A Pilgrim’s Progress
Dt. 26:1-10; Hebrews 11:8-16
By faith Abraham left the land of his people and traveled to a new land promised to him by God, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, looking forward to a city that would be built by God. And by faith Sarah became pregnant past the age of child-bearing and from here so many descendants came that they number as the stars. None of them saw their promise fulfilled in their lifetime but they lived their lives as pilgrims passing through our world in search of a home that is prepared for them by God.
I turn 60 this week. It has taken me a while to get those words out.
A colleague of mine asked me, “If your sixty year old self could talk to your twenty year old self, what would he say?” A great question.
In the movie “Forest Gump”, Forrest and his childhood friend Jenny meet again when they are about 30 back in their hometown in Alabama. They are walking absent-mindedly, reminiscing about the past when they happen upon the home Jenny grew up in. Her father was a share-cropper, the poorest farmers in the poor south, an alcoholic, mean man that abused her physically and sexually as a child.
She turns towards her house, and suddenly her past comes fully back into her present. She remembers not only what happened but how much time she has wasted as a young adult because of the consequences of her abusive childhood. The house is empty now.
She picks up a rock and throws it through the glass window. Then another. Then another, and another and another. She is weeping and screaming in this huge emotional release of some bad stuff from way back there. Forrest stands there watching all this and says, “Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.”
We get to these places in our lives when the past opens into the transcendent dimension and we can see the wider pattern of meaning that is the arc of the narrative of the path we have taken. And it comes to us as blessing or curse. This is what it means to live by ‘faith’. And we have no choice about whether we live by faith or not. It is the only way we can live.
I’ve been thinking about these things as I close out the 5th decade of my life. So I’ve circled back to a small group of friends from High School and a small group of friends from College, just because we’ve known each other for so long.
I got my roommate from freshman year and a couple guys that lived above us to go to Scotland to play golf at St. Andrews. We are in the ‘bucket list’ phase of life and I knew they would go if I won the lottery for a tee time at the Old Course. I won the lottery, got a tee time, and I took it as a sign that we should do this.
We had a great trip and we didn’t talk all that much about our lives this time. It is because all of us have a lot of responsibility in our careers and all of us are managing our parents as they become genuinely aged, even as we are still caring for our kids and our grandchildren. At least for men, sometimes it is just fine to be together doing something, enjoying the present.
But on the last day, almost by accident, I was playing a hole and I realized that I’d been here before. And I remembered that 20 years ago, a bunch of guys at Christ Church were together at a fund-raiser for the Y or for the Connection and we won a house for a week in Scotland.
We were going to give it away but I wrote a bunch of them and asked how many would actually go over and play golf for a few days. They all said “yes”. None of us knew each other very well. We were all on the way up in our careers at Salomon Brothers, at Ernst and Young, at ABC News, at Enron, at David Rockwell architects. Dave Pruner, Jamie Akers, Neale Trangucci, Mike Fischer, Terry Baker. Everyone was so busy, some had to come early, some late, but we had three days together. I remember people on their phones all the time- we were in our late 30’s and becoming important, needed at work. We stayed up way too late carrying on like boys and everyone was up at the crack of dawn to play all day, burning the candle at both ends as my grandmother would say, so typical of that phase of our lives.
The last day we had to go in the middle of the round to get our flights, some going west, some going east. So we dropped one last ball and hit them to this green that was down below us. We were way up high, looking over the North Sea, a gorgeous vista. Almost all of us managed to leave the ball on the green miraculously. We had a toast to the next time we would do this. And we left, went our separate ways.
I hadn’t thought about that day again, until I found myself looking back down at the same place 20 years later. We never did get back together to make that trip again. And I was thinking about how life moves on like that and you don’t really realize it when you are young. A couple of them moved. Some got divorced. One had a child die. One had a double lung transplant.
None of us could see any of this when we confidently hit those balls and toasted our good future. That is the way that it is in early mid-life, you don’t know the complications and difficulties that await you and mostly you think you will somehow avoid them, even though you won’t.
I stood there looking out over the North Sea, the brisk wind in my hair, and the portal of time opened for a moment into the transcendent. I was thinking how we can’t hold onto our lives, as precious as they are, and there is so much that we can’t control. We can’t go back, we can only live by faith into the future.
And I remembered when I was a boy in college. And I met Kate. We dated. She was the best date I’d ever had. I was crazy about her. We had a great few months. She was cute, interesting, kind. We had a great time.
The day came when she around graduation time. She was going to go her way and I was going to go mine. Back in the 70’s we didn’t really have great career plans after college. I was going to get a motorcycle, drive across Africa, and try to hire on a boat in Athens and meet other wonderful girls, hopefully in Sicily, Morocco, and Majorca. It wasn’t much of a plan. Today we expect young people to start working on their careers in Kindergarten.
But the closer it came to us actually parting, I started to realize that if I let her go, it will be the biggest mistake of my life. I had no interest in developing a long-term relationship. What young boy does? And I started wrestling with myself internally.
I had no plan to pattern my life on. My parents weren’t able to be a model for me to follow. They were unhappily married, frustrated and resentful. I didn’t want to be that. So I was afraid, not confident. Having no other wise people to guide me, sort of a means of last resort, I decided to pray. And I remembered a line from the Bible that my Grandmother taught me.
[By the way, this is one of the biggest reasons we go to church, to have a verse and some wisdom we can give to the next generation to help them when they get to times like these.]
The bible verse said, “The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave behind your country, your people and your father’s household, and follow me towards an unknown land that I will show you I will make through you many people,
and I will bless you;
your name will outlive you,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and people from the far ends of the earth
will be blessed through you.”
And I said to God, not that I was particularly religious mind you. I studied philosophy and politics as an undergraduate. Philosophy generally bleeds religion out of people. I just said, “God, I will trust you and try to live by the faith that Abraham lived by and hope this all works out.”
And then in a moment of unguarded optimism, I asked Kate to marry me. And in a moment of utter naiveté, she said ‘yes’. And like most of these moments in your life, even though they are incredibly important times of wrestling and decision making, I forgot about it and went on living my life, working through the immediate ‘to do’ list like finding a job and figuring out where to live.
I forgot about it…Until… I’m standing up on this fairway, looking down at this place I’d been before, remembering back when I was forty. And I remembered that line again, “Leave behind your people and your past and follow me to a place that I will show you in the future and I will make through you more people than you can imagine and I will bless you.”
That line, that way of being guided me and it guided my ancestors. And I was thinking how my ancestors may have literally quite near the place I was standing in Scotland and they may well have decided to start out for a new world (in a land that would be called America) and a new life with that same committed faith, that same hope.
And for just a moment, I was taken by the unbearable lightness of being. I brought to mind my four children, our foster children, our nine going on ten grandchildren, five dogs, cats, so many friends, our congregation, and now so many new in-laws as my children marry and start their families.
And I remembered back to the beginning and I thought, “I really have been blessed by God, even though I had no idea where this was headed, sometimes I was frustrated and going in circles, sometimes I had to make substantive changes in myself that were really hard because I was my own worst enemy. In spite of all that, all of the limitations in myself that I had to overcome, I really was blessed.
Jesus taught the disciples not to be afraid to step out in faith. He said to the man that was lame, ‘take up your mat, stand and walk.’ He said to the blind man, “open your eyes and see”. He said to the woman at the well who was consumed by errors of her past, “go, sin no more, and be free”. His mantra was “do not worry too much about what you will wear, what you will eat”. He sent the disciples into the world and said, “do not worry about what you will say when you are arrested and threatened, for the Holy Spirit will be with you.”
What does it mean to a blind man that he might one day live with sight? By faith, you will find out and it will be okay. What does it mean to a man who is dependent and lame that he might one day actually walk and become self-directed? By faith, you will find out and it will be okay. What does it mean to grow through the mistakes that you have made so that you might mature, grow up, and become reconciled with yourself, foolish as you have been? By faith, you will find out and it will be okay.
I know that some of you came here this morning because you subconsciously wrestling with something uncertain about your future that you need to work through and resolve. And you are hoping that somehow that church will help you with that.
We can’t answer that deeper riddle for you. That is for you to answer for yourself. All of our profoundest spiritual reflections are like that. We can’t hold on to our life, or go back to a safer place, even if we wanted to. Our lives are not like that.
But you can live by faith. Like Abraham, like Jesus none of us can see the future or the incredible challenges that will await us. Each new chapter brings another unkown adventure that will require new and different skills to negotiate it, skills we probably don’t really have yet.
Live by faith. You are a child of God. God loves you. God inspires you and wants the best for you. God wants you to find your authentic voice and live it. And it will be okay.
And every once in a while, may the portal of time open before you into the transcendent dimension. May you see how your life has been really blessed. May you remember how have actually stepped out in faith in the past. May you name the blessings that have accrued to you because of how you have invested yourself. And be grateful.
Your life is precious. And those that have loved you, now and a long, long time ago, are precious. May you stumble into the spiritual plane of grace and live out of that. Through your most difficult days and your seasons of celebration, it will be okay.