For 5 years I was the pastor of Trinity International Church in Strasbourg, France. I created this blog with those people in mind. In mid-November 2018 I will become the Senior Pastor of Word of Life Church in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. The focus of this blog will therefore shift, but I pray that people from the blogosphere will continue to find it helpful wherever they might be found.
The churches' websites includes recorded sermons for those who are interested. Click the links below to access them.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Lessons from the Camino to Santiago

What is the Camino?

A directional sign
along the Camino.
We don’t hear much of James, the brother of John, after the resurrection of Jesus. This “Son of Thunder” was martyred in 44 (Acts 12:1-2), the first of the apostles to die for their faith. We are not sure what happened in the years before his martyrdom. It is believed that he left for Spain to spread the gospel and was killed after he returned. Popular legends also state that his body was taken to Spain and buried. Then in 812 what were believed to be his remains were discovered in what is now Santiago, Spain. Visiting the church became one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in church history. As a pilgrimage sanctioned by the Roman Church, the major routes of to Santiago developed resources to support the pilgrims on their journey. For centuries, thousands made the pilgrimage seeking answers to prayer, forgiveness of sins, a deeper faith, or inner renewal. It became a feature of church life.

The Reformation and Modernism both caused the numbers of pilgrims to dwindle to almost nothing. Luther and the other Reformers correctly condemned the idea of pilgrimage as a means of getting right with God. Modernists scoffed at the idea that the actual bones of James had been found and that there was any spiritual significance in pilgrimage. By 1985 there were only 690 people who arrived at the Pilgrims Office in Santiago.

In recent years, the popularity of going on pilgrimage to Santiago has exploded, with over 300,000 making the trip last year. There are a variety of reasons for this. First, the grips of modernity are slipping away. People are more open to “spiritual” things. Second, the centuries-old animosity between Catholics and Protestants is waning. Third, the internet has allowed people to share their journey and inspire others to make the same trip. Finally, as the pilgrimage has grown in popularity, the resources and support systems along the way have become more developed. Helping people make the journey has become a business.

Why did I go?

It wasn’t to see the bones of St. James. Honestly, I have my doubts about the legitimacy of the claim that his bones were found centuries later. Furthermore, I don’t think that there is anything “magical” about making a pilgrimage to Santiago. You don’t earn spiritual points with God. There are no answers to prayer that will be granted just because you pray in the Cathedral in Santiago. There is no biblical warrant for thinking that you do. Let me be clear about that.

Instead, I went for several reasons. Here they are, in no particular order.

First, I was attracted by the challenge. I’ve run three marathons and each was an incredible experience. Walking from Porto to Santiago seemed like something difficult that would push me physically. At the same time, I knew that there were plenty of resources along the way and lots of websites, apps, and books to educate me on how to complete it successfully. The fact that it would be hard to do but that I had a good chance of success made it attractive to me. 

Second, it would be two weeks of concentrated time with Janet. The two weeks together would be the longest time we had ever spent just the two of us. Half of our trek would be along the ocean coast. Walking for hours hand-in-hand with my wife watching the waves roll in sounded wonderful to me. 

Third, I couldn’t help but think that there was something to the idea of pilgrimage itself that might be valuable. Not because you see some ancient relic, but that the journey itself might be of some benefit. Sometimes we Protestants think that the church began with the nailing of the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg door. There are practices that were jettisoned which may indeed have value in developing the Christian life. For example, we have rightly rejected the idea of “going to confession” as necessary in order for sins to be forgiven. But when one reads some of the classics, they speak of going to confession in terms of having a spiritual mentor with whom you are completely open who will help you with the things you are struggling with. That’s a good thing that we are only recently rediscovering. Could the journey of pilgrimage have some hidden benefit? After all, one of the classics on the Christian life is called “The Pilgrim’s Progress”! One of the things that people say about the Camino is that it is an incredible instructor, teaching you important lessons along the way. I discovered that there were many spiritual lessons along the way to Santiago. Over the next few weeks I will share some of them.

Lesson One: The Importance of Sabbath Rest.

Our Camino started in Porto, Portugal. That’s 170 miles (273 kilometres) from Santiago. Because of transportation and vacation factors we had 13 walking days to do it. That’s an average of 13 miles a day for 13 days. We would be staying in AirBnBs and hotels along the way, so we didn’t need to worry about bringing sleeping bags. We could pack light. My backpack, before throwing in a couple of bottles of water and some trail mix, weighed 18 pounds (8 kilos).

Our plan was to simply walk an average of a half-marathon every day for two weeks. It sounded strenuous, but not impossible. 

There was one important ingredient missing: Rest. In the rush to get from Porto to Santiago within the allotted time, we did not factor in the need to simply let our bodies recover from time to time. We walked past miles of beaches. We took pictures and occasionally sat to eat an apple and enjoy the view, but there was no time to spend an entire day just stretched out on the beach relaxing. There were too many miles to cover. The deadline of checking in at the next place constantly was in our thoughts.

We did try to think about how far we were walking as we planned our Camino. Our guidebook had us walking 18 miles one day. We chopped that into two days and called them our easy days. We figured that they would be rest enough. But walking 9 miles is not resting. It may seem lighter than the usual 13 or 14 miles, but it isn’t rest. 

Not taking rest days was dumb. Even reckless. We ran the risk of a significant injury to our bodies through overuse. Stress fractures, blisters, strained ligaments and tendons can all be caused by pushing your body too far for too long. There is also an emotional cost to be paid. The constant strain of working begins to fray the nerves and little things become a major nuisances. Your toleration for others drops. You become angry inside at every little thing that you have to do. The failure to rest decreased the enjoyment of the hard work of walking 170 miles. Rest days were in order and we didn’t take them. We didn’t plan for them. We didn’t force ourselves to factor them in.

There is a word for rest days: Sabbath. 
It is built into the very order of Creation.
It is one of the Ten Commandments.

Sabbath is something that I have never been very good at and it doesn’t surprise me that I didn’t think of the need for rest days on the Camino. “A couple of Tylenol and an extra cup of coffee and we can do this!” The Camino taught us the importance of rest.

Being a pastor is not physically demanding like walking 170 miles, but it is even more demanding mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Rest is necessary for long-term health and even short-term enjoyment of the work. But the never-ending list of things to do and the fact that I enjoy my work means that I often skip Sabbath. A day of rest one day a week would renew, recharge, and refresh me for the days ahead. God says I need it and that he will see that the things get done that need to get done.

I often make the mistake that we made on the Camino. Not only do I frequently not take a Sabbath day, I often do less work on a given day and call it a rest day. But spending a morning answering emails is not resting and is definitely not a Sabbath day. And as a result, I often find myself without the energy and enthusiasm for the work during the days that follow. 

I know the rhythm and life of a pastor is different from many other occupations and carries with it some of its own unique challenges. Yet I also know that there are many people who struggle with the idea of Sabbath. If that describes you, let me recommend a book on the subject. It is well-written and extremely helpful in understanding the purpose of Sabbath. It is written by Mark Buchanan called The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath. Here’s a taste: 
“The worst hallucination busyness conjures is the conviction that I am God. All depends on me. How will the right things happen at the right time if I’m not pushing and pulling and watching and worrying? Unless we trust God’s sovereignty, we won’t dare risk Sabbath…If God can take any mess, any mishap, any wastage, any anything, and choreograph beauty and meaning from it, then you can take a day off. If he can’t, you better get busy.” 
And so, I am committing myself to Sabbath. To taking a day each week for rest and restoration. To intentionally not do the things that I have to do and to do the things that refresh and reorient my life. To receive the gift of Sabbath as a gift from a loving Savior given for my good and my delight. 

Its importance was demonstrated on the way to Santiago.

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