- Written by Mark Diller Harder Mark Diller Harder
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‘On Sacred Journeys: Travel’
'From far away we come and farther we must go. How far, how far, my crystal star?’ Those were the first words the three of us Kings sang last week in ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors.’ I loved being a part of Amahl, being part of the cast, part of a great experience. It was fun to do this as a congregation and to share our music with the community. Many of us are still on a bit of a high from last weekend and we have one remnant left from the stage – the door, ready now to open into the Junior SS Pageant next Sunday!
What I didn’t expect going into this, was how much I would get into the actual character I was playing – Balthazar, the tall King, with the costume that if I added a cross and a crosier, I could almost pass as an Arch-Bishop – I was tempted to preach in that authoritative costume this morning! I have personally sung so much choral music, and been in a few plays, but rarely have I been a character in a musical/opera production – singing and acting as that particular King. It is a different. It is much more involved, much more emotionally engaging. You begin to embody that character, to discover who he is and his unique voice. For 2 evenings I was Balthazar. I was a King, a Magi, an astrologer, a follower of the star, the carrier of the heavy and precious gold. I felt older, wiser, richer, royal. I began to imagine what it must have been like to be him. To be given both the promise and curse of this star and some inner sense that it was going to lead somewhere important, that it was worth leaving all behind and starting a long long journey towards the unknown, ‘to dare to take that first step that propels you from the place you have known toward the place you know not.’ (Jan Richardson poem, ‘For those who have Far to Travel’). I knew nothing about the destination, where the star would lead, what I would find. I did not know about the child, except by conjecture and promise. I just knew that I had to travel and that I had already gone a long way. Don’t tell Stephanie, but I was uncomfortable at first starting from outside of the sanctuary, outside the place of action, to be and feel that far away. But that was the point. From far away we come and farther we must go. The journey is long, the destination not yet arrived at. ‘If you could see the journey whole you might never undertake it.’ (Ibid)
This long journey for us kings of course, gets interrupted. We stumble across a simple shack dwelling with a poor mother and her dreamer shepherd son. Their life journey is very different, almost foreign to the kings. While they have probably never travelled any physical distance, their journeys have been just as long and very difficult. They can hardly make ends meet. Like so many in our world, they live on that line between despair and hope, between realism and the wild imaginations of Amahl for a different future. They too ‘heed the signposts of intuition and dream... keeping an open eye for the wonders that attend the path.’ (Ibid) Balthazar sings from the open doorway, ‘may we rest a while in your house and warm ourselves by your fireplace?’ Two worlds colliding, 2 very different life situations, and yet it is in this hospitality, in this coming together that the blessings of God emerge. Perhaps that is one of the keys, the gifts of travel, when folks from such different worlds actually meet, interact, become friends, when paths cross, gifts are given and journeys become shared. The gift for both the Kings and Amahl and his mother is this resting place, this coming together. It is this pair of images I took away from last weekend. The journey in life is long and often hard, but in that journey there will be resting places, places where the grace of God is present and hope is found again.
Isn’t that what we heard in the Scriptures? From Isaiah – a crying out like a woman giving birth, the whole world withering and drying up. Despair. The journey is tough! The blind being led by roads they do not know. And yet, there is this resting place, guidance along unknown paths, darkness turned to light, rough places leveled, making sure no one falls into the ditch. These are the things I will do, sticking with them, not leaving them for a minute - I will not forsake them! (Isaiah 42:14-16) - a resting place in God.
I suspect that some of the hardest life journeys and travels we have are those we have not chosen ourselves, those that have been thrust upon us, that life has dealt us, those places where we are not masters of our own destiny, but rather part of the ‘road revealed by turns you could not have foreseen.’ (Ibid) We find ourselves in a difficult situation and place that has not been of our choosing. We have a health crisis or disease. A family member dies unexpectedly. You come face to face with mental health. The family dysfunction around you catches you up. You lose your job. You move to another geography. The larger economy changes and you are caught in a financial crisis. The politics of the land or our world thrust you into uncertainty. The life journey is simply tough for whatever reason. The only choice that remains for us is how to deal with what has been given. Can we trust that there will be resting places along the way?
It is interesting to look at the birth narrative through this lens of travel. For the most past this Advent we are following the journey of the Kings, but our passage today from Luke reminds us of the journey Mary and Joseph also took. Both Mary and Joseph are visited by angels with a request that totally shakes their world and the life paths they thought they were on. Mary will give birth to the Christ child. As we just sang, there is no blueprint displayed. It will cause no manner of hardship and sorrow. But as we also sang in the words of Mary – ‘Tell God I say ‘Yes.’ There is this commitment to follow an unknown journey wherever it leads, trusting in the provisions of God. Luke 2 begins with an unwelcome, unchosen physical journey – to Bethlehem from Nazareth to be registered... talk about bureaucracy... to travel in late pregnancy to a town that in the end has no room in the Inn, the only resting place a manger for the birth. And yet there is this trust in God pondered on the heart. All of us travel, we all have our journeys in life, both chosen and unchosen. Can we trust God not to forsake us?
I thought about the nature of journeys and travel the other evening when the pastors from 3 churches, St James Lutheran in town, St Mark’s Lutheran in Kitchener and SJMC, hosted our Combined Refugee Committee for a dessert evening at my house. It has been a little over a year since we sponsored the Halil family from Syria to come to Canada. The dessert was a little thank you for all of their hard work and a chance to reflect on the journey of this past year. As pastors we wanted to provide a resting place for food and reflection. Each member of the committee made a choice to get involved, and yet they had no way of knowing what that first step would all lead to. There have been many bumps in the road - challenges, tough conversations and situations and way too much bureaucracy. We are still trying to sponsor the 14 year old son stuck in Germany and the daughter in law back in the Middle East. There is much pain in their story. It is no easy task to accompany a family into a totally new context, and yet the committee said they would do it all over again. The Halil family has been through an indescribable journey, much of which we may never know. None of it by their own choice. They have been caught up in a global crisis, like millions around the world. Canada is a kind of resting place, a place of new hope and possibility, but also a place filled with an unfamiliar culture and tough aspects to negotiate. Some of the dreams only get realized in the next generations as those who come first continue to carry deep scars... travel wounds. As Kevin shared, after worship today we get to meet the Syrian family that moved into the church house last month – with their own particular journey and hopefully a good hospitable resting place for their lives to thrive.
For a good window into the complexity, frustration and long timelines of the Refugee Process, you may want to read a recent book by CBC As it Happens Host Carol Off, called All We Leave Behind, which tells the spine-tingling story of an Afghan man, Asad, and his family, who Carol ends up helping come to Canada, a frustrating and dangerous 9 year process, after Asad’s honest and revealing interview with her about powerful warlords in Afghanistan threatens his very life. At different points they each offer a resting place to each other as such different worlds collide. I couldn’t put the book down on my vacation week, and it made me wonder about the stories held by the Halil family, the Aboukhousa family, our new neighbours next door and any who arrive here.
As a congregation, our relationship with various refugee families over the years has also changed and affected the journey we have been on. We know that with Grace Lao and our long term relationship with the congregation that emerged. But also with each round of refugee sponsorship – especially for the committee members involved who put their hearts and souls into those relationships. They and we are profoundly changed, and at the same time receive so many gifts in the process. There is this meeting place, this resting place, where promises and gifts are exchanged and new life and possibilities emerge for all. As Jan Richardson writes, ‘Each promise becomes part of the path; each choice creates the road that will take you to the place where at last you will kneel to offer the gift most needed – the gift that only you can give – before turning to go home by another way.’ (Ibid)
What journey are you on right now? Where is the state of travel in your life – inner and outer? What is tough about the journey? Where have you found some resting places? How has and can this community of faith be a part of your journey as we share our lives with each other, as we offer resting places to each other?
Perhaps the high point, the core message, the most profound section of Amahl comes from the voice of Melchior, the King played so well by Laverne Brubacher last weekend. There has just been this dramatic night scene when the mother can’t resist ‘all that gold.’ Such a stark disparity in life journeys. Rich/Poor. Inequity. The page shouts ‘Thief’ and Amahl pleads for compassion – ‘Don’t you dare, don’t you dare ugly man hurt my mother.’ Everything is unravelling! Hospitality turned to resentment. Hope evaporated. A direction set like it typically goes in our world, where difference parts ways. But then we hear Melchior. ‘Oh, woman, you may keep the gold. The Child we seek doesn’t need our gold. On love alone He will build his kingdom. No scepter. No Crown. He will soon walk among us. He will bring us new live and receive our death. And the key to His city belong to the poor.’ A resting place. A coming together. The gift most needed. Travel by another road. Everything has changed. We are not forsaken. There is a different way, an alternative path. This is the kind of King we have waited for all our lives. This is the journey we are invited into, the travel plan that will make all the difference. Can we travel that road together? ‘Let us leave my friends.’ Amen.