Mark Edwards, Christian Martin, Ingrid Ladendorf, Sallye Zink
August 27, 2017
“Going out and coming in”
I’ve done a lot of that this summer. Nassau youth, and a good many adults, have been to camp at NorthBay on the Chesapeake, the hills and hollers of Johnson County Tennessee to repair homes, and to Spain for the Camino de Santiago.
While all of these trips have had stories and experiences that would nourish the life of faith of this community, this morning we’ll get to hear a few voices from the most recent trip, a two-week pilgrimage walk in Northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago, or, in English, “The Way of St. James.”
James the son Zebedee, along with his brother John, were two of Christ’s 12 disciples- the so called “Sons-of-Thunder” of Mark 3. After Christ’s death, James is reported to have traveled to Spain, then well within the transportation network of the Roman empire to preach of Christ’s death and resurrection. James then returned to Jerusalem where he became the first recorded Christian martyr. As Acts 12:1-2 reports, “About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword.”
Catholic tradition holds that after this death, James’ friends and disciples took his body back to Northwest Spain to bury it among his converts. James’ remains, according to Catholic traditions, reside in the glorious Cathedral of Santiago.
For over a thousand years — the earliest written reports date from 950 — Christians have made pilgrimage to the city of Santiago de Compostela in Northwest Spain in veneration to James, as penance for sins, or as a simply journey of faith.
Pilgrims walk each day, village to village, on a well marked path that offers deep glimpses into the history of medieval Spain, the long life of the Christian tradition, and our very own souls.
My wife, Janine, and I were on the Camino in 2004 and fell in love with the simple rhythms, the natural beauty, the welcoming locals, and the spiritual lessons of living life “on the Way.” We’ve long wished to return, and this year we were able to.
This summer twenty of us from the Nassau youth program spent two weeks walking the Way. There were nine High School youth, nine adults, and my own two children, Adeline and Elias. We walked the final third of the path, nearly 200 miles in all and enjoyed many kilometers of contemplation, daily worship in fields and Gothic cathedrals, great food, fantastic company, all while reading slowly through the Sermon on the Mount.
While many of the church youth are away this weekend for vacations or college move-ins, we’ll get to hear from some of our other pilgrims, peregrinos, as we were called. This first of these is Christian…
Todos somos peregrinos en esta tierra.
Todos somos peregrinos en esta tierra.
We are all pilgrims on this Earth. The father who declared it before his congregation said it slowly, enunciating, aware of the foreigners in his crowd. Originally from Burundi, now preaching in the Spanish city of Sarria, his own journey was no doubt storied. But if life is a pilgrimage, as this priest claimed, then the question is begged, why do the Camino? Why go to Spain for a pilgrimage when my pilgrimage is here? A day in Princeton or a day in Spain.
Why go out at all? Why endure physical discomfort, mental exhaustion, sleeping in crowded, noisy hostels, walking miles on sore ankles? It’s certainly not evident and its certainly easy to forget: that it is only through struggle that we are forced to have faith. Not faith in ourselves, not faith in pleasures, but faith in the Lord. Staring up the hill with miles more to walk, we tell ourselves we can’t take another step, yet we do, and another one after that, and after that. In this normal life, we have too many defaults to where our help might come from. Once I’m home in the AC, I’ll be ok. After I finish this paper, I’ll be ok. No. “My help comes from the Lord.” “My help comes from the Lord.” Every day, everywhere. Because this journey is hard. We have thousands of miles ahead of us in our lives. We walk seeking to find our God-given purpose. Because we are all pilgrims on this Earth. Porque todos somos peregrinos, en esta tierra.
The night before we began walking, we attended a service at a beautiful chapel in the city of Leon. At the end of the service they called the pilgrims forward, and lead a special prayer to send us on our way. For me, this prayer was a very memorable and touching way to be sent out. And it was in English, which really helped. They had no idea who we were, but they knew we were pilgrims, and they extended such kindness in their praying for us. I’m sure they pray this prayer day after day, for the benefit of the thousands of pilgrims that pass through each year. We received our first stamp in our credentials, our first printed pilgrims prayer, and we were wished “Buen Camino.”
We received such heartfelt hospitality at the most unexpected times. Our first day, we came upon a small group of volunteers that had constructed a labyrinth of pine cones and stones with hand-drawn symbols of the Camino on them. It was artful, and beautiful. We walked the labyrinth, they checked in to see how we were feeling, they offered us drinks and snacks, and we left. Unexpected generosity.
I actually wrote in my journal, “I feel this overwhelming sense that along this path, what we really need just seems to be given to us.” I wasn’t trying to write metaphorically at the time, but in truth remembering that in one moment we were feeling pretty hungry, and in the next, we turned the corner and a donation cart filled with fruit and drinks would be sitting there, unmanned on this dirt path. Just sitting there.
We met a group of volunteers about 75 k. from Santiago, La Fuente del Peregrino, whose mission is to keep the original spirit of the Camino, in which hospitality and service are generous and not self-seeking. Through acts of service, hospitality, and love they seek to show the character of Jesus to the thousands of pilgrims that pass each year. They gave us a small brochure of the symbols of the Camino to consider as we walked:
Symbol #1: Yellow Arrows. Every path we followed was marked somewhere with a yellow arrow, either on a building or on the road, or marker. They were our only direction. So the questions were: Who or what do you look to in life to point the way? What arrows do you follow?
Symbol #2: The Backpack. When you’re carrying everything you need for two weeks in your backpack, you seriously consider what is essential and what is not. So we always had to ask ourselves, what can we take out to make the trip lighter? What extra baggage am I carrying every day? And how can we carry each other’s weight. Somehow when you know your hiking partner needs your help, your own pack doesn’t seem heavy at all anymore.
Symbol #3: Bandages. We all have unavoidable wounds and pain in life; how do we deal with pain, and how can we help each other?
Symbol #4: Walking Stick. Who are the people who help you walk this path? What would it look like for you to be a walking stick for others?
Symbol #5: Scallop Shell. Symbolizing a hand and the good works that Jesus did for humankind. When a pilgrim wears this shell it represents a changed life, that this pilgrim is now returning home to live by the lifestyle of serving and loving the rest of humanity.
I can’t think of a better story to share than our hike up to the town of O Cebreiro. It was a 35 k. hike day, nearly 22 miles up, on a very hot day. I was walking with my daughter Camille and eight-year-old Elias, and we were feeling pretty spent. Camille was visibly exhausted, hot, her knees were not cooperating, and well, you get the picture. Our albergue seemed pretty far away, given that we could see the long pathway up the mountain. All of a sudden I heard Elias say, “Camille, I have an idea! I can climb this tree, and slingshot you to the top of the mountain, and you’ll land right in your bed at the albergue! The only problem is we don’t know exactly how far it is, and so I wouldn’t know how far back to pull.” Our thinking was realigned in that moment. I was really thankful we had Elias with us that afternoon. Camille was, too.
We walked over 265 kilometers on this journey. Each day filled with opportunity to be renewed and be transformed in some way. From where does my help come? My help comes from the God who made heaven and earth, the same God that made me and you, the same God that is with us now, and in all of our going out and coming in.
I suppose that it is fitting and only fair that it was just this past Tuesday Mark asked me to participate in this service. After all, it was only the Tuesday before the Saturday planned departure for Spain that, with encouragement from Mark, Jacq, Ron, and others, I decided to make the group of Nassau pilgrims an even twenty.
I am very grateful for the newfound flexibility afforded by my recent retirement which allowed me to make this last-minute decision. And it is this long-planned exit from the workforce with no script for my time in retirement that placed in my mind the hope that I could use this journey, in the words from Romans read by Kelsey today, “…to be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Using the “gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.”
I know I have been given talents, gifts that I have used throughout an interesting, challenging, and successful career in business. I am now in the enviable position of being able define my own schedule and “path” forward. But this means having the responsibility to make choices, decisions, discernment about how I can now reapply my God-given gifts. What better place and time than eleven days walking on El Camino, the Path, in the company of this wonderful group from Nassau – companions, known and new, each at different times of transition and discernment in their own lives.
Don’t get me wrong, with only a few days to prepare, what was most on my mind before the trip was hardly profound, but ran more to practicalities of logistics and packing — high on my list of expertise from 40 years of business travel.
However, once we set foot in the town of Astorga, Spain, on El Camino, the miles to cover, scenery, companionship, and solitude all became unexpected blessings. Being away from the constant barrage of politics, news (fake or otherwise), terrorism, and hatred — leaving this behind, what a luxury. Focusing each morning on quickly and quietly getting up, dressed, pack on your back. Carefully following behind those with head lights before the morning dawn. Looking forward to the first village where the morning, best-ever café con leche would be served. Trusting that a shower and bunk would await at day’s end at the next albergue expertly reserved for us by Janine. And knowing that Marcus would be there with outreached hand to help me get up after the evening circle gathering where Mark would have cheered us all with a “Great job, everybody!” This became the new normal.
While I did not come away with an answer sheet for my way forward, I did come away imprinted with what it means to hope for and wish others a “Buen Camino.” Buen Camino, literally, a good path, a good way, a good journey.
When encountering other pilgrims on El Camino you exchange the greeting “Buen Camino.” As you walk pass local farmers and villagers, they wish you “Buen Camino,” all wishing each their own good journey. You soon realize that the greeting extends well beyond wishes for a good day’s walk.
Each day along the path we would lift our eyes to the mountains, enjoying their beauty but filled with a bit of trepidation about where the day’s walk would take us. In looking at different versions of Psalm 121, I learned that this psalm is referred to as both a pilgrimage song as well as a song of ascents. How very fitting.
Though unspoken, it was in my heart every morning in bidding and each evening in thankful assurance: “I raise my eyes toward the hills, from whence comes my help!” The beauty of the rolling countryside, majestic mountains, and heavenly skies. In awe to walk along surrounded by the stunning vistas and remember how just two weeks prior I had gazed upon similar majesty in the Blue Ridge Mountains with many of these same Nassau youth and adults while on the Appalachian Service Project. What a privilege. What a wonderful world that has been entrusted to us.
Whether spoken or not, we thanked God for carrying our feet along the path, providing us shade from the sun during the day and restful sleep at night. We trusted in the Lord to keep us on this journey, along this path and along life’s way, to protect and guide us towards how we each can best use our time and talents. This time on El Camino has reminded me that whatever our path and current footing, we are all life’s pilgrims that the Lord will keep and protect, directing our going out and coming in along life’s journey.
Friends, there is a road, no simple highway that your life is being called to walk.
Friends, there is a guide, Jesus Christ, who is on that road and who calls to you saying, “Come, follow me.”
Friends, we have a faithful God who promises to nourish us and to protect all our goings out and comings in.
Friends, we can walk this road together, as a community, in joy of faith, song, and compassion.
May each of us here today, find in the words that have just been spoken, living witness to this truth:
The Lord is your keeper;
The Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.
© 2017 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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