Journey Without Maps

In 1935 the British writer Graham Greene and his cousin Barbara Greene set off into the heart of Liberia, Africa.  As one might imagine, it was a rather harrowing journey with Graham almost dying as he neared its end.  His goal was to leave civilization and find “the heart of darkness.”  One of the maps he had consulted had a blank, empty space representing the interior of Liberia with the words written across it, “cannibals.”  He was forced to rely on local guides and porters to traverse this great unknown.  In 1938 he published his notes and memories as a book entitled, Journey Without Maps.

Journey without maps – a most intriguing description of the journey of faith.  Maybe most of our journeys – at least the ones that count.

You may remember my childhood friend Dan – yes, the one I got in trouble with for his comment about our balding junior high math teacher, Chrome Dome. 

I happened to run into Dan several years later at Cal. State Long Beach.  Dan had asked me how things were and did I have much of a love life.  Actually, I had broken up with a girl over a couple of years previous and had to admit that I was a little lonely.  He invited me to the Methodist student religious club on campus, but I told him that I had had it with the church.  Our local church had the most reactionary, egotistical pastor one could imagine.  I wasn’t going back.  Ever!

His response to my reaction?  “Well, we have some mighty fine-looking women who attend.”  Throwing aside all scruples, I responded, “Oh?  What time do they meet?  Where?”

That conversation began a deep dive into the Christian journey I had abandoned when I dropped out of my fourth grade Sunday school class.  Soon the campus pastor had introduced me to some of the twentieth century giants of the faith:  Bultmann, Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr and his brother Richard.  Also, the great Jewish mystic Martin Buber.  Later, that spring break, in Lincoln, Nebraska, I would encounter Martin Luther King, Jr. at a student conference. 

That campus fellowship, long, long ago, has been the beginning of a life-long journey.  Certainly a “journey without maps.”  Now that I’m approaching the end of my journey, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything in the world.  In the process I’ve found spiritual meaning that has given shape to my life.  I’ve acquired probably more books than our local library.  There was that minor detour as an Army medic, stationed in San Francisco.  Along the way, I met a wonderful wife and now have two fine sons.  One of whom has started me on my new venture to begin an opioid recovery center.  Certainly, a journey without maps. 

Sometimes, though, a twist of fate opens up a journey we would never have chosen.  I read in the paper this morning of the devastation that has overtaken Tennessee as tornadoes swept through the state. 

On Tuesday morning 73-year-old Jean Gregory was sleeping soundly in her bed.  Suddenly her husband yanked her to the floor and flung himself on top of her as their entire house began to shake.  For six, maybe seven minutes the deafening roar blotted out consciousness of her surroundings.  Later, when they emerged from the wreckage of their house, they discovered that many of their neighbors had it much worse.  Their entire neighborhood of trailers and modest homes was devastated.  One tornado that cut a swath of destructor through the middle of the state had remained on the ground for some fifty-five miles, ripping through the center of Nashville.  Multiple tornadoes struck elsewhere.  For the people of Tennessee, this is indeed a most fearsome journey without maps.  Where to pick up the pieces?  Ahead are days of shock and numbness as rescuers search the wreckage.

One of the oldest confessions of faith is found in the book of Deuteronomy: “A wandering Aramean was my father; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien.” On the day Abraham packed up the station wagon and left with Lot and the rest of the clan, he had not a clue as to where he was going.  All he could tell Sarah was that God had told him to pack up and leave this land and your kindred.  I’m sure, her thought had been, “What have you been smoking?”  He’d said crazy stuff before but this beat all.  If ever there was a journey without maps, this was it.

I still remember that call which came around 4:30 in the morning.  “Hello, is this John Forney??”

I’m Ed Stanton, the United Methodist Superintendent of Alaska.  Are you still wanting to come up to Alaska?”  All I could think of was to stammer, “I think I’d better talk to my wife.”  And so, began a most wondrous journey without maps.

Today, each of us sitting here in church because of a journey of faith that probably began years earlier.  At our age, no one is making us come to church.  Those days of fourth grade mandatory Sunday school are long past.

I remember the church planner Lyle Schaller at a conference noting that much of the white he saw from the plane window as they descended into Anchorage was not snow.  He said that all the white he saw on the mountains was actually torn up letters of church transfer that people had thrown out the plane windows as they approached the Anchorage International Airport. 

Alaska had one of the lowest church attendance rates of any state in the union.  In Alaska, no one has a mother or father looking over a shoulder to make sure they don’t miss church.  At least if you are an adult, if you’re sitting in a pew, it’s because you wanted to be a part the community of faith.  You are there as a result of a journey begun much earlier in life.  Even if you came to the faith later in life – it’s voluntary.  When your journey of faith began, something drew you in — as had that campus minister and his wife drawn me into that student community of faith.  Coming from a pretty dysfunctional family, I came out of the “dark night of the soul.”

In our story of Nicodemus, the gospel of John presents the tale of one who has grown up in the religious community.  He is an esteemed scholar and revered teacher.  But something is missing in his life. Not wanting to be seen associating with this disreputable rabbi, he approaches Jesus in the dead of night. 

An aside – all significant spiritual truths are revealed in the still of darkest night.  Always.  As with Nicodemus, the spiritual journey is from Darkness to Light.  We all begin in darkness.  Like Nicodemus, we know nothing.  We come in our darkest night.  Out of our deepest need.

Nicodemus, attempting to flatter Jesus, acknowledges that the things Jesus is reputed to be doing could only be the result of God’s presence with him.  Jesus brushes aside this flattery. 

Jesus then tells him the secret.  To perceive such things, one must be born from above.  That is, one must have a spiritual awakening.  Though Nicodemus, is reputed to be a great teacher, he answers, “Huh?”

Jesus tries again, and Nicodemus rebuts him, “How can one already old be born again?  Can he reenter his mother’s womb?”  As the discussion progresses, it would seem that Nicodemus becomes more obtuse.  He understands NOTHING.  And he is a such a renowned teacher?

Is this not the beginning of each of our spiritual journeys?  From the bare rudiments of faith, from those stories we learned in Sunday school, or at our mother’s knee, we begin a grand journey.   Or our venture is still-born, only, perhaps, to be born again later in life.  It is always a journey without maps.  Sometimes it’s begun with a call at 4:30 in the morning.  Sometimes begun with an invitation to a campus religious group that may have some “good-looking women.”  Or it may have begin with a spiritual search that begins at midnight.  No maps, but always moving towards the Light. 

Maybe it was an inchoate summons to pick up and leave familiar surroundings and clan.  That’s how the Forneys ended up coming through the Port of Philadelphia in 1767 from Germany.  That’s the chance one of my mother’s ancestors took when she up and married a Jewish peddler who had come through a small Iowa town with his wagon of sundries, pots and pans.

However the journey begins, it is not necessarily destiny.  When begun in disaster and trauma, people who care can make a difference.  We can promote programs that hold out promise for those who have lost their way.  We, in the Christian community, can either be part of the problem, mere bystanders, or part of the solution.  Christ continually invites us into the Light.

The way I look at it, we’re only here but for the twinkling of an eye.  Living to the full, making a difference, means walking with others on their journeys.  Sharing the load.  Speaking words of wisdom and encouragement.  And sometimes warning.

Towards the end of their book Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn tell the journey of Drew Goff, son of Ricochet (since deceased), a citizen of Yamhill who had seriously lost his way through alcohol and drugs.  Maybe no cannibals, but every bit as perilous a journey.

Sheryl and Nick had kept up with Drew even during the years he had served time in prison.  But now he was out on probation and avoiding drugs.  Though he had lost custody of his two other children, he was caring for his infant son Ashtyn.

He had been an addict since the age of twelve when he began using alcohol, pot and crank, a cheap form of methamphetamine  He swears that though he loved his father, he didn’t want to end up like him.  But, like his father, he had been in and out of prison.  He had now grown tired of that life – sick and tired.  It held nothing for him anymore.  No future at all – he had achieved a record of over twenty convictions.

What changed for Drew was a program, “Provoking Hope”.  It had given him a foundation of friends who surrounded him with sobriety.  He hasn’t touched drugs in over a year – the longest he has been sober since when he was twelve.  He now has a relationship with his young son Ashtyn and does not want to jeopardize that.   He absolutely loves that little boy.  He plays with him, talks with him so he will learn words.  Drew reports that the parenting classes he has received through Provoking Hope have made him a decent dad – the sort of dad he didn’t have.  He says that he and Ashtyn are now shooting for two hundred words.

Judge Collins, of Yamhill County, who sees many in his court like Drew and Ricochet, empathizes that it is such mentorship that can break the intergenerational cycle of drug use and crime. Programs like Provoking Hope and Friends of the Children can “make a huge difference, because at-risk young people often come from dysfunctional families without a good role model.”[1]

Ricochet had been pushed out of school in the eighth grade by a principal annoyed by his truancy.  Years later, his son Drew, was also expelled in the eighth grade.  And even when kids like Ricochet and Drew attend class, they often go to weak schools with no access to vocational training.  Even with a diploma, many cannot pass the qualifying exam for the armed forces.  Without a high school diploma, these young adults are destined for sporadic employment in marginal jobs.  Low pay, erratic hours, no benefits, first fired.

This is the challenge before us, America.  If we are to be in any sense “Great,” we need to bring along all our people.  We cannot keep failing our own.  Superintendent Cline of the Yamhill Carlton School district says they are getting more and more kindergarteners whom he would describe as “feral.”  One principal says more kids are “biting, screaming, kicking and throwing things.”  Superintendent Cline knows what these kids are going through.  His father spent three years in the state penitentiary for drug abuse.  It was only the military that provided an escape.  After his chaotic home life of neglect and abuse, basic training felt like a “vacation.” 

Each of us can make a difference, as a teacher, a grandparent, a mentor.  I remember going to the “Renewal of Vows” service to which our bishops invite all clergy during Lent.  Afterwards, there is often a side meeting for retired clergy.  While I usually avoid those things like the plague, I decided one year to attend.  There were about forty or so of us in a circle eating our lunch.  So many spoke of being bereft of anything meaningful to occupy their days now that they had no sermons to write or parishioners to visit.  They were completely at loose ends.

After a dozen or spoke of the emptiness of their lives — I thought, “My God, are there no children to read to?  Are there no teachers needing some help in their classrooms?  What gives, here?”  I wondered if I should pass around a sign-up sheet and put them to work.  There are Big Sister and Big Brother organizations just begging for some folks with the training clergy have.  Urban re-foresting organizations?  The local food bank?  Meals on Wheels?  Folks, your journey is not yet done.  Let’s get to work!

I remember the young people who flocked to the Ninth Ward in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  I would imagine that hundreds will now again be heading in droves to Tennessee to join folks like Jean Gregory and her husband.  They will need encouragement and accompaniment as, late in life, they embark on a new “journey without maps,” seeking to rebuild from the rubble.  Young and old, all are invited.  And they will heed the summons.  Many of those heading to join the Gregorys and the other victims of this disaster will be people acting out of the best values of their faith traditions.  I would hope that some might also be a few of my retired colleagues in the clergy.

The most important journeys we take are “without maps.”  Look back at the twists and turns of your life.   As in a jazz riff, we are forced to improvise.  But if we keep with the beat and mind our step, we seize the blessing to be had.  We find a God ever willing to walk, to dance, with us.  The journey into neighbor is the journey into God.

That is what my haphazard journey has taught me.  It’s not over until it’s over. Friends and guides along the way are essential.  Yes, there be dangers ahead.  A motto of the twelve-step movement is key: “Make a friend.  Be a friend.”  And your journey along the way will be blessed – as will another’s journey.  Amen.

[1] Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Tightrope (New York: Knopf, 2020), 239.

Preached at St. Francis Episcopal Mission, San Bernardino

March 8, 2020

Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 3:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

First Sunday in Lent The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

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