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…