[This sermon was presented with a slide show. The slides are referenced in the text. You may view the slideshow here.]
Gratitude to the church for letting me use last year’s sabbatical funds to take this actual sabbatical time.
I chose to take this trip to the Isle of Iona, in Scotland with 22 members of University UCC, the church where I grew up and where I now work one day a week.
Today: vignettes from my 2 ½-week trip. There were a few days up front just getting from Seattle to Glasgow to Oban to Iona, then one week was on Iona, and then the last week was traveling around Scotland, both with a few people from the group and on my own.
A little bit about Iona: This island is 3 miles long, 1 mile wide, and has been considered an especially sacred space for many centuries. There is evidence that pagans worshiped here.
Slide of St Columba
In 563, Columba was kicked out of Ireland and sailed to Iona, where he set up a monastery. From this base, he spread Christianity throughout Scotland.
4 slides of Abbey
Around 1200, the Benedictines built a new monastery on Iona; this was restored starting in the 1930s, and the new ecumenical incarnation of the worshiping community was born. According to a brochure, “The Iona Community is an international, ecumenical Christian movement working for peace and justice, the rebuilding of community and the renewal of worship.” [“Transforming Lives to Change the World: Our Community and Our Vision,” The Iona Community.]
I’m going to share vignettes from this journey. Some are very short, some are longer. I will call out the title of each vignette. I begin with a very short one.
3 slides of cats
This is in the form of a haiku.
Timid cats stay home.
Friendly felines work the crowd,
More purring, more fans.
Slide of flights
2. Being Held by God
Limbo is being on an airplane. You’re neither here nor there, this time zone nor that one. We passengers are poked and inspected, asked for our papers at every checkpoint, loaded onto planes in a class hierarchical system, told what we can and cannot do, where to sit, where to put our stuff, how much stuff we can even bring. There are practical reasons for all of this. But I feel more like a number than a person.
Airports are another limbo space. After landing at Heathrow and missing my connection, I end up having five hours before my plane to Glasgow. I wander around Terminal 5, dazed, tired, lost. I’m not interested in the duty-free shops. I’m overwhelmed by all the people, many not wearing masks, all the languages floating around me. My next gate won’t be announced until an hour before the flight, so I don’t have any sense of home base—just floating, limbo. And then, there is Mary Sue, one of the people in our group. Like me, she has missed her connection to Glasgow, and we are both rebooked onto the afternoon flight. I really only know her to recognize her, but she is my new best friend.
In such limbo spaces, it can sometimes be difficult to remember that I am held by God. Nothing feels familiar. But it is so.
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle in Terminal 5 of Heathrow among a sea of strangers,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
3."I Am Home"
This thought comes to me after our first worship service in the Iona Abbey. Our group has traveled by train from Glasgow to the seaside town of Oban, passing lochs, green hills, and villages. We take a ferry and a bus and another ferry from Oban to Iona. After four days on the move, I finally have a hotel room where I can unpack for a whole week.
[Slide of sailboat, fuchsia]
Much of the fauna looks familiar, especially the weeds: blackberries, bindweed, Scotch broom, fireweed. Huge fuchsia bushes everywhere on the island. Taking trains, buses, and ferries, being on an island—that’s my regular life. As we leave our first evening service at the Abbey, I look up at the night sky. There’s the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, Cassiopeia, Vega, Lyra, Cygnus. These same constellations will appear over Seattle in another 8 hours. The cool, cloudy weather feels comfortable. “I am home,” I think. And even as this sentence sounds like a silent prayer in my head, the concept expands: wherever I am aware of being held by God, I am home: 30,000 feet in the sky, or wandering around an airport, or on Iona, I am home in God. Wherever I go, God is there. I live and breathe and have my being in God.
4. The Ancestors
[Slide of chapel]
One member of our pilgrimage group put together a worship service where we asked the ancestors to pray for us. This service took place after our evening worship one night in a small chapel at the cemetery. I hadn’t encountered this concept before and am not sure where I land on this theologically. It sounds more Catholic. But the idea that my ancestors might pray for me felt like confirmation that I stand in a long line of people seeking to connect with the Divine. We feel holy space in that chapel, singing the names of ancestors who have shaped our faith journey. There are candles on the altar, and we each get to take one home. Mine now sits near my computer, a reminder of my ancestors, a reminder that I am part of this line of humanity seeking connection—to them, to God, to those still to come.
I’m thinking about my mom, who came to Iona in 2007 with another group from her church. She loved it. So I’m walking in her steps in a way.
[Slide of Storr next valley]
I’m thinking about my sister Molly and how much she would have enjoyed some of these places: the dappled cloud shadows in the valley just past the Old Man of Storr trail on Skye, which I visit in my last week.
[Slide of tea]
Tea on fine china in the Art Nouveau tea room at MacKintosh at the Willow in Glasgow. Maybe the ancestors do pray for us. Maybe I have brought them on this trip. God holds me; maybe the ancestors do, too. Or I hold them. Or both.
[Slide of Inveraray Castle]
I had asked my cousin Don, who is into genealogy, to suggest places to visit that might connect me to our Scottish ancestors. He suggested Inveraray Castle, home of the Duke of Argyll, head of the Clan Campbell, as we apparently have Campbells in our background. So I went. Back in 1692—but still vivid in the collective memory in Scotland—a group of Campbells accepted shelter from the weather from a group of the Clan MacDonald, and then slaughtered them. Infamy.
Many of us who do genealogical research find slave owners or the like in our ancestry. Do we want those ancestors to pray for us? My cousin Don tells me we are related to most of the royalty of Europe, if you go back far enough. Frankly, many of us are probably related to royalty somewhere back there. The flip side is that we’re also related to people who did less than honorable things. We get the good and the bad together. In fact, those royals were a mix of both, just like us.
[Slide of Armoury Hall]
Inveraray Castle has an Armoury Hall, where they’ve hung all the weapons in geometrical patterns. That’s one of the better uses I can think of for these weapons, but of course the Duke of Argyll didn’t have this collection just for fun. These were people who used these weapons to kill, to take, to oppress, to conquer. Welcome to my family . . . I guess. And how did their actions then bring me to where I am today? What do I do with that?
We can’t change the past. We do have this moment, these bodies, this opportunity to be the best possible ancestors for those who are to come. And we can pray for them right now.
5. Iona in the World
[Slide of Abbey interior]
People make pilgrimages from all over the world to visit Iona. One night after evening worship we sing in that resonant space with a woman from London or farther south. In every service at the Abbey we pray for people who are part of that Iona community in countries everywhere: African countries, the UK, the US, Australia. In the Abbey there is a bookshelf with Bibles in all languages. I select the Italian Bible and find Psalm 23. Il Signore e il mio pastore…. I find the same psalm in the Welsh Bible but understand much less of it.
Members of the Iona Community live everywhere. They work on justice issues, specifically around poverty and inequality; the environment; reconciliation, peace, and disarmament; Israel/Palestine; LGBTQ+ issues; migration and refugees; and faith and spirituality.
6. Pilgrimage tourists
I am struck by how going on a spiritual pilgrimage is only for those who have the privilege of time and money. Iona is totally set up for spiritual tourists. “Spiritual tourists.” I just don’t want to identify myself that way. There are 3- and 4-star hotels, nice restaurants, shops that sell tartans and whisky and jewelry.
[Slide of Celtic cross necklace]
Here’s a nice Celtic cross necklace for a mere 70 pounds. I’m not much interested in jewelry. But if my sister Molly were still around, I would totally buy her those tree-of-life earrings. So even as I’m questioning spiritual tourism, I’m totally participating in it.
[Slide of Columba Hotel]
Our hotel on Iona, named after St. Columba, serves a continental breakfast plus a menu with eggs and the like. Every dinner—which is part of our hotel package—includes three courses. We have comfortable beds, sweeping views. Somehow I think pilgrims are supposed to be eating bread and water, maybe a little dried fish and gorp and hard tack. (What is hard tack?) What does it mean to be a spiritual seeker in luxury accommodations? Is this Christ-like? And whatever insights or God moments we have, how do we take those back to share with seekers who will never have the time or money to make this journey?
The gift shop just off the cloisters at Iona Abbey shows a painting of pilgrims from the 1200s or so buying food and souvenirs outside the Abbey. My take is that the gift shop wants to assure us that buying souvenirs and tchotchkes is part of a centuries-long pilgrimage tradition.
[Slide of gifts]
I buy postcards, tea towels, a Celtic trivet, a cookbook, and more. There is Iona whisky. Seems like a mixed message. Spirit and spirits—not the same thing. And yet, I buy a tiny sample bottle for my brother-in-law, who likes a wee dram now and then.
[Celtic cross banner]
And at a batik shop on the Isle of Skye, I buy the Celtic cross banner for Prospect’s sanctuary. Is that a tchotchke? Or does it have more significance? I vote for the latter. In fact, everything that I’m buying is either a token of love for people in my life or books to help me serve God better. Is that what being a spiritual tourist seeker is about? Maybe that’s not so bad.
[Slide of rocks]
Iona is geologically diverse for an island that’s only 3 miles long and a mile wide. One afternoon some of us hike down to the beach where St. Columba is supposed to have landed when he arrived from Ireland in 563. The rocks there are a mix of white marble with flecks of green, or deep pink gneiss. They are smooth and polished by years of being washed and tumbled on the beach. One member of our group finds the remnants of a marble quarry and brings back some pieces of marble. These are shards: sharp, angular. Kind of like our lives: some of us have a smooth ride and are all rounded. Others experience sharp circumstances that make us spiky.
Sunrise on Dun I
[Slide sequence of sunrise]
It had crossed my mind that, at some point during my week on Iona, I would like to get up super early and watch the sunrise. I doubted that this would actually happen, because I do like a good night’s sleep. But one morning I awaken early and lie in bed in the dark, thinking about things. Because I have a roommate in the other bed, I don’t turn on a light. But eventually I do look at the time: 5:22am. This is my opportunity to go watch a sunrise.
I slip out of the hotel past the empty reception desk and walk north on the main road, past a Celtic cross in silhouette. The sky is starting to grow light, but sunrise is still a long way off. Near the north end of the island, I turn left into a field and climb through muddy grass and rocky outcroppings to the top of Dun I, the highest point on the island.
[Slide of sheep]
A flock of sheep is sleeping on the eastern slope and gives me the side eye as I pass. I try to tell them that I’m a shepherd, but they have their doubts.
Up at the top, 330 feet above sea level, I sit against a cairn of rocks and quiet my mind. A boat motors up the Sound of Iona and head northwest toward Tiree. I imagine all the ships that left Scotland over the centuries, all the family members who never saw each other again, what it must have been like to make those final goodbyes. Write, sweetheart. Tell me what your life becomes. May God hold you as you venture across the sea, just as God holds me right here. Oh, what a heartbreak.
A gentle breeze plays with my hair. Clouds slide across the sky, leaving gaps. The eastern horizon grows brighter. Down below, cattle lie in some pastures, sheep in others. I sit in silence and practice not thinking but just being. God holds me in that space, which feels more sacred by the minute.
[Slide of Abbey in pool of light]
Eventually the sun emerges and casts pools of light here and there, shifting. The Abbey, far below, glows, and in the next moment is back in shadow.
[Gina’s sunrise photo—last slide]
Another member of our group appears just at sunrise. She takes this picture of me looking at the sunrise. We talk a bit, and then I cede the space to her to have her own sunrise moment.
Picking my way down the hill, I encounter the sheep again. They haven’t started grazing yet but are basking in the early light. Jesus says the sheep know his voice. These sheep don’t know mine, but at least they don’t bolt.
Why do I have to travel thousands of miles from home to watch a sunrise? I don’t. Sunrises in my own space can be just as magical, just as holy. How do we take that mountaintop experience home again down to the valley? How do we cultivate it, share it with those who weren’t on the trip? Peter, James, and John went up the mountain with Jesus and saw him transfigured, talking with Moses and Elijah, proclaimed beloved by God’s voice in the clouds. Peter didn’t want to leave. We don’t stay on the mountaintop forever. We take that transfiguring moment down with us and share it. We let it feed our souls. We remember that God holds us, wherever we are—on the highest point of a tiny Scottish isle, or in a Zoom worship service based in Seattle.
We are all on a pilgrimage, seeking union with the Divine, trying to become our best selves—not perfect, not saintly, but fully ourselves as God has formed us and as God leads us in the way everlasting. A pilgrimage such as the one I took can help. And we can also cultivate spiritual practices right here at home, knowing that wherever we are, we are held in God. We are home.