The First (and Second) Step

Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Dear Pilgrims,

The winter days are long now in South Dakota, the wind ripping across the open spaces and cutting deep slices of cold down to the bone. Snow comes, and comes, and comes. It is in these months that I sometimes feel that winter, with its early darkness and grey skies, is the best image of reality. But I then remember that spring is coming, and all the freeze and harsh will melt away into life and green and hope.

We have a few weeks remaining until Ash Wednesday moves us into the season of confession and repentance. During these weeks I wanted to write you a few notes on pilgrimage. As I’ve reflected recently on the nature of faith journeys I thought I could stir in you, too, a contemplation on the process of pilgrimage and what it means.

The first step in pilgrimage is, ironically, not the first physical step. The first step is a mental acceptance of the need for something. It is a craving, a desire, a longing for something. For me and for many others I suspect, this longing isn’t defined in words and exists only in our souls as a powerful force of ephemeral will. It is prompted by the darkness of experience and yet nourished by the repeated breaking of bread with Christ and his friends around table. The first step in a pilgrimage is an acknowledgement of how little you know and a desire to set sail across the vast sea of unknowing until you find something, anything of God that says, “I am here.”

For our friends in the early church pilgrimage was a journey to places of profound faith experiences. They wanted to walk in the steps of those who had encountered God and they wanted to encounter God there, too. These journeys were often long, visiting cathedrals, shrines, holy cairns, and small caverns and catacombs. They were searches for the thin places where the veil between our space and the divine space might be easily pushed aside, where the hem of the garment of God might be touched.

We don’t do that much anymore. If ours is a time when either everything is holy or nothing is holy then surely we are a people of pure hypocrisy or pure depravity. We don’t see ourselves in such clear cut ways despite the sharp dichotomy of our worldview. Our reality is much more grey than we would like to admit, and that is a blessing. But in our daily work few of us are granted the luxury to pick up and walk in far away lands the steps of our forebears of faith, searching for God. So we live in our grey reality, like so much of our winter, and perhaps convince ourselves that the biting wind that cuts through our existence is all there is. Grey becomes black-and-white, and blessing becomes curse.

What, then, do we do? If our first step is a mental acceptance of the need for something, then our second step is charting a course. We may not journey to our holy lands in physical ways, but surely we each have in our minds and spirits a yearning for a new way of living, a new way of being. The pilgrimages of our time don’t bring us to the ancient places of physicality in which the great cloud of witnesses sat in hushed silence before the face of God. Perhaps our pilgrimages are journeys in the steps of human existence with eyes wider and hearts more attentive to the face of God that is always around us. Perhaps now, and maybe always, the thin places are not set among the stones of shrines but among the flesh and blood of friends and strangers. And there we may find the Kingdom of God that dwells among us and within us, a destination most worthy of our full attention. That is a place of neither black-and-white dichotomy nor of grey and lifeless ambiguity, but of the dazzling and wondrous Light of God’s shalom. It is a place of spring that bursts forth life. That should be our destination of being.

I’ll write to you in a few days on what I think comes next in pilgrimage, after the first and second steps: the initial burst of energy that propels us toward our destination in God’s Kingdom. Until then, I hope that you will stop and rest on your journey. Sit with friends, sing songs, pray the liturgy, and feast on the Eucharist wherever you find it.

May the peace of Christ be with you in your journey,
Christopher

Working for Justice

In the second episode of the Pilgrim’s Notes podcast, Dr. Montgomery talks about working for justice, using Jesus’ declaration of Jubilee in Luke’s Gospel as a launching point. It is a reflection on the appointed Gospel lesson for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 27, 2019.

You can stream the episode at ThePilgrimHouse.org or download it here. You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or Google Play, too.

Music is copyright by Purple Planet Music and is used by permission.

“Working for Justice”

Dignity and Worth

You may stain your sword with my blood, but you will never be able to profane my body, consecrated to Christ.

Saint Agnes of Rome, martyr (c. 291 – 304)

There are times in the journey of life when we face the harsh realities of our existence. That harshness all too often comes in the form of other people, our history being full of the tension that exists in relationship. Differences abound, and in the face of sometimes insurmountable conflict of perspective we are confronted with a question, the answer to which has lasting impact: who is the other person?

This question, of course, has led to a great many calamities and wars on national and global levels. But locally, individually, a diverging of perspectives is equally as real and complex, and perhaps more emotionally charged. Is the other person sitting across the room from me a friend or a foe? How I treat that person depends a great deal on the answer.

Saint Agnes of Rome, a teenager martyred for her choices in the face of such tension, is one of seven women honored in the recitation of the Eucharistic prayer in the Roman Catholic Mass. While many legends surround the life and circumstances of Agnes, she was likely martyred for choosing to dedicate her life in the service of Christ and the Church rather than one of the Roman suitors seeking her for marriage. Agnes’ choice to dedicate herself (and more radically, her body) to the work of Christ was a bold move for a young girl in any time, but for Agnes it was a move that ultimately cost her life.

As her Roman suitors looked upon her, they didn’t see another human of equal stature, worth, and dignity. They saw property, someone and something that could be controlled, bought, owned. The radical message of Agnes’ choice was a denial of that kind of worldview and a full embrace of the message of Jesus, whose Gospel accounts hold women in a place of high honor and esteem.

On this feast day of Saint Agnes, which is shared with the civic remembrance of the Rev’d Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is essential that we give due and proper consideration to the question, “Who is the other person?” Like Agnes, Dr. King was martyred for answering that question in ways that defied the over/above model of human social constructs and sought to bring down a culture of white racial supremacy. And while Dr. King’s legacy is one of vocal action, St. Agnes’ legacy of quiet determination is no less resilient. There are many forms of the question, “Who is the other person?” that exist in many times and in many contexts. But if the answer to that question is anything other than “an image-bearer of God,” the answer is wrong.

Let us recognize the dignity and worth of each person, each people, and act in ways that uphold and empower everyone in their journey. And in doing so, may we realize a justice and freedom from oppression that flows among us and work to heal the world for which Agnes and Martin – and their Jesus – gave their lives.

May the peace of Christ be with you in your journey,
Christopher

Healing Waters

After all the people were baptized, Jesus was baptized. As he was praying, the sky opened up and the Holy Spirit, like a dove descending, came down on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”

The Gospel according to Luke (3:21-22)

On Sunday the Christian year told the story of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. It is a beautiful story of Jesus approaching among the crowds and receiving a message of divine affirmation from God: “this is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”

As I reflected upon the story, I remembered a moment from my doctoral work several years ago. During one of my final residencies we ventured south of the Fleming Island, Florida campus to the beautiful St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Green Cove Springs on the banks of the St. Johns River. The building was adorned with the motto “Come to the Waters” and was an appropriate place for a baptismal renewal service. After several days of immersion in a theology of baptism the trip was a welcome respite from the headiness of our studies, allowing us to practice with our bodies the rituals of the Church.

We gathered in the sanctuary for song and prayer then moved outside to the banks of the river to remember our baptisms: the drawing up of our very selves into the divine. One of our professors, an Episcopal priest, invited us forward to dip our hands into the water and share a story of our experience of baptismal renewal. I shared of my ongoing struggle with depression, deep sadness and loneliness, and the trouble I have experienced finding a theological and liturgical home. I told of a particular time, during my novitiate in the Order of Saint Luke, when the depression and oppressive feelings of failure were so heavy upon my spirit that the only thing that would get me out of bed was the ritual each morning in our order of remembering our baptism. I shared that, in the days when the sadness was so deep, and the loneliness so raw, I would place the water on my forehead. For when I could feel nothing of the Divine, my body felt what my spirit could not. And it is exactly what I needed.

For me, being a Christian is living this kind of mystery. Baptism is a ritual of bearing for and in us a grace of God, speaking to the beautiful and mysterious way in which God draws us up into the restoration of all things in Christ. Baptism is God’s doing, not ours. The narrative thread of water that is woven throughout the Bible is one of healing and hope that God brings to us.

Baptism and its remembrance as a way to live into God’s ongoing healing is necessary for us as Church. It touches our bodies and spirits with the essence of earth and reminds us that God cares for our most basic needs. And without that kind of remembrance in the pilgrim journey we will be anemic in our witness of beauty and truth.

God desires our spirits and bodies to be healed, and baptism is God’s work in moving us toward that healing. In past dark days of loneliness and sadness, as I splashed water on my forehead and remembered my baptismal identity, God’s spirit was with me even though I didn’t feel it. In these days, when I still feel the lingerings of loneliness, sadness, and failure, God offers the cool running waters of hope and renewal. They are the same waters that touched my face years ago. They are the same waters that Jesus felt pour over his head. And it is the same sentiment that God speaks to us that was said to Jesus: “you are my beloved.”

I think God understands that sometimes our bodies need to feel God’s love so that our spirits can understand it. So, friends, feel the beauty of God in the waters today. And experience how God is nourishing you in the journey of faith.

May the peace of Christ be with you in your journey,
Christopher

God Beyond the Walls

Kings remote and legendary will pay homage,
    kings rich and resplendent will turn over their wealth.
All kings will fall down and worship,
    and godless nations sign up to serve him,
Because he rescues the poor at the first sign of need,
    the destitute who have run out of luck.
He opens a place in his heart for the down-and-out,
    he restores the wretched of the earth.
He frees them from tyranny and torture—
    when they bleed, he bleeds;
    when they die, he dies.

Psalm 72:10-14 (The Message)

I have never been a powerful person. In fact, I have lived most of my life as an outsider. I grew up poor, ministered as a high-church liturgist in the low-church tradition, advocated for a disavowal of the nationalistic fervor in American Christianity in a religious movement steeped in patriotism, and moved theologically leftward as many of my friends and family remained conservative. While none of these parts of my life necessarily warrant an outsider label, it is the context in which they occurred that caused me to feel like I was standing beyond the wall, gazing in. Would I ever be able to go inside?

Perhaps you, pilgrim, feel the same way.

The Feast of the Epiphany, which we celebrated on Sunday, January 6, is a reminder that the God of the Christian tradition is a God of those on the outside. The appointed Psalm text in the liturgy for Sunday is a rich song of irony to those at the center of power inside the walls. It is a song that emphatically declares God’s priorities. And in so doing, it tells us something profound about how God both understands and exercises power.

Psalm 72 sings, triumphantly, that a true exercise of power isn’t dwelling inside the walls and basking in the glory of protection. It is the active pursuit of liberation and solidarity. The mystery of the divine is that God not only sides with those who find themselves down-on-their-luck or purposely oppressed, God is part of that group. God doesn’t stand at the center of the religious bureaucracy, God walks with those who are cast outside the walls. God “opens a place in [God’s] heart” for such people, but even more, God bleeds “when they bleed,” God dies “when they die.” God dwells in the margins in solidarity with the outsider – a wondrous and beautiful mystery.

I think Psalm 72 sings the good news of Christianity. It is good news for you who have been pushed out of the church. It is good news for you who have been pressed down under the thumb of someone wielding their power. It is good news for you who have been hurt, broken, betrayed by those who had the ability to stand up and help you. It is good news because when you are pushed out, pressed down, hurt, broken, betrayed, God is there with you, lamenting with you and opening a place in the divine heart for you. 

The Magi, whom we remember on Epiphany, were stargazing magician-priests from far outside the religious and cultural power centers of first-century Judaism. Yet they go to find Jesus, heralded as kings, and pay homage to the God wrapped in fragile flesh, held in the arms of a poor, young, seemingly insignificant girl in Bethlehem.

God opened a place in the divine heart for these pilgrims. The Magi followed the light to that place, and they still show us the way. So, don’t gaze up at the wall and lament your status on the outside. Gaze up at the heavens, beyond the paltry constructs of the “powerful,” and behold the wonder of starlight that is illuminating to you the Holy One, standing right beside you.

May the peace of Christ be with you in your journey,
Christopher

Learning from the Stranger

The first episode of the Pilgrims’ Notes podcast explores the story of the Magi from Matthew’s gospel account in preparation for the feast of the Epiphany on January 6, 2019. I talk about learning from the stranger, keeping our eyes open to wonder, and the dangers of trying to hold on to power.

You can stream the episode at ThePilgrimHouse.org or download it here. Podcasts will soon be available on iTunes and Google Play for regular download.

Music is copyright by Purple Planet Music and is used by permission.

Trust, Love, and Acceptance

The Word became flesh and blood,
    and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
    the one-of-a-kind glory,
    like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
    true from start to finish.

John 1:14 (The Message)

Advent, which ended last night, is the season in which we learn to be patient. We don’t like waiting. We hate the simple waits, like long lines in the store or traffic or packages to arrive. We hate the bigger waiting. When will the world be made right? When will the injustice be rectified? When will children’s thirst be quenched instead of dying of dehydration at borders? In our current politic climate, the promise of peace seems distant and unattainable, outside the reach of our waiting.

Advent is the season in which we learn to recognize the mystery of our human journey and confront, in holy waiting, its complexities. Today, as we begin the wondrous season of Christmas, we begin the process again of learning that God walks with us in that journey of expectation. The story of Christmas isn’t so much about a baby or a manger or shepherds or angels, though it is all those things. The story of Christmas is about the divine sustainer of the cosmos robing in human flesh in the most vulnerable and innocent way to experience what it’s like to do things like wait and hope, even in frustration.

Lest we fall victim to cynicism in our reflection, we should remember that our journey through the wastelands of the earth is marked with moments of stunning beauty. I often wonder how newborns see the world as their eyes begin to flutter open, their mouths and hands grasping for their mother in unfiltered trust. I recently read an author who described babies as thinking, not in words, but in feelings. They think in feelings of trust, love, and acceptance.

Dear friends, imagine God innocently swaddled in Mary’s arms thinking not of the complexities of divine existence or the tragedies of the world, but simply and gently grasping Mary’s finger and feeling pure trust and love and acceptance. Christmas is the season in which we learn that God not only loves and accepts us, but also trusts us. And in this profound trust, we are given a great gift: the ability to do good. As Jesus grasps Mary’s finger, Mary responds in motherly affection and joy.

So, you’ve waited. The Advent season of waiting has now given way to the Christmas season of light, a season of wonder and beauty. You’ve thought about the world and its tragedies as you’ve confessed and lamented during Advent. During the 12 days of Christmas, revel in God enfleshed and what that means for the world. How will you act upon God’s pure and profound trust in humanity? What good will you do, and what love will you extend? How will you accept the pure loving hand of God, eyes filled with wonder and a heart bursting with love, and give back in simple affection and joy?

May the peace of Christ be with you in your journey,
Christopher

Launching the Pilgrim House

Stop at the crossroads and look around;
ask for the ancient paths.
Where is the good way?
Then walk in it and find a resting place for yourselves.

Set up markers, put up signs;
think about the road you have traveled,
the path you have taken.

– The Book of Jeremiah (6:16, 31:21)

Humans have engaged in pilgrimage since the earliest days of religion and faith. A pilgrimage is a venture, a movement, a journey toward a place where the presence and mystery of God is encountered.

But much of the institutional church has lost this spirit. We’ve filled our houses of worship with division, bitterness, and power-struggles. In our work to make the church an effective organization we’ve lost the wonder and beauty that was pilgrimage, a sacred journey on which we encounter God in unexpected ways.

My own journey has included great sorrow and hardship. After a challenging childhood, I was a traditional pastor for 15 difficult years. I know what it’s like to be on a journey, encountering God in profound ways and yet not finding places or times to express that joy without the baggage that accompanies most institutional Christianity. Rather than asking, “Where have you seen the beauty of God?” our churches have lengthy business meetings and endless committees. Wonder is exchanged for capitalism, true charity is abandoned in the quest for profit, and people are valued less than property that sits unused most of the week.

In the next few weeks I will be launching a new personal ministry called The Pilgrim House, initially a one-year experiment through the end of 2019.

The Pilgrim House will strive to be a ministry of times, places, and resources for the moments in pilgrimage when you need to rest. It is in these moments that we feast, share, and imagine. It is here where we make our sign-posts and consider the paths we’ve taken. The Pilgrim House will include reflective blog entries, encouraging podcasts, celebratory liturgies in various locations, and learning events. The Pilgrim House will hopefully be an ever-changing way to stop and re-discover the beauty and wonder of Christianity in new expressions of faith.

After being raised by fundamentalists, educated by evangelicals and reformed and Anglicans, and time spent ministering among Anabaptists, I now consider myself a post-denominational pastor to pilgrims who are hurt, wandering, or simply curious and questioning, and I hope that this new turn in the path will lead to peace and hope for those that journey with me.

So, where can we go from here?

  1. You can learn more about me here, or follow on Twitter or Facebook.
  2. Along the journey you can read encouraging letters called Pilgrims’ Notes, published weekly (beginning Tuesday, December 25).
  3. Or, you can listen to a periodic podcast on journeying with Jesus (first episode coming Sunday, December 30).
  4. You are invited to participate in a Pilgrim House liturgy that will ritually celebrate themes discussed in the podcast (beginning around Sunday, January 6).
  5. If you find this ministry helpful in your faith pilgrimage, you could consider becoming a patron and support The Pilgrim House into something long-term.

I look forward to the ways we can journey together.

Blessings, friends, on your pilgrimage!
Christopher