Pilgrimage is likely too strong a word. Pilgrimage as a spiritual practice is generally more purposeful, perhaps to Jerusalem, or Mecca, or Rome. Turns out pilgrimage isn’t only about where you go, but what you find along the way.
I recently visited two sacred places along my spiritual journey.
The plan for the weekend was for my family to return to the church I first served in rural southwestern Minnesota for the 150 year anniversary of the congregation (I’ll share about this part next time). I remember just a few years ago how much it meant to me to have former clergy return for Memorial’s 50 year Jubilee, so when we got the invitation we made plans to attend.
It wasn’t in the plan to visit the church I grew up in, but nonetheless our pilgrimage to a detour and that’s how this story really begins.
Charles Foster describes pilgrimage as, “wandering after God,” so finding myself at the church I grew up in on the anniversary of my ordination as Minister of Word and Sacrament was more than a coincidence.
Eleven years ago I was ordained at the First Presbyterian Church of Albert Lea by the Presbytery of the Twin Cities. It was a Sunday morning. The church gathered as usual with the addition of guests from around the presbytery. Many from the church I would serve soon in Amboy made a pilgrimage of their own, traveling to attend worship at my home congregation that morning.
In eleven years not much has changed. On the outside the church still looks the same. On the inside, the familiar voices and laughter of the faithful still echo in the halls. And yet, everything has changed. The church that ordained me, walked with me through the candidacy process while in seminary, took me on mission trips, taught me to read the bible thoughtfully and critically, and to appreciate the Presbyterian Confessions–that church doesn’t exist anymore.
This was the first time I’ve been back since the church decided to leave the PC(USA) over concern that LGBTQ persons could be ordained as pastors, elders, and deacons.
To hear family and other church people tell the story, nothing has really changed. Which is unfortunate considering how much blood, sweat, and tears went into leaving the PC(USA).
For me, walking up to the church I felt like everything had changed. I imagine it is a similar feeling to losing a parent or spouse and returning home to find that everything looks the same, but everything is different.
On the picture of me by the church sign (below) the change is very subtle. Where there once was a PC(USA) symbol is now an ECO leaf, the symbol of the new denomination. A denomination that doesn’t debate if gay and lesbian people can be ordained because the case is closed.
It makes me sad that the church that helped grow in faith, learn the bible, and walked beside me throughout seminary, is different now.
And yet this church is part of my history, part of my journey of faith. Joan Chittister writes about how it can be difficult to find ourselves different from the people and institutions we call home. She writes, “It takes no small amount of courage to speak a different truth, to ask a different question than is common to our peers, to our family, to our social class. It means cutting oneself off from everything that has formed us, from everyone who depended on us to maintain the old order of things. It means becoming someone else in the very face of those who hold the old order most dear. The shock of it all can be life changing, even isolating at times, uneasy always” (The Time is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage).
Pilgrimage is a leaving behind. We take the best with us as we journey onward and we leave behind that which tries to kill our souls and wounds our neighbor. It takes time and discernment to know the difference. It takes courage to continue the journey.
“Hold fast to what is good. Have courage!”