I suppose it would have been more timely to have written about the meaningful and wonderful Send-Off event/ceremony that Eastminster hosted last Sunday on that July 10. I only knew at the time that I was moved deeply, but with an itch to get on the road, a needed stop at Performance Bikes, and the head-spinning details still rattling around in my brain, I just wasn’t able to allow myself to put to words the feelings that overwhelmed me that morning.
It is the ritual in the church on Sundays for me to shake hands, give a hug, and share a few words with attendees as they leave the service. That Sunday, with each person who passed by, the tears just kept welling up. I didn’t think it was because I was leaving for a time or even wondering if this might be the last handshake. It was more that I began to see that the congregation was owning and adopting this pilgrimage as their own as well.
Back in January, I began warming up the Session (our Board of Directors) to the idea that I was feeling called and pushed into taking this pilgrimage. At the time I made it very clear that they had two options. I could make this just a Brian thing. I could combine my vacation, my unused study leave and take two weeks of unpaid leave and not rope the congregation into the details or the emotional commitment of a pilgrimage. I also told them they could join with me on the pilgrimage by inviting in speakers who would expose them to the diversity of spiritual stories and exploration taking place in the community around them. I let them know that the latter would be more work for them and for me, but I would support either approach.
I remember one of our quieter Session members (he doesn’t talk a lot, but when he does it’s always something right to the point and important) said, “We decided four years ago to get on this train and we are not about to get off the tracks now.” He was advocating that the Session get fully behind making this a combined pastoral/congregational pilgrimage and not just let me pedal off while the congregation simply bode time until my return.
I intentionally did not plan the Send Off ceremony feeling that the congregation needed to do whatever felt right for them. I was concerned that they would feel abandoned and that, because of that, they may have chosen to let me go with as little fanfare as possible. You know what I mean…when you really don’t want something to happen it’s just easier to let the person go and hardly acknowledge the painful goodbye.
I think until the Send Off ceremony I really wasn’t sure that the congregation was behind this. Obviously they were going to let me go (it’s hard to deny me my vacation and accumulated study leave), but I was concerned they were feeling left behind and alone. I do know there were some of those feelings, but the Send-Off ceremony caught me by surprise.
The fact of the matter is pilgrimages are set up to shake up the foundations of who we think we are and what we think our purpose is. Pilgrimages are meant to break us open so that God might do something radically new in our lives. Eastminster members asked me, “What if you don’t come back to us,” to which I replied, “‘What if you don’t want me back?” Pilgrimages change the picture, change our priorities and values. The Bible talks about this transformational process as becoming a “new creation in Christ.”
I was, in no small way, shook up by Eastminster’s Send Off ceremony. They could have just resigned themselves to the fact that I was feeling God tugging on my shirt telling me I had to take this pilgrimage. They could have seen it as some sort of defeat that they didn’t have enough to keep me glued to that pulpit through the summer. I was afraid that this might break their spirit. Instead, they decided to join hands with me on this pilgrimage. They decided that despite the risks of letting me go that this is what God was calling us to in this time–a time of uncertainty, risk, faith and trust. They decided that this wasn’t just another of Brian’s hair-brained ideas, but was a journey they also needed to take with me. This wasn’t my story; this was OUR story.
I told them I’ll do the pedaling, but all of us will be riding into the unknown future of this pilgrimage. Eastminster could have just let me “get this out of my system” and hope that I would return. Instead they adopted the journey as their own and I am forever humbled and proud of this amazing group of people. As I reflect on this people called Eastminster, the tears still flow…