At a recent session meeting, Eliza Jaremko and a group of elders took a pilgrimage into their church’s history. Only, they didn’t look for the glory of the past, they looked for the action of God.
At our last meeting, I took my session on a pilgrimage. We didn’t go far. After all, a pilgrimage doesn’t always involve visiting holy sites around the world. A pilgrimage can be any kind of journey to a sacred place where we are reminded of our roots to prepare for the future.
My church was in need of just such a pilgrimage. We traveled back through the sacred history of the congregation we serve. We stayed seated in our own homes, appearing in squares on a Zoom screen. We traveled back in time through our collective memories to about 15 years ago.
Half of us had physically been in this church at that time and half of us had not. Yet, all of us were the recipients of the holy decisions made then. Fifteen years ago, this church family went through some turmoil. The trouble of this particular kind often divides a church, and in some cases sinks the ship entirely. Yet, this church family had not focused on the nature of the problem (the who, what, where, and whys). Instead, they decided to address the turmoil head-on. In response to a difficult circumstance, this church made the prayerful decision to forge ahead. To make hard but right decisions. To do the hard work of healing. To care for one another in the storm. To make a new path forward. To patch up the boat and raise new sails.
It was at this crossroads that I met these faithful pilgrims when they called me as their next pastor about 12 years ago. When we found each other, I was inspired by their ministry and their faithfulness. After what this church had been through, I could’ve found them broken and bruised. Yet, I found them energized and enlivened. I met a church whose elders, deacons and trustees took charge of its mission, ministry, worship and budget. I met a church family who cared deeply for each other. I met people who genuinely welcomed newcomers and gave them a place at the table. I met a congregation doing the beautifully chaotic work of ministry … together.
As a pastor, I was inspired. It’s why I felt called to First Presbyterian Church of Haddon Heights, and why I’ve stayed into a second decade. Because this determination to be God’s people who make faithful decisions together has gotten us through many difficulties in the last decade. Deaths of beloved leaders. Staff changes. Disagreements. Termites in the sanctuary. A sister church closing. Technology. COVID…
Now, as we face new challenges, our pilgrimage to the past is important. That trip down memory lane reminds us of who we are and whose we are. We are the people of God for this particular community in this particular time and space. This means we stand grounded on our foundations as we look ahead to God’s new thing. We don’t know exactly where God is leading us, but a memory pilgrimage can help to remember our past in order to know what’s possible in the future.
Yet, too often, when our churches take pilgrimages into the past, we remember different things: the fun programs, the vibrant youth group, a sanctuary packed so full we needed overflow seating. We look back and say: “those were the good ole days.”
However, this is a memory view, not a pilgrim’s view. A pilgrim doesn’t look at programs, a pilgrim looks for God. A pilgrim journeys with God for a long journey. A church pilgrim looks for the times when God showed up. The times when God’s people did hard things together. The times when God’s people worked together to spread Christ’s word, to care for people in need, to reach out to the community, to make the hard yet right decisions … together for Christ and for Christ’s church.
In our pilgrimage, we learned that God has brought us through before so we are assured that God will do it again. With a journey to our sacred past, we are confident that we can do hard things right now, where we are, with God’s help.
Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie have a beautiful new book of blessings entitled The Lives We Actually Have. Could we apply their concept to the church? What if the church didn’t bless what it used to be or what it wants to be, but bless what it actually is? Let us “bless the churches we actually have.” For in this sacred present place, we begin a new pilgrim’s journey.