The Trip of a Lifetime

I was re-reading a sermon I gave at Neshoba about three and a half years ago, and realized I had never posted it here on my blog.  So for what it’s worth…

The Trip of a Lifetime

One time, years ago, I decided to spend part of my spring break visiting a good friend who had moved to Colorado, about ½ way between Denver and Boulder.  I had never been to that part of the country and was excited about seeing what I had heard was beautiful scenery.  I was anxious to see as much as I could in the week that I had, and figured the best way to do that would be to travel by train.  To get from DC, where I lived at the time, to Denver, I had to change trains in Chicago.  I had driven from the East Coast to the mid-west many times growing up – my father’s family was in Wisconsin and Minnesota – so that part of the trip was not the motivating factor.  But I had not been in any of the states between the Mississippi River and California, so was really looking forward to watching out the train window as the Great Plains rushed past and the Rocky Mountains approached.

I packed carefully, made arrangements to be dropped off and picked up, and started out on my journey.  I left DC in the evening, leaving town just about the time the commuters were stuck in rush hour traffic.  As anyone who has traveled by train knows, there were many, many stops between DC and Chicago.  Sunset comes fairly early in March, so much of the trip was spent in darkness.  I was not concerned – after all, I had seen most of that route, at least from the interstate, many times.  It was the 2nd half of the journey that was most appealing.  I arrived in Chicago the following morning with an 8 hour layover ahead of me.  I read, knit, people-watched, and generally killed time waiting in the train station.  As I boarded the train bound for the West Coast, I could feel the excitement building!  I was going to see Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas… all those “square” states that I only knew about from social studies books and movies like the Wizard of Oz.

What I hadn’t counted on was that, just like the first leg of the trip, much of this second train ride would happen in the dark.  When you are traveling at 80 + mph through rural areas or alongside stretches of highway at night, from inside a lighted train, you can’t see much of anything.  Again, there were stops in lots of small towns through Illinois and Iowa.  It wasn’t long before I got bored looking at darkness and fell asleep.  At one point, something woke me up.  Perhaps it was the jarring of the train as it prepared to pull out of one of those small town stops.  I glanced out the window and saw a sign alongside the platform.  Ottumwa, Iowa.  Ottumwa, home of Radar O’Reilly!  I didn’t know it really existed!  I am a huge fan of M*A*S*H – I watched it “religiously” – pardon the pun – when I was growing up.  And here I was… in Ottumwa!  This unexpected moment on my trip has stayed with me for a long time.  A memory that even now, many years and many trips later, still brings a smile to my face.

My favorite vacations have always been road trips.  I really prefer to travel by car (or train!) rather than plane.  It’s not that I’m afraid to fly; I just love seeing new places and it’s hard to see the little things from 30,000 feet in the air!   Besides seeing different places, one of the best parts of road trips is that unexpected and unplanned things often happen!   I always have a destination, but the real fun often occurs before I get there. The stories that come out of those trips are often more about the route that I took, and the adventures that inevitably happened along the way, than about whatever I did once I got there.

Most of the trips I have taken over the years have resulted in some kind of adventure or another.  I have told the story here before of the road trip I took to Canada one summer – the time I locked my keys in the car while it was running.  (If you missed it, I’d be glad to fill you in later.)  Although memorable, that wasn’t one of the more enjoyable adventures.

There is also the story of my first road trip with Jeanne.  My car broke down just outside of Monteagle, TN.  The service station we got towed to didn’t have the right water pump to replace mine, so we were stuck there overnight. Although another less-than-enjoyable adventure, the motel / restaurant / wedding chapel combination where we found a room for the night will be another memory that stays with me for many years!

So there is always something.  Sometimes something fun happens – like seeing the sign for Ottumwa.  Other times, the event isn’t as fun – like locking my keys in the car.  But there is always something!   And so if I have a choice, I will take the road trip.  I will be a wanderer.  I will be a pilgrim.

I think there are 3 kinds of people in life.  There are the Dwellers, the Tourists, and the Pilgrims.  The Dwellers are those who are content to stay home, happy to dwell on days past, letting life happen to them, but not actively participating in the process.  The Tourists are those who focus on the goal, who will only be content when they reach a preconceived destination, but who miss many exciting opportunities to change course or at least incorporate new ideas along the way.  And then there are the Pilgrims.  Dictionary.com defines pilgrim in several ways, but one definition is a traveler or wanderer, especially in a foreign place.

On that train trip to Colorado, I missed seeing much of the countryside we traveled past.  The journey was worth it, though, for the memory of waking up in Ottumwa, Iowa.  I am sure I had a good time with my friend, and that she showed me around Denver and Boulder, but my best memory of that trip wasn’t from the destination.  It wasn’t something I saw as a tourist.  It was from the journey – something I saw as a pilgrim.

The concept of being on a pilgrimage usually conveys the idea that you are on a journey towards a destination.  The emphasis is on the journey.  Being a tourist is all about reaching the destination. It’s about what happens after you get there.  Personally, I feel the journey can be just as fun, just as exciting, just as interesting as the destination – sometimes more so!  My spiritual pilgrimage, my life story, has been all about the journey.  I believe I am in good company – many notable individuals have told stories about journeys.

Consider Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey – now that was the ultimate road trip!  Talk about adventures!  Odysseus had more than enough adventures for one man.  His destination was home – he had spent many years imprisoned by Calypso, and was finally journeying back to his loved ones.  But the story is about what happens to him – who he meets and what adventures he falls into.   I like to think of my life story that way.  I am on an odyssey, making my way home, wherever that may be, seeking my final destination but meeting interesting people and having adventures along the way.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary gives 2 definitions of the word Pilgrimage:

1 : a journey of a pilgrim; especially : one to a shrine or a sacred place
2 : the course of life on earth

Of course, we have all heard of the first kind of pilgrimage.  It usually has a religious connotation.  I like the 2nd definition – the course of life on earth.  The journey, the pilgrimage, can be physical or spiritual, emotional or practical.   It can involve a specific time-frame with a specific result, or be a lifelong process, working towards finding the truth.  I like to think of myself as a pilgrim, journeying through my life, seeking a sacred place within myself.

The sacred place I am seeking is related to my idea of spirituality.   For me, spirituality is internal, an inner path to peace, understanding and truth.  Elizabeth Lesser distinguishes between what she calls Old Spirituality and New Spirituality.  She says that Old Spirituality involves believing the church has ultimate authority, that they should dictate how you worship, how you behave, what the one path to God looks like, that Truth is like a rock, never changing, perceived the same by all.  But New Spirituality looks much different.  You are your best authority, finding for yourself how to live a spiritual life.  Your deeper longings are your compass on your life’s journey.  The truth is like the horizon—forever ahead of you, forever changing its shape and color. You can let your spiritual path change and diverge as you journey toward it.

I am still working on finding my compass, finding how to live a spiritual life.  I have, however, identified several characteristics that I believe are an important part of that process.  I believe that a life lived spiritually embodies certain qualities, and we must nurture them in ourselves and in others – only thus can we nurture our spirit.

In all that we say, all that we do, all that we are, we must be sincere and authentic.  According to Confucius, “Faithfulness and sincerity are the highest things.”  If we are not honest with ourselves and with others, our spirit will not thrive.

Along with honesty in what we say, we must exhibit honor and integrity in what we do.  If honesty is telling others the truth, integrity is telling ourselves the truth.  It is doing the right thing, even when nobody is watching.  Honorable actions foster confidence from others – and if we cannot be trusted, our inner spirit will fade.

Towards those with whom we share this life, our fellow travelers in the journey, we must demonstrate not only honor and integrity, but also tolerance and acceptance. English novelist Sir Walter Besant said, “Tolerance is the eager and glad acceptance of the way along which others seek the truth.”  Without regard for diversity, whether diversity in culture, opinion, sexual orientation, race or any other characteristic, without appreciation for our differences, our spirit will wither.

Our vision of those with whom we share this life should not be limited to fellow human beings.  All life has beauty, and we should seek it, revere it, in all that we encounter. For the beauty in the world around us, we should feel wonder and awe.  According to Albert Schweitzer, “Affirmation of life is the spiritual act by which man ceases to live thoughtlessly and begins to devote himself to his life with reverence in order to give it true value.”  Without respect for the interconnectedness of the world, without reverence for the mystery of life, our spirit will weaken.

We must also find that which brings us joy, whether it is person, place or thing, and experience it with a passion that can expand that feeling and share it with others. Ralph Waldo Emerson is quoted as saying “For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness.”  If we don’t find happiness, if we don’t love, and delight in that feeling, our spirit will not grow.

And to have all of these qualities, we must be open to learning new things, to using our intellect, to increasing our understanding of each other and the world around us. For it is by not using our mind that our spirit becomes most fragile.

So, if we have Sincerity, Passion, Integrity, Reverence, Intellect, and Tolerance in our everyday lives, if we foster them in each other, we will be able to nurture our spirit as we find our path towards the horizon.

I have a saying – I don’t get lost, I just keep driving until something looks familiar.  I think my spiritual journey is like that.  I just keep going until it seems familiar.  Some people describe feeling “lost” until they find their path to the truth, whatever that may be.  I have never had a sense of being “lost”… I just haven’t reached my destination yet.  For many years, I stayed away from any form of religion, but it was while driving near my home in Virginia one day that I noticed a very pretty church on a hill.  I think it was the daffodils and dogwood trees that first caught my eye. It was an Episcopalian church, and one Sunday morning, I decided to check it out.  I was comfortable with the familiarity of it, but quickly realized that it was just a stop on the journey, not the final destination.  Again, I pulled away from the structure of what I perceived as a very limiting, conforming tradition that did not quite fit with my belief system.  A number of years later, after my physical journey led me to Memphis, my spiritual journey led me to Neshoba.  Although I am still on the journey – this is not yet the final destination – I do feel that I have found a “home base” from which to explore the avenues that are open to me.  And I have definitely met some interesting people and had some exciting adventures along the way.

When I tried Episcopalian on for size, it felt familiar, but that was just because of its similarity to my childhood experience.  When I found Unitarian Univeralism, it felt familiar in a different way.  It felt like I was finally on the right path for my pilgrimage.  In each moment of my journey, I feel more and more at home as a UU.  I’m not to my destination yet, but I am sure enjoying the trip!

Every day, my experiences take me further on the path to truth, further on my journey.  As long as I am living, I will never reach my destination – I’ll always be moving, reaching for the horizon.  I’ll always be a pilgrim.  May your pilgrimage be interesting, adventurous, and long lasting. May it be so.  And Amen.

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