Learning to Travel Light

Two years from now, in 2016, God willing, I will have served the Diocese of Springfield for five years, and will therefore be due for a three-month sabbatical, an opportunity to regroup and recharge away from the pressure of the daily demands of ministry. I haven’t made any firm decisions yet, but one possibility I’m looking at very seriously is to spend about half of that time as a pilgrim, walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, an ancient and still very well-traveled pilgrimage route that traverses nearly 600 miles across northern Spain.

When I mentioned this to the Standing Committee, which serves as my council of advice, an interesting discussion ensued about the necessity to be very careful about what I take with me, because anything I take I will need to carry on my person for the entire journey. There’s no checking luggage in the morning and having it delivered to wherever a pilgrim is going to spend the next night. Some very critical and difficult decisions need to be made about what items are essential, what is potentially useful, and what is merely frivolous or an indulgence. A pilgrim must travel light.

The metaphor of pilgrimage is deeply rooted in scripture and in the vocabulary of our tradition. The patriarch Abraham became a pilgrim when he answered God’s call to move his household to a far away land, sight unseen. His descendants became pilgrims when they followed Moses from Egypt back to that same land that had been given to Abraham. Centuries later, the exiled Jews living in Babylon set off as pilgrims to reinhabit and rebuild Jerusalem. On the mount of the Transfiguration, our Lord Jesus conversed with Moses and Elijah about “his exodus, which he would accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31), and the remainder of Luke’s gospel is, in effect, a travelogue narrating Jesus’ pilgrimage to the Holy City, where he would suffer, die, and rise in glory. Along the way, “the Son of Man [had] no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). He was a pilgrim. He traveled light.

In my study at home hangs a framed print of a painting, something I acquired very cheaply at a flea market in a Mexican border town many years ago. It depicts people from all walks of life–royalty, commoners, the rich and the poor, the young and the old, even a bishop and other clergy–at various points on a road, on a journey. In the distance gleams the Heavenly City, the New Jerusalem, the image of the Kingdom of God come to fruition, all wrongs put right, all tears wiped away. (For the record, the picture also shows people headed in another direction, but that’s not germane to my present purpose!) One of the strong secondary images associated with the sacrament of Holy Baptism is that it marks the point of one’s embarkation on a pilgrimage that will last the rest of this life and beyond. John Milton’s great seventeenth century poetic saga, The Pilgrim’s Progress, develops this notion. All Christian disciples, individually, are pilgrims, and the Church, collectively, is a pilgrim people.

This is not immediately self-evident to most people, even most Christians. Our primary experience of the Church is of an institution–an institution that is ancient and venerable, an institution that has seen challenges come and go, and remained intact and operational, an institution that is as permanent and stable as the Great Lakes and the Rocky Mountains. Institutions don’t travel, so they don’t have to travel light. They bear within themselves the full accumulated weight of their history–the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. Institutions are solid, not easily moved.

When a pilgrim people settles down, its life becomes institutionalized. When Abraham reached Canaan, he stopped travelling, He put down roots and bought property. He became an institution. When the Israelites returned there from Egypt, after wandering for a generation in the Sinai desert, they eventually set up a nation-state, with an institutional hereditary monarchy. When the post-exilic Jews arrived in Jerusalem, they rebuilt the temple and returned that very complex institution to full operational status. When Jesus completed his pilgrimage from Galilee and finally got to Jerusalem, what needed to get accomplished there got accomplished.

So it runs in cycles. There are times when God’s people are called to be on the move, wearing out their sandals and traveling light. There are times when they are called to put down roots, to erect institutional structures that protect them, make their lives secure and fruitful, and become the channels through which God blesses the world. And then there are times when, having grown accustomed to stability, the pilgrim people of God are called to pack up–lightly!–and hit the road toward … wherever God leads.

Would it be presumptuous of me to say that, for the pilgrim people of the Diocese of Springfield, this is one of those times? We are accustomed to stability; indeed, quite attached to stability, and we have a great deal of accumulated detritus that bears testimony to our attachment: church buildings, stained glass windows, historic artifacts, fine musical instruments, lovely vestments, a venerable constitution and set of canons, deaneries led by Very Reverend rural deans, and more. We have our well-defined opinions about what a “proper” church looks like and how the furniture should be arranged. We enjoy the “look and feel” of “church as we know it.”

At the same time, there are about half as many of us as there were a generation ago, and the median age of those who remain is a lot older than it was then. We are a dying breed–not just figuratively, but, in many of our smaller communities, quite literally. The institutional aspects of our common life that once served us very well are not all necessarily very well configured to the new realities. Our buildings are, in many places, not well-suited to these new realities. Many that were once well-located are now poorly-located, and many areas where there was once little or no need for a church are now burgeoning but unserved. Is it a good idea for a worshiping community of a dozen souls to try and sing four or five hymns each week that were written with the setting of an English cathedral in mind? Do our celebrations of the Eucharist shout “God’s people gathered at God’s table,” or do we just proceed with what we think we “should” be doing, as if on autopilot? Why do we persist in thinking and acting as though the solution to all our problems as a church lies in enticing more of “them” (whoever “they” are–the unchurched, the dechurched, the differently-churched) to come through our pretty red doors, rather than “us” camping out on “their” front porches and earning the privilege of introducing them to Jesus?

I’m fairly certain that we’ve reached the point in the cycle when we need to be lightening our institutional load and crowdsourcing ideas for the best walking shoes. I can’t give you a precise catalogue of how this will look in each part of the diocese, and it’s not my place to dictate such things anyway. I do suspect that, over the course, of time, we will let go of more of our buildings. I suspect we will be in locations not presently served, but probably in rented facilities that do not look necessarily “churchy” (I recently visited a parish in the Seattle area that rents space in a business park). A lot of the governance infrastructure of the diocese will be gone with the wind in the next revision of our constitution and canons. In some of our smaller communities, many of the trappings of liturgical grandiosity will be laid aside to make room for worship that is better thought-through and therefore more authentic and vital. Most importantly, we will be much more loosely attached to some of the reassuring physical symbols of stable place and status, enabling us to be more limber and responsive to the world that it is our mission to serve by announcing the good news of God in Jesus Christ.

As your bishop, I am with you in this–with you in grieving the need to let go of much that is comfortably familiar, with you in frustration at the difficulty of sorting that which is essential from that which merely weighs us down, with you in fear at the prospect of rejection and failure, and with you in confidence that God supplies us with every need for the journey of a pilgrim people.


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