes clear, and where our hearts burn with renewed energy, purpose, and meaning. That is work that we are taking on as a community, but also work that we are invited to take on for ourselves. Taking those first steps can be scary, intimidating, and uncomfortable. The good news, is that, like the disciples, we do not go alone. We go with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. We go with neighbors who long for justice and dignity for all. We go with Christ, who whispers truth and who burns in our hearts. Come, and take a walk with Hickory Neck.
Last week, I spent time at the Trappist monastery, Mepkin Abbey, in South Carolina. There were many highlights, which I imagine I will write about in the coming weeks and months. But what has been lingering in my mind is my experience with their labyrinth. I have now walked several labyrinths, but my experience with Mepkin’s labyrinth was a bit unique. When you first approach the labyrinth, it looks like a field of weeds and tall grasses. A casual passerby would miss it (or at least wonder why the monks were slacking on their grounds keeping).
The first time I walked the labyrinth, it was relatively early in the morning. I must have been the first one out there, because there were cobwebs all along my walk in. I found myself constantly clearing the way, recognizing how appropriate a metaphor the cobwebs were for the clearing of my mind I was trying to do. Several of the tall grasses were also bent over into the path, meaning I had to push my way through. Again, I found myself wondering what tall grasses have been blocking my own spiritual journey lately. The final challenge of the walk was the buzzing bugs who seemed to know right where my head was. I suppose I was waking them up or disturbing them, but all I could think about was the buzz of voices who have been frustrating my walk with God lately.
But like any labyrinth walk, once I calmed my mind, and especially after standing in the warm sun in the center of the labyrinth, I began to reinterpret my own metaphors. The buzzing of the bugs were not some outside set of voices agitating me, but instead my own busy mind, distracting me from hearing God. The cobwebs became the habits that have grown in me and my parish that clog up the way to change. Those habits and practices tend to cling to us, but when cleared can make way for a powerful new experience. And those pesky tall grasses became not annoying barriers, but reminders that the journey with God will always have road blocks. One can either turn around the way one came, stand facing the barrier paralyzed, or find a way around the road block to continue the journey with God.
Each time I walked the labyrinth, a new truth was revealed to me, and God spoke to me differently. On my last walk, I had come to a place of real peace during my retreat. That labyrinth walk was almost buoyant, full of joy and praise. What the daily walks reminded me of is that we all need spiritual practices that can help us access new revelations from God. Despite the tendency of churches to dramatically slow down in the summer, I have begun to think about this summer as a summer of seeking at St. Margaret’s. Once again, we are offering yoga on our lawn for parishioners and our neighbors. Parishioners who traditionally participate in weekly Bible study are instead using the summer to participate in spiritual “field trips,” to places like the Shrine of Our Lady of the Island and Little Portion Friary. We still have our mid-week Eucharist on Thursdays and our beautiful cemetery grounds, which are great for quiet meditation. We will also be using this summer for planning more spiritual and formation opportunities at St. Margaret’s for the program year. Our summer of seeking is giving us the space we need to hear how God is calling us into deeper seeking, serving, and sharing Christ in the months to come.