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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.