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Monday, November 20, 2017

My Pilgrimage to Chartres: Aftermath

     Unfortunately, the headache that I went to bed with on our final day of walking continued through the night and by morning was a full-blown migraine. I get migraines only occasionally but wow, this one was killer. My head felt like it was being pinched in a vice and like there was a jackhammer just hammering away behind my left eye. It was such a discouragement as I had so wanted to enter into this new day with joy and enthusiasm. We were scheduled to have breakfast and then pray while walking the labyrinth at the hotel where we were staying and share in a short worship service where we would celebrate communion together as fellow pilgrims. I tried to get up and go to breakfast, thinking that the caffeine from a cup of coffee might help ease the pain but upon seeing my other travelers, I just burst into tears, feeling so weak and and in pain. One of the women quickly embraced me and prayed for me. I realized then that I had to go back to bed. I was so disappointed. I was also trying to get back to Paris in time for our 1.30 worship service so that I could ensure that the slide projection program was working properly, and hear Doug preach on All Saints Sunday. Then we had youth group at 3.00. So there were so many things going on with me that morning when I didn't feel good.
     On the one hand, I was so happy and relieved that I had made it Chartres on my own two feet and I wanted to enjoy the aftermath of that accomplishment and finish the time well. But the reality was that I my body was somehow holding me back. I was so frustrated that once again, it was physical issues that were creating an issue for me. Why couldn't I just get through one phase of this journey without physical obstacles? Of course, what kept coming to me over and over again was that I am weak, but God is strong. While true, it is not fun for me to think of myself as a weak person. I am strong. I am bold. I get things done. I am a mover and a shaker, says my core identity. I value competency and can be impatient when people are incompetent. But this trip had really not been about my strengths at all. It had been about facing weakness, facing limitations and then seeking to overcome them, with God's help, with the help of the community, with the help of moleskin and other kinds of aid. I knew that this message of not relying on my own strength was powerful but I was so frustrated that God felt the need to continue to hammer this home, especially because the hammer in my head was killing me. Somewhat surprisingly, after laying back down for half an hour, the pain behind my eye had at least abated and I was able to join the group for the labyrinth walk. 
That's me, with the black hoodie on, trying to keep warm, face to sun
     Now, I am not overly familiar with praying the labyrinth, never fully having understood what it means to walk the labyrinth. If you are interested in this ancient form of prayer, I suggest you do some more reading on it because I'm still trying to sift through it all for my own understanding. It is a very physical experience (I suppose a very appropriate way for me to finish this walk!) where a series of twists and turns takes you to the center, and another series of twists and turns takes you out. It is an intentional way of meeting God and I found it to be a very good experience. A labyrinth isn't a maze. You can't get lost. But what happens along the way is unique and insightful. We had hoped to walk the labyrinth in the cathedral but it is now closed and covered with chairs until lent 2018. But fortunately, the hotel where we were staying had one. 
     The morning was very beautiful with the sun breaking over the horizon but it was very, very cold. I shivered as I stood there waiting for my turn to enter. I was happy to be on the side where certain turns allowed me to face the sun full-on. It was hard to leave the sunny side and enter the side of the shadow, where it was darker and colder. Getting to the center felt good. I stood there for awhile, allowing the sun to drip over my face and body. I felt the healing quality of solitary quiet, a place of little or no demand, to be in God's presence and ponder what the continuing road would look like for me. 
     Soon, it was time for me to exit and I found as I neared the exit point, it was kind of hard. I suppose in some ways it truly marked the end of our pilgrimage. The loud voice in my now calming head was to ponder and consider the truth that life is not best lived on our own strength but in God's strength. What does it mean to truly live by the power of God in us and not on our own accord? The verses from Ephesians continued to ring in my to him who is able to do more than we could ever ask or think...II Corinthians 12:9 remains: Each time he said, "My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness." So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. How can I continue to understand what this means in practical terms? The other very loud message that came to me as I exited the labyrinth was to look back before I looked forward. In that moment, 2 Sundays ago, I knew that I needed more time to reflect on this experience and that is what I've been trying to do. Subsequently, when people have asked if I would do it again or try the whole camino in Spain, I would say, "I'm trying to look back before I look forward." I've really tried to stick with that. Sharing all of this with you, has been great. Thank you readers, for your role in encouraging me to keep reflecting. 
     From the crisp cold of the garden, we entered the chapel and prepared to share in communion. I was disappointed that I couldn't lead the service but my dear friend Emily graciously took the whole thing. I realized too that I need those spaces in my life where I am not leading, where I am yielding to another's leadership and I am truly just a participant. It was a joyous occasion. When we had finished, I ate the left over bread and drank the remains of the cup and felt it nourish both body and spirit. In a brief conversation with the woman who had led us through the labyrinth, someone who has written extensively on the Chartres labyrinth, I mentioned that I didn't love being as publicly vulnerable as I had been that day. I am much more happy for people to see me in my strength than in my weakness. But I also recognized that these women had embraced me not just a pastor but fellow companion on the road and that meant a great deal to me. Pastors often cannot be as open and vulnerable with people and that is a pity because we are human first and pastor second and we are weak and imperfect. It's very hard to show that side however because at least for me, I fear that if I show the cracks in my armour that people will judge me to unfit to pastor. I suppose deep in soul is the fear that I am unfit to pastor and therefore this fear manifests at times. 
     By the time the communion service ended, I was feeling much better. I had a quick moment to return to the cathedral and take one more look around. Then it was time to catch the first train back to Paris. I was torn about getting back and re-entering the world of my responsibilities right away. While I was feeling better, I was still very tender and tears were just below surface. I would've enjoyed tooling around a Chartres a bit, taking in the town and spending a bit more time with Kim and Emily. But I also felt good about getting back and ended up on the early train with 2 others with whom I enjoyed a mixture of quiet and conversation. 
     It was a strange and wonderful experience to be comfortably seated on the train, with comfy socks, whizzing through all of the towns that we had previously walked through. Wow. I was excited that I had completed this challenge. I knew there so much to learn and graft into my life. I was excited to get back, see Doug and begin to sift through the myriad of emotions that filled my heart and soul. 
     There was gratitude. There were tears. At that moment I didn't know what it was all about. I still don't fully know but I am getting closer to more fully understanding. I continue to learn about ways to allow God's strength to drive me and not just be driven on my own strength and competency. In doing so, I think I will be able to be less frustrated by situations that don't go as planned or as well as I had hoped. And perhaps my own identity as a pastor won't be as rooted in doing all things well as a measure of whether or not I'm a good pastor. I am a beloved child of God. Perhaps that's just enough.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

My Pilgrimage to Chartres: Day 5: Part 2

Post-lunch, socks changed, insoles adjusted, laces tied differently, I was ready to get this done. We walked out of the forest and onto pathways that begin to indicate that we were getting closer and closer to an more populous area. The main pathway into Chartres was this lovely waterside walk with gorgeous views of these towering bridges. The shell our ever present companion on the path now.Ducks frolicked in the water and all in all, it was just so refreshing. We took a break along the way to catch our breath and rest our feet. The caption to this photo reads a very corny My Sole Longs for You. We were pretty giddy about arriving and just totally focused on managing whatever pain we were experiencing. 
Kim's excitement grew with every step. She was pumped that we were doing this! I love this photo of her checking route and distance. She kind of looks like Quasimodo, appropriate I guess since we were on our way to Cathedral Notre Dame de Chartres!
Soon enough actual views of the cathedral came into view. Then we had to cross a really busy street filled with the traffic sounds of an urban environment. The noise was actually a bit comforting at this point. I was pretty unsure of what exactly was going on with my emotions at this point. I was pretty darn thrilled to realize that I was going to complete this walk and the anticipation of reaching the Cathedral filled my heart with incredible joy and thanksgiving. I absolutely loved this sign of the pilgrim's path surrounded by the autumn leaves that were reminders of the time of year that we did this walk.
Because all cathedrals are on a hill, we had to climb a pretty good staircase in order to get up to the grounds where the cathedral majestically sits over Chartres. It was funny. It wasn't even hard to climb the stairs. It wasn't tiring, my legs didn't feel heavy. My feet didn't even hurt that much. It was amazing.
We had to walk through this beautiful, peaceful garden on our way to the entrance to the cathedral and it proved a perfect prelude for the main event. Once we reached the square where the cathedral sat, there was hugging and cheers and high fives and a few tears. A couple of folks in our group had never been to Chartres before so their excitement in standing outside of the cathedral was filled with the even greater anticipation of seeing something for the first time. 
After gathering outside of the cathedral, around the sign of Saint Jacques and took another picture of our feet surrounding our destination point, much as we had done with our departure spot at Notre Dame in Paris. We bugged some innocent tourist, asking him to take our photo and then made our way into the church.
I had been to Chartres Cathedral on 4 previous occasions, twice that included great guided tours and an detailed explanation of the incredible stained glass windows, twice more just as a tourist passing through. Even so, I had forgotten how BIG this cathedral is. It just soars with its high flying gothic arches, and that gorgeous glass make the space so inviting. We quickly found our way the priest who would give us our final stamp in our Chemin credentials and realized that our pilgrimage was largely over.
I had walked from Paris to Chartres! And I was still standing! We took a quick walk around the Cathedral and then headed outside to find Saint Jacques himself, standing in a row of saints, holding his bag with the shells affixed to it. In all of the times I had been to Chartres, I was completely unaware of this being a pilgrim site, of the statute of Saint Jacques, of the plaques indicating the Chemin. We had been told to pick up a stone somewhere along the way and lay it at the feet of Saint Jacques as a symbol of the way we join the throngs of other pilgrims who have done the same and as a small promise to go now, a changed person, ready to be a living stone in the world to which we will return. It was kind of a cool moment.
From there, we wandered just a few more steps over to our hotel and had some time to relax before we headed out for our celebration dinner. The sun was coming down over Chartres in a perfect sunset.
Showers were welcome! I was happy that I didn't have to wear my hiking shoes for a few more days! In fact, yesterday, was the first day that I had put them on since the walk ended. I unwrapped my feet to check the damage. Everything was mostly in tact!
Dinner that night was lovely. We went to a classic crêperie that stood in the shadow of the now beautifully lit looming cathedral. There was toasting and joking and warmth shared around the table of celebration. Candace, the oldest and most elegant of us all, gave out some gifts. She had done part of the Camino de Santiago in Spain and had picked up some things there that she had somehow saved to give out. Kim received some beautiful sterling silver shell earrings. Emily and I received these beautiful bracelets for providing spiritual guidance and the driver of our goods received a little car key chain with the shell on it. It was an incredibly thoughtful gesture and I will treasure this bracelet forever, in part because Candace was a wonderful gift on this trip.
We finished dinner and gathered for one final examen. At the end of this time, we were asked to bless the person sitting next to us, so we all received a blessing and gave a blessing. It was a sweet time together. Candace ended up being the one who blessed me and she could not have said more perfect things to me. What joy.
The pilgrimage was largely over. We had plans to gather in the morning to walk the labyrinth (more on this tomorrow) and share in communion together. After a week long trek that proved to be considerably demanding on the ol' bod, and the toasting around the table with both cider and wine, my head was aching and sleep was needed. We were in Chartres! I would get to take the train back to Paris! Admittedly, I was glad that it was over but super glad that I had done it. I also knew it would take awhile to sort through everything that I was feeling, experiencing, learning, etc. But one thing was for sure...I was grateful. Oh so grateful for so many wonderful things.

(PS: I have more to write so my pilgrimage blogs will case you feel like this story isn't finished yet! It isn't...)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

My Pilgrimage to Chartres: Day 5: Part 1

    Our final day, the one that involved walking 18 miles (28 kilometers) deserves to be written in two parts. We had gotten lunch the previous day and had gone to bed quite early after the restful ending of day 4 so after breakfast, we could get on the road as close to 8.00 a.m as possible. Rain was in the forecast for the first time all week and we knew that there would be enough challenges in the day without adding falling darkness to the mix later in the day. Water had become an important sight for me along the way. It was a sign of life, of vibrancy, of refreshment so whenever we spotted a stream, even just a trickle, or a pond of some kind, I found it so encouraging and restorative.
     The mood was good, kind of like, let's do this, one step at a time and eventually we'll get to Chartres. I was confident that I would make it at this point, but I was still unsure of how difficult it might actually prove to be. My feet were mostly OK at this point even though the blister on my left pinkie toe was a douzy. I had it well wrapped in moleskin and felt like I had reduced possibilities for great pain through my various methods of foot care. I did have an emerging new pain across the top of my left foot and over the ankle up into the shin. I'm sure it was because of the way my foot adjusted to the blister but I could've lived without yet another issue to deal with! Most serious of all however, was the onset of stomach issues that struck as we were heading out the door. Things were not quite as firm as I had liked and so I loaded up my bag with extra kleenex and simply hoped upon hope that this would not be an issue throughout the day. We had decided to wait for our morning devotions until we had gotten down the road a ways, knowing that we'd need to stop and rest and not really wanting to get up any earlier in order to share before we left. So with a quick prayer for stamina, and health, we were off: Destination Chartres! Could that really be possible?
     We began in wide open spaces, fields filled with living things. There were conversations along the way but also times of walking in a single file line. The rain and wind did indeed come and it was increasingly hard to talk to one another. We were quite the sight in our rain gear! I remained committed to taking off my shoes at every stop and wiggling my toes around. I had also packed a clean pair of socks to change into midway and brought both sets of insoles. All of this was helpful.
     We managed a stop where there were a couple of benches waiting for us for our first break and shared in our devotional time amongst the fields and trees. The verses for the day were from Ephesians 3:16-21. "I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever! Amen." These verses were so key for me and I thought they would be powerful and meaningful for us all as we sought to complete the pilgrimage. Here's what stood out to me. First, God's glorious unlimited resources could make their home in our hearts. We needed unlimited resources because our own resources were waning. The image of unlimited resources flowing into our bodies, hearts, souls and minds was one of great encouragement. Second, some of us were on this pilgrimage to have a deeper encounter of God's love for us and these verses affirm the absolute fullness of God's love for us. It's wide, and long and high and deep. And it's too great to fully understand but we should at least try! Third, the benediction herein is just so beautiful and I absolutely loved relying on the notion that it was God who could accomplish infinitely more than we could ask or think. God's goodness, God's presence, God's power within us was greater than we could imagine and that was also a great encouragement. There was a resource that stood way outside of my own ability that could sustain me throughout this day. Our questions to consider were again, simple and profound: What kind of strength do you need for today? And how do you see God working in ways that are immeasurably more than all we could ask or imagine? The answers to these questions seemed pretty obvious as the kilometers stretched out in front of us. 
     I was struggling a bit. I felt OK, was able to stay hydrated but there were issues that were not fun. I managed but it wasn't pleasant. I haven't talked about the other women on this trip because I've been trying to focus on my impressions and their pilgrimage is their story to tell, not mine. But there are 2 that were with me that I would not have survived without and I want to say a bit about them here. I was so thankful for my buddy Emily who had come from Oslo, Norway to join this trip.
She is a Lutheran pastor, married to a Lutheran pastor so we have a lot in common and we co-led the devotional times and shared a room. She was someone that I could say anything to and thus we laughed a lot and she wasn't grossed out by my problems! There were a lot of jokes along the way and I was thankful for that, even in spite of my less than pleasant moments in the woods. The other woman was Kim, the one who dreamt up this entire journey and arranged all of the logistics for it. Kim has been a dear friend for many years, is married to the senior pastor of ACP and is an abiding and wonderful person in my life. We are very different but find great resonance in our spirits.
I mention these two here because they knew what was going on with me along the way and were supportive and encouraging. They laughed with me and took me seriously too. I shared deep and abiding conversations with both of them and our friendship has deepened tremendously because of this experience. For this, I'm very grateful. 
     After the break we had an end point that we wanted to get to for lunch. Kim had encouraged us by stating that after a long walk through a field, you come to a bit of a rise and can spot the spires of the Cathedral of Chartres! What a thrill that would be and we were all eager to make it to that point. Beauty abounded in spite of the wind and the rain and spotting this street sign gave us energy to continue on. Signs of Chartres had come into view. Was that really possible? And then as we walked across this field, against a pretty good wind, I spotted the spires. This photo is taken at the precise spot where I first saw them looming in the distance. My heart sang. That's where we were going, where this walk would end and I could finally see it in the distance!
     At the top of this little rise are two trees, a bench and a cross. It's an extraordinary place, surrounded by the wide open spaces, basically out in the middle of nowhere. It was a peaceful, soothing place and while it would've been great to have lunch there, the wind was threatening so we found a little protected area amongst the trees. One more visit into the woods where I braved brambles and thorns was necessary but that was the last thank God. Fortunately, I was staying hydrated so that wasn't an issue and I still ate the delicious baguette sandwich the bakery had made for me the day before.
     There was a sense of gratitude for our rest at lunch but also a sense that we were going to make it! No one was really discouraged. People definitely had aches and pains. Shin splints, back pain, foot issues, etc. But all in all, the mood was one of determination and grit.
     We were half way home. Just about another 9 miles and we would arrive. Much needed adrenaline began to course through my system. I changed my socks and insoles. I adjusted my gear. I was walking from Paris to Chartres and I was going to make it. What a feeling that was as we headed into the last leg of our journey together.