Over the past two years, two news media platforms, Baptist News Global, and the opinion pages of The Clinton Chronicle in my hometown of Clinton, South Carolina, have given me the opportunity to share regularly my views on issues that interest or concern me as a pastor. By fate or providence, these two writing opportunities have roughly coincided with the political campaign and administration of President Donald J. Trump. Needless to say, there’s been no dearth of material for a preacher-writer with a theologically-progressive Christian bent.
Month after month the chaos and controversy in our country spiral ever deeper, with the encouraging state of the economy only complicating and confusing the issue. Given my choice of topics amid an increasingly polarized environment, many people who read my columns might be surprised to hear that my concerns have never been partisan politics.
In this country, we elect no Commander in Chief to be the nation’s pastor. However, the presidency is, first and foremost, a position of spiritual leadership. (Yes, I gasped too, even in typing those words.) I do not mean “spiritual” as in “religious.” I mean “spiritual” as in relating to spirit – the mood, the ethos, the morale. No one in the nation has more power to influence the spirit of our nation.
In that regard, there has not been a U.S. president in the span of my political awareness with more spiritual influence than Trump. As a people, we are spiritually divided, pushed to our corners by a firestorm of raucous rallies, impromptu news conferences, off-the-cuff remarks and, of course, Oval Office tweets intended to provoke, incite, distract, confuse and divide.
The nation is weary, worn down by the daily barrage. I don’t know how to escape this onslaught. So my wife, Amy, and I have decided to leave the country.
I’m being facetious (for the most part). We really are leaving the country, but only for a short time. I love this country too much to ever give up on it and flee to Canada or elsewhere.
In 2009 Park Road Baptist Church, the congregation Amy and I serve in Charlotte, North Carolina, graciously provided a sabbatical, and the Lily Endowment’s support for clergy renewal generously provided the means. Our two sons had sat through innumerable hours of waiting for deacons’ meetings, church conferences, committee conversations and counseling sessions to end, not to mention an insufferable amount of “give-me-just-a-minute-and-we’ll-go-home.” So, Amy was adamant that if we deserved a sabbatical, they did, too! We found that family sabbatical in a summer on pilgrimage.
We took a driving pilgrimage to Plymouth, Massachusetts, to learn about the first pilgrims. We took a rafting-and-hiking pilgrimage down the Colorado River and out of the spectacular Grand Canyon. We took a pilgrimage a pie (“on foot”) across northern Spain. These trips, punctuated with the intentional discipline of thrice-daily prayers, readings and songs, made our pilgrimages a respite for the soul.
Christians have been walking some portion of the 500-mile “El Camino de Santiago” for a thousand years, since the Pope announced that a spiritual journey to Jerusalem, Rome or Santiago de Compostela was worthy of a plenary indulgence. We took five days to walk from Sarria to Santiago, collecting our “pilgrim stamps” along the way to prove to the “Perigrino Office” at the Cathedral of St. James that we had walked the 100 kilometers required to collect an official diploma (as well as the forgiveness of one’s sins!).
When we got back to Charlotte and to church after a summer on pilgrimage, someone asked, “How was your vacation?” I get it. Being away, “seeing the world,” does sound like a vacation.
We did spend the final week of the summer at my parents’ lake house, skiing early each morning (when the water is smooth), eating great meals and staying up late for family games. Now, that was vacation. Vacation is about leisure and relaxation – which is different from a pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is a kind of work. It is intended for the intentional renewal of the soul.
In 2018 we need pilgrimage even more than we needed it nine years ago. So, when our church’s youth minister asked us to officiate his destination wedding in South Queensferry, Scotland, we felt obligated to say “We will!” And, who knew St. Andrews was also a well-worn destination for pilgrims – we thought they only played golf there!
So, prior to the wedding, Amy and I will embark on a five-day, 61-mile pilgrimage from Edinburgh to St Andrews. Crossing the Firth of Forth, we’ll follow the coastline and then turn north toward the ruins of the cathedral. We’re taking a three-a-day prayer guide again, and we’ll spend our days walking. And praying for a little peace back home.
I’m sorry we can’t take the whole nation with us. We all could use a pilgrimage.