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Faith is a Journey

By Kirk T. Wood, United Church of Christ of La Mesa

This metaphor and the lived practice of journeying in faith have deep roots in Jewish, Islamic, and Christian traditions.  Abraham and Sarah, Noah surviving the flood, Moses leading the exodus, Jonah the reluctant prophet, wandering rabbis, Jesus’ nomadic ministry, pilgrimages to sacred sites, circuit riding preachers, traveling tent meetings and revivals, missionaries spanning the globe, to name just a few.  A sojourn is a specific type of journey that I find especially apt for describing a life of faith.  The literal meaning of sojourn is to stay or reside temporarily – to stay long enough in a new place for it to become a part of you and for you to become a part of it.  But in my mind the travel time to and from a place are encompassed with the sojourn in that place.  As I contemplate spiritual sojourning, I think of those all too brief encounters with the spirit, those times in life when I find comfort, awe and amazing love residing with the spirit, knowing God is present.  Then the moment is over and other parts of life come rushing back, needing my attention.

In college I had the opportunity to participate in a summer abroad program in Peru.  We were based high in the Andes Mountains in the modern city of Cusco, which sits atop and among the ruins of the Incan capital of the same name.  From there, we went on many day trips and weekend excursions throughout the region, and took classes on the history and culture of Peru and her peoples.  We also had the opportunity to be tutored in both Spanish and Quechua (the Lingua Franca of the Inca Empire- now thought of as the tongue of peasants).  This was the first time I had ever traveled outside the US, and I went as far as I could go, to as different a place as I could think of.  An ancient capital city atop one of the world’s tallest mountain ranges, in a country where I didn’t speak the language, on another continent, in the southern hemisphere where everything from the seasons of the year to the swirling of water down the drain was the opposite of what I knew and expected.

One of my (many) favorite moments on this journey happened as I flew in a plane for the second time in my life (the first just a few hours before, nonstop from Los Angeles to Lima), steadily ascending over the western slopes of the Andes in the wee hours of the morning.  The sun rose, suddenly breaking through the eastern peaks and the enormous clouds, at the very moment that our plane came over the mountains.  I watched that sunrise with wonder and reverence, welcoming the new day in this new (to me) land, and thanking God for this amazing experience, while soaring through the sky!

I don’t think of God as being ‘a man who lives in the sky,’ but I’ve had many experiences of being near God while being as high above the earth as I could get: swaying in the thin upper branches of trees, sitting on the largest boulder I could scale, trekking up the largest local mountain, flying in many planes of various sizes.  Sojourning in a place, though, requires being grounded.  It involves meeting, talking to and spending time with the people who live there, and with fellow visitors.  It requires using all one’s senses: tasting freshly made ice cream and drinking hot matte de coca (like green tea, but using leaves of the same plant cocaine is refined from), smelling purple potatoes roasting in small temporary ovens of hot coals under soil, touching the large perfectly fitted stones of the Incan walls verifying there are no gaps or mortar between them, seeing three distinct time periods living in the architecture of one city, hearing curses and praises in at least three languages while attending a local football match.  It means experiencing moments of pain, misunderstanding, inadequacy, laughter, great joy, and overwhelming awe.  All of these physical and emotional sensations coming together to feed the soul and percolate into new understandings of myself, God, humanity and creation.

Abraham spent many years wandering great distances, sojourning in foreign lands.  Some stays were more intentional than others, but all were important to bring him at last to the Promised Land.  The trip to Canaan actually began  with Abram’s father Terah, who packed up his whole household and set out from Ur, only to stop halfway and settle in Haran (Genesis 11:31).  Then God spoke to Abram saying: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”  (Genesis 12:1&2) And he did it!  He set out on the journey of a (very long) lifetime, which became the archetype of a life of faith (for three different religions).  Once Abram and Sarai were in the land of Canaan, they continued to move about, sojourning in different parts of this vast territory.  Fighting against and making alliances with current inhabitants and neighbors to Canaan, dividing possessions and tracts of land between himself and his nephew Lot, and waiting.  Always they were waiting, sometimes patiently, sometimes not so patiently, for the second part of God’s promise to come to fruition: a child, born to Sarah, whose descendants would become the people of Israel (Genesis 12 -22).  The waiting while we sojourn can seem unendurable, but is as necessary as the doing of new things.

Spiritual sojourning is an expanded metaphor for a life lived in faith. It is also a time consuming and intense process of experiencing the world, culminating an amazing journey.  And there are different types of sojourns through the course of each life.  There are the little moments of spirit filled wonder we receive observing nature, participating in worship, or taking action to help others.  There are physical sojourns to distant (or nearby) lands which bring about new perspectives and understandings of life, the world, and God, through experiencing a locale as fully as possible.  There are the periods of waiting, anticipating a change, desiring expectations to be filled or transformed into something wonderfully unexpected.  And there is the realization that we are all temporary residents on this earth and in this life, sojourning together.  My grandma says it this way, “We live in Heaven, and from time to time get sent on missions to experience life on earth.  Sometimes our life is prosperous or seems easy, and we naturally thank God for this, other times our life is hard, but still we can ask God for help and receive comfort.”  God is always willing and able to meet each of us where we are at right now, and love us unconditionally in the moment.  In the grand scale of the Universe our lives are brief sojourns indeed, yet each is precious to God.

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