For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘Spirituality of Journey

Tomorrow is the big day—I am leaving for two weeks (16 days, counting travel days) on a Macedonian Ministries Pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

One suitcase, one carry-on bag. Ready to go.

The preparations for this day have been going on for months. I applied to the program last spring, and planned this sabbatical around it last June. Our group (all mid-career pastors) first met for a retreat in October, where we read and talked and prayed deeply about God’s call in our lives. We have met twice since then, and we have studied the history of the region, the violence and conflict, and the three faiths that share the land. We have meditated on the spiritual practice of pilgrimage.

Personally, I have shopped for new shoes and new clothes. The laundry is done, and the packing is almost complete. Bills are paid, childcare arranged, house ordered. During sabbatical, I have read a few extra books, prayed, contemplated, bought a few more books , and even reread the Gospels. Most of all, I have worked to open my heart to whatever this journey might offer. I have tried to let go of excessive expectations, to set aside diligent plans, to leave behind extra baggage (literally and spiritually), and open my spirit to attend to God more carefully on this journey.

And I think that’s what makes me the most nervous this night before departure. Yes, I have normal travel jitters. This is the first time I will leave my child for such a long time, and so far away. I am asking my spouse to shoulder a lot of weight while I am away, and there is always a risk of violence or catastrophe or emergency. I am accustomed to all these small anxieties. There is no reason to worry, because there is nothing I can do about any of them.

The buildup and the expectations to this trip have been very big. My family, my church, my friends—everyone has their ideas about what I will see and what I will experience while I am away, and they are all expecting it to be profound. I share that quest. Will I really meet God there? Will it be the “Holy Land” really feel holy? What if it doesn’t?  What will it be like to see with my own eyes the places that have been a part of my imagination since I was a child? Will the commercialism, the militarism, the tourism disappoint? I feel a bit of stress to make sure that I make the most of this, and wondering if I will be let down. Or if my experiences will let others down, who have so much interest in hearing all about it.

There is another, deeper edge to my travel anxieties. I am haunted by an excerpt from Charles Foster’s The Sacred Journey that one of our leaders read to us at our last gathering. The chapter was entitled, “The Dangers of Pilgrimage.”  The passage talked about how the journey of pilgrimage is a metaphor for our whole life’s thrust toward God. The pilgrimage condenses so much energy into one large block of time that it threatens the familiar and the past. It is almost a certainty, Foster wrote, that nothing will be the same again. (paraphrased from meeting notes)

I am anxious about how this experience will change me. I already feel, over the last several months, that the solid ground beneath my feet is giving way to shifting sands, and God is doing a new thing with me. I don’t know what it is, but it is both exciting and daunting to feel God on the move. As I contemplate the pilgrimage, I realize I’m not really stressed that I won’t feel God’s presence—I’m worried that I will. God’s voice can speak sometimes with comfort, hope and consolation, but I have a feeling this time around that God’s message for me will be of a more unsettling variety. What if God issues a call to repentance, to honesty, to transformation, to trust, to new life, to courage? What if I come home and I am changed? What if God wants me to do something hard, or something I don’t want to do?

I feel the risk, the anxiety—but also the excitement. God is (always) about to do a new thing. I pray that I would have eyes to see, ears to hear and a heart to respond.

The Multigenerational Congregation: Meeting the Leadership Challenge, by Gil Rendle, Alban Institute, 2002.

I heard most of the material in this book at a one-day workshop led by Gil Rendle, offered by the Center for Congregations a few years back. On the heels of reading Tribal Church, I wanted to review the material here for a different perspective on the same challenge.

Rendle’s key observations are two-fold:

1) Many contemporary congregations are divided not only by age but by tenure of membership.

He describes a “bi-modal” congregation, which is full of members who have been there more than 20 years and less than 10 years, with very few who have joined 10-20 years ago. These congregations have two radically different groups operating within them, with few “bridge people” to navigate between their differences.  They are usually divided by the typical pre-boomer (GI) vs. post-boomer watershed hallmarks (group vs. individual identity, deferred pleasure vs. instant gratification, assumption of sameness vs. difference). Both groups are active within congregations.

One of the most interesting observations of this part was the distinction between the spirituality of place vs. the spirituality of journey. This was new to me, and very insightful. Quoting Robert Wuthnow, Rendle says that, in times of stability, people build dwellings and places that connect to the sacred. In times of instability, the sacred is and must be portable and moving. For members of the WWII generation, life has been stable and settled; therefore, their spirituality is stable and settled–they build places where the sacred dwells, like churches and rituals that contain the sacred. For the Boomers and subsequent generations, we live in an unstable world and celebrate a spirituality of journey. For us, God is in the pilgrimage rather than the place.

I realized that I have been preaching almost exclusively to the spirituality of journey, having really had no conception of a spirituality of place. I have several holy places that mean something to me, and I revisit in search of God–but that’s not the same thing, because they are just oases on the spiritual journey. Rendle’s insights helped me see spirituality rather than just stubbornness and tired tradition in people’s connection to our stained glass windows, liturgical garb and Christmas decorations.

2) In a world that continually segments people into increasingly specialized and individualized markets, the church is unique because it is not a “pure market” environment.

What a blessing! Rendle praises the inherent, unavoidable friction that is present when you have two such different groups trying to work together and live together in a church. Increasingly, television programs, books, methods of communication, clothing, movies, restaurants and other cultural institutions are targeted to a “pure market” of like-minded, similiar-aged and experienced people, “people like me.” Most mainline churches are not pure markets, because they are composed of people with multiple political opinions, incomes, educational levels, neighborhoods and even races. Friction is inevitable, but a sign of health and growth in a congregation.

I must say, this multigenerational experience is one of the things I value most about life in the congregation. I am grateful to Rendle for the clear, concise explanation of the systems and perspectives at work. I will be contemplating the difference between a spirituality of place and a spirituality of journey in my next sermon series.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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