I like to use my passport. But everywhere I want to go requires that I fly. True, I can take a boat, but convenience is going to be an important factor to consider. I know I have to fly over the ocean to get to Australia and New Zealand, which I’ve done a few times, and which I intend to do many more times. I have to fly over the other ocean to get to Italy and England and Ireland, which I did for the first time last summer, and which I know will not be the last. I was 20 when I flew across the Pacific for the first time. It was completely beyond my grasp, so I did not stop to think it through. But this time around, I had time to ponder the implications. Would I be taking unnecessary risks? Was it going to be safe? The longest stretch of any flight from LA to Auckland was 12 hours 40 minutes long … on top of the 5 hour flight from coast to coast … in very cramped quarters … in the darkness of night … at altitudes over 30,000 feet … over turbulent and shark infested waters. And it would not come cheap! I don’t drink, but the thought crossed my mind. Instead it was helpful to shift my focus on the destination, and the wonderful adventures that awaited me after I collected my bags and went through customs. Even the flight would be a mere blip in my memory once I got there. Unless I was flying the space shuttle or the Concorde, neither of which is an option any longer, or it was the time between 1910 and 1920 when commercial aviation was first being introduced to the public, the trip itself would not be the focus. With these others, having a destination is only a requirement because the aircraft has to land somewhere. For my own peace of mind, I needed to imagine the trip as little as possible.
Being people of faith, we often hear how we are pilgrims on a journey to a most wonderful destination. The journey will take as short or as long as we possess the breath of life. The destination is that awesome dwelling place of God the Father with many rooms, to which our Lord Jesus has gone ahead to prepare a place for us. Since he has gone ahead, we have to wait our turn to follow after him. Now we can only speak about our destination so much since our travel guide literature is not big on detailed descriptions or color photographs. The information we have is often vague, which leaves a lot to the fertile imagination. But we are assured it will be better, way better than where we are now. So we hold out hope – a joyful, courageous, trusting hope. It’s just that getting there presents some challenges we would rather not think about. We would much prefer happy thoughts – of beautiful places we’ve stumbled upon that remind us of our ultimate destination, of interesting people we’ve met along the journey, of telltale signs to assure us we are on the right track. Can you imagine the disappointment if we come to the end of the journey and realize we missed the last turn? I remember as a Boy Scout going on a hike to a popular mountaintop destination. And when we reached the peak, we noticed there was no one else around, and the actual destination was the next mountain over. It seemed we had taken a wrong turn. The view from our peak was okay, but it was not where we had wanted to be.
Every so often, I get a phone call from a senior member of the parish who wants to begin a conversation about their own funeral. It doesn’t trouble me at all. I firmly believe it is healthy for our spiritual lives to every once in a while reflect on our final destination, and the journey we take to get there. It is the circle of life. We will all make that transition one day, and there is only one door that leads to eternal life. We can go peacefully in a dignified manner, or kicking and screaming. We can prepare ourselves and everyone else by putting our affairs in order, or we can leave a big mess behind for someone else to clean up. When, and where, and how, and why matters little. We will all take our turn passing into the great unknown. But the destination, we are told, is immensely better than the journey. So we ought to give it careful consideration, so we aren’t caught unawares … unless you enjoy surprises. Boo!
And where is God in all this?, the question might cross our minds. It is not surprising, but we are accustomed to blaming God for things we don’t understand. Okay, blame is a strong word. We tend to hold God accountable when we come face to face with mystery. If God is truly all-powerful, all-knowing, and infinitely wise and loving, where does he stand on issues involving suffering and violence and death, especially concerning innocent people, and those we love? The widow in the passage from the prophet Elijah crossed over to the dark side quickly, blaming Elijah for the death of her son, as though the boy’s death was punishment for her own guilt and sin, for whatever burden she carried in her heart. The widow in the gospel passage said and did nothing to draw attention. But it was inevitable people would ask why God would allow such misfortune to befall her. She represented the poor, the vulnerable, the victim of injustice, she who had lost her only means of support. A widow in that time and place would have no standing in society, meaning God was often their most important and only resource. The prophet Elijah called out to God to restore the life of the young boy, and God heard his prayer. Jesus did not need to address God in prayer. He simply reassured the grieving mother, and called out to the young man to rise. That done, we never hear of them again. God hears a prophet’s prayers. Jesus is more than a prophet.
God takes no pleasure seeing anyone suffer. While he was among us, whenever he came across the poor, the hungry, the suffering, and the grieving, Jesus extended a hand in compassion, sometimes without being asked. But our human condition with all its joys and blessings will also know hardship and suffering. It is a way to remind us perhaps that this life is only the journey, that where we are headed is more important still, that eternal life in the company of our loving God awaits us over the horizon. The American author Rossiter Worthington Raymond said it best. “Life is eternal, and love is immortal, and death is only the horizon, and the horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.”
Last Wednesday, one of our newly-ordained deacons, Joe Marotta from Holy Cross Church in Lynchburg, on vacation with his wife and five young children, died while swimming at the Outer Banks. He was 39. His funeral will take place on Monday. The news is painful to hear, and we hurt for his young family, his friends and fellow parishioners. Our devastation is beyond words. All we have to offer sometimes is our presence and compassion.
We are certain we will all get there one day, but we know not where, or when, or how, or why. What we do know is that the journey is not the destination. We are fellow pilgrims on a journey; and we walk the journey together; and God walks alongside us. So when the journey gets tough, take his hand, feel his presence, listen for his voice.
Rolo B. Castillo © 2013