What follows is the manuscript of a talk I delivered at Linfield College, McMinnville, Oregon at their Thanksgiving service in 2003.
Brendan set out with fourteen companions, travelling westward. The wind carried them to the port of Arran. Brendan said farewell to Enda and the other saints of Arran and left a blessing with them. Then they sailed due west across the ocean. It was summer, and they had a favourable brisk wind behind them, so they did not have to row. After they had spent ten days in this way, the wind lowered its loud voice and whistling. With its force spent, they were compelled to take up the oars. Brendan spoke to them, saying: “Do not be afraid, for we have our God as our guide and helper. Put up your oars, and do not toil anymore; God will guide this boat and company as God pleases.”
One day when Brendan and his company were traversing the sea, they finally happened upon the little country they had been seeking for seven years; that is, the Land of Promise. As it says in the proverb, “He who seeks, finds.” When they approached the land and were entering its harbour, they heard the voice of a certain elder speaking to them: “O holy pilgrims, tired men who have searched for this country for so long, remain where you are a little while and rest from your labours.” When they had done so, the elder said, “Dear brothers in Christ, do you not see that this is glorious and lovely land on which human blood has never been shed? Leave everything that you have in your boat, except the few clothes you are wearing, and come on shore.” When they had landed, each of them kissed the others, and the elder wept tears of great joy. “Search and see the borders and regions of Paradise where you will find health without sickness, pleasure without contention, union without quarrel, feasting without diminution, meadows filled with the sweet scent of fair flowers, and the attendance of angels all around. Happy indeed is he whom Brendan, son of Findlug, shall summon here to join him, to inhabit forever and ever the island on which we are now.”
When they saw Paradise in the midst of the ocean waves, they marvelled at the wonders of God and his power.
After this, Brendan and his monks proceeded to their boat and departed from Paradise…It was thus seven years in all that it took them on the two voyages to reach the Land of Promise….At the end of that time they…proceeded to Ireland, where they dropped anchor in the sea near Limerick.
So goes the tale of St. Brendan the Navigator, one of Irish Celtic Christianity’s best known saints. As a post-everything guy (modern, evangelical, liberal, etc.), the spiritual life for me is best captured in story and in the metaphor of journey and it’s more intentional counterpart, pilgrimage.
The “tale of this wanderer” began one snowy October afternoon in 1981. Hung over, exhausted and broke, I embraced Christ (or he embraced me, you figure it out!) driving home from a 2-week stint singing in a pub in Edmonton, Alberta. I was not a reluctant convert to Christianity like C.S. Lewis, who, upon his own conversion to Christianity, “admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England”. No, instead my lifelong fascination with Christ succumbed to the “peace that passes all understanding.” Says C.S. Lewis, “there burst upon me the idea that there might be real marvels all about us, that the visible world might be only a curtain to conceal huge realms uncharted by my very simple theology.”
My first impressions of organized Christianity were as follows: Gee, this music sounds hoaky! There’s such a thing as Christian music? Ooh, time for a haircut! My how these people love to sing! And finally, look how husbands put their arms around their wives.
Time spent in hotel taverns and smoky lounges did 2 things for my soul: it helped to engender a taste for something deeper than the rum and coke that washed down the “Achy Breaky Heart” songs we were expected to play ad nauseam. I remember saying to my music partner, “if I have to sing “Good-Hearted Woman” or “Margaritaville” one more time I will positively gag!” As well, it helped me to see what I didn’t want in terms of interpersonal relationships. As a result, my early foray into the safe and sanitized walls of the local church was strange but welcome.
My first introduction to the world of discipleship was in the socially cautious environs of the Evangelical Free Church. I learned quickly that everything was a “warm-up” to the sermon. True to evangelical form, 40, 50 and sometimes 60 minute sermons kept things moving so as to ensure that all the quota of words required would be wrung out of whatever the topic of the day was. I lapped it all up like a stray cat to a bowl of milk.
There was a certain warmth and charm to those early days. Sunday evening services were where I was able to encounter something I had never encountered before – a rather enigmatic creature called – the Christian girl. Truly remarkable beings these: beautiful, articulate, compassionate, intelligent, beautiful, strong, focused, beautiful…However, as these things go, anyone who has ever been “in the band” knows that it’s the girl who gets blamed for the break-up.
Vanessa was her name and she was an Anglican (that’s Episcopalianism, Canadian style). How could I not be drawn to St. Laurence Anglican Church to discover together with her all that it had to offer? Since Christianity was so new to me, it was bound to make an impression. And again, as a faith-rookie, I was struck by a few uninformed first impressions: this is also Christianity? Wow, sooooo many books to hold. So, where are we anyway? How perfectly unified this all is.
Everything had purpose, nothing was wasted, all was intentional and in order. It was blissfully wonderful. We were not to remain at St. Laurence for long as we were also introduced to a local Pentecostal pastor at a college group event. This introduction led to an investigation of Neighbourhood Church where I would ultimately be baptised. The journey took a sharp jog as this church, typical of many churches in Calgary, split over issues I didn’t even understand at the time. I took a part-time ministry at one half as Pastor of Music and Youth ministries.
Concurrent to this I had been touring with any number of Christian groups sharing music ministry on weekends at churches as different in scope as Hutterite colonies, charismatic Anglican churches, Baptist, Mennonite, and Catholic churches, to the many small conservative country churches which dot the countryside of the Canadian prairies. Amid their differences, the curious commonalities shared by all of them are, to this day, a wonder to me.
Deep friendships with Anglicans, Presbyterians, Catholics, Pentecostals and others of faith have helped me to appreciate the many “colours” of God. Although the foundational elements of my Christian faith have not changed, their expression is changing. Thomas Merton once remarked that “at night our vision is reversed from…day. During the day the things that are close to us are clear and visible. But at night, while we stumble about over things that are near us, the stars (invisible during the day) shine in the heavens with a clear and delicate clarity. Faith is like this.”
There is a tendency in much contemporary Christianity to remove the element of journey out of our walk with God. Says Brian MacLaren, “It’s as if we have taken what is for Jesus a starting line and turned it into a finish line. Sounds like another case of modern reductionism-going for the greatest efficiency, the most measurable results, the least common denominator…We need a post-modern consideration of what salvation means, something beyond an individualized and consumerist version.”
As a Christian I’ve always been drawn to the beauty and meaning of ancient ritual and liturgy. But, as an artist and creator, I’ve needed fresh expressions of ancient things. My own spiritual “identity crisis” is part of a larger cultural one. The shapelessness of modern life and the absence of authoritative paradigms is the cause of much thirst among many for the recovery of tradition, of cultural and historical location. This is the attraction of the historic traditions of the church, into whose established, time-proven, objective forms of devotion and worship one may enter and find oneself. And yet, in all this, my own roots remind me that, if evangelicals do anything well, it’s to exegete the Word of God to the culture with ever new methodology.
From each “stop” along the way I’ve gained a little deeper understanding of my Christian faith. And, in my mind, what all of this equates to is a montage of pictures of Christ and the church. I believe that there are many others like myself out there, those who often defy definition but are generally categorized as “post moderns.” Their journeys are circuitous like my own.
I have, for over 22 years now, been on a journey – a journey with Jesus. I’ve often said that my life was just great before encountering Christ. Jesus ruined everything! More darkness than light, more sadness than joy, more questions than answers – this has often characterized my Christian experience. Nevertheless, Jesus continues to captivate me regardless of the skin my Christianity might have. And so, like Saint Brendan, I’m a relentless traveller.
In conclusion, then, our journey, like the stylised adventures of this enigmatic Irish saint, setting out into uncharted waters seeking the riches of God will ensure that the prow of our boat will be ever wet with the spray of the open sea. The nation of Israel, whose relentless wandering through a relatively small territory should have taken a matter of weeks. It extended to 40 mind-numbing years and reminds us that either faith or fear will determine our feet. Like the disciples on the Emmaeus road, whose once expectant eyes were now downcast wrestling through dashed hopes placed in a Messiah they believed would kick Rome’s proverbial butt, we realize that our expectations can often be misplaced and our journey never gets appreciably easier. Indeed the spiritual “life on the road” pictured by Brendan, the nation of Israel and the disciples of Jesus, invites rigour, chaos, uncertainties and indecision. But also reward for, as C.S. Lewis says in the Chronicles of Narnia, “all will find what they truly seek.”
Brendan the Navigator typifies for me this curious, adventurous life bent entirely upon finding all that God has for one’s life regardless of risk or sacrifice or consequence. At worst, it reminds me that my walk with God, although curious, has more often than not been characterized by a confusing trek through “flavour of the month” Christianity.
One could ask at this juncture, what on earth does any of this have to do with Thanksgiving? Well, if a Thanksgiving sermon is what you came for, you indeed came to the right place for above all else, thankful is what I am:
I’m thankful that the banks of the meandering river of Christianity wending its way through my soul have never been out of my sight. I’m thankful that the Body of Christ is more beautiful and complex and mysterious than Western, modernist, consumerism would have us believe. I’m thankful that I’m given, along with all of us, the great invitation to journey with God in Christ. I’m thankful that wherever the journey goes, there exists at each crossroad the “everlasting way” sometimes just beyond our peripheral vision but underpinning all that we are. I’m thankful that, like the disciples on the road to Emmaeus, though our journey be fraught with darkness and fear, the oft hidden Christ walks alongside to illumine the path of the lonely. And, I’m thankful that, in this pilgrimage to newness and life there is always a place to call home. And where does this journey end? When our pilgriming souls come to their eternal goal – love and eternity. May it be so.