Archives For Pilgrimage

A sermon for Pentecost.

The texts for this Sunday were Genesis 11.1-9 and Acts 2.1-18. You can listen to the sermon below or on the sidebar to the right. You can also download it in iTunes if you wish by clicking here.

I studied five years of Latin in high school and four years of German. I can still decline the word for ‘farmer:’ acricola, agricolae, agricolam.

And I can recall enough German to appreciate Indiana Jones on a deeper level.

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     I studied Greek and Hebrew in seminary, and I still know them well enough to venture into the Old and New Testaments like a treasure hunter armed with a few well-chosen tools.

     But when it comes to speaking, when it comes to listening, I’ve never been very good at languages.

I’ve always heard how languages come easier for babies than they do for adults- their minds are like sponges, so goes the cliche. But, really, I think the difference is that no one hands out little treats when an adult finally gets the right word for ‘potty’ or ‘hungry.’

Despite my relative ambivalence about languages, on my second day of my first semester of college I decided to enroll in French class. My roommate and I were sitting in a boring Intro to English Literature course, listening to a beer-bellied, gray-haired professor recite Beowulf in Old English.

And across the hall, in the classroom opposite ours, we both noticed a twenty-something, red-haired woman standing in front of a chalk board wearing a tight leather skirt, teaching French.

We changed our schedules that afternoon.

The French teacher’s name was Isabelle, but, because of the siren-like spell she cast over my friend and I, to this day my wife refers to her as ‘Jezebel.’

My interest in French more or less began and ended with Isabelle but, once I’d enrolled, the college required me to stick it out for three additional semesters.

The good thing about French is that you can get by by approximating an accented mumble. My own accent slash mumble was a hybrid of Charles Aznavour and Detective Briscoe from Casablanca.

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     I passed the written exams by rote memorization, and I survived the listening comprehension tests by correctly assuming that most French conversations were about Miles Davis or American Imperialism.

After four semesters, I ended up with an A average but the memory of Isabelle lingered longer.

Today I can recall a few French words, but when it comes to understanding, it’s all confusion for me.

And the Lord said, ‘Look, the people all have one language;

this is only the beginning of what they will do.

   I traveled to France a while ago to spend a week at Taize, an ecumenical monastery in the Burgundy countryside. Taize is a destination for thousands of Christian pilgrims from places scattered all over the globe.

taize_reconciliation

     And ‘pilgrimage’ seems an appropriate descriptor when you consider how long and trying and confusing the journey there can prove.

At the beginning of the pilgrimage I was wandering around CDG airport in Paris, trying to locate my connecting flight. The gate number printed on my boarding pass didn’t match the listings on the terminal television screen.

I made the mistake of walking up to the desk at what should’ve been my gate and asking for help.

‘I’m just wondering if I’m at the right gate’ I said. The frenchman behind the counter stared at me blankly and said ‘Oui.’

Not satisfied he’d understood me, I handed him my boarding pass and decided to speak every traveling American’s second language. I just spoke louder: I’M JUST WONDERING IF I’M AT THE RIGHT GATE.’

Gary-Bembridge

He looked down at my boarding pass without moving his head- sort of like those haunted house portraits where only the eyes move- and again he said ‘Oui’ even though the sign directly behind him said that particular flight would be landing in Budapest.

I sighed, feeling confused, and as I walked away and he said ‘Thank you. Have a nice day’ in rehearsed non-comprehension.

Not trusting his reassurances, I walked up to Air France’s euphemistically titled Customer Service desk and pressed my dilemma to a young frenchwoman who wore her hair in a matronly bun.

‘You’re American?’ she said in textbook English.

‘And you don’t speak French?’

When I said no she said ‘Oh’ like she was a doctor examining my MRI and had found a suspicious mass.

Then she spoke rapid French to her customer service colleagues and set them all to tittering with laughter. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I was pretty sure I knew who they were talking about.

Not understanding, I walked away confused.

And God said: Come, let us go down, and confuse their language…

The next leg of my journey was by train.

For what seemed like an eternity, I vainly searched around the train station for a men’s room. When I finally found one, there was an old woman standing in front of the stall doors with a mop, absently wiping at the same spot on the floor.

From the cobwebs of my memory, I pulled some of the French Isabelle had taught me. ‘I need to use the restroom’ I told the old woman.

At least I’d thought that was what I’d said. In hindsight, having later consulted my French book, I think what I actually said was: ‘I need to drive your toilet.’

The old woman with the mop looked confused so I repeated it, louder: ‘I NEED TO DRIVE YOUR TOILET.’

 

And she held out her palm and said: ‘You need to be 25 years old.’

At least, that’s what I thought she’d said.

I nodded and said ‘Don’t worry I’m well past 25’ and I walked over to the bathroom stall. But she kept talking, faster this time, her words lashing at my ankles.

When I turned around to close the stall door, the old woman was standing in the middle of it, holding out her hand and telling me I needed to be 25 years old.

I was about to pull out my passport to prove I was old enough when a tall, blond man with hipster glasses said in a Swedish accent: ‘It costs 25 cents. You need to pay her 25 cents.’

‘Oh’ I said and fished around in my pockets.

‘Sorry for the confusion’ I muttered to her, but she did not understand a word I spoke.

   tower-of-babelAnd the Lord said: Come, let us confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another…

For the final leg of my journey, I had to take a bus from Macon to Taize.

I had my fare counted out in my sweaty hand. For the entire train ride I’d practiced how to ask for a bus ticket. When it was my turn, I stepped up to the driver, an elderly, tough-looking frenchman.

I laid my euros down on the tray and spit out the one sentence I’d been playing in my head like a broken record: ‘A ticket to Taize, please.’

But then the driver asked me a question and, just like that, it was like my homework had blown away with the wind. I had no idea what he was asking me.

‘Lociento, no seh Francais’ I babbled….in Spanish.

 

The driver clenched his wrinkled jaw and asked his question again, and I just smiled, feeling confused.

‘He is asking if you want the roundtrip ticket’ the skinny man behind me explained with a German accent.

‘Oh, yes. Yes, please’ I said.

The bus driver tore off my receipt and slapped it down in my palm and began shouting at me: ‘SPEAK THE LANGUAGE. YOU COME TO FRANCE…SPEAK FRENCH!’

The skinny German behind me continued his translating duties: ‘He’s saying that when you come to France you should speak French.’

‘Yeah, I got that part. Danke’ I said and sat down, confused and red-faced.

BabelBar

Therefore the place was called Babel, because there the Lord confusedthe language of all the earth.

The story of Babel belongs to what is known as the Primeval History.

The Primeval History narrates God’s dealings with creation before God ever called Abraham or commissioned Israel to be a light to the nations. The Primeval History is not, like the rest of scripture, a particular history of a chosen People. It’s a general history of all humanity. The Primeval History is Israel’s attempt to project backwards in time and answer some of the questions we still ask:

Where did we come from?

Who made us and how?

Why is there Sin in the world?

Babel is the climax of the Primeval History. But the story isn’t just meant to answer the obvious question:

Why are there so many languages in the world?

      The story of Babel is also the bible’s attempt to pinpoint the origination of:

War

Our Fear of the Stranger and Hatred of the Other

Our Suspicion of

And Hostility towards

and Distrust of

Difference

Because even though the confusing and scattering God does at Babel is meant as a grace to save us from our own hubris, we don’t receive it as gift.

    At Babel God creates tribes with different languages and customs and complexions. Different, diverse tribes.

    And we respond by creating tribalism.

The energies and ingenuities we’d spent on baking bricks and cutting stone we soon turn to making weapons.

     The Sin of Cain and the Sin of Babel mix and, as the Primeval History draws to a close, war is born. taize2

 

For much of the time, my time at the monastery was as confusing as my journey there.

Going through the dinner line one evening and seeing they were serving a gruel that resembled the porridge from Oliver Twist, I said: ‘No thank you, I’ll just have the bread and the apple.’

The volunteer server, a teenage girl who’d colored the Hungarian flag onto her name tag, she just smiled at me and said ‘Yah’ and then plopped a heaping spoonful on my plate.

 

One afternoon I asked another pilgrim for the time- I even gestured to my wrist- but I was instead pointed the way to the bathroom.

In the group bible study, I tried in vain to discuss Paul’s Letter to the Romans with folks for whom English was a second language.

It was confusing all round. And I couldn’t help but think that everything would be so much easier if we all spoke the same language.

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That’s pretty much how I felt the Thursday evening I ventured into the monastery sanctuary for the fixed-hour worship.

I grabbed a wrinkled blue paper songbook at the door and found an empty spot among the couple thousand pilgrims. All of us sat on the sloped cement floor facing a terra cotta altar table, above which hung red-orange sheets of canvas arranged to resemble a fiery dove.

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The worship that Thursday night followed the same pattern as all the other nights. Scripture was read. Prayers were spoken and sung. Silence was stretched out longer than any sermon.

Towards the end of the worship, before we took communion, a song number flashed on the digital screen that hung on either side of the altar.

Everyone flipped in their books, a 12 string guitar struck the right note and we started to sing: ‘Da pacem in diebus.’ Give Peace in our Days. It’s a chant, only a couple of phrases. We sang it maybe two dozen times at first, in Latin. But then I noticed the pilgrims in front of me, a youth group it looked like, they’d started to sing it in German.

da_pacem_cordium

We kept singing and after a few more repetitions I could make out French being sung behind me by a husband and wife and their three little children. And after that I could hear French starting to pop out in the crowd from other places in the sanctuary.

We were still singing the same song; it was the same tune. They’d just started to sing it in their own language.

It took me a few times more through the song before I worked up the courage to sing in English, but when I did I heard British accents joining me.

And to my left I could make out the hard consonants of what sounded like Russian and to my right I could hear Italian that reminded me of my grandparents.

And maybe it’s the tune or the words but together, the thousands of us, all singing each in our own language, it kind of sounded like the roll of an ocean wave.

Or like a mighty rushing wind.

     And even though there were other sounds I couldn’t make out, other languages I couldn’t identify, I understood everyone of them.

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     And after we sang we passed the Peace of Christ and a teenage girl with stonewashed jeans and dyed green hair embraced me and said something in my ear. And I didn’t know what language she was speaking, but I understood.

     And when I filed up through the line and held my hands out to receive the Body of Christ, the dark-skinned monk looked down upon me, smiling and softly spoke a few words. I didn’t know what he’d said, but I’d understood perfectly.

And after the worship service ended and a small crowd of us lingered behind to gather around the Cross, I couldn’t have translated all the whispered prayers I heard but I understood everyone of them.

pentecosti-kosmos

God doesn’t undo what God did at Babel until Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descends upon a crowd of thousands of scattered tribes: “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and parts of Libya, and visitors all the way from Rome.” 

Just as God comes down at Babel to confuse their speech, the Holy Spirit comes down at Pentecost to fill with them with praise. And though each of them speaks their own language, each of them is understood.

No more confusion.

     God heals the wounds of Babel not by creating a common language, but by creating a People.

A people who, despite their differences, despite their diversities, understand one another because they remember what was forgotten at Babel: that you were made to praise God not make towers to the heavens.

     You were made to embody God’s love to the world not wall yourself off from the world.

You were made to serve in God’s name not worry about making a name for yourself.

You were made to point towards God’s future not try to secure your own. .

God heals the wounds of Babel not by creating a new language.

God heals the wounds of the world by creating a People who are God’s new language.

You.

 

5127ee0225791.preview-620If you read this blog then you already know that I’ve spent the last four days at a Taize Pilgrimage gathering at Red Shirt Table on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. I’m writing this on our trek home. I calculated the time and the mileage- the journey here took me just as long as it took me get to the Taize community in Burgundy, France and it will take just as long to return home.

The same is true for hundreds of the others who gathered this weekend and that should tell you all you need to know about the power of the Taize community and the grounding, foundational role it plays in the faith of Christians all over the world. I’ve met pilgrims who came here from Poland, France, Spain, Korea and Italy.

I’m too tired to write much now- especially on my phone of all things- and I’ll reflect more later, but I wanted to take a moment to share a few observations on the nature of the event itself.

As I posted earlier, the Taize community understands its mission to be a ‘pilgrimage of trust on Earth.’ All of life, the brothers believe, is a pilgrimage wherein we embody our trust in the Creator by extending trust (in the form of hospitality, listening and reconciliation) to others. In their community in France, this mission gets realized in how the brothers welcome 5K pilgrims every week from places around the world- places, it should be noted- that often have nothing in common and much in dispute once you extract Christ from the equation.

This same emphasis on ‘trust’ has been paralleled by the pilgrimage gathering here at Red Shirt, as we (and that ‘we’ is mostly very white and across the board Christian) are only here because of the trust and hospitality extended to us by the Lakota. No small thing when you consider we’re the only outsiders of this number gathered in this part of the reservation since the “Incident” at Wounded Knee in the 1970’s.

This pilgrimage weekend was the initiative of Robert Two Bulls and his Father, both Episcopal priests. It’s their land we camped on. It’s their bulls we ate.  And it’s their trust in the possibilities of Christ’s reconciling work that has brought us here. 5127ee0433ed6.preview-620

When it comes to reconciliation, the Two Bulls and the Taize Brothers see eye to eye on methodology. Or rather, you might say, theology. That is, they both share the conviction that the everyday, simple practice of Christian faith is itself an act of and means towards reconciliation.

Christians need not defer to the more ‘professional’ realms of politics, economics or social science (none of those disciplines have been particularly benevolent to the Lakota in the past anyway). Instead, the Two Bulls and the Brothers share the belief that the historical issues here are complex, the politics messy and the solutions seemingly elusive but, in the meantime, people of faith- no matter how different- CAN sit down and share a meal together, open their home to strangers, share stories and prayer and listen.

And that’s all this weekend has been about. There’s no ‘work project’ or charitable, mission activity- reservations have enough of those and seldom do they yield any sustainable good.

There’s no issue advocacy, passing around of petitions or voting on resolutions- which surely would have dominated this weekend had it been sponsored and run by a denomination (UMC) like my own.

And what teaching there has been about the history, culture and suffering of the Lakota has been first-person, told unrehearsed in small groups or around a meal.

In a culture where Christians of both liberal and conservative stripes defer to politics for hope and change, the Two Bulls and the Brothers would remind us that, for Christians, real change comes through our solidarity in Christ. Indeed a few hours in a place like this and you realize, given the tragedy that is omnipresent, Christ is the only bridge, the only common ground, upon which we have any hope of meeting.

And I think that’s where Taize (here at Pine Ridge or in Burgundy, France) intersects with Emergence Christianity: the conviction that everything must begin with the Gospel authentically embodied and practiced in community.

I’ve always like the rhetoric of Stanley Hauerwas’ maxim: ‘The Church doesn’t have a social ethic. The Church is a social ethic.’

Liking that rhetoric and understanding it are two different things because I think this is first time and place I’ve had any real notion what the hell Hauerwas means.

As Brother Alois, the prior of Taize, said:

“In going to Pine Ridge we want to listen carefully to the story of the Lakota people, and listen together to what the Spirit is saying to us all in our attempt to create a world of solidarity and peace. Only by coming together beyond our differences in a climate of prayer and sharing can we find new ways forward.”

5127ee036396c.preview-620Or as Brother John put it in a bible study Saturday morning;

“Forgiveness is God’s act of New Creation performed on the relational level.

Saying ‘I’m willing to listen to you or I forgive you’ is one of the ingredients that ultimately culminates in what Isaiah describes as a New Heaven and a New Earth.’

The surprising thing for me in all this is how disempowering and ennobling an experience this has been.

The Rule of Taize spells it out like this:

‘It is Christ himself whom we welcome as a guest. So let us learn to be welcoming; our hospitality should be generous and discerning.’

White Christians from the States aren’t usually in the objective part of sentences like that one.

We typically think of ourselves as welcoming people in Christ’s name and chiding ourselves- sometimes a bit self-congratulatory- to see Christ in the stranger. But here, we’re the ones being welcomed by people- Americans…more so than us even- who’ve gotten the shaft from my people at nearly every turn, past and present. And that is a humbling (in the sense of stripped bare) experience.

It also means that in some way I am Christ to/for them and maybe that’s the greatest leap of faith of all, for being welcomed here to Pine Ridge by the Lakota leaves me feeling not a little like a blinded Saul being welcomed, nursed and cared for by Ananias, Saul’s former victim.

 

Taize-Pine-Ridge-2013I’m spending the next four days at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota as part of the Taize Pilgrimage of Trust. I’m joined here by 3 others from my church along with thousands of Christian pilgrims 18-35 from around the world as well as the brothers from the Taize Monastic Community in Burgundy, France.

The Taize Community was started by Brother Roger Schultz, himself a Swiss Reformed Protestant, in 1940 as an ecumenical monastery that would in its life together embody peace and reconciliation in postwar Europe.

What started as a small band of brothers from Catholic and Protestant denominations quickly grew to attract over 100,000 ‘pilgrims’ every year for a week at time. These pilgrims come from all over the globe, are primarily youth and young adults and for 7 days seamlessly integrate into the community’s weekly rhythm of fixed hour prayer (worship), bible study, and work.

As I tell people, think ‘Woodstock crossed with a Medieval Monastery.’

Every year the brothers of Taize take their community on the road in order to reconnect with former pilgrims and welcome others who might not be able to make the trek to rural France.

I’ve been to Taize a couple times in the past. The following are my journal reflections from my first pilgrimage.

Incarnating the Gospel: You are the Sermon

For years I studied preaching. ‘Homiletics’ is the official discipline, part theology of preaching and part the art of rhetoric. As a Protestant pastor, my bread and butter is the preached Word- that’s our tradition, our reason to be as Protestants. Many more people call me ‘preacher’ than call me ‘Father’ or anything like that.

And I like to preach. I enjoy the spiritual discipline of having to contend with a text every week, to dare God to speak or not speak to me and, ultimately, through me. Likewise, preaching is how I’ve learned to establish and build credibility with congregants. When I looked impossibly young to be a pastor at the very least my preaching reassured skeptics that I might know how to do a few things reasonably well.

And so it’s strange to me to worship in a place like Taize.

TaizeHere, we worship 3 times a day, between 45-90 minutes each time, every day of the week. Most of the worship is singing the short, repetitive, beautiful chants Taize for which Taize is now famous. The worship includes a scripture reading, usually in several different languages and then silence. Long periods of silence. Where my own congregants can hardly cease rustling their bulletins long enough to achieve silence, here at Taize the silence- of 5K plus pilgrims sitting on a cement floor, mind you-can last anywhere from 10-15 minutes. In the mornings, there’s Eucharist that is celebrated in a boldly ecumenical fashion and evening worship on Fridays and Saturdays mimics Good Friday and Easter.

 

But there’s no preaching. No sermon. Really hardly any spoken word at all- the songs are indicated not by announcement but LED signs on the left and right of the simple but beautiful sanctuary.

 

At the beginning of this week I thought this lack of preaching was surely a deficiency. ‘Doesn’t there need to be sermon?’ the Protestant on my shoulder kept asking. ‘Doesn’t the Word need to be proclaimed’ the Calvinist in me kept wondering; preaching is part of Calvin’s definition of worship in fact.

 

Now that it’s been a week here however I’ve changed my mind.

I now realize the silence is sufficient because the life of the community is its own witness to the Word.

 

The brothers and pilgrims here spend every moment together, studying scripture, sharing their stories, working together, eating together, worshipping and relaxing together.

In most churches, you need the sermon in order to ‘illustrate’ how to ‘apply’ the biblical text to every day life. And in most churches the starting presumption is that the connection between biblical text and every day life is forced at best.

But here at Taize it’s the opposite. It works in reverse. Their life together points to the truth of the biblical text. Acts chapter 2, the Sermon on the Mount, Paul’s Fruits of the Spirit- they’re all on display here both in the brother’s life together and in the hospitable, trusting way they welcome visitors in to that life.

They don’t need a sermon here. They are the sermon.

Together they’re- we’re- incarnating the Gospel in its essence: serving, sharing and worshipping. This is Church, or at least Church stripped of all the unessential, non-Gospel accretions that weigh many congregations down and fog the essence of what a life lived together in Christ looks like.

The word ‘incarnational’ gets bandied about a lot lately in its relation to the emerging future church. While I’m sure that term can mean many things to many people, I think the closest approximation is right here.

If incarnational is the buzzword of the emerging church and ‘intentional community’ its manifestation, then the Church of the future started in 1940 when Brother Roger rode his bicycle to this tiny little village.

 

Taize @ Pine Ridge

Jason Micheli —  April 10, 2013 — 3 Comments

taize-pine-ridge-2013-360There’s still a couple of weeks if you’re interested in signing up to go the Taize gathering on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the Badland.

Taize, the ecumenical monastery in France founded after WW II.

Each week throughout the year thousands of young people from around the world gather at Taize for a week of community and prayer.

Phyllis Tickle argues that in the future Taize will be credited as one of the precipitating movements of Emergence Christianity.

I believe her.

Because my previous visits to Taize have proven to have an enormous impact on my own spiritual development and how I understand the nature of the church.

The Taize gathering at Pine Ridge will be over Memorial Day weekend. I plan on going with a few others, and I will be guest-blogging for Tony Jones about my experiences there.

Check out this video about the gathering: Video

Here are a few details and then you can click over to read more at the Taize website itself.

When: Friday afternoon, May 24- Monday morning, May 27

Who: Anyone ages 18-35

Cost: $50.00 (plus travel…however we decide to get there)

Lodging: Tent Camping

Food: Provided by the Lakota

If you’re interested, contact me. Here’s the info page at Taize’s website.