gospel and the gazette

The beginning of a short sermon series – this week, looking at transformation through travel…


A few decades ago the Swiss theologian Karl Barth offered a suggestion to young seminary students and theologians, a suggestion we are going to take him up on over the next few  weeks. Barth suggested that they read with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other hand.

These two texts represent two worlds? There is the world of the bible, in which the ways and identity of God are opened up for us. The world of the bible, in which ancient human experiences of God are recounted. And then there is the world of the newspaper, in which our contemporary world is described, in which the opinions of our neighbours are offered, in which the preoccupations of our society come to light.

In this new century and millennium, of course, we might update Barth’s older imagery. Today we could say that as we read various blogs, as we skim through online magazines, as we listen to podcasts, we should also keep one device or window always open to the texts of scripture.

But what’s the point? Why read the bible at the same time we are reading the newspaper? Why have our bible open while surfing through online materials? Well, Barth’s point was a simple one. In the first place, he thinks we need to take our contemporary world seriously. We are embedded within a particular time and place – we are living within a particular cultural context. To read the newspaper – to read blogs and online magazines – to read all of this is simply to understand and be engaged with the world we live in. From Barth’s perspective I think we could actually go further and say that reading the newspaper, or blogs or online articles is an expression of love. To be engaged with our world by reading is to show we care enough about our world, and take our world seriously enough, to learn about it, understand it, to be engaged with it. To read in this way is an act of love.

At the same time, though, perhaps the theologian would say we shouldn’t take our society too seriously. We shouldn’t take our contemporary world too seriously. Yes, it is an expression of love to understand and be engaged with our world. But on the other hand it is a greater expression of love to see our world and understand our world, in view of God’s being and identity – in view of the kingdom revealed in Jesus. That’s what it means to have the bible in the other hand. Barth said it fairly prosaically, like this: “Take the newspaper in one hand and the bible in the other, but interpret the newspaper from your bible.” In other words, don’t let your world simply explain itself. Don’t let your world simply define itself. See your world in the light of God’s creation and redemption in Jesus Christ, in the light of the Holy Spirit’s movement in our world.

So that’s what we are going to do over the next few weeks. We are going to read with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other hand.  We are going to take our world seriously, as an expression of God’s love – yet we will also try to see our world in terms of God’s love in Christ. Our sermon series for the next few weeks is entitled The Gospel and the Gazette. Each week we will take something that has appeared in the Montreal Gazette and try to see it from the perspective of the gospel.

This morning we begin with an article that appeared in the comment pages of the paper this past Tuesday. This particular article was published under the broad title, Transformed by Travel. The editors of the Gazette have invited readers to submit short pieces in which they describe how some journey or vacation was transformative for them – and this was one of those pieces. Of course we are in the season of travel, the season of vacations, so this series is timely for the Gazette. Transformed by travel.

In Tuesday’s paper, the article was written by a woman from Hudson. In it she described a holiday she took to the Caribbean back in March. Her husband had passed away eight months earlier, and in the late winter she took up the advice of some friends to just ‘get away from it all’ by taking a vacation. In the article she recounts her mixed experience on St. Maarten – she enjoyed that beautiful place, she relaxed by the water, she cried privately in her room. Through a very mixed experience, her time on St. Maarten actually became a moment when she began to move forward in a new way. She concludes: “I chose to open up and breathe. My husband was gone. I could not bring him back. I chose to go with the flow. I chose life.”

The article was interesting in its own right. It captures the truth that through journeys and travel we can be changed. Through encounter with new people and new places, it is possible to see something new in ourselves and in our world. Through journeys and encounters we can be opened to new directions in life.

But as we think about transformation through travel, we ask whether there is anything distinctive about the way we travel – we who are followers of Jesus. The question is whether it is possible to distinguish our holidays, our travel from the holidays and travel of the average Canadian. Is there a difference in our travels, a spiritual difference, a God-defined difference? Sometimes, unfortunately, the answer may be, No.

In his book Writing from the Centre, author Scott Russell Sanders offers some words about tourism that are instructive for us. Following other cultural commentators, he describes tourism as an invention of the nineteenth century. He points out that the idea of travelling for pleasure and interest and relaxation is something that has only been around for about 200 years. The ideas of cottaging and camping are more recent than that. Tourism is a recent invention. And Sanders argues that with the invention of this form of travel, with the invention of tourism, we lost something. More specifically, Sanders argues that with the advent of tourism we “stripped the holiness from travel.” In creating travel that is merely for relaxation and pleasure and observation we stripped the holiness from travel.

We might put it this way: in our vacationing – in our travelling for relaxation and pleasure and interest – we have become forgetful of God – forgetful of the God who accompanies us – the God who always leads his people on pilgrimage. Becoming forgetful, we have stripped the holiness from travel.

This week I started reading a book by Arthur Boers entitled The Way is Made by Walking. In the book he tells of a 31-day pilgrimage he took – a pilgrimage in which he walked 500 miles along an ancient pilgrim route in northwest Spain. He walked what is known as the Camino de Santiago – or the way of St. James. This pilgrim path begins near the city of Pamplona in the east, and ends in Santiago de Compostela in the west. And at the endpoint of this path, in Santiago de Compostela, there is a cathedral that purports to hold the relics of James the apostle – that is the destination that has drawn pilgrims for centuries, now.

In the book, Boers describes his fellow travelers,

he describes his very physical pain and blisters, from walking

he describes his practices of reflection and prayer during the pilgrimage;

he describes the spiritual insights he gains along the way.

In a way you might say that Arthur Boers went on pilgrimage because he wanted to put the holiness back into travel. He went on his pilgrimage because he wanted to focus on the presence of God with him on the way. Boers wanted to be transformed through travel, but transformed in a particular way – as one who is a follower of the risen Jesus and who is lead by the Spirit that Christ sends to his people.

The woman from Hudson who wrote of her Caribbean vacation had a transformative experience on St. Maarten. We take nothing from the experience she has described. But we are invited to look for something more in the light of the gospel. Maybe we could put it like this: We are to push toward the possibility that all of our travels – whether to the cottage, or to the campground, or to a far-off country, or to a local park – that all of our travels might become pilgrimages – a pilgrimage that involves seeking out the God who has created us and redeemed us in Jesus Christ, the God whose Spirit is alive among us.

In his book, Arthur Boers reflects generally about pilgrimage, and it’s worth reading some of his words. He writes:

God is a moving target.

Augustine famously prayed, “you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.” If so, human nature means that we are always yearning wanderers. We are all homeless, ever since our eviction from Eden. And pilgrimage is an inevitable consequence. We need constantly to look for – and stay on the move for – God.

Pilgrimage in its truest sense is religiously motivated travel for the purpose of meeting and experiencing God with hopes of being shaped and changed by that encounter. Pilgrimages are often concretely physical – journeying to a particular place, perhaps with some extraordinary expense and exertion – and pilgrimages are also spiritual: one hopes to meet God in this travel.

To be a follower of the risen Jesus means that we are never only tourists – our travel is never simply about relaxation or comfort or exploration. Our travel, our vacations should, by definition, always have pilgrimage built into them. Our travel, our vacations, should involve attentiveness to the presence and purposes of God. Now, we might initially get our backs up at this – since it may be that we are being asked to think or act differently than we have in the past. But all of this is really nothing more than an invitation to life at its best. The God who has journeyed among us in Jesus Christ – the God who continues to be alive and at work in our world by his Spirit – this God invites us to seek him and find him on the way – and doing so to be transformed more deeply as his faithful children.

To make all of this a little more concrete this morning, let me give you a simple, personal example from our recent family holiday. As in past years, this summer we spent a week at Pioneer Camp in the Muskoka region of Ontario – Pioneer is a Christian camp near Huntsville Ontario. Tabea and Reuben were there as over-night campers, and Esther was in a day program, staying with Becky and me at night. For the week we were there, Becky was the nurse at the junior camp, one of Pioneer’s three camps on Clearwater Lake. In past years, I volunteered doing maintenance across the whole camp, but this year they asked me to work in the Boys Camp kitchen. I was happy enough to do that, particularly since they said they really needed help in that kitchen the week we were going to be there. Apparently they were short of volunteers that week.

When we got there, however, it turned out that they probably had more help in the kitchen than they had expected. There were quite a few volunteers. One of the other volunteers, named Brian, had usually worked on maintenance in the past, like I had, but had also been convinced to work in the kitchen. Together we bemoaned the fact that we weren’t doing maintenance. On the maintenance crew you would get regular coffee breaks, you would get lunch at the girls camp kitchen with dessert always being a huge bowl of Kawartha Dairies ice cream. The hours were pretty good. And there we were in the Boys Camp Kitchen, working longer hours, though not as desperately needed as we thought we would be.

Early in the week Brian made this comment. “I’m not sure why I’m here, but God has some purpose in this.” And perhaps I rolled my eyes internally a little. In a general way, I understood I was at the camp to serve – in a general way I was there to support a camp in which kids live and play and worship in community with the risen Jesus. I could see that. But I could also see that it wasn’t as much of a holiday as I wanted it to be.

Well, things changed half way through the week, when there was a stomach flu outbreak, with about 40 campers and leaders at boys camp quarantined with the gastro. That was about 15 to 20% of the boys-camp population. And all of a sudden, because of their contact with some of the sick campers and staff, we lost almost all the volunteers in the kitchen. By Wednesday, it was down to just Brian and me, with the cook and his wife, in the kitchen, serving up meals for about 200. All of a sudden, this wasn’t just some theoretical act of service. Maybe they could have gotten by even without the Brian and me – but it would have been a lot harder for the camp staff. Resources dedicated to the kids, to serving them and encouraging them in their faith, would have been sent into the kitchen.

Brian had said: “I’m not sure why I’m here, but God has some purpose in this.” Brian believed that God was at work in his life and in that camp – he understood that God had a purpose for us, which became evident when we were the only ones left to serve in the kitchen. While I was mostly looking for a holiday, a vacation – Brian was on pilgrimage. His eyes were open to the ways and purposes of God. Mine not so much. Brian helped me put the holiness back in travel.

That is what each of us is invited to as a follower of Jesus Christ – to put the holiness back into our travel. So that, yes, it may be about our enjoyment and pleasure and sightseeing, but so that it’s about so much more – it’s about being attentive to the presence of God with us – to the presence of God’s Spirit, ever at work bringing kingdom of the risen Jesus among us. May we find grace and strength, to put the holiness back into travel – to insert the reality of pilgrimage into our every voyage – to the glory of God.


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