It was a sunny day on Thursday, September 5 as I pulled out of our driveway in Bend, Oregon. Kim and I had said our goodbyes as she left for work. I had prepared for this adventure for over a year. This was the hardest part…actually getting in my ...
It was a sunny day on Thursday, September 5 as I pulled out of our driveway in Bend, Oregon. Kim and I had said our goodbyes as she left for work. I had prepared for this adventure for over a year. This was the hardest part…actually getting in my truck and leaving on a two-month plus road trip.
The reasons were simple. I wanted some time to process 40 years of church ministry in four states: Georgia, Ohio, Alaska, and Oregon. Plus I needed to stay away from my former congregation in order to give the new pastor time to bond with the people. What would God teach me? How much of my life as a Christ follower was linked to my role as a pastor? How would this new chapter affect my prayer life? How was I to respond to a life where my role would not matter as it did before? How would this new identity affect my marriage?
These kinds of questions swirled in my mind as I embarked on this journey into the unknown. I had spent months working on my truck, a 2012 Honda Ridgeline. I built a steel rack out of unistrut for my rooftop tent. Four solar panels mounted to the roof of the cab charged a lithium-ion battery that powered a small refrigerator and charged my phone. A propane powered hot water tank provided showers and cooking water. A 13 gallon water tank kept me hydrated. I built two cabinets with drawers, one for my clothes, and the other for my cooking needs. My ebike was folded and stored in the truck bed under the rooftop tent. I took lots of tools, first aid supplies, bike parts, and an extra sleeping bag for cold weather. I was ready.
But was I ready emotionally? Leaving Kim would be difficult. There would be periods of loneliness and discomfort. I was interested in answering this question. How much comfort do I need (want) in retirement? After years of backpacking and hiking, much of it in the north Georgia mountains, I was very familiar with the value of discomfort. One time I walked into the mountains on the Appalachian Trail on a solo survival trip. I took no provisions or equipment. I have to say that it was a much different experience without gear, one that I draw upon to this day as a source of strength and peace.
Now that this journey is finished my reflections have yielded these insights.
1. Discomfort can be good
The first night I spend with my brother, Brian, in Colorado at 10,000’ was the worst night of the entire trip. It was also my first experience with a panic attack. Thunderstorms, temperatures in the 30’s, and thin air caused me to feel trapped.
I have new respect for people who suffer from breathing difficulties or those with overwhelming anxiety. Even though this mantra was unable to comfort me that first night I knew that all would be well. My job was to pay attention to the discomfort and simply be with it for the moment.
2. Secular vs Sacred
In our Western world we love to put things into categories. We do this with people as well. One distinction that has not served us well is separating the secular from the sacred. In the interest of purity we believe that God is present in churches more than in the world. Religious people work hard on their belief systems. Our beliefs are better than your beliefs. Religion becomes distorted when it is based on this idea that one group has the real truth about God.
O my! God is everywhere! In the bison of Yellowstone, the ranch lands of eastern Oregon, the deserts of Utah, the mountain ranges of Colorado, the prairies of Kansas, the farmlands of Wisconsin, the small towns of Ohio, the treed mountains of Appalachia. In two months I only attended Sunday church 3 times. All of nature became my church!
3. Simple acts of kindness matter
As a pastor I confess to a certain amount of “leader weariness.” The gift of retirement is that people are no longer clamoring for my attention. I am left with the question, “Who am I as a child of God who used to be a pastor of an active church, but no longer?”
It was Sunday morning and I awoke in my camp sandwiched between the Colorado River and the cliffs of Moab, Utah. I decided I would do church on a hike. I asked a family in the parking lot of the trailhead for a garbage bag. They eagerly obliged when I said I wanted to pick up trash along the trail. So I spent the morning walking, praying, and picking up trash.
Later at that same camp guys were finishing a 30 mile mountain bike event. Most ran out of water on the trail. There was no water at the campground but I had a 13 gallon water tank. So I spent the day being the unofficial water station for bikers with parched throats.
God showed me that while I am no longer leading a congregation with multiple ministries, I can focus on simple acts of kindness. This is my life now, and it feels very good.
4. I like being with me
I discovered that I really enjoy travelling alone. I recall the sense of excitement as I left one place visiting with family or friends. The open road was calling and I embraced it, even when Kansas winds ripped my rooftop tent apart. It was just God and me on the prairie figuring out how to proceed when the hardtop shell covering my tent was shredded by the strong winds. I didn’t panic and faced the situation as it was. In a nearby town a detour took me by a Harbor Freight store where I bought a tarp and bungee cords to lash down the tent. After a day’s drive I had all the tools needed to make the repairs. A tarp company in Salinas, Kansas, interrupted their work to make me a custom heavy duty tarp which actually worked better than the hard shell. Thanks be to God.
5. God’s creation still takes my breath away I grew up in Ohio and spent time in Georgia. But I have to say that I could spend the rest of my life just exploring the beauty of the western U.S. The Grand Tetons were spectacular. I camped in the backcountry outside Jackson, Wyoming on a gurgling river. I marveled at the geology of Utah and hiked up to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. Everywhere I drove or hiked I asked questions about how this scene came to be. I wracked my brain trying to imagine the movement of the earth over millions of years. I read every sign that tried to educate me about the sight before my eyes.
Everywhere I went my eyes beheld the beauty of God.
6. Family and friends make the journey rich
There was an interesting interplay between hitting the road knowing I was going to see family or friends. Every 3-4 days I had planned to visit folks. My first stop was in Walla Walla, Washington to see good friends, Ann and Ellen. Then a stop in Baker, Oregon to see Don Hanna, an old friend from seminary who operates a cattle ranch. It had been 38 years since we were together.
A highlight was camping with my two brothers, Tim and Brian, at Molas Lake Campground near Silverton, Colorado for 10 days. It had been decades since the three of us spent time together. The last time we nearly burned down a campground in South Carolina. This time we just hiked and sat by the fire and talked. Then it was time with an old Alaska colleague, Jim Campbell, in Beulah, CO. And my cousin, Steve Beckett and his beautiful family in Baraboo, Wisconsin. My brother’s family in Waynesville, Ohio and my wife’s family in Dayton and Sidney, Ohio.
My two sons flew from Anchorage to Columbus where we experienced an Ohio State football game in the rain. Then we drove to Orangeburg, SC to visit my parents.
By this time I was ready to head home and set off on a westerly route through the South. I got to see Paul Christman, a professor in performance arts at Oklahoma University. Paul was a teenager in my youth group in Sidney. We hadn’t seen each other for 38 years!
What I learned was that I could be in ministry wherever I traveled with whoever I saw. In Atlanta an old friend needed me to listen to the story of his spiritual journey. My parents needed me to hear their struggles with growing old. A couple needed me to remind them of the bond they had left when they moved from Oregon to Arizona. My aunt and cousin needed me to understand how they were dealing with a divorce and a death in the family.
God showed me that ministry does not need to be formalized and set within the context of a congregation with me as their pastor. It can happen wherever I am.
Final thoughts. Oh, I had better answer your question about the title of this piece: Bridges Ice Before Roadways. Do you know that this sign is posted at every bridge in this country? I don’t know why but seeing it numerous times every day became a tad annoying. Do people really need a reminder at every bridge, especially when a freeze may come along once or twice a year?
When it comes to experiencing God’s grace on the journey of life, do we need constant reminders? Probably so. After 9000 miles and over two months I can say that I need to be reminded of the deep joy and peace that comes with a relationship with God in Jesus Christ. And I am especially grateful to my partner in life and ministry, Kim Beckett. She grew some with this experience and we are closer for it. My role has changed in terms of how I relate with the United Methodist Church. But my identity as a child of God is still my primary identity. And this I will take with me into my life beyond my last breath on this earth! Let the journey continue!
I am so glad I built a week of being home with Kim. I blew out the irrigation lines, changed her tires, covered the camper and several other to do lists. Enjoyed making name plates on wood with my new CNC machine. Made one major mistake on the church welcome center sign which bummed me. Kim reminded me that we are about grace, not perfection. I seem to recall hearing this recently. Flying back to Chicago late Saturday night. Wonder how I will do on a red eye.
Got to visit my cousin, Steve Beckett, who is a retired veterinarian in Baraboo, WI. Rode motorcycles 100 miles through the rolling dairy farms. Like riding in a Hallmark card. Changing leaves added so much. Went to their UM church for dinner and met the pastor there.
Walked their two dogs in a nearby state park and got to know his 3 granddaughters. Left Saturday morning to drive 3 hr to Chicago and flew home.
Drove through the farmlands of northern Illinois and into Wisconsin. Got to a nice state park in Wisconsin Dells and the fees were $46 per night. Found a lovely motel for $39 in the Dells. This area is packed with entertainment venues, theme park, river cruises, and shopping.