Pilgrimage is Telling Our Story

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Greg Klimovitz is curating a series featuring those who made their pilgrimage to the Holy Land with NEXT Church from May 19-27, 2019. So much of the biblical story, especially the narratives that surround the work and witness of Jesus, occurred en route somewhere and in a context of political occupation, social, ethnic, and economic divisions, and conflict with religious and political powers that be. This month, contributors will contemplate “pilgrimage is…” as they ponder: where did you sense “God with us?” Where was “God with Us” more difficult to claim? How did you imagine leaning into “God with Us” as you returned home? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, even as you make your own pilgrimages this summer and beyond. After all, life is pilgrimage.

by Ben Kane

Every group has one. They are best described by their actions: the last person on the bus, the one who lingers at each site, the person the leaders must monitor and make sure they get back on the bus. “That Person” best describes this person. I was “That Person” on the NEXT Church Holy Land pilgrimage.

It started before I left Tarboro, when I decided to take a nice camera to capture the trip. Good pictures require time and effort so during the pilgrimage I developed a particular route to get the best pictures. Quickly move to an outside wall, take a wide, circuitous route to scan the entire church and determine where to visit. We only had so much time in each church, requiring us to make decisions. Being in the Holy Land, though, made deciding what to visit immensely more complicated, resulting in my lingering longer at each site. This tactic led me to achieve my title of “That Person” at the Church of All Nations.

Church of All Nations (Ben Kane)

Once inside the church, I found the outside wall when a Catholic Mass in the chancel drew my attention. Everything else went quiet; every other sight ceased to exist. The priest and worshippers lifted their thumbs, touched their foreheads, then their lips, and then their hearts — their movements synced, seemingly guided by a common string. Witnessing this collective movement whisked me back to second grade at St. Bernard’s Academy. There I sat on the side, in the Protestant section of the school’s cathedral while the Catholic students stood in the center aisle practicing the liturgy to receive their First Communion the following Sunday. They would feel God’s presence in the Eucharist and the priest invited them to touch their forehead, lips, and heart. God is always with us, he told us, and we are called to acknowledge God’s presence. I have never been Catholic, but I have borrowed this simple prayer ever since; rarely do you see others praying it, though.

While in my spiritual trance I heard Iyad, our guide’s voice in my ear, “Where’s Ben?” “I’m right here, Iyad,” I said turning around, reminded the earpieces we wore were only one-way communication devices. I stood alone in a sea of tourists. God’s presence surrounded me, but my group did not. After five minutes of fruitless searching, Bob, one of our leaders, entered the garden area outside the church, found me, and like a petulant child, he escorted me back to the group. The group shook their heads, my wife giving me “the eye” and later telling me if I did not stay with the group she would make me wear one of those backpacks with a leash children wear at amusement parks.

On a busy street in Jerusalem I was officially crowned, “That Person.” I tried to explain what happened inside, but the honking buses, sweaty tourists, and a playfully annoyed group left me no time to explain myself; instead, I accepted my title, grabbed a water bottle, bowed to the group, and walked to my seat.

This blog series asks us to finish the sentence, “Pilgrimage is______.” Pilgrimage is telling our story. What we experienced begs to be told. We walked in the footsteps of Christ learning the realities of life for Palestinian, Arab, and Israeli Christians, Muslims, and Jews today. We now know what a refugee camp smells like, how a settlement inflicts particular views and values upon its residents and those outside the walls; our experience forces us to watch the news and read the paper without scales on our eyes. Because of our experiences, we laughed, cried, lamented, celebrated, wondered, and worried. And now we are tasked with the call to reveal what made us laugh, cry, lament, celebrate, wonder, and worry. And our stories will do just that.

My story involves around what occurred in the Church of All Nations. I felt God’s presence and when I think about our experiences, when I look at the pictures we took, and when I answer the simple question, “How was your trip?” I cannot help but talk about all the times I felt God’s presence.

On our final night the group walked the shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea in Joppa. Bound by a common experience we knew would soon end, we wanted to linger and hold on to this trip. Pictures were taken, promises to keep in touch were made (imagine the last day of junior high, K.I.T.!), and expectations realized. I told a friend in response to her question, “How was this trip for you?” that after feeling God’s presence among everything I had seen and learned, I have a story to tell.

I did not get to tell the group why I was late leaving the Church of All Nations. Instead, I became “That Guy” on the trip. I wore (and still wear) that title with pride, because given the political, theological, social, and historical complexities of the Holy Land, I firmly believe we needed to laugh occasionally. We also need to make sure “That Guy” was on the bus where my fellow travelers had so many other stories to share.

Ben Kane is the spouse of Lydia, dad of Margot and Phoebe, lover of reading, writing, and running (so he can eat what he wants). He pastors with the good people of Howard Memorial Presbyterian in Tarboro, NC, a town that’s been called the “Crossroads of Western Civilization.”

Sources of New Life

by David Norse Thomas

Church conferences can be, lets face it, weird. Long exhausting days can overwhelm me with an even worse sense of imposters syndrome than my first few weeks of seminary. Sometimes I leave with a nagging feeling that maybe this was the year I should have organized a reading retreat with my friends with my continuing education funds instead. But this year, at the NEXT Church National Gathering, I had a uniquely different experience, and I’m not the only one. This month the NEXT Church blog will share the stories and insights of pastors who attended in person and virtually, and experienced new life and a deeper sense of hope for the people of God we call the Church.

This year, the gathering was in Seattle, and as a child of the Pacific Northwest, it wasn’t just the weather and the mountains that made me feel at home. For three days, I found myself engaging in the conversations with colleagues and friends, hearing from speakers doing the work that I see Jesus’ resurrection made visible in. This was a year full of honesty, tackling the ways in which we can be woven together too tightly without room for the people God is calling into our communities, speaking prophetic words about how we need to shift from constructs of racial reconciliation to repairing relationships and seeking reparations alongside our Black siblings, poetry that spoke to the power of being honest about how difficult the work of the Church can be, and where new life is showing up.

For me, one of the most powerful experiences was a workshop on utilizing design thinking in our congregations. Design thinking centers the experience of people and pushes us to creatively utilize the resources we have, instead of mourning what we lack. It is a powerful tool for opening leaders to new possibilities that God might be calling us to risk trying. In the workshop, we utilized the “Mission: Possible” game, and I took away two surprising paradoxical lessons from this experience. First, being encouraged to look at the resources we were given in the game (in the form of resource cards) set my imagination, and those of my table mates, to be creative with the skills and experiences we have. It seems so simple to start with the gifts God has given us in our congregations, but I realized that we so often start with what we lack, instead of giving thanks for God’s provision.

The other surprise came when our facilitators set firm time limits on our planning. Knowing that we had to make a decision freed us up to be more experimental, and to focus. This rang true personally for me. In my context at Maryland Presbyterian Church in Towson, MD, we have a firm deadline for when we have to become financially stable as a congregation, or begin to consider options like calling a part-time pastor, seeking to merge with another congregation, or consider selling our building. This deadline has unleashed unimaginable creativity, curiosity, and a willingness to risk failing that we would not have had otherwise. We have to act, and while we need to discern, decisions have to be made.

I returned from the NEXT Church National Gathering excited, ready to start from a place of gratitude and creativity, and I look forward to attending next year with more stories to tell. I ordered Mission: Possible for our next session meeting, and I am excited to see what our creative, motivated ruling elders dream up.

Rev. David Norse Thomas (he/him/his) is the pastor of Maryland Presbyterian Church in Towson, MD. Known as “the little Church in the woods,” and “the Church full of badass, progressive Grandmas, and everyone’s favorite Aunt and Uncle,” MPC is a dream congregation for Rev. Norse Thomas to explore what radical hospitality and community organizing can unleash in the hands of loving followers of Jesus.

Editor’s note: We invite you to dig more deeply into two of the stage presentations David references by watching the video recordings and engaging with the provided reflection questions: