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Archive for October, 2011

The gift of transparency?

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!

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The great letting go

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…

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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!

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