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.
Our Lady couldn’t breathe yesterday. This week, neither could Jesus.
No week is more fitting for a historic cathedral to be scorched from the inside out. On Friday, we’ll gaze at the ruins of Christ’s body—pierced, torn, and unable to breathe. The world was set ablaze. Jesus, whose body was the Temple of God, was gutted of everything. He was thirsty, but could hold no water. This was a God hollowed of God as he cried out “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”
Holy Week isn’t about a God who saves us from pain, but one who enters the fire and walks alongside of us.
What did we see when we watched Notre Dame bursting into flames? The loss of history? A God looking for vengeance on a corrupt Catholic Church or an indictment on a country’s secularism? I have no emotional attachment to the cathedral or immersion in French history, so I saw only the truth of our world: its fragility. Our most incredible accomplishments and cultural treasures are petals on dandelions. One small flame and a gust of wind and only a stem remains shooting from the ground, wafting in the breeze. Nothing gets out of life unscathed.
For he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
All around the world people, not just Christians, are left wondering, “Can these bones live?” It’s not only about Notre Dame, but our world and all that’s in it—our transient accomplishments, our broken systems of oppression, failing churches, our dried up lives. When we look at Notre Dame, we look in the mirror. We can rise to the heavens, enshroud ourselves with gold, layer on bulges of muscle—but we’re still bones.
What does God do with bones?
Ezekiel is some help, here. He prophesied during a time of great suffering, when his nation was stripped to the bone and their temple was in ruins. Then, he had a vision that he was taken to a deep valley, engulfed in bones. Each set of bones a person with a family, a story, a heart that beat with passions and dreams. Now, their histories are buried in the dirt.
The Israelites can't see beyond the death, but God sees a frame for re-creation. And God calls Ezekiel to preach to the bones. Flesh begins to wrap around the bones. Veins carry the blood throughout the body. Ligaments connect bones. Muscles move. The problem is that there is no breath. Ezekiel preaches again, this time he asks the ruach—the breath, the wind, the spirit—to come into the bodies. This is the same ruach that hovers over the water at creation, the same breath that fills the dirt and creates life, the same Holy Spirit prophesied by Joel. And the bones stood on their feet.
“You shall know that I am the Lord when I open your graves and bring you up from the grave. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live.”
Christians know what God can do with a large chunk of collagen and a good breath of air. This is why Catholics ran inside the scorching church to save morbid relics like someones tibia, molars, and another’s locks of hair—an inmate's crown of thorns. Churches with attached cemeteries will agree: bones make for great buttresses and gravestones are the best foundations. It's strange, but we believe a new heart can be placed in their shell.
What did we see when we looked at Notre Dame? Did we see Jesus?
The church helps tells the story of France, but part of the church's story is a crucified Lord. Notre Dame displayed theological might and awe inspiring beauty, but now there is weakness. This is Jesus. The humbled one found in the poor, the ordinary, the groaning, and burning world. Can his bones live? Despite the towering flames and the ashes, an empty cross shines, pumping light throughout the haze and the darkness of death. God’s no stranger to crosses. After all, Jesus is a carpenter who is particularly skilled with beams of wood.
The cross is a promise: God will blow away the smoke, pick up the dust, and breathe into it. Life emerges again. Not just for ancient cathedrals, but for all of us.
The Church calls it resurrection.