Roadside Religious Attraction Pilgrimage - Day 1
I am on a pilgrimage. Actually, we are all on a pilgrimage. But, let me back up before I get to that.
Five years ago, I can’t believe it has been that long, I was serving as a Curate (baby priest) at St. C’s just outside of Jackson, Mississippi. There were two priests there and we took turns preaching every other week. I ended up getting to preach on the Feast of Epiphany. While I was preparing my sermon, I had my own epiphany when I realized that pilgrimage is a theme that runs throughout the Biblical tradition.
It began with Abraham and Sarah who were called away from their home and tribe to become wanders as they followed God’s promise. This was a new way to live. People didn’t just up and move away from home. I also think about Ruth who followed her mother-in-law into a new land, and a new people.
Jesus. The disciples. All wanderers.
In fact, from the beginning those who followed Jesus were called “the people on the Way.” "Christian" was a term that came much later in time – the disciples, the early apostles, were called the People on the Way. Pilgrims.
Most of us, I think, when we hear pilgrimage, we think of a trip – a visit to a Holy site. The first Christian pilgrimages were made to sites connected with the ministry of Jesus. There are writings from the mid-3rd century which reference these journeys.
One of the most famous pilgrimages today is the Way of St. James, some call it “walking the El Camino.” It is a five-hundred-mile journey ending in Spain where it is said that the remains of St. James are buried.
All of that to say, my epiphany that day was realizing that Jesus is calling all of us to a life of pilgrimage.
Think about it. Most pilgrims visit these Holy sites with questions. They want to know whether Jesus was actually born on this spot. They want to know if the specifics of the geographical detail to match up with the Biblical detail.
I dare say we all have questions. Whether we ask them aloud or not. At times we all want definitive answers to things like: what really happens when we die? Why am I or my loved one sick? Am I really worthy of forgiveness? Or, how is Jesus really in the bread and wine?
Sometimes the answers are so clear that we have this surge of faith. The Good News has really taken with us. All we can do is think about passing this faith on to someone else – to sow the grace, and love, and understanding that we have.
And other times doubt shrouds us like a blanket, and our fear tells us that we are definitely that rocky soil from the parable of the sower. We just don’t get it. We may never.
Our hope is that someone can come along who can carry us, or encourage us, until we can see again, know again, love again – until we can get out of that darkness. Someone who can keep feeding us the Good News until it makes sense again.
Pilgrimage is surrendering to the growth cycle of doubt, faith, and leaning on others to carry us until we can be steady again. Pilgrimage is knowing that just when we get to our Holy site; when we have a moment of transformation; when we have our epiphany; it isn’t the end but the beginning. We start right back over with the cycle. Which means that pilgrimage is a letting go of thinking we travel through life independently and recognizing that we are joined together. For, it takes the other to keep us in the cycle.
Life is a pilgrimage. That was the epiphany. And, it is an understanding of the life of discipleship I have been working from since that time.
But the day I was writing the sermon for the Feast of Epiphany, I actually had two epiphanies. I started thinking of one pilgrimage I wanted to take, and I started calling it the “roadside religious American pilgrimage.”
I knew for sure I wanted to see Carthage, Missouri where the Precious Moments Chapel resides. (I still have a Precious Moments Bible on my bedside table.) And, in Cullman, Alabama I had to see the Ave Maria Grotto – which has well over a hundred shrines, mythological scenes, and replicas of famous buildings and pilgrimage destinations from places throughout the world.
Then I preached about this idea for the trip. I preached about it at St. C’s and again at St. A’s where I, currently, serve. The funny thing is, people started giving me books and ideas about where I should go and what I should see. Some people even wanted me to take them along.
It may sound silly, or that I am making fun of the owners of these roadside religious attractions, but it is endearing to me that instead of using their land and resources to make money – these folks have decided to dedicate their resources to their faith. I mean, can you imagine the conversation between the couple deciding to build a Jesus themed mini golf course? “Honey, I think we should build a put-put golf course, about Jesus.”
So, when COVID cancelled my continuing education conference, I decided to actually take this roadside religious pilgrimage. I thought it would be cool to scout it out so that I really could take a group one day. I am also going to film much of the experience and release episodes to watch later in the summer. But, I also knew I couldn’t do this alone. So, I asked Mom if she wanted to go, and she said, “sure, but I am going to ask AB.”
AB – she is the daughter of my cousin Brooke who died last year. AB is eleven, and, well, a pistol ball. But, truthfully, Brooke would have said yes to this trip in a second, and it seemed fitting to bring AB along. Although, she took some convincing.
Yesterday, we rented a minivan in Jackson, Mississippi and hit the road. I almost fainted when they brought around the black Dodge Caravan minivan.
Last year, Brooke took ill very quickly, and I flew out to Texas to be with them. When I arrived at the airport, I went to the car rental place, and I must have looked awful. I had been crying for a few hours because I knew the prognosis was not good. The guy renting me a car looked me over, seeing I had a purse and small bag he said, “where are you going?” And I said, “the hospital. My cousin is very sick.” He said, “well, your car will not be ready for another hour. So, I am going to give you this mini-van.” Well, it was a black Dodge Caravan.
When I saw that we would be making this trip with AB in the EXACT SAME vehicle, it took my breath away. The synchronicity was overwhelming, but not for long. AB quickly informed us that this car was not “COOL” enough for her to ride in. She is eleven. After eight hours in the car yesterday, it had grown on her. She said she loved all the space she had.
Yes, we drove eight hours yesterday to our first stop – Bentonville/Eureka Springs, Arkansas. I am not going to tell you very much about the sites we are visiting, but this was a suggestion from a parishioner at St. A. It should be epic.
For all of you worried about COVID. You need to know that my Mom has lived for years as though a COVID like illness surrounds her. She uses gloves, sanitizer, face masks, Lysol, Clorox wipes, all the things all the time. Once she visited me in seminary while I was in NYC. I put her on a bus to go down to visit Brooke and her family in the D.C. area. When she got on the bus, she proceeded to Clorox and Lysol her entire area down, and the people around her got angry. In fact, they yelled at her because she was unleashing the toxins in the air. Later, Brooke told me that when she picked her up all the other passengers looked at Mom in disgust. Again, this has been our life for years.
So, we are traveling with enough cleaner and PPE to last for months. We sanitized the entire minivan and the entire hotel room. She probably sprayed me down with Lysol in my sleep. We are also avoiding the restaurants and crowds that we might have otherwise enjoyed.
For now, I can share the two things I have learned thus far. First, anything can be a TikTok. Literally. Anything. Second, there are endless, and I mean endless, videos of “how to apply make-up” videos on YouTube. Endless.
Pray for us.