Sometimes the sweetest hope is to get back to Eden. Other times we are on fire for a new creation.
One of my oldest and dearest friends was hospitalized for an operation, for one of the very worst kinds of cancer. Feeling perfectly fine, at a regular checkup, he went in a couple of weeks from a normal, happy life, to the prospect that that life would abruptly be over. I came to the hospital where his wife met me with the most sweetly dazed and quizzical look I have ever seen. She had just left the post-surgery meeting with the surgeon, who had told her that what they had found was a fluke, one in a million, benign result. Despite all the indications, all the tests, there was absolutely nothing wrong….well, except a major abdominal incision of course. But at that point, who was quibbling?
For the next few months I watched him, both of them, grapple with this extraordinary state of affairs. Waking up in the morning, then remembering that a cataclysmic darkness has descended on everything and then remembering that everything has been given back. Because the one thing that is impossible in such a situation is to say “never mind,” “as you were,” back to normal. It seems that nothing will ever be normal again. Are we trying to return to the way things were, or are we in a whole new country?
This is what it must have been like at Easter: the disciples gathering together compulsively, dazed and quizzical, to ask each other “Now what?” How do we live now? When the very worst and the very best come so wildly together.
There are two kinds of travellers in the Bible: refugees and pilgrims. The one is expelled and driven on their way by forces beyond their control (the people of Israel taken away into Babylon). The other hears promises and dreams dreams, throwing a hat over the wall to chase something new. Some of us might feel like we were literally born in church and have never budged. But many of us found our way into the neighborhood of faith on some variation of the refugee or pilgrim path.
We might be refugees who were upended by a tsunami in our lives and washed up here…or maybe we were expelled more gently from some assumptions or stages of a prior life—nudged like a thirty year old still living at home, whose parents’ tough love showed them the door. It’s time. We’re here at FBCN---or we’re sometimes here—because we’re a little bit homeless.
Some of us are pilgrims. We weren’t pushed, we jumped. Or were called. The way God called Sarah and Abraham and just said “Go.” Eventually it was go and start a new family, and go and become a great nation and go to a land of milk and honey. But first it was just the wild romance of going to the unknown. We're here at FBCN--when we're here--because we're a little bit drunk on the future.
Refugees, Pilgrims: two different kinds of trip. Sometimes the sweetest hope is to get back to Eden. Other times we are on fire for a new creation. Sometimes, oddly, these two kinds of trip can overlap.
We are refugees, when everything behind us is lost: it is impossible to simply live the old way. We are pilgrims, when everything that lies ahead of us is open: undetermined and limitless with the possibility of living a new way. There are incredibly disorienting moments, as with my friend, when we are both.
I love that in our worship and gatherings here we reawaken the sense of what a very strange journey it is. Welcome back to the year, and the trip that we're making together.