Sunday, June 24, 2012

In Life Be More Than Just a Tourist

Pilgrim (noun) 1. a person who journeys, especially a long distance, to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion; a wanderer, especially in a foreign place.
Tourist (noun) 1.a person traveling, especially for pleasure.
                                --Random House Dictionary

Are you a tourist or a pilgrim?  
First there’s the coffee here, so strong and black and thick it leaves a soupy residue of bitter grounds in the bottom of the cup. Then the language: I can’t understand one word even after ten days in this strange place. Not many churches here either. The country is 98 percent Muslim. There are 80,000 thousands mosques here and every day, five times a day, the call to prayer is blasted out from loudspeakers at each one, together creating an otherworldly cacophony which floats out over whatever city I’m in.  It regularly jolts me awake at 4:00 am.  Not a cheeseburger in sight either, nor a Wal-Mart or a Boston Globe.  I’ve no idea how the Red Sox are doing. 
Oh, and did I mention I’m absolutely loving it here in Turkey, this amazing and beautiful and foreign and haunting place, 4,836 miles from my front door?  I write these words on a sultry and warm mid-June day, looking out on the Black Sea, on the far northeastern coast of Turkey, one of fifteen folks on a church sponsored trip to explore the holy and biblical sites of what once was Asia Minor. Right now all I pray is this: that I may be a pilgrim and not a tourist in the few days I have left here, and not just on this trip but also on the journey called human life.      
A tourist.  We know the familiar cliché image. Clunky oversized camera around the neck, floppy hat on the head.  Furiously rushing on and off the tour bus at every sight for a few quick photo ops and then hurry back on the bus, on to the next spot on the itinerary.  One more item checked off. No time to really get to know the locals or culture. Bags filled with souvenirs, sporting a locally purchased t-shirt: “I went to Istanbul and all I got was this T-shirt!” Complaining that there is no place to get a decent cup of coffee or adequate cell phone service. 
Here in Turkey I’ve seen lots of these tourists:  American, German, Japanese.  I remember travel times when I’ve been touristy too.  Traveling through life, rushing, but not really taking the time to explore a place more deeply.  Staying on the surface of a destination and not digging in or worst of all viewing it through the safety of a bus window or a camera lens, keeping it all at arm’s length.  Or perhaps viewing a foreign place, a foreign people through my own often narrow cultural biases, wondering “Why can’t ‘they’ be more like me?”
It would be easy to fall into that trap in a place like Turkey.  Women in full length black burkas are a common sight here, one I’ve never encountered before, a bit jarring until you get used to it.  The spires of minarets and their mosques are everywhere; not many of those at home.  Most of the churches here are actually museums. Christianity hasn’t been a real presence here for almost a century.   Judaism has a nominal presence.  The food, the language, everything is strange. 
Unless I see it all as a pilgrim, as one on a holy journey of life and in life.  Long ago many folks of faith undertook pilgrimages as pilgrims to holy places like Turkey or Jerusalem or Mecca, where millions of faithful Muslims still trek today.  The key to these trips is attitude: how as pilgrims we encounter the strange and different and peoples and lands and cultures we come in contact with as we travel in the world, and not just far away but every day at home too. 
To be a pilgrim means to enter a place not with expectation but instead with curiosity. What can I learn here? What lessons does this ‘stranger’ have to teach me? To be a pilgrim means to take seriously our place as a guest in a new destination, to be civil, polite, humble even, at all times.  How might our lives as humans in this often conflict ridden world improve if only more of us acted thus in any new situation? To be a pilgrim offers us the opportunity to see the holy and the sacred in every aspect of life, whether in the midst of a vacation to a far off place like Turkey or sharing space in line at Dunkin Donuts with someone we’ve yet to meet.  Because when we are more pilgrim like and less tourist like, miracles happen. Sweet surprises come our way, like grace from heaven.
Yesterday our group visited a fifth century monastery, built on the side of a 4,000 foot mountain here, breathtaking enough in itself.  One of our pilgrims stopped to help a person having great trouble making the trek up the winding and steep path, and found himself stranded at the entrance, separated from our group, with no money to buy a ticket to enter that holy place.  Encountering the Turkish ticket taker, he explained his plight to her as best he could.  Without hesitation and without being asked, the gracious and kind young woman took out her wallet and paid for his admission.  That’s what happens when we live as pilgrims.  When we are wide open to the big, bright world, the world opens itself up to us too.
So before you go away on vacation this summer, pack up the suitcase or the car, purchase a ticket for destinations unknown, or even before you go out the front door this morning, ask yourself. Will I be a tourist or a pilgrim today?  How you answer just may change your life and this world in all your travels, around the corner and around the globe.
Let’s all be pilgrims.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Graduates--What's Next?

Next (adjective) 1. immediately following in time, order, or importance.
 --Random House Dictionary

            “What’s next?” It’s graduation season as millions of young women and men celebrate the end of one part of their young lives. The end…of high school, trade school, college, graduate school.  It is absolutely a time for joy at accomplishing the goal of finally acquiring an education, a degree, just getting to the finish line.  YOU DID IT!  I’m a softy and so I cannot watch a graduation ceremony without getting teary, moved by the truth that these young souls now stand on the edge of so much possibility, so much potential.  It is always an exciting time to be a new graduate.
            And yet it’s tempting for “elders” like me to romanticize those days following graduation. It’s been almost 25 years since I picked up my grad school diploma and I’d like to remember that I strode into my future with confidence and a clear direction to the place called “the rest of my life” but the truth? I was anxious, nervous, and unsure about just what was “next”.  Post graduation so many well meaning folks badgering me with just one question: “So John, just what are you going to do with the rest of your life? What’s next?” 
            What was to come “next”?  What I was supposed to do “next”?  Whom I was supposed to become “next” in my unfolding human life?  “Next”—the place we all have yet to arrive. The story not quite written to its completion.  Tomorrow, the future, or in the words of William Shakespeare’s character Hamlet, “the undiscovered country.”  What is “next” and just how are we humans supposed to figure that out?
            As a person of faith the one piece of advice I’d offer 2012 graduates is this. Trust that the God who created you has also planted within you a unique gift, a passion, a talent, a call, a vocation, work, one “thing” wholly your own, exactly what you are supposed to do next and who you are made to be next.  So now your job post classroom, and for the rest of your life in fact, is to figure out just what that “work” is and when you do find it (and you will) dive right into it with all your heart, soul and mind. 
            Yes, this task is so much easier said than done. I’m blessed in my life to know and love many twenty something folks.  I see that often the hardest challenge they face is to figure out just what their “one thing” is, their “next”.  But the gift of a life given to us by God is also a challenge: to grow up and into our one of a kind “next” and to take responsibility for that journey of self-discovery alone.    
              Parents cannot do this for us, tell us whom we are made to be, not peers or spouses, teachers or coaches or any one else either.  It is up to us finally.  But here’s a hint.  You’ll know “it” when you discover “it”.  As the writer Fredrick Buechner said: “Vocation happens when our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”  And when that serendipitous transformation occurs, when we find or stumble upon or embrace our life’s vocation, it is really a miracle, simply amazing.  “So this is why I was put on this earth!”
            What’s next? We may be made by God for a specific job or a career, some lifelong profession which dovetails perfectly with what we love to do.  Some of us were just made to be a doctor or an engineer or a carpenter or minister or an auto mechanic or a teacher.  It may be a hobby or an after work pursuit, life on the weekends and at night writing a novel, acting on stage, singing with passion, playing a sport and pushing our bodies to the limit. For some a life’s work is about being a great Mom or amazing Dad: some of us are made to build a family and make a home with care and love.   
            God knows what’s next and now it is up to every human being to answer this question too for the rest of life.  To discern what it is that makes our hearts soar, our minds stretch, our lives meaningful, and our spirits flourish and then to make it all our own.  To do what God made us to do. 
            What’s next?  The answer awaits.