Some Christians approach Lent as a math project, adding and subtracting personal habits from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday.
For Dave Ellingson, an ELCA pastor and professor at Trinity Lutheran College in Everett, Wash., what matters most about Lent is the pilgrimage — journeying to and along with God.
Dave should know. Just two years ago, he launched his kayak in Lake Itasca, Minn. From the headwaters of the Mississippi River, he set off for New Orleans, 2,000 miles and 2 million paddle strokes away.
Dave paddled 10-12 hours a day, no matter what. On the Upper Mississippi, cold rains soaked him to the bone and numbed his fingers, but he kept going. When his marine radio advised Lower Mississippi listeners to stay indoors, sheltered from high temperatures and a dangerous heat index, he kept going. Sprawled out in his tent, using his body weight to keep it from blowing away during an evening thunderstorm, he prayed, “Peace be still, peace be still, the storm rages, peace be still!”
Burning 300 calories an hour, he lost weight. Even with sunscreen, his hands took on a lizard-like quality. As the little stream he set out on grew into a murky, massive thoroughfare, he worried about water moccasins, alligators and being swamped by a barge or a marker buoy.
No Easter without Good Friday
“The journey had its share of physical pain,” Dave recalls. “There were many moments when I thought, ‘What in the world have I gotten myself into?’ If I had known how hard it would be, how much solitude and quiet, heat and cold I would experience, I probably would have paused before launching.”
“I certainly prayed often that this cup might pass! But there is no Easter without Good Friday.”
And there is no Good Friday without grace! All along the way, Dave felt God’s presence, sometimes in surprising places. Dozens of “river angels” offered food, drink, shelter and company when he was tired and lonely. Like the man who lowered a cold Coca-Cola to him while he waited in a lock in Missouri, and the waitresses who welcomed him into air-conditioned bars and casinos.
“When I came around a corner and saw a casino, it was like a vision, a gift!” he remembers. After explaining his Minnesota-to-New Orleans quest to casino security — because he was usually sweaty and disheveled — he would wash up in the men’s room, load his plate at the buffet and say a prayer of thanksgiving.
“God is present in the casino, too, amid the smoke and the blue hair and all of that craziness!” he says.
’Shut up and listen’
Gorgeous sunsets and close encounters with eagles, trumpeter swans and otters were also reminders of God’s presence. At home, the pastor/professor/runner/master gardener/ husband/father was often too busy to notice.
Alone in his kayak, Dave says he began “to pay attention to things going on inside of me and around me and I began to go ‘oh, oh, that’s what’s happening, that’s where you are, God.’” Stroke by stroke, God was telling him to “‘shut up and listen’ — a good message for an outgoing person like me!”
By the end of his paddle pilgrimage, Dave’s understanding of faith and life had changed. Now he sees everything as a journey, noticing patterns and significance that were not clear before. He also uses the power of the journey metaphor to help young people and students grapple with issues in their own lives. Often, he asks them to brainstorm a list of biblical journey stories and then probe them for wisdom about vocation, community and forgiveness.
“The journey is a consistent image in the Bible, and the lesson is ‘you are on a journey, we are a pilgrim people.’”
In Practice Discipleship, a curriculum launched at the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans, Dave used his Mississippi journey as a model to encourage young people to narrate their own faith journey. Sharing journey stories breaks the ice and helps youth understand their lives in profound ways.
His bottom-line message to students: Understanding the Christian life as a pilgrimage “doesn’t mean being captured and carried away, as if faith were a rocket ship taking us someplace else. Yes, it’s a new heaven and a new earth, but it’s a restored creation,” says Dave.
“The reign of God has begun in Jesus in its most full form. Our job is to work with it!”
And the journey — the pilgrimage — continues.