I have a quote above my front door that reads: “Travel light and celebrate the unfolding journey with thanksgiving.” It's a quote from Brennan Manning that captures how I want to live. I want to own fewer things and hold the things I do have less tightly. I want to notice and celebrate the moments and give thanks more often.
Nothing quite captures this quote like backpacking. All that I need for the journey fits inside my 48 litre Osprey pack. Each item is carefully considered, weighed (literally!), and either deemed essential or left behind. While I do not place myself into the same category as the ultra-light zealots, I only bring along two or three “luxury” items. A decent travel mug for a cup of tea (obviously!). A pair of sandals. A DSLR camera. While I could readily hike to Mount Assiniboine or complete the Chilkoot Trail without any of these items, I always bring them along. Because there are moments that I want to celebrate with bare feet, drinking a cup of tea.
Hiking also requires leaving the comforts of home. I have stood on the west coast with nothing but open ocean before me, sun on my face, and sand beneath my feet, unable to think of anywhere I would rather be. I have seen a moose dipping its antlers into a remote mountain lake, marvelling at how an animal so awkward could be so majestic. I have seen moonlight reflected off snow-capped peaks, silenced by unexpected beauty. You could, I suppose, see these things from your easy chair compliments of YouTube. But you can only experience them by leaving. This rhythm repeats itself each day on the trail. After a semi-wholesome breakfast of oatmeal and dried fruit, after packing up my incredible two-person Hubba-Hubba tent, all that lies before me is the invitation into the unfolding journey.
Although it is nowhere near hiking season yet, I can barely wait to go.
The Israelites also knew something of leaving and wilderness journeys. “Early in the morning Joshua and all the Israelites set out . . . and went to the Jordan, where they camped before crossing over. After three days the officers went throughout the camp, giving orders to the people: ‘When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God . . . you are to move out from your positions and follow it. Then you will know which way to go, since you have never been this way before.’” (Jos. 3:1-4) At this point in the story, the Israelites had been wandering in the wilderness for some forty years. Egypt was a distant memory. The desert was . . . the desert. A barren, arid, desolate place. But it was what they knew; it was familiar. Now they were being invited to go where they had never been. Stepping across the Jordan would require leaving familiar things behind. It would require courage.
Small wonder God would lead them. They had no idea what to expect.
There are times when God’s people are invited into new places; where the journey forward means leaving the old places behind. For some time now, I have been sensing this kind of invitation for Varsity Bible Church. The Varsity 2020 team helped us begin the journey. They identified the need to rethink and refocus our attention on communal worship and passionate spirituality. They also identified the need to rethink some of our structures, not the least of which was the creation of a Ministry Council and an Advisory Council. As important as these changes have been, they have only brought us to the edge of the Jordan, so to speak; we are now being asked to step across.
Crossing the Jordan was then (and is now) a step of faith. The Israelites knew what the desert was about; they had been there for forty years! They were now being asked to follow God into the unknown.
To be very clear, I am not equating the history of Varsity Bible Church with the post-Exodus desert wanderings. I am not suggesting that Varsity has failed to be faithful or has complained incessantly over the past thirty years. Nor am I suggesting that our current community is somehow misguided, hopelessly lost in the wilderness. What I am suggesting is that we are being invited into something new.
Christianity has never existed in a vacuum. Even Jesus, when he entered human history in human form, entered a specific time and place. Christianity—and by association, the church—has always existed in culture, and the challenge for each generation of Christians is to discern how to be faithful where we find ourselves. Increasingly we find ourselves foreigners in a strange land. The divisions within society appear to be growing and the spaces for respectful dialogue disappearing. The west, once considered Christian, seems largely to have forgotten about God and located meaning elsewhere. Post-Christian. Increasingly, post-truth. While we may wish for a simpler time, “so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” (Gandalf)
We are called to be the church in the world, a vibrant Christian community that is engaged with our neighbourhood. How do we get there from here? What does that look like in 2019? I have inklings but for now let me offer several suggestions for the journey:
Keep your eyes on Jesus. This is vital as we step across the Jordan in a new place. The Israelites had not been this way before and needed God to lead them; we have not been this way before and need God to lead us. As importantly, let us not lose sight of what matters most. There is a story (probably an urban myth) that the executives at Sam the Record Man were debating whether or not to sell CD’s. The key question turned out to be: ‘Are we in the record business or the music business?’ The answer to that question made all the difference. Although we are not in business, may we continue “to run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” (Heb. 12:1-2)
Travel light and celebrate the unfolding journey with thanksgiving. In the coming season, I invite you to hold things loosely. There are places that I have been where I simply could not bring the kitchen sink (although they tried on the Chilkoot, which is a whole other story). As God leads us across the river, some things will need to be left behind. Perhaps the day we gather to worship matters less than gathering to worship. Perhaps some programs only make sense for a season. As we consider what to bring and what to leave behind, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” (Col. 3:12-15)
Listen. We have just entered the season of Epiphany, a season in the Christian calendar that emphasizes the revelation of Jesus as the divine Son of God and as Saviour (the word epiphany literally means “to show” or “to make known”). In the coming months, may we listen and even expect that the God who calls us to be his people in the world will show us the way. “This is what the Lord says: Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Jer. 6:16).
Leaving the comfort of the familiar and stepping onto the trail can be daunting. We grow accustomed to how things are, and we like them that way. But without leaving we cannot experience the wonder of an endless night sky. As John Fisher correctly pointed out, “It is said that parting is such sweet sorrow, and so it is. Sorrow because leaving signals the end of an era, a time cherished that can no longer be. But sweet because it puts you on the threshold of something new—something that cannot be unless the past is left behind.”
See you on the trail.