Recently I attended a retreat for the Methodist Ministry Inquiry Process with twenty-one other candidates who are seeking to answer a call into ministry. We have identified that God is calling us into some sort of ministry in the Methodist denomination. The theme of the retreat was called Pilgrimage, which encouraged us to spend time on a spiritual pilgrimage to discern how we officially will serve in the church. So throughout our time together, whether in worship and/or mentoring sessions, we discussed where God might be leading us into a call of ordained or local ministry. These “call” stories are generally not as clear-cut as one would think. Sometimes, if there is no clear and concise direction from God, these moments can be a bit frustrating in their ambiguity. There is always a tendency for me to think I am the only person who does not have a clear vision of what God is calling me to do. However, there were a number of candidates who, like me, were still trying to figure out where we thought God was leading us into ministry. Actually that is ok because it means we are open to where God is leading us. But a spiritual pilgrimage? How does one go about doing that?
Have you ever been on a pilgrimage? At first, I was not sure what it was or how it differed from just taking a trip to somewhere. Multiple sites on the Internet describe a pilgrimage as a journey taken for a spiritual purpose. You know, that big question that keeps coming up in my life, what direction is God leading me? This has led me to question whether God is really listening or is even around to hear my ongoing prayers. I was rereading one of my journal entries from years ago that asked God, “Is this it God? Is this all there is for me?” It was a forlorn inquiry during a time when I felt, unfulfilled, disengaged from my spirituality and seeking answers to my Christian purpose. Often, I have wondered, “where is God?”
Shortly after I graduated from seminary in 2011, my best friend suggested that I needed to take a break. I had been attending school for 9 years and she told me to stop and just “BE” for a minute. She said, “You have been focused on school for years and you need to take some time to appreciate all that you have done and think about what is next.” For a few minutes, I drew a blank because I was not sure how to go about taking a break and just “be.” What kind of break? A trip? Where would I go? The questions abounded! What would I need to do on this pilgrimage? After doing some some research, I discovered there are all sorts of pilgrimages, some include, traditional, ancestral, sabbatical even walkabout journeys. I thought it might be good to spend some time listening to where God was directing my steps. You know for employment. After all, I had just graduated and needed to be gainfully employed working for a wage but most of all for God right? With that in mind, I decided to head west, from Minnesota to Seattle, WA to visit my daughter while making unplanned stops along the way. So I packed my car and started driving.
The Badlands in South Dakota, was one of those stops, “along the way.” At one place, I sat on an overhang, to enjoy the view and to calm to my restless spirit. I found it to be a very spiritual place amidst rough beauty. My perch was intentionally chosen away from people so that I could pay attention to hearing what God might be saying to me. It certainly was peaceful to sit there, however, I felt very alone. The presence of God was all around and yet I was lonely. As I sat on the ledge praying for guidance, God did reach out to me and show me that I was not alone. A little brown bird landed a few feet from me. It sat and looked at me for quite some time then he danced around and flew off. In that moment, I felt God’s handiwork in sending me a messenger to let me know that I was not alone. Those types of moments happened frequently during this journey of discovery. Each and every day, I awoke smiling and ready to travel the roads and stop wherever the spirit led me. This was freedom!
One of my stops along the way took me to Holden Village, in the mountains of Washington. This retreat center could only be reached by ferry and had only buses for transportation. My friend Elizabeth was spending a few weeks in the village as a worship leader volunteer. During my stay, we hiked the trails, ate meals with the other volunteers and spent time in worship and of course, spent time in good conversations about life. Elizabeth suggested that I read about how the Israelite's wandered the wilderness trying to reach the land God had promised. Their journey was full of problems from the start but on the way to that land, they learned much about God and themselves as a people. She suggested that I might not find the destination or the Promised Land on this pilgrimage, but that I should enjoy the trip along the way. What was I learning about me? What was I learning about God? That is when I started to let go of trying to control God. It was enough that for the first time in my life, I was learning to trust God, myself and “while on the way,” discovering my independence in the midst of enjoying creation.
This pilgrimage covered 14 states and 5100 miles and more often that not, I was drawn to the water. Whether it was a rushing river in Spokane or a flower garden in Oregon, or the Snake River in Idaho or even the Hoover Dam in Nevada, I found myself beside water. When I returned to MN, I mentioned to one of my professors all of the water sites I had encountered along the way and she said a curious thing. She said that all of the time spent around water cleansed me in a new baptism and this was a time of rebirth for me. I was washed clean once again. There is a quote from Russell Simmons, which I thought summed up my pilgrimage experience, “Often, God takes us through troubled waters, not to drown us but to cleanse us.”
I think that is what the idea of pilgrimage is all about. Going on a journey to discover some answers to life questions but also spending time in self-reflection to get to know our inner-selves better. A quote from Phil Cousineau says this, “At the crossroads moment, a voice calls to our pilgrim soul. The time has come to set our for the sacred ground… that will stir our hear and restore our sense of wonder.”
I think each of us can have many crossroad moments that call us to take a pilgrimage to hit the reset button and re-encounter God, our faith and to get in touch with our inner selves to find out where the path is leading us next.