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Scott asked, “Do you have any advice for me going into ordained ministry at this juncture of history, culture and change?”  Here is my reply:

Scott,
That is such an important question. I find it difficult to answer as I do think it has to emerge out of one’s own personal discernment. But, I do think your awareness of entering ordination in this time of rich ferment and uncertainty is important. What I have had to wrestle with is that when I first answered ordination questions 22 years ago I did so with an image of what it meant to be a pastor in my home town where I grew up. Pastors were not only church leaders, but community leaders. My involvement in church was just one expression of a deeper community commitment including scouting, school leadership, sports, etc. To be a pastor was to be one of the spiritual leaders of the broader community.

Today, I find that to be a pastor is to be seen warily by the larger community and that our role is to pastor “the flock” or the religiously faithful.  It often seems limited to the people inside the church walls.  Granted, I have worked hard to buck this as I have become deeply involved city politics and planning, but there were barriers of trust to overcome first. I think the important thing, Scott, is to discern what your gifts and voice are and determine if the Church is where God is calling you. I am convinced that the Church, as we think of it, with its structures and polity, is just one slice of a much larger pie called the body of Christ. We have always affirmed that in our theology, but today there are more distinct lines between what we call the church and the society around us. When I was a child the two flowed easily between each other.  My particular call to ministry was a call to community leadership.  The culture shifted and the church is in survival mode and now I am fighting to hold onto my sense of call or learn to be at peace with a world that no longer exists.

I do think this time in which we live needs leaders who have deep integrity and fortitude. We are at this uncomfortable cusp of history where there is pressure to take care of an aging Church just as new forms of spirituality are being birthed. It feels very much like being part of the sandwich generation where an adult child is caring for an aging parent AND trying to nurture and nourish babies and young children. Both are in life stages where they are very “needy”. I find myself daily taking deep breaths as I try to walk with those who are letting go and share the energy and enthusiasm of those giving birth to something new.  If you can imagine a 35 year old who is watching her mother die while also being in her 8th month of pregnancy, that is how I often feel.  I think it is a reflection of the larger church culture you are entering.

Your journey may be very different than mine, but I hope that these questions and thoughts will be helpful! Peace, peace!

Presented Saturday, November 13, 2011  at First Presbyterian Church, Corvallis, OR

T.S. Eliot wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

The Wyoming "wilderness"

One year ago I felt an unseen force pushing me to leave home and go out into the wilderness.  I wasn’t sure what it was about, but I knew that my life, as I knew it, was coming to an end.  I knew that I could not sustain my life as it was and that I needed to go out and wrestle with God, face my demons, and let go of a world that was no longer serving me well.

So…on July 10th I left Portland on my bicycle with a grand send-off and Eastminster not knowing if I would return, what I would be like when I returned,  or whether they would even want me back after I returned.  I left loaded down with 50 pounds of gear, lots of unanswered questions, and a laptop to capture the raw, naked experience.  Over a 74 day period I cycled 4000 miles, through 8 Western states, crossed five mountain ranges, survived a testing week in the Nevada desert, and made my way home cycling up the coast from San Francisco to Portland.

I left not knowing why I felt pushed and psychologically goaded into making this pilgrimage.  As the miles wore on it became apparent that I was re-working my sense of call in a time when the church is changing, our culture is shifting, and the future is uncertain, at best.  The Church (Big “C”) that I became ordained in 22 years ago no longer exists.  And so it should come as no surprise that a shifting church also means a shifting sense of call among her many pastors and leaders.

I wonder what stories of life and faith the walls hold?

If there was any one image from my journey that reflected the inner workings of my soul it was this:  On dozens of occasions as I cycled across the prairies of eight Western states I rode by these beautiful, graceful sagging structures.  Along the roadside were homesteads dating back to the early pioneer days with these old houses and barns that had finally buckled under the passage of time, the weight of gravity, and the natural cycle of life.  It was easy to imagine in these structures the whole histories of families who had pioneered the land, endured repeated hardships, survived cold and harsh winters, shared in harvests, and rejoiced at the birth of children even as they buried loved ones.  It was easy to hear the faint echoes of children still laughing, dogs barking at wild critters, and to smell the rich aroma of fresh-baked bread through broken windows.  Riding by these relics of the past was a little like coming upon an old King James Version family Bible–outdated in many ways and yet emanating a soulfulness and rich beauty.

But as much as I cherished the spirit and the ghosts of these old buildings I also felt and knew something else–that MY calling was not to go into these sagging structures and try to prop up the old beams in order to keep the roof from falling in.  I knew that my calling was not to feel a burden to carry the weight of a building or a people or an institution that was clearly giving in to the natural force of life, history and gravity.

Crossing the Rocky Mountains in Colorado

I spent the first seven weeks and 3,000 miles of the trip pushing and grinding hard, riding long miles, and giving myself very little grace.  I rode with a grit and a determination that seemed to advertise that if I pushed hard enough, if I just crossed one more mountain pass, if I could just overcome one more obstacle that I could defy the precipitous decline of the Church over the last 40 years.  I rode as if I thought I could single-handedly build a bridge between the Church and our changing culture.

In the end, however, I was left with one overriding theme and emotion.  Every day on the road I could feel some piece of me dying–expectations about ministry, dreams for my life, and images of the Church I thought I was ordained in 22 years ago.  In the end I discovered that what this pilgrimage was really about was LETTING GO–letting go of an identity that no longer served me well, letting go of expectations and dreams.

Gary and Glenn--one of many soulful connections on the trip

After hundreds of conversations, 4,000 miles of cycling, through 8 states, and over two months in daily solitude I returned with one very clear and nagging feeling–there is a world passing away before us and God must be doing a new thing.  Ecclesiastes reminds us that “there is a time to build up and  a time to let go”.  I can’t seem to shake the feeling that this is the letting go time.  I wonder if history will look back on us and call us the “Letting Go People”.

My prayer is that we can now live into God’s rhythm as we gracefully let go even as we make room for God’s new creation.  T.S. Eliot wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

May God continue to bless us on our journey.  Amen.

I am amazed at how little writing I have done since returning from the pilgrimage.  With the daily writing that I stuck to almost religiously while riding, I thought I would easily keep up the same rhythm.  I certainly had enough topics still to reflect on and share.  But, if my soul yearned to write during those 74 days on the bike, now the yearning has been for quiet and reflection.  There just hasn’t been much to say although I have certainly felt a range of emotions in the month since I returned.

Quite honestly, I just haven’t been able to apply any real meanings to the pilgrimage.  People ask me to tell them about the pilgrimage and I can only say, “It is was really amazing and intense, but I am not sure what happened.  I can feel that something happened, but I am uncertain about what it is.”

Yesterday I had breakfast with one of my colleagues who is wonderfully astute and intuitive.  I love the way she listens and looks for the soulfulness of a comment in a conversation.  As we talked she shared something that clearly clicked with me about an emerging picture of what this whole pilgrimage and post-pilgrimage is about.  She said that this pilgrimage may be the way “God is asking questions through you.”  That resonated.

What I told her is that if I felt like I was the only person who was wrestling with my sense of call and the role of ministers and church in our rapidly evolving communities, then I would just reserve my questions for the therapist’s couch.  I would assume that everyone else is satisfied, secure, and at peace and that the healthiest thing to do is work out my angst in the privacy of the counselor’s office.  But, I have sensed that I am not alone in my questions and underlying anxiety.  I hear it from my colleagues, church members, residents in the community, and the people I met on my pilgrimage.  I don’t think I am having my own personal identity crisis.  I am convinced that I am just a mirror image of and a reflection of the general identity crisis we are all having in our families, communities, and society in general.  The world has changed and we are trying to figure out who we are and what we believe about this new world we live in.

If I am hearing my readers right the real gift that I bring to this isn’t some new insight that solves the world’s ills or provides an easy 7-step process for church renewal.  My real gift is simple transparency and emotional honesty.  The daily log of my pilgrimage was essentially a window into my soul, my thoughts, and my emotions.  It wasn’t always clean and orderly.  In fact, sometimes it was rather raw and vulnerable, but it was an honest expression of the anxious wrestling I feel as a minister in this time of seismic transition, ongoing loss, and emerging spiritual forms.

The writing came easily during the pilgrimage.  Since my return I have been in a fallow period where I can feel something growing in my gut and for which there just don’t seem to be words yet.  At the same time I can feel the writing beginning to call me again.  I just requested that our office print all of my blogs off with space between so that I can relive the experience, reflect on what I wrote and experienced, and begin a second stage of this pilgrimage.  I am not sure yet what will emerge or what I am going to find.  What I do know is that is has something to do with transparency.  Reading my daily blog is going to elicit a whole new set of thoughts, emotions, and insights (if I am lucky!).

I like what my colleague said, “God is asking questions through you.”  I don’t know if this is actually true (what an ego trip!).  What I do know is believing it gives me more confidence that my transparency doesn’t just belong on the therapist’s couch.  It belongs in the community where we can all wrestle with the questions together.  It is true:  I am having an identity crisis.  I have  a sneaking suspicion that I am not alone.  If I am the only one, the men in white coats are already on their way!

I think a theme is emerging.  So many of the comments from those of you who have been following me have been saying the same thing:  “Be gentle with yourself.”  “Slow down.”  “What’s the hurry?”  “Take care of  Brian.”  At the same time I revealed how much the first question of the Shorter Catechism followed me on the pilgrimage–”The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”  One poster (Ray) suggested that this may be my real work, even more significant than the 4,000 mile pilgrimage.  I think he may be right and the barriers that seem to be standing in the way are worth exploring.

I left on the pilgrimage with no real agenda or expectations except to be open to what the experience brought to me.  Nonetheless, I did leave with three themes:  letting go, bridging, and mirroring the wilderness experience of the larger Church.  What is becoming apparent is that this was largely about letting go.  That theme seemed to find some form of its expression on a daily basis.  I could feel it working on me in my own personal life as well as professionally in what it means to be a minister.  I also heard it in the churches I visited as folks repeatedly shared with me that they had run out of answers on how to restore the glory days of their congregations when children ran through the halls and young families baptized their children in the church.  I heard resignation in some churches and acceptance in others.

I have been trying to put my finger on what this experience was all about.  Today as I shared my pilgrimage with a small group of Presbyterian leaders I could see some of the purpose for riding out into “the wilderness” to uncover what was unsettling me.  I am beginning to find the words and the feelings for this experience although they are emerging very slowly.  But, what is emerging is that I am going through a “great letting go”.  I have said the words before, but now I am beginning to see how much actual meaning and depth are held in those words.  I am coming to terms with the fact that the Church I was ordained in over 20 years ago no longer exists.  My images of what it meats to be a minister in the community have been stripped away.  And simply hoping for a better future at this point to keep me motivated is naive at best.

One of the pastors at our meeting today was reflecting with me on the pilgrimage and she said (paraphrased), “Will this pilgrimage provide some new breakthrough?  No.  Will this pilgrimage give voice to what so many people are feeling, but haven’t been able to articulate?  Yes.”  This is what I am beginning to find.  As I shared my story today another minister, newly ordained, he quipped that while he was going through seminary he was just hoping that the church would still be there when he finished school.  Another minister reported that at a meeting for retirement planning, many ministers expressed feeling like they were at a crossroads about whether they could continue on in ministry in this current climate.

How does all of this fit into my readers’ awareness that I need to slow down, take care of Brian, and be gentle with myself?  I think the hard daily pushing of miles on the pilgrimage was some form of a final ditch attempt to see if I could singlehandedly outrun this spiralling decline in the church (In 2010 we lost over 60,000 members–a 3% loss in just one year on top of the 50% losses we have experienced in the last 40 years.).  Slowing down means finally accepting that I don’t have the stamina and the incisive wisdom to “save the Church”.  This is much bigger than me I am discovering.  Is that ego or what!

For now I can feel this slow and constant shedding of my identity, my role, and my expectations for the future.  There is a life that is ending for me and something else that I can only trust will emerge in the future.  I don’t know what it is going to look like and what my voice will be.  For now, though, I am encouraged that as I begin to share my questions, my uncertainties, and my doubts others are also sharing theirs.  I am beginning to hear some confirmation that I am not alone on this journey.

The strange thing is that the more I slow down and learn to be gentle with myself the more I allow myself to let go.  And the more I let go the more I am hearing how others are feeling this same loss of a world that is passing away.  Ecclesisastes says that “There is a time to seek and a time to lose.”  I think I know what season this is.  Sigh…

It’s been two weeks now since I returned from the cycling pilgrimage and over a week since my last post.  People have asked about the experience and I find myself saying repeatedly that it all feels like a dream.  I have vague memories of it, but it feels buried in my subconscious in much the same way a dream does.  Now that I am back into my normal routine I am having trouble accessing the memories, thoughts and potential implications of the pilgirmage.  I am wondering what my voice is.

I do think it will re-emerge.  I am preaching a sermon on October 23 titled, “Losing Our Religion”, that will pull heavily from my experiences and conversations along the road.  I still have a two page sheet sitting on my desk with over 30 titles for articles/blogs on some of my discoveries about the state of religion, spirituality and church.  In addition to that I keep hearing, “So when is the book going to come out?”  I do find myself beginning to ponder whether there is something worth saying to a larger audience from this experience.

Still, right now, so much of it feels hidden behind a curtain–almost like to open it up will cause a clash of worlds and that still feels too scary and loaded with too heavy of a responsibility.  It can’t stay hidden forever, however.  I have all the blogs, the comments, the pictures, and my scribbled notes that will easily take me back to the feelings and experiences when I am ready to pull that curtain back again.  Right now that feels overwhelming.

Quite honestly, I am writing today just to force myself to open that curtain just a crack and see if I can muster the courage let this pilgrimage continue to unfold.  I know this is not over.  I had the daily experiences on the road, but I can feel a whole new stage of reflection and discernment inviting me to engage once again.  I feel like I need to muster up the same courage that I used to mount the bike each morning and face whatever gifts and challenges the day might bring.

I have retreated temporarily, but it can’t last.  So I am opening the curtain just a crack and hoping it’s safe to come out and play again!

This morning I had to be downtown at 7:30 a.m. to show up for my first summons in Oregon for jury duty.  As it turned out a number of cases were settled out of court and by mid-morning half of us were sent home, including myself.  I have served on two juries before in California and was mildly disappointed that I didn’t get to serve on another one.  I was relieved that most of the day was given back to me when I didn’t expect it, but serving on a jury is a pretty enlightening and awesome experience.

Enough about that.  I wanted to share something that the county judge said that was in keeping with what I have also experienced as a pastor.  Early in his statements he said, “I don’t think of this so much as jury duty, but as jury service.”  The reason I make a point of this is that it seems he is picking up a subtle and dramatic shift in our culture.

I have worked largely with the WWII generation as a pastor and in my hospice work many years ago.  A very common value that I heard and felt was this call to duty.  “Duty to God and Country.”  As I have listened to my elders on this issue I have heard an underlying assumption that, in order for our democracy to work, everyone is obligated to fulfil their duty to serve the larger community–whether in military, religious organizations or non-profits.  I don’t disagree with this call to serve one single bit!  But, notice that I said call to serve rather than duty to serve.

When I think about my own internal reaction and the comments of my contempories I realize that something subtle and dramatic has taken place.  Quite honestly, I don’t feel I have a duty to do anything.  Duty and obligation does not motivate me.  I don’t do things because I have to.  I do them because I want to and I have chosen to do them.

I can hear the refrain already:  “The younger generation is all ‘me, me, me!’” I don’t think it is quite that simple and easy.  The judge today made a very small shift in his language, but I think he was appealing to the much larger shift that has taken place in our culture.  I am not going to say that duty is out, but from my experience the concept of duty has been steadily fading among the generations.

This is both subtle and very dramatic because I don’t think the concept of service is fading–only the reason for serving is fading.  What is going on here?  I think it is theological or, at the very least, has theological implications.  Duty has, as an assumption, that there are greater commitments and more important purposes to life than just serving our own selfish interests–such as duty to God and country.  Inherent in this view is what I would call a “low view” of the individual self.

For many of us the concept of duty is a fading institution, not because we selfishly refuse to serve our fellow humans, but because the motivation for service is internally-directed rather than externally-directed.  I don’t think we have had a shift from selfLESSness to selfISHness between the WWII generation and those following.  What we have had is a shift from a low view to a high view of the human self.  We discovered that the good God is not somewhere out there, but right here in our human psyches and souls. Therefore we serve not out of a sense of duty, but as an expression of our deepest best selves.

The church is a place for compassion, service, healing, grace, justice, peace, and love.  Some may commit to those values out of a sense of duty to the God they serve.  Others may commit to those same values because they appeal to the deeper impulses of God’s spirit in their own life.  One may deny the “low view of self” in order to serve the common good.  The other may serve the common good as a fulfillment of their “high view of self”.

The judge asked us to think of this morning as jury service rather than jury duty.  Either way, the voice of the common good called.  And we all responded for our own reasons ( and it wasn’t for the coffee and mileage check!).

I was surprised on Saturday when I looked at the bulletin for Sunday and the only part I had in leading worship was a Q and A about my pilgrimage.  The thought of sitting in the pews waiting for a series of unpredictable questions made my stomach queasy.  I did  tell the church that I would be there on Sunday, but that because of my mid-week arrival and all the details of returning after 74 days, not to plan anything anything in the service that I would have prepare for.  They did honor my request.  But, I did not expect to be written out of the whole liturgy.  I called Erik, our Commissioned Lay Pastor, early on Sunday and asked him to give me some parts of the service so that I could re-intregate into the life of the congregation and the rhythm of worship.  I was relieved that I could assume my usual place in the chancel area.

For this first Sunday back I did not have to prepare a sermon.  They just asked me to take about 15 minutes for an informal Q and A about the pilgrimage.  There were questions about my greatest accomplishment, what is on my mind now, how many tires I went through, and if I sang to keep myself occupied.  The one question I wanted to share in the blog today was this one:  “How did you initiate conversations along the way?”

This was an important question as I found that my approach to people took a subtle shift after about two weeks into the ride.  I began the ride being more upfront about my intentions for the pilgrimage, my role as a minister, the fact that this trip was sponsored by Eastminster, and my wanting to listen for the stories of people and where they fit into the current dialogue and shift between religion and spirituality.  I soon discovered that this approach was not very effective for the vast majority of people I met.

On a number of occasions as soon as the discovery was made that I was a minister either the conversation slowed to a halt or an awkwardness took over while we continued the conversation but danced our way around issues of religion, spirituality, faith, and God.  When I reported this to one of my members he was surprised and declared, “I don’t understand this.  You are one of the most open and easiest people to talk to that I know.”  But, what works for my members and friends after months and years of building relationships does not hold true for strangers on the road.  There people don’t really know me and can only rely on first impressions and a gut feeling.  When knowledge of my identity as a minister and my association with church emerged too quickly in the conversation their preconcieved perceptions drove the direction of the conversation.

It wasn’t long before I adopted a more comfortable approach for myself and, I imagine, for those people I met.  I just became a gray-beared guy out on a touring bike, riding through small towns, grinding over mountain ranges, and with an occasional grimace on his face from the usual smile.  I learned to share my story of this being a personal spiritual pilgrimage retracing my roots of all the places I had lived.  Sometimes the conversation ended there and other times we made a connection and talked more about the things that shape our lives–including the people, the landscape, and our backgrounds.  What I learned to do was to let go of some pre-conceived agenda of what my conversations were to be about and just let them unfold as two strangers who happened to meet out on the road.  In that context, my role as a pastor and my intention to listen for the religious/spiritual story in our communities, often became part of the conversation, but only as an expression of the connection we had already made rather than being the purpose for the connection.  I learned to let go of my agenda and just make connections.

My reflection today is just to ackowledge that those of us in the religious community have a perception problem.  More often than not when my religious identity became known or I interjected spirituality into the conversation an uneasiness took over.  I can only guess what was going through the minds of those who began to look for a way out.  Possibly, “Oh, I really am not interested in being preached to” or “I really am not comfortable sharing my faith with a complete stranger” or “I have to be careful what I say now!”

I don’t believe it has to be this way, but we have a whole history that has resulted in these negative perceptions and people closing up when the topic of religion comes up.  We have a history of making people objects of our need to proselytize or “save them” rather than treat them as people with their own integrity and dignity.  We have a history of a moralistic streak that judges a person for their language, behavior and thoughts (Oh, you really shouldn’t be angry or say those kinds of things!).

Imagine living in a world where people discovered that you were religious and they immediately opened up rather than closed down.  Imagine a world where the first thing a person thought was “Oh good, here is a person who will listen to me.  Here is a person whom I know will accept me for who I am.”  Imagine a world where the first images of a religious person feel like an invitation to something deeper rather than a warning to steer clear.

I started the pilgrimage with an agenda to let people know who I was and what I was doing in order to “get the story”.  What I discovered is that part of the story is that there is a wariness and a distrust of religious professionals and people.  I also discovered that the real story was to be found when I became just another traveler and pilgrim on the road.  I learned very quickly to let go of my agenda and just look for an opportunity to connect.  Besides that working better it was a helluva lot more fun!

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