One of my only memories of Pappy is of him talking to the man in the mirror. Who could blame him? The man was congenial and handsome—jet black hair, muscular physique, either clean shaven or designer beard stubble. Pappy routinely saw a stranger in windows and mirrors as he slowly became a stranger to himself and the world, which isn’t abnormal behavior for someone with Alzheimer’s disease. He looked at the puzzling, familiar face and invited the stranger inside for a place to stay. But the man could never come back inside.
I learned at an early age that when our bodies betray us that the brain can be particularly vindictive. When a neuron died, so did a memory. People and places disappeared as if they never existed. Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t discriminate—it took his PhD and his ability to swing a hammer. Finally, an entire history evaporated like a puddle of water on a sunny day.
Augustine notes that memory is the warehouse of time, but what happens when the warehouse is robbed? We are taught as children to leave a legacy, but our loved ones who suffer from dementia teach us a painful lesson: we will forget and be forgotten. Textbooks go out of print and gravestones crumble. Even Google, the world’s biggest brain, can’t retrieve a copy of his dissertation.
I’m told that there’s a remnant of his life incarnated within me, giving shape to my own identity. None of us are as unique as we think. He is enfleshed in my five-foot-nothing stature and other quirks like an affinity for chamomile tea. Gratefully, I inherited the story of Jesus that he told his daughter who then, faithfully told it to me. Somehow Kierkegaard hitched a ride with Jesus into my consciousness, even if he skipped a generation. I’m not complaining.
I can retrieve snapshots of his illness that don’t fit together to create a full portrait. Mostly, I remember how his body cried out on his mind’s behalf. As Pappy’s dementia grew worse he picked up the newspaper and underlined important phrases and paragraphs—a habit that was ingrained in his muscle memory after years of reading and studying. His bird flew around the house to my terror and sang ‘Jesus Loves Me,’ preaching the good news that he could never lose, even when he forgot it. I don’t remember much more.
After he died, Meemaw threw out all of his papers and sermons which could have given us access to his heart and brain. I’ve often thought about what he underlined in his Bible or wrote in the margins of the text. Did he prefer to preach John’s Gospel or Luke’s? What’d he say about the slaughter of the Canaanites? It’s a shame that she didn’t realize that she’d have a few grandchildren in vocational ministry who would’ve loved to know their pastor-grandfather. And the extra sermon material wouldn’t have hurt.
Twenty-five years later, all I can do is borrow another’s imperfect memory from those who knew him best.
I’ve since learned that Pappy was not a preacher or priest. He was foremost a pastor, which means that he was a shepherd. He loved to be with people—whether over coffee or on the softball field. Relationships whisked him off to bars before ‘theology on tap’ was trendy or socially acceptable. Pappy didn’t drink the stuff, but he made friends with those who did. No surprise, it got him in trouble with the churches. One thing hasn’t changed in the history of Christianity: religious people will complain if you eat and drink with ‘sinners.’
But Pappy knew that transformation was worth the headache brought by pious church ladies. His own father, who no joke had the street name “Doggie,” was an alcoholic until God made good on a bargain made over a sick daughter. Both he and the daughter were healed. Pappy must have learned that Jesus changed water to wine, but he also changes wine to water when necessary. And someone needs to be present to pray over the barrels.
My uncle recalled that he often stopped at the hospital and asked about who wasn’t getting visitors. He also asked about struggling students at the local high school. That’s not the sort of thing I’ve ever done in my ministry. I’m too busy. Pappy knew he had nothing to gain from spending time with these people except meeting Jesus.
Others have said that Pappy wanted to win at everything, especially life. He started with little and worked hard to be respected on the field, in the church, in the public’s opinion. The line between arrogance and confidence was as thin as the frames of his white-rimmed sunglasses.
At the height of his ministry, Pappy wore the latest fashion and drove a bright red Triumph Spitfire. His congregation claimed that this made him arrogant. Pastors don’t drive sports cars; they drive a beat up Bonneville Catalina that squeals when it takes a right turn. Then again, a parishioner painted a portrait of him with Jesus and he had no qualms about hanging it up in his office. Maybe they were on to something.
Pappy’s life has never been told to me as a hagiography. We all sin and our families will know our mistakes best. Many still struggle to make sense of his shadow side, especially his aggression and strict abuse that passed as spanking. Was he a product of a different era of child rearing—spare the rod spoil the child? Was this a vestige of his own gambling, heavy drinking father who also abused his family? Actions are complex and motives are often pure. Regardless, we fail each other.
One of my uncles told me that understanding a person’s history doesn’t condone the past, but it sure helps with forgiveness. Luckily, Christianity is comfortable with people who make mistakes.
I treasure these fragments, even if they’re subjective and short-sighted. We all have a bit of dementia and can’t seem to get our hands around another person. Much is still unsettled about his life and ours, too. The story we tell of ourselves might intersect and cross paths with the story told by another, but it will never line up completely. Maybe our true identity is somewhere in between the story we’ve created about ourselves and the character that we’ve played in another’s.
I wonder if this is why David Keck says that Alzheimer’s is a ‘theological disease’ that reveals how our identities are misplaced in rationality, memory, and productivity. All along one’s true identity rests secure only in God and nowhere else. That’s easy to forget.
While Jesus hung on the cross the thief next to him cried out, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It’s a curious way of asking for help. He could’ve taken his buddy’s advice and prompted Jesus to prove his divinity. Instead, he asked to catch a ride on God’s bus into God’s memory. That’s eternal life.
Salvation is being re-membered into God’s story—in God’s eternal memory. This is the work of baptism, which strips, washes, and then raises us into a new ontological reality that is larger than what we can cram into our hippocampus. It was Rene Descartes who declared, “I think therefore I am.” The Enlightenment got it backward. For Christians, God remembers and therefore we are—eternally.
We’re all looking at strangers in the mirror—familiar, yet inexhaustible mysteries. The stranger Pappy saw, the one who couldn’t come back inside the house he built with his own hands, lives in me in ways I will never know. But the better news is that he had a home all along.
As I left for our pilgrimage on St Cuthbert’s Way through Scotland and England, many folks wished me rest and relaxation. I’m not sure they knew we were walking sixty miles. Nor did they realize that pilgrimage is not about yelping coffee shops and creating manicured experiences that can be caught in a picture, packaged up, and taken home as a souvenir. There would be no margaritas on the beach—only foamy, room temperature ales at night to forget about aching feet. Our intention was to walk, inwardly and outwardly, to see and be seen.
The best way I know to describe the difference between vacations and pilgrimages is this: vacations are about consumption and comfort. Pilgrimages are about wandering and encounter. There is a cost to walking a pilgrimage. My spirit found rest, but my hips and hamstrings paid the price. But if I can learn to discern the peace of Christ while ascending a couple thousand feet up rolling hills, then I might learn to find peace in whatever pains and frustrations await me in the future.
When we boarded our flight out of Philadelphia toward Edinburgh, it wasn’t long until some of us felt drops of water trickling from the ceiling panel and landing on our heads. For many Christians, a few drops of water can be a reminder of baptism and God’s spirit who dwells within us and around us and blows us where it will. I use water to remind myself of my baptism most mornings, but I’ve never wanted a reminder from a cylinder of metal that would lift me thousands of feet in the air over tens of thousands of miles. Thanks a lot, American Airlines.
The pilot clicked on the intercom to tell us that there was an air conditioning issue. Maybe that was true. Or, maybe there was a gaping hole somewhere in the ceiling of the plane. Maintenance worked diligently (we were told) but the pilots timed out.
We deplaned and waited in the terminal for a new aircraft that would transport us to Edinburgh. Our optimistic airline officials told us that we were going to depart at one a.m. Then, two a.m and two-thirty a.m. Finally, they told us that we had a 50/50 chance of taking off before the three o’clock a.m window closed and the flight would be cancelled. I couldn’t help but to wonder when airline flights became a Vegas betting game .
Realistically, the odds were closer to 30/70, but the bars had already closed and there was a palpable sense of uprising as a result of cancelled tee times at St. Andrews, which is the home of golf. The new aircraft arrived, but the flight was cancelled despite the “valiant” effort by the heroic airline staff. The issue wasn’t the engine or other mechanical problems, but a flat tire—on an airplane.
There was no air.
The air, wherever it was blowing, was not blowing us to our intended destination.
Before Jesus began his public ministry, he was driven by the air of the Spirit into the wilderness. Likewise, we were blown into Philadelphia, with its desert-like heat, national monuments, and airline meal vouchers that wouldn’t work. The evil one was near. We didn’t choose to walk a leg of Cuthbert’s Way in Philadelphia and yet, there we were walking around national museums and monuments. It's possible we were on the right path, though, especially when we landed on a street named Cuthbert while walking downtown. I still wonder whether this was serendipity or a sadistic joke. Either way, we proceeded to create holy meals of cheesesteaks and ascend the Rocky steps, a shrine for bad 80s movies. Then, we kept walking. And waiting. Then, walking.
One fellow pilgrim reminded me that Celtic monks believed that, ‘It is always better to travel hopefully than to arrive. Once we think we have 'arrived,' our souls have died.’ It’s a nice sentiment when you’re not sleeping in an airport. And yet, like it or not, it’s true.
I felt a strong tie to the early Scottish missionaries who put themselves in small, round boats called coracles and set off to sea praying that the Lord would blow them in the right direction. In other words, they cast lots with wind and water with their lives hanging in the balance. Hopefully, they would arrive somewhere and start their ministries—even if it happened to be a gaming convention in Philadelphia’s Clarion Hotel.
Today’s church lacks that kind of courage. It’s much easier to pray, “Send us, O Lord” and then crank the motor and put your hands on the wheel. We are a people who long for control.
But Christians, and especially Christian pilgrims, know that life’s journey can’t be controlled. We’re all one cancelled flight, one virus, one mutated cell away from purgatories spent in airports or hospital rooms. Most of us have a sense we’re walking in the right direction, but then the trail name suddenly changes and we realize that a u-turn is in order. Christians have aptly named this repentance, which is only the name we use to describe our need to stay on the trail.
I often wonder about the path I’m walking. Is there a more successful one? A more faithful one? One where I'd be happier? It’s easy to get anxious that that I’m not walking in the right direction or worse, that I’m lost completely. Like the labyrinth walked by Christians as a condensed form of pilgrimage, we’re reminded that life is a maze of twists and turns. At some point, the trail will become overgrown and unmarked. That’s ok. The goal is to pay attention to the place where each foot lands, always making sure that our toes are always pointed toward the heart of God.
We finally arrived in Scotland to walk Cuthbert’s Way, though two days later than planned. And we walked—we trudged by sheep in fields, then up rolling hills, through gates, and over walls. We had time to start and stop. Feast and fast. Make wrong turns. Find the trail. Begin again. It wasn't always restful, but it was always grace. And there was no other way to arrive at our destination. This is what it means to be a Christian.
As we reached the shoreline of Northumberland, I took off my shoes and stepped on to the ocean floor to begin the walk to Holy Island, which can be reached by foot during low tide. The soft, ocean mud massaged my blistered feet and thanked us for our walk. I sensed the millions of feet who have crossed the sea before me, and who will walk after me, through the water that joins us as Christ’s body.
St. Cuthbert’s priory on Holy Island is unique because it’s not always accessible. The tides fall and rise, creating access and prohibition to the island. Cuthbert couldn’t change the rhythms of the sea, but he shaped a balanced life of solitude and community around its waxing and waning. The tides pulled him inward and then, pushed him outward into the world.
Cuthbert reminds me that we’ll never control the tides, but we can pay attention to their movements and discern when and where to walk. The tide rolls in and you may very well get stuck in Philadelphia, but when the tide rolls out, God has been known to lead people into freedom.
I continue to walk the Christian way because Holy Island is always on the horizon. One day, I’ll arrive. Until then, I pay attention to the tides and put one foot ahead of the other and continue walking into freedom. I rarely know where I'm going, but I know of no other way to walk.
I picked up my three-day-old daughter from her bassinet, but I couldn’t make her stop screeching. I bounced, rocked, and swayed. Twenty squats later, I began to question my competency as a parent. One of our visitors noticed my panic, disguised by confidence, and asked me to hand her over. In an attempt to reassure me, she observed, “Maybe you’re not soft enough.” Wait, was that supposed to be a compliment?
For a time, I assumed that I was biologically ill-equipped for gentleness. My daughter latched on to her mother’s body for sustenance, rendering me glorified waitstaff. I’m also prone to anger; I lose my temper and find it when it’s too late. I can play too rough and throw the kids too high in the air. But the first time my beard stubble gave my daughter goosebumps, I knew that gentleness and strength could be complementary.
Read more at Coracle
One of the first responses to resurrection was disbelief, but we’re critical when some prominent Christian doubts it. “Wait, you’re telling me that the man who was mocked, whipped, crucified and carried into a tomb appeared to the disciples?” Sounds like outdated metaphysics. Or, “God didn’t cure her cancer, but definitely will raise and reconstitute her on the other side?” Sounds fishy. Resurrection might be better swallowed as allegory.
Thomas is the saint we didn’t know we wanted, but desperately needed. Thomas returns to his frightened friends in their boarded up house after a walk through the park and says, “I don’t believe you.” Or more emphatically, “I’ll never believe you.” I mean Peter isn’t the most trustworthy guy, right? Neither is the church built in his wake (not always, anyway).
There are some things you have to see for yourself to believe. For instance, the Cubs won the World Series. Wouldn’t believe it, but I saw it. I’ve heard some rational stories about UFOs, but I’ve never seen any. I’m not saying it’s not true, but I haven’t seen it. So Thomas says, “Unless I see his hands I will not believe.” And the church breathes a sigh of relief. Thank God that there’s some skepticism in the Scriptures.
Who says doubt is the unforgivable sin? Politicians and pundits, of course. Other times, it’s the church--particularly the religious professionals. We're the worst. We can’t stomach doubt; it’s an assault on our authority, years of education, and vocation. We’re a people who need to be needed. Come sit at my feet and linger on these words of tradition-tested wisdom. You’re not allowed to disagree, after all, because I represent God. Let’s sing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” on repeat until you change your mind. The church has failed us, here, I think.
Doubt doesn’t bother me too much, anymore. I love a good doubt. Ever changed your mind about something? You can thank doubt for that. Galileo doubted that the earth was the center of the universe. Scientists are doubting that some cancers are incurable. Praise the Lord. The church doubted that women couldn’t preach. And lest we think that Scripture never doubts Scripture, Peter had a dream about Eastern Carolina barbecue (I assume) and began to reinterpret his entire tradition.
Our experiences shape what we believe, just as what we believe shapes our experiences. If there’s one phrase I’d love to hear more often it’s this: ‘I could be wrong, but this is how I see it. And I’m open to seeing more.’ The novelist Doris Betts writes that faith is "not synonymous with certainty...faith is the decision to keep your eyes open.” Then again, if we can’t be certain about anything, we should also doubt our doubts. God always surprises us.
Thomas kept his eyes open and that’s why the church calls him a saint. When Jesus finally appears to Thomas he greets him not with anger, but by saying “Peace be with you.” It’s an ancient Jewish greeting and blessing: Shalom. God be with you. Jesus gives the peace that passes all understanding, not as the world gives. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. Jesus receives our fragile faith into his body and births wholeness.
Thomas got there, to a place of peace, even if it took him longer. “My Lord and my God,” he says. It's one of the strongest confessions in the Scriptures.
There’s a misunderstanding that faith is about mental assent, or what you think with your cerebral cortex. But faith is not about passing the Christianity quiz and believing is more than agreeing to a set of doctrinal statements or spouting off the right catechism. Passionate faith doesn't spring from coercion, but from discovery (or being discovered) after the hard work of asking questions, wondering, and lingering in the empty places.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus is less concerned with your mental acuity and more concerned with where you’re abiding, or making your home. There’s a union between the believer and the divine (and not just our brains). The major point is whether our lives become more peaceful, whole, loving after an encounter with Christ Jesus. And that's enough reason to stop policing church belonging.
Doubt isn’t as threatening as we fear. If Jesus rose from the dead, it will still be true whether or not Thomas believes it. Jesus doesn't wait for our validation. This is good news because I have more questions every day. But the questions no longer threaten my faith; they make it more fun and interesting. They’re pruning hooks that refine my deepest convictions. In other words, the beliefs sometimes change, but the trust doesn’t.
We’ve named Thomas “Doubting,” but the only nickname Thomas has in Scripture is “the Twin.” Apparently he had a brother, though his identity is one of the great mysteries. But maybe it’s an appropriate name for Thomas. Whose twin is he? The church tradition has said that it might be you. If you’re not sure you can stomach the entire Christian confession, then there’s good news: you have a twin. Are you keeping your eyes open?
Jesus' earliest followers didn't have uniform experiences of him. Neither do we. Methodists have long said that there are degrees of faith—certainty, uncertainty, and everything between. It's easier for some and harder for others. But Jesus reminds us that the only requirement is faith the size of a mustard seed, or rather a Thomas-sized faith.
Tradition says that Thomas went on to preach from Jerusalem to India, where he was martyred. That’s about the same distance Asheville, North Carolina to Portland, Oregon. Thomas dropped his seeds of faith the entire way and God watered them until they became churches. Your seed of faith might lie dormant for years; it may never germinate at all. That’s ok. Jesus says that a seed is enough. One day Jesus will stand before you and invite you to drop your seed of faith into his nail pierced hands. The seed abide will in Jesus, fill with life, and sprout into new creation.