Archive for the ‘The Wilderness’ Category

Send Off 1

Eastminster Church gathers for the Send Off Ceremony on July 10

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.

Send Off 2

Food is at the center of all good things!

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.”

Send Off 3

Our motto "A Caring Church in Changing World" in action

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…


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Bike silhouette

The spirit of John Denver riding in the shadows

Yes, I admit it.  I am one of those boys from Colorado who was raised on John Denver songs.  Rocky Mountain High was my very first album that I purchased as a teenager.  It was a big moment.  My kids and my friends tease me about my long lover affair with John Denver.  The truth is, these days, I don’t listen to him much anymore.   He has become even too saccharine sweet for me after being baptized into the harsher sides of life.  Nonetheless, his music is indelibly etched into my memory.

It appears that a theme song has emerged in these first few days.  Not every day found me singing these lyrics outloud, but most days.  It was interesting that my final sermon before the pilgrimage was on Matthew 6 when Jesus talks about “our heavenly Father” taking care of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field despite their lack of worrying about their long term future.  The message is “do what is important” and trust that God, the earth and life will take care of you.

I will leave these lyrics with you from John Denver’s song, Sweet Surrender.  They seem to come to me when I find that the future is unknown and I simply need to trust and keep pedaling.  If you aren’t too embarrassed, maybe you can sing them along with me!

Lost and alone on some forgotten highway, traveled by many, remembered by few.
Looking for something that I can believe in,
looking for something that I’d like to do with my life.
There’s nothing behind me and nothing that ties me to
something that might have been true yesterday.
Tomorrow is open and right now it seems to be more than enough to just be here today, and I don’t know what the future is holding in store,
I don’t know where I’m going, I’m not sure where I’ve been.
There’s a spirit that guides me, a light that shines for me, my life is worth the living, I don’t need to see the end.

Sweet, sweet surrender, live, live without care,
like a fish in the water, like a bird in the air.
Sweet, sweet surrender, live, live without care,
like a fish in the water, like a bird in the air.

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Last year the church where I am pastor, Eastminster, took a wonderful step to provide space for up to 60 people in homeless families during the winter months in Portland.  It has been a wonderful experience for me and for the church to provide a safe “home” at least for a season for some of the most vulnerable among us.

I don’t know if that experience became a catalyst for this pilgrimage or not.  I do know that when I was describing the nature of pilgrimages in general, and this pilgrimage in particular, I stated that a pilgrimage is a time of “intentional homelessness.”  Even as I write this I am aware of how frequent the theme of home has already come up in my previous blogs.

Today, I got the strongest wave of feeling homeless than I have up to this point.  Yesterday, I shared about the experience of being at the threshold to something new.  Today, I must have stepped just a little further over that threshold.  I leave tomorrow on this pilgrimage.  The day has been filled with closing up shop.  I answering the final emails, activating the out of office response, shipping the cat off to my kids, and packing and loading the bike for the trip.

I am thankful that I have never truly been physically homeless.  But, today has been a strange day.  I haven’t wanted to linger in conversations with the clerks at the check out stands like usual.  It’s not just because I have an overly packed day.  I suddenly feel very disconnected to them and the world that I have here.  I know I need to take the time to say goodbye to the last few people I’ll have contact with.  But, I already feel gone.  My new world is already out there on the road.  I am still physically here but my head and my heart are out there.  I still have an apartment to come back to as well as a job and wonderful family and friends.  At least for the moment, however, this doesn’t feel like home.  I have to ride away to find it again.  T.S.  writes,

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.”

There is the need to leave and explore.  There is the need to walk away from home just long enough to discover home freshly anew.  In prepping the community around me for this pilgrimage I called it a time of “intentional homelessness”.  I think I am starting to know just what that feels like!


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Okay, it is official now.  I have heard from three experienced cyclists who have taken long cross country tours ranging from five weeks to ten weeks.  All three of them said the same thing:  Beware the 2nd week!  I heard what I expected to hear.  The first week is new, fresh and exciting.  Each morning is filled with the anticipation of taking on a new challenge and encountering new people along the way.

Then something happens.  An invisible, nearly impenetrable wall hits you.  You suddenly realize that you have four, six, or nine more weeks of this.  The close friends and family that you have depended on are now 500 miles behind you and getting farther away with each pedal stroke.  The comfort and security of home has been erased as you improvise hour to hour your food, drink and sleep.

Yesterday, I celebrated July 4th with family and friends and we made the party a “Send Off” gathering as well.  My son told me about his work colleague who was the third of my “Beware the 2nd week” informers.  This person said the first time he attempted a multi-week cycling trip he gave up and came home after ten days.  Since then he has successfully completed a number  of them, but that first one unnerved him.

I must have had that on my mind as I slept last night because I awoke today unnerved as well.  A dream stayed with me this morning that has forced me to take a deep, sobering breath.  The scene was an Olympic skulling race where rowers were competing on a one-mile stretch of water.  Somehow I was dropped onto an island platform just above the furthest point out to sea.  My task was clear. I was to jump in and swim alongside the skullers back to shore.

I was feeling calm and mildly confident about the challenge.  The environment seemed safe and controlled.  There were four race lanes each with a skulling boat slicing speedily through the water.  Then suddenly it occurred to me that this was the same water where officials reminded people that the water was so cold hypothermia usually settles in within about ten minutes.  I wasn’t going to be in a boat and I knew the swim would take me closer to an hour, far beyond the realm of safety.

How did the dream end? Well, I found myself still readying for the journey ahead fully aware of the risks, yet with a strange mixture of both confidence and resignation to what the outcome might be.  The warnings didn’t seem to change anything except for the growing realization that this was no afternoon swim in the heated gym pool!  I stood there feeling that there was no turning back.  I was out in the ocean on this platform and there was only one way back to shore–swim the mile in the cold, frigid water.

I do admit to feeling sobered this morning.  I am pondering this strange feeling of being keenly aware of the risks and trusting that I will move through this pilgrimage fully intact.  I think the 10-minute rule in the water from my dream represents the 2nd week warnings from fellow cyclists.  In the dream I had this image that despite the warnings I was going to break through that 10-minute hypothermia barrier and find a calm, strong pace to take me back into shore.  I somehow felt both sobered by the realization and confident at the same time.

Now back to reality!  I haven’t even got to the 1st week yet.  For now it is errands and a few more miles in preparation.  And to my three fellow cyclists, “The warning has been noted!  I’ll be praying for invisible hands when that time comes!”

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Eastminster Church where I am pastor was somewhat wary and hesistant about taking this pilgrimage when I first mentioned it.  I knew that I would have to do some pretty crafty convincing.  It wasn’t as difficult as I expected.  In many ways they were probably more concerned about my safety than they were about calling this “work.”

I never felt that this pilgrimage was solely for me or “all about Brian” as I feared some might think.  After all, as a committed cyclist of some 30+ years, who wouldn’t want to get one’s employer to pay for a ten week bicycle tour through a Western paradise!  The truth is, this was never intended as an extended vacation; it has always been about trying to mirror the emotional process that the church is also experiencing.

In speaking with the congregation I shared with them that the questions I will be asking on the pilgrimage are the same ones they have been asking as part of a church drifting in the wilderness of a new and changing culture.  Here were the questions I shared with my congregation:

  • Do I have the ability to complete this?
  • What are my limitations?
  • What unknown gifts and strengths will I discover?
  • How will I face those days when the road ahead looks too imposing?
  • Who will join me on the journey?
  • Where will I be surprised by God’s presence?
  • What will I do when I feel all alone on this journey?
  • Why did I leave home?  What was I thinking?
  • What will home be like when I return?
  • Can I survive this?
  • How will I be changed and transformed by this journey?

Now that I think about it aren’t these the same questions we all ask on the journey of life?   We’re all in this together!

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