Conflict and Pastors

There are a lot of old jokes that are built on the common experience that churches are places of conflict.

The New Testament epistles are nearly all written because churches were in conflict. Sometimes internal, sometimes external but the presence of people seems to always bring with it some conflict.

And I think this is a good thing.

When I look back over my own life, all 57 or 58 years of it (I’m old enough now I can’t quickly remember which of those it’s been), conflict has been the location of my most significant growth, the most important life lessons and the forge of some of the most meaningful and lasting relationships in my life.

But I don’t love conflict. And normally I don’t look for conflict. But neither am I afraid of conflict nor do I attempt to avoid it.

I was downtown with my wife and as we walked through the crosswalk, a truck turned and went right through the crosswalk in front of us, nearly hitting my wife. Not being conflict adverse, I left my wife to get across on her own and I chased the truck on foot until it came to a stop at the end of the block. I knocked on the driver’s window who was surprised to see me but rolled down his window. We had a short but important conversation about the rules of the road. Arguably it wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done in my life (according to my wife) but sometimes conflict has to happen, or we never grow or learn or get better.

Let me tell you about my Regional Leaders in the denomination of which I’m a part. A very small and inconsequential part.

Our denomination has currently set up the U.S. into a number of regions and each of those regions – more than a dozen, less than twenty – have regional leaders. Those leaders are given the task of – well to be honest, I’m not entirely clear on their task as it seems to vary from region to region – but among their task is dealing with conflict from people like me. This is all done aside from their real jobs as pastors of a local church. Typically, our regional leaders are chosen because they pastor the largest church in the region unless their church is so large, mega-sized, that they get their own transregional group of other megas.

Are you with me so far?

So, these regional leaders are not necessarily chosen for their aptitude for working with pastors or because they have the skill set deemed necessary for the role but rather because they pastor the largest church in a given region.

And that brings me to my regional leaders and conflict.

Our very first meeting – literally – was full of conflict. Not conflict they were looking for or intending to create but my reaction to choices that had been made about our area led me to engage in a conflict with them.

Let me push pause on that for a second and tell you how conflict often goes in the church.

One man I know, who was a mega-pastor, was confronted about something he’d done by another staff pastor. The mega-pastor’s response was to “promote” this staff pastor to “campus pastor” status of a satellite church very far away from the main campus. He didn’t promote him immediately but within a couple weeks his response to confrontation and conflict was to remove the irritation.

Later, it would come out that this man, my friend, had been having an affair and a long list of similar unhealthy ways of handling conflict with other pastors would come to light.

Sometimes the pastor or leader can’t “promote” someone so instead, they themselves leave.

Or they cry “insubordination!” and have the person leaning into the conflict marginalized, ostracized or properly religiously shunned by other members of the church.

Or they just let a few well-placed people know a bit of information about the person engaged in conflict that may or may not be true – it just has to be possibly true – and soon we have teams and nearly all church people will side with he or she who has the most power. In some churches I’ve been in that was clearly the man pastoring the church and in another church it was the auntie of the church who was the treasurer and decided what did and didn’t get spent.

I even know of one man, leader of a whole movement of churches, who choked out one of the other leaders of that movement over a conflict they were having.

Often, in response to conflict, pastors will try to reorganize their church in a way that insulates them from conflict. They will create layers of bureaucracy to avoid every having to deal with a person or group of conflict. It usually goes something like this – if you have an issue, you need to take it up with your home group (small group) leader – if you don’t have one we won’t hear the issue until you have one and have vetted the issue with them (usually him). Then, if you have a home group leader and submit it to them, they will discuss it with the appropriate leadership – if deemed necessary – and get back to you.

The more layers of bureaucracy generally the deeper the fear of conflict and the felt need to insulate from criticism and the hoi polloi. People at the grass roots know that a bigger bureaucracy will not serve the people. A bigger bureaucracy is always intended to protect the bureaucracy. People in power tend to use their power to stay in power.

That’s normal.

So that brings us to my regional leaders. If you remember, I said our relationship started in conflict. But it didn’t end there. Neither our relationship nor our conflict. Numerous times I have reacted to things that have been handed down to us from on high and my regional leaders have born the weight of the conflict generated by those pronouncements and decisions or lack of decisions.

And my regional leaders have handled conflict with me over and over and over again by engaging with me. By listening to me. By asking me questions. By keeping me included in everything else going on in our region – looking for ways to make me feel included and feel like I matter to them. Their approach to our conflicts has left me feeling listened to even when nothing changed and valued even when I didn’t get my way or they still didn’t see things my way.

Here’s the thing, they didn’t have to do that. They didn’t have to respond that way. That’s not “normal” in our movement.

But this is what good leaders do. This is what good pastors do. They meet you in the conflict and they listen and they seek common ground and they look for ways to make sure you don’t feel marginalized for speaking up.

They don’t spank you or punish you for sharing honest answers to their honest questions. They seek to understand your heart and not simply defend their own.

My regional leaders have had phone calls with me, in person conversations, email exchanges and invitations into their home, around their table and opportunities to contribute in conversations of substance.

And to drink wine.

Knowing that I might say something that won’t be from the party line – in fact, knowing I might say something that criticizes the party line – they still make space for me and my voice. While i sit silently, one of my RLs loves to ask, “and Brian, what are YOU thinking?” She knows what this could start and I love her courage and pastor’s heart for being willing to get it started.

And, this is important, it’s not because they agree with me, it’s because they want to provide healthy leadership for me. It’s because they want to be like Jesus to me.

I know that my regional leaders would never want to do church the way we do church here in our local church. I would drive them crazy by doing things they way I do and I know that. We don’t see eye to eye on everything or even a lot of things maybe. But our relationship has not been based on my ability to keep it conflict free or conform to their way of doing things, it has been based on their will to love me the best they can and enter into these things with me. That’s what good leaders do.

One of my regional leaders often tells me that she is a practitioner. She wants to know how all my thinking stuff intersects with real life stuff and if it doesn’t have some practical real life application, she doesn’t see much use in it. I need her pushback to clarify things and make these connections. My other regional leader has pushed back on things I’ve said and even pulled the dad card on me, “because I said so.” And truthfully, I hate that answer, but it was his honest answer and it wasn’t his final answer (sort of) and it wasn’t the “final word and we must never speak of this again.” He’s patiently listened to my pushbacks without having to give up any ground while making space for me to feel heard.

What I’m trying to say is that good leaders pushback. They don’t enter conflict merely as spectators but they get in and wrestle with you.

I’ve talked with others in our movement who just listen. Just take it all in and you never really know where they are, what they think about you or the topic or if they even have an opinion. This is great for a therapist but not so great for a pastor or leader engaged in spiritual formation and development. I’ve been engaged with churches and movements that deal with conflict by putting a suggestion box in the back of the room and promise to read every comment that comes in but not necessarily engage with them. This is bread and circuses, a distraction meant to relieve pressure the hoi polloi are under and create the impression but not reality that those with power are listening to those without.

Conflict is a part of life. A good part of life if we handle it in a way that looks like Jesus, looks for Jesus and is invested in growing people and not protecting ourselves or our positions. Conflict can be the catalyst for amazing growth personally, professionally and organizationally when we handle conflict with grace and purpose. I’m grateful for the regional leaders I have had in the movement of which I am a part. As change is forecast, even if the forecast keeps changing, I will be very sorry to find myself with new leaders if they are adverse to conflict and fail to see it as an opportunity rather than something to be avoided.

Camino Diary, Day 24

As we left in a drizzle in the early morning darkness we came across the sole of a shoe right outside our albergue. “Someone’s lost their sole on the Camino.” I thought. I didn’t know it then but the walk that day would be one of the most challenging that my soul would experience on our whole journey.

At first light we faced a choice. The Way ahead was following the highway again and Bill had an alternate route from the Brierley book. He was eager to get off the road and take the other route so we retraced our steps until we found where the divergent path started. I looked at my app map of the Camino and…nothing. This path didn’t exist. But Brierley assured us it was there so off we went.

We walked along a secondary road away from the main highway and, it felt, away from civilization. The golden arrows and distance markers we were used to were not to be found. That provoked my anxiety and the further we went in what seemed to me to be the wrong direction, the more nervous I was feeling. Bill was map reading, comparing topography, looking for assurance we were still going to end where we wanted to that day.

Eventually we walked into a tiny village. Still asleep, still and quiet. Except for the dogs. Dogs everywhere. As one barked, others woke up and started barking in return and soon it felt like we were surrounded by growly, barky, snarly dogs with no sign of people to keep them from eating us. It was at the edge of this village that we went “off road” and onto a path that plunged into the woods. It was a long time before we saw any indication that we were on a Camino route. Up we went, up and up, Bill navigating us along with a very simple map to go by.

I was looking at our surroundings. I noticed ATV tracks in the mud along the path. I saw some abandoned looking buildings in fenced fields and more tracks from ATVs and what might have been a motorcycle or two. It’s hard for me to describe how remote I felt we were. There were no other pilgrims on this way, no footprints or markers, no sound or sign of other human life along the path we were on. But I had a growing certainty that we were likely going to stumble on some drug growing op in between the mountain we’d just come over and the one ahead of us we still had to climb.

As we climbed down the mountain we came across a couple deer, grazing, who looked up at us trying to figure out what kind of animal we were and why were there. Another spot along the way we came  across two calves who had managed to get from their side of the fence and onto the path we were on. Their mother mooed at them with increasing anxiety as we approached. We helped them find another place along the way where they could cross through the fence and back into the field with their momma. She watched us and them the whole way until they crossed over and were beside her again.

We emerged from the alternate route exactly where we needed to be and just in time for a late lunch – bocadillo with jamon y queso and freshly squeezed orange juice. The freshly squeezed orange juice along the Camino was amazing – both the machines that were filled with oranges that cut and juiced them as we watched. A couple we hadn’t seen since Leon were there and we caught up a bit as they waited for horses to return for them to ride them up the next mountain to O Cebreiro.

After we ate and rested a bit we got up and out and started walking up again. My body was not happy. It felt like my body was rebelling, insisting we’d already done a mountain today and it didn’t feel like doing another one. But up we went anyway. Eventually we stopped for the night, 4.5 kilometers from the summit. We had another nice albergue, were able to get our clothes washed, had good showers and went to work on my feet. They were sore and blistered and I had made a huge mistake. A large blistered had covered the ball of my right foot and seeking to protect it, I covered it with a compeed. But when I tried to remove the compeed that night the entire top of the blister came off with it. It didn’t really hurt but it was messy and raw. I treated it and recovered it and prayed there wouldn’t be any infection.

I wasn’t looking forward to putting it back in my shoe in the morning.

But the pain I was feeling most deeply that night was the pain that came from being distant from my family. If I thought about them for very long I would start to cry.

Bed Time on the Camino

I did receive word that day that my friend who I had been praying for was showing signs of improvement. I had prayed for some very specific improvements and it sounded like some of those things were actually starting to happen. It seemed God was doing something tangible, and I was encouraged to keep asking for more.

Camino Diary, Day 23

On a morning we could sleep in, we woke up early. The rhythm has become early to bed and early to rise. This isn’t every pilgrim’s rhythm but we have settled into and it was working well for us. So by 7:40 a.m. we were making our way out of Cacabelos and further along the Way.

Early on we came to the official marker that we were only 200 kilometers away from Santiago. Then we were back into active vineyards until we reached Villa del Bierzo. Alone this stretch we came across a house on a hill, surrounded by the vineyard. It was white and stood out in the landscape in a way that guaranteed it would be one of the most photographed houses along the Camino.

As we walked by, a Spanish couple were coming down a different path. They were well dressed and were obviously locals, maybe even owners of the vineyard. They were also yelling at each other in Spanish. I said, “good morning” to them in Spanish and wished them a Buen Camino. They ignored me but stopped yelling at each other. At least for a moment as we pilgrims walked by.

At Villafranca del Bierzo we faced a choice. First we chose the path that looked easiest but then realized it would be following the highway and we’d be walking beside traffic and road the whole rest of the way. Then we opted to retrace our steps and take an alternate path, maybe an older path. That way led up. And up. We walked a long time and expended a lot of energy before we had walked one kilometer.

But once we were up we were rewarded by the view. It felt like the road less taken. We say six other pilgrims on this way. Eventually we found ourselves not only surrounded by beauty but covered by rain. The way forward got wet and muddy. It was a longer way but we were compensated. Slipping in and out of conversation with God seems so easy on the Way. It felt like God was walking with me in ways that were new and tangible.

We arrived at Trebadelo, high above the town. As we descended and found our Albergue we also realized we were tired, soaked and very hungry. We walked back out to the edge of town near the highway and when in to a restaurant that seemed uninterested or unwilling to have our business. It could have been time of day or it could have been that we looked like drown rats but eventually we were seated and we were through our first basket of bread and onto our second. We enjoyed a filling meal and then made our way to our albergue for the night which felt like an old inn that was being run by a delightful woman who welcomed us in and made us feel at home.

Some of my Camino lessons from this day were:

1) Your goal is always further away than it looks – BUT – you will get there if you don’t give up.

2) Sometimes the hardest way provides the greatest rewards.

3) Sometimes the dodgiest exteriors hide the greatest treasure.

My final note on this day was, “It is hard to believe that 2 weeks today, Bill will be home and I will be in Ireland. And life will get complicated again. Things stay pretty simple on the Camino.”

Brian vs. the Clear Reading of Scripture, pt. 2

I still remember when a man in the church divorcing his wife and marrying another was instant disqualification from ministry. Why were we picking on people whose marriage ended because of divorce? Because we followed the Bible. “For example, a man who divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery. And anyone who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Lk 16:18) Seems pretty clear, eh?

Today I know many men in senior pastor roles who have gotten divorced and eventually remarried.

Did we just give in to culture? Did we just abandon our moral convictions in order to accommodate our will to divorce? I have to admit that it’s entirely possible we did. But I can also tell you that there have been a pile of books and papers written on the New Testament passages on divorce that offer alternative readings of the text – scholarly examinations – studied conclusions – that some of us (but definitely not all of us) acknowledge and that leave enough room for conversation that we’re not ready to drawn lines that leave divorced people forever out of pastoral ministry or the church or the opportunity to remarry.

But some still do.

Because of the clear reading of Scripture.

My daughter was discussing her sense of being called to pastoral ministry with a co-worker while they shared a break together. Her co-worker was a student at a nearby Baptist seminary and he assured my daughter, in between sucking on his “break joint,” that her desire for ministry was from the devil and God couldn’t forgive her if she continued to do ministry in the church. He clarified that she could teach children but never teach or preach to men. God forbids it.

Having been part of a movement of churches that hold to the complementarian view, I was familiar with his argument. It wasn’t made up out of thin air or a modern influence. “Women should learn quietly and submissively. I do not let women teach men or have authority over them. Let them listen quietly.” (1 Ti 2:11-12) and “Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. They should be submissive, just as the law says. If they have any questions, they should ask their husbands at home, for it is improper for women to speak in church meetings.” (1 Co 14:34-35)

I’m currently a part of another network of churches but in this network, women can preach and teach and lead in a local church in every way that a man does. Not in all of our churches. But in many and maybe even most of them. Yet we also have an international director of our movement who has preached to a room full of men and women but who, in years past, preached to a room full of women only. In that room was a friend of mine from Northern Ireland and she recounted how this woman, before she was an international leader of our movement, told those women that they should not be preaching to men and needed to stay in submission to their husbands and leave the preaching to them.

I’ve changed my mind. She’s changed her mind. Not because we are capitulating to culture – though men in the Neo-Reformed camp would say otherwise – but because we’ve developed a more generous orthodoxy and come to acknowledge that there are other readings of the text that arrive at a different conclusion. The text hasn’t changed. Your Bible still says exactly what is printed above. But we’ve been offered alternative readings on divorce and women in ministry that we have liked and adopted as legitimate.

But there are other passages about other things – the clear teaching of Scripture – that we have not adopted alternative readings or applications of but rather rejected. It’s not that I think a person has to adopt all the alternative readings that come along but I do think we need to make space for one another and recognize that real scholarship and honest reasoning has taken place in developing those alternative readings and we need to respect and be willing to make room at the table for those who have adopted those alternative readings and interpretations.


That’ not really what I’m saying but thank you for asking.

I’m saying this is exactly why God gives us scholars and theologians and pastors and apostles. I’m saying that we have people given to us by God who can sit down together and work through some of these alternative readings about different issues and come to a conclusion together that “seems right to us and the Holy Spirit.” (Ac 15:28) Let me be really clear though. I’m not talking about a hierarchy of administration or denominational leadership. I’m talking about gathering those who the beloved community itself can testify are people gifted in theology and biblical scholarship and who care for people and the mission of the Church. Include people who have skin in the game like Paul, advocating for the inclusion of Gentiles in Acts 15.

Once, in the church I was in that was determined to restore new testament Christianity, we had a couple start attending our service and the woman always wore a hat. It was always just big enough to make a statement. Meeting them and getting to know their story they didn’t waste any time in making sure my friend, our senior pastor, knew they had an agenda. They wanted to know, if we were a New Testament church, why were we ignoring the clear teaching of Scripture that women were to wear head coverings in worship? “But a woman dishonors her head if she prays or prophesies without a covering on her head, for this is the same as shaving her head. Yes, if she refuses to wear a head covering, she should cut off all her hair! But since it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut or her head shaved, she should wear a covering.” (1 Co 11:5-6)

We replied as we had been taught – this was a cultural command, not a permanent command. We don’t have to follow that anymore.

I wasn’t prepared for their next question. “Where does the Bible say we don’t have to follow cultural commands?” Or their second question, “What makes this a cultural command? Paul ties the command to Creation and to the angels of God and doesn’t seem to leave room for taking this as a temporary command.”

Again, I’m not trying to convince you of anyone’s rightness or wrongness with that story – I’m just trying to illustrate that “the main and the plain” should always be followed with a qualifying question – “WHOSE main and WHOSE plain?” It’s difficult to engage with the Church today and not acknowledge that we have a wide range of hot takes in the Church about what constitutes the main or the plain teaching of Scripture.

And, “because we say so” is an inadequate response of any group of leaders.

And one more time, for the sake of clarification, I am NOT saying that NOTHING is clear or that we should accept everything as true just because someone else insists it is. All I’m saying is that we can do better than we are doing and we can look to the Scriptures and church history to find ways that maintains integrity and the church practice of collective discernment aided by the gifts of scholars, theologians, apostles and pastors that God has given us. Settling for expediency or convenience or what agrees with me seldom arrives at a healthy conclusion.

In the group of churches in which I pastor now, it only takes a quick Google search to discover that some other Christians consider us a cult or at least cult-like. There have been books written about us warning people how evil we are. Isn’t that cool? It’s always a mystery to me how groups like ours, with a story like that, could then turn on other people who want to be in our group and rather than include them, exclude them for that one thing they read differently than “we” read. I guess it’s because of my own story that I’ve been sharing here and how many times I’ve found myself in a group that’s been defined “out” by others.

I’ve been rewired – and I blame God. Today I find myself in sync with the words of a song by my friend Andrew Smith and I will end this long post with these simple, true words that shape my relationships with others and my approach to “the main and the plain” and the “clear teaching of scripture.”

But I don’t want to fight in your holy war
How can I defend myself anymore
I don’t want to live in your us and them world
God knows there is only us
– Andrew Smith, Holy War.

Brian vs. the Clear Reading of Scripture

I write for many reasons but one reason, and it’s not a little one, is so that my kids and their kids will understand how their dad got this way. They may or may not ever read this but their confusion won’t be because I didn’t try. And that’s not a bad thing.

One thing that has shaped my current reading of the Bible is the experiences I have had, since becoming a Christian, with other Christians, some really smart Christians, some truly genius Christians who have forgotten way more than I’ll ever know – and what they tell me is so.

Fresh from telling Jesus I would follow him and do life his way (before I had a clue what I was really getting into), I went off to Bible college to become a missionary. The group of churches that I was a part of at that time used slogans like “where the Bible speaks, we speak. Where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” And they said, “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible.” The Bible, obviously, was very important to them and they saw it not only as God’s Word but the way to unity for a fractured Church. If we’d just read the Bible and do what the Bible says the way the Bible says to do it and call Bible things by Bible names, we would suddenly find ourselves caught up in unity faster than a counselor at a Billy Graham crusade could get your name down on a decision card.

That tribe sees patterns in the New Testament for what people sometimes call ecclesiology – the nature and structure of the Church. Critics among the denominations would ask us, “which New Testament church are you trying to restore?” meaning, they were all a mess, so good luck with that. And we would shake our heads at the silliness of their question – none  of the above, was our answer, we’re after restoring the church of Jesus’ intent, the church you can read about in and between the lines. The Church Jesus talked about and Paul described in his letters to imperfect churches.

The point was never to restore a particular New Testament church but to restore the Church of the New Testament.

But that pursuit, for the sake of unity, often meant we were at odds with every other church in town. At Christian gatherings in the city we were often the odd group out because of where we understood the place of baptism, the mode of baptism and the purpose of baptism to be in God’s plan of salvation. Or it might have been because we believed that once the New Testament was written, the need for and practice of miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit was done. Or we had no pastors, we only had ministers because a pastor is an elder, not a minister…’cause the Bible tells me so.

And women must keep quiet in the church and learn in submission to men whose genitals make them particularly equipped in some mysterious way, to perform the work of church leadership, preaching and teaching (except of children and occasionally on the mission field in extreme situations of need). Thus sayeth the Lord.

When our Scotch Presbyterian founders formed this movement in the wee hours of the 19th century, it was not without some controversy. When they decided that infant baptism would no longer be practiced because it was not practiced in the New Testament and that only adult believers would be baptized by immersion – besides creating an endless discussion on who was an ‘adult’ – it caused one of the men to break fellowship, remarking to the others, “I never thought I would see the day when we would forsake the sacred words of Jesus to suffer the little children to come unto him.”

Our founder, turning the other men assembled asked, “Who will volunteer to go after Brother ________ and tell him that that’s not what that verse means?”

I’m telling you that story because that’s how old people get to their point if they can remember what point they were trying to make in the first place.

And I do, and here it is – I’ve been around a while and I’ve been very committed to the plain reading of Scriptures that I’ve learned other devout, passionate followers of Jesus don’t read the same way my friends in that movement of churches do. What I once considered the “clear teaching of Scripture,” I’ve learned is considered down right murky or even misused and abused by some of my Christian friends – some of whom are pastors and authors and theologians. I’ve read enough books and articles and listened to enough sermons and lectures that turn on the phrase, “of course we KNOW the passage can’t mean what it says…” to get too enthusiastic when someone insists to me that their take, or their groups take on a particular thing from the Scripture is “the clear teaching of Scripture.”

I’m telling you this because I believe “the clear teaching of Scripture” is often a myth we use to empower our group over and against the well-being and interests of others.

“Are you saying there are no clear teachings in Scripture? Are you saying we can’t even believe what the Gospels say about Jesus…you neolibtard fool?”

No, but thank you for asking the question so I can clarify. I’m saying that collectively we need to relate to one another with humility and charity and a generous orthodoxy. I’m saying that knowing how spectacularly the Bible has been misused (in my opinion) to support things like Crusades, blowing up abortion clinics, supporting slavery, opposing inter-racial marriage and anti-Semitism, we need to hold loosely onto our definition of “clear” and “obvious” and “simple.”  

I’ve been among Catholics who were some of the most profoundly Jesusy people I’ve ever met. I’ve been among Charismatics who were some of the most profoundly Jesusy people I’ve ever met. I met Jesus through a Baptist friend – so even there one might find Jesusy people who reveal God to people. (I kid, of course, you definitely can find at least one.) What I’ve learned is that my interpretation of Scripture and my decisions about how to apply it, will never be the basis of unity. What I’ve learned is that relationship built on love is the basis of Christian unity. And I think if we’d give up proving we have God approval by proving how wrong everyone else is – or at least not as ‘right’ as us, we might discover something beautiful again that the World still longs for.

I once stood on a platform with a bunch of other pastors from all sorts of other churches and denominations and charismaticy persuasions. And we were all having a wonderful Kumbaya moment until the independent, Pentecostal pastor asked us – the collective us – the other pastors in the tea and biscuits room after the event, “just to be clear, none of you would approve of a man being a pastor if he’d divorced his wife and married another?” Our small room suddenly felt about three times smaller and inevitably all of our eyes fell onto a pastor in the room, sitting as suddenly quiet as the rest of us, who we all knew had, in fact, divorced his wife and married another.”

In fact, I think the man asking the question already knew that too.

(and so ends part one of Brian vs. The Clear Reading of Scripture – join us next week for the exciting second part of our tale.)

Camino Diary, Day 22

Up before dawn, some were gone before we made it down to breakfast and others were still in their bunks. Toast and cereal were what was for breakfast and that counted as a pretty good first breakfast. We found our poles, our packs, got our shoes on (my blisters complained) and started our urban hike out of Ponferrada and back onto the Camino. As daylight started to break, we made it to the edge of town and into the countryside.

After a few miles we found ourselves walking down the center of a small town where, obviously, several pilgrims had stopped for the night. As Bill and I came through town the other pilgrims were starting their walk and for a little while their shambling gate reminded me of the walking dead as this large group found their rhythm for the day.

As we went through another town the Way started to climb and just before it did we noticed a winery on the left that advertised a special deal on food and wine for pilgrim. When in Spain you, well, drink wine when it’s offered to you. So Bill and I stopped. It was only 10 a.m. so I chose a glass of rosé and an empanada. We sat outside at a table by the door and watched car and pilgrim traffic pass by. Sharing our table were two men from Taiwan, pilgrims that we had met a couple nights before at the albergue. We caught up a bit and Harry, his English name that he gave us, explained that both he and his friend were newly retired and thought that was the time to walk the Camino. Sharing second breakfast in Spain with two new friends from Tawain and my friend Bill, sipping wine before first lunch was one of those beautiful “this is why we’re doing this” moments for me.

Eventually we came to more vineyards where they were harvesting grapes. They loaded the clusters (clumps?) into baskets and then onto trucks. It was an amazing gift to walking through at just that moment to experience the harvest. Further along we came across an oasis for pilgrims. A small trailer in a wooded lot beside a stream, food and drinks for sale, leather chairs and hammocks sat out for pilgrims to rest in while they refreshed. It was too early for us to stop but it looked inviting.

We were walking a consistent number of miles each day but I did not factor into my mileage plan that by the fourth week I would be weighing less and able to walk more. So once again we arrived too early to check in to our accommodations for the night. My strategy, with so many pilgrims on the Way with us and so much competition for bed space, was to choose places to stop that were not all the traditional stages of the Camino Frances. For that night, we ended up in Cacabelos, at the Hostal Santa Maria, which unexpectedly turned out to be a posh place to stay.

Once again we had happened on a place that gave us towels and our own bathroom. What used to be “normal” now felt very extravagant.

We were able to check in after 2pm and once in our room and once I got over my excitement at how surprisingly nice it was, I fell asleep for a hard hour. Then I got up, showered and we went out to explore the town, just in time for siesta. Even though we were into week four, I still had not completely caught on to the rhythm of siesta as the new normal. We wandered around and explored long enough that things started to re-open and we found a place serving burgers and fries and a beer and lemonade mixture that was dangerous. A lot of people try all kinds of foods they’ve never had before during their pilgrimage. We did that too but sometimes it just felt comforting to order something that made us feel closer to home.

When I left for the Camino I also left my granddaughter who wasn’t quite 3 years old yet. One of the things I didn’t think about until I was on the Camino was that I was going to be out of her life for 2 months all together during my sabbatical – 5 weeks in Spain and then 3 weeks in the U.K. At my age that’s not much time but for a little girl who isn’t quite three it represents a significant percentage of her life so far. There were many days on the Camino that I didn’t wonder if she would even recognize me when I got home – or if she did recognize me, if she would want anything to do with me anymore.

Would I become a stranger?

Camino Diary, Day 21

These are posts in which I relate the story of my walk on the Camino de Santiago with my friends Bill and Derrick in September/October 2019.

We left in the dark. It was becoming the new normal as sunrise was coming later and later. The day started with a good breakfast and conversation with fellow pilgrims before we tried to find the little yellow arrows with our headlamps in the dark. Thankfully, first light hit around 7:40 a.m. and we could move more quickly and find our way more easily. Bill and I were both very wary of missing an arrow in the dark and having to eventually backtrack a significant portion of our walk because we missed a turn.

As we walked along the Camino an idea came to me for a business venture when we returned home – a food truck that sold the Spanish Tortilla and the classic Jamon y queso bocadillos we saw everywhere, along with other Camino cuisine.

I’d eat there.

Our walk for the day, a Sunday, was shorter than we thought it would be and we walked into Ponferrada earlier than our albergue was open for new guests. But we were able to have a conversation with our hosts and we shared a Canadian connection and between my bad French and my bad Spanish we worked it out to leave our bags and explore the city. They gave us directions that would take into the old city and we started walking.

Along the way we decided that it was time for second breakfast, Bill and I numbered our meals now and this helped us to keep up with the proverb we’d learned the day before we started walking, “Eat before you are hungry.” Our daytime meals were never big and never left us feeling uncomfortably full. Sometimes they didn’t even leave us feeling full. It was just fuel for the walking.

We saw a small café that appeared to be open, so we wandered inside in search of café con leche and tortilla. There were two people already inside, the owner, a man, and a woman who was his wife or girlfriend. It was Sunday and it became clear they weren’t really open but they welcomed us, had us sit and went to work fixing us two coffees and heating up some tortilla for us. Then they went beyond normal service and they brought out extra food we hadn’t ordered – toast with jamon, some version of ketchup spread on bread – no charge for the extras – I’m almost certain they were a Muslim couple practicing their faith and showing us pilgrims what hospitality looked like.

I had spent more energy getting there than I thought I had. This was like a little oasis for us and we left feeling energized and like we had wandered into yet another “the Camino provides” moments.

After our second breakfast, we made our way to the castle. We happened to arrive when a medieval demonstration was taking place and we were soon walking among knights and friars and kings and queens of Spain. Pilgrim’s entered for a reduced rate simply by showing our credentials. It was an amazing restoration and a very enjoyable time to walk the stones and watch the reenactments and take the time to record a video message for our family and friend at home from the castle wall.

After we returned to our albergue we got our room, cleaned up, sorted out our bunks – I was on the top bunk, Bill was on the bottom. We met the two older, Italian pilgrims we shared the room with and then we went into the main living area to meet other pilgrims and catch up on messages from home. While we sat, the Irish ladies we had walked with early on in our journey, Patricia and Katherine, walked in to check in for the night. It was amazing to see them again, to catch up and share stories.

That night we ate dinner with them at our albergue in a great community meal. We also shared the table with Paul from Australia, a maths teacher on his sabbatical with his wife who was at another table. Patricia and Katherine kept us all entertained, as Bill said, “There were a hoot!”

As I sat checking messages before bed, I received one from Canada. A friend was letting me know that it had just been announced that the church Donna and I had planted with friends almost 16 years before, was closing. It stirred up a lot of emotions and thoughts and I wondered at the timing that it should be announced and I would get word while I was walking my Camino, the day after laying my rock down at Cruz de Ferro.

But I would be lying if I said my heart wasn’t broken.

In my journal for this day I attempted to record some reflections about life being a Camino. I wrote,

“As the way changed and presented different terrain to us, I reflected on how like life this walk has been.  Sometimes the way is narrow and you can only walk single file. Sometimes wide and you have company. Sometimes crowded and you are surrounded by people. Sometimes it is lonely and no one else is in front of or behind you. Sometimes it is steep and slow going. Sometime level and smooth going. Sometimes the way forward is hard to pick out. Sometimes the way is all downhill and full of rocks and things that make you slip and stumble.”

The Camino was showing me many things and helping me process so many questions that I had come there with.

My feet, well, I will just say that they were worse than ever and my blisters were – epic. I wrote this, “Two weeks from today we are supposed to be walking into Santiago.” It was hard to believe that we had more of our Camino behind us than we had in front of us now. I was looking forward to completing our journey even as I was astonished at how quickly the time was going now.

That night, with one minute left before our curfew, the two older Italian men came back from a night of making merry in Ponferrada. I hope that at their age I will still have a friend who will stay out until 11 with me, drinking wine and sharing life on the Camino de Santiago.

Camino Diary, Day 20

These are posts in which I relate the story of my walk on the Camino de Santiago with my friends Bill and Derrick in September/October 2019.

Everyone was up early today. Mostly everyone. It became impossible for me to fall back asleep by 5:30 a.m. Bill couldn’t sleep either so we got up, packed our bags and we got on the road and started our walk for the day. We started in the dark using headlamps and walked that way for about an hour and a half. Daybreak was around 7:40 a.m. and the breaking dawn became a spectacular display of color and light.

We climbed up and up today. Today we the day we’d been anticipating. We would reach Cruz de Ferro, the Iron Cross. A large wooden pole stands atop a pile of rocks. On top of the pole is an iron cross. Historically, it has a few origins and a few meanings attached to it. I would call it a “thin place” a place where whatever separates the seen world from the unseen world is very thin and whether you call it enchanted, magical or holy, it feels potent and meaningful.

And I didn’t feel any of those things as we walked up to it.

Bill and I were walking with a fellow pilgrim who said to us, “We should have reached Cruz de Ferro by now.” He was comparing the published distance to what his GPS watch was telling him, and it wasn’t adding up. The three of us started to wonder if we had missed a turn in the path somewhere and then suddenly we came around a bend and up a slope and there it was.

I was unimpressed.

Having seen the movie, The Way, I had something in my mind about what this would be like and it wasn’t any of that. Quite honestly I just didn’t think it was much to look at. Just a big pile of rocks beside a roadway going through a picnic area on one side and gravel parking lot on the other. It was underwhelming and I felt disappointed and all the excitement to get to that spot that had built up in me that morning just evaporated.

Cruz de Ferro

We had, as tradition had invited us to, brought our own stones or mementos to leave on the pile of rocks. I moved off to the right on the other side of a wood railing and took of my pack to get to my rock. I wasn’t impressed but I would still leave my rock. Bill had already put his pack down near the base of the pile of stones and was retrieving his own contribution to Cruz de Ferro.

And then…I don’t know how to explain this in any way that will make sense but I simply looked back up at the pile of stones with my little rocks in my hand and I was overwhelmed with emotions. Tears in my eyes, lump in my throat, something is happening to me emotions. As my eyes scanned to pile of stones I saw a man at the very top pulling out his cell phone. To be honest, I got judgie. I couldn’t believe he’s climb up to the top and take a selfie. I was quickly convicted by the scene that unfolded.

The man spoke in Spanish to someone and he was sobbing. Not crying or weeping. He sobbed. I only know enough Spanish to know that it had something to do with his mother. He could be calling her from Cruz de Ferro seeking reconciliation or forgiveness. He could have just laid some of her ashes there and phoning his dad to tell him it was done. He could have been walking the Camino in her memory or while she went through cancer treatment and he was just telling someone he loved that he had made it.

I don’t know. But I do know from the stories pilgrim’s told me, all these things are possible.

Then something even more beautiful and gut wrenching happened. Another pilgrim, an Asian man, just putting his own stone down on the pile, walked over to the man and put a consoling arm around his shoulder and asked him, in English, “Are you ok?” The Spanish man nodded, still sobbing and choked out, “…my Mom.” And I knew I was in a holy moment as these two strangers and fellow pilgrims shared a moment, looked deeply into each other’s eyes and offered consolation and found comfort at Cruz de Ferro.

And then just like that, it was over. The Asian man patted the other man’s shoulder and walked down the pile of stones and onto the Way. The Spanish man took another moment, collected himself and then he continued his journey.

My eyes full of tears, I slowly made my way up the pile of rocks, nearer to the iron cross itself. I noticed among the rocks there were photos, notes (one read, “pray for my grandpa,” little mementos that gave hints about the stories of those who had been here before me. Bill put our friend Derrick’s rock on the pile for him and then he placed something precious that he’d brought along for himself. I found my spot and put my little rock down. It was meant as a sign to God that I was giving up on control, I will be a leaf on God’s breeze, a small stick floating in the great current, a snowflake in God’s Nor’easter. It was, for me, a powerful moment, a tearful moment, of giving up and giving in.

As I turned from my own rock and started to pick my way down the large pile of rocks and pictures and notes and bits and pieces of people’s lives, I felt like God whispered to my heart – “be careful where you step, you are walking on the burdens of others.”

We walked on from Cruz de Ferro, I’m not sure if I felt lighter or heavier but I definitely felt changed.

Then it started raining on us.

Our accommodations for the night were in El Acebo and we arrived there wet and ready for a rest. We were both surprised to find it was new and clean and that “clean” was the new posh. We met some interesting people from Europe and Asia over dinner and saw our first – but not our last – pilgrim meltdown as one peregrino took another peregrino to task for having their boots under their bed. It was tense in our little bunk room for a while but eventually we all settled in for a good night’s rest.

the view from our room

Camino Diary, Day 19

These are posts in which I relate the story of my walk on the Camino de Santiago with my friends Bill and Derrick in September/October 2019.

The day started early. 5:30 a.m. I wanted one last shower in a really good shower.

Then we quickly packed and said good-bye to our room near the Cathedral in Leon. We walked through the early morning streets of Leon to catch our 7:05 train. People were just leaving clubs and we passed dozens of young people on their way home while we made our way to the station. We made it in plenty of time and boarded our outbound train with 4 other pilgrims looking to get to Astorga, like us, as continue walking from there.

The tricky thing about not knowing the actual terrain of the Camino and traveling by train is that when you rely on the moving sign inside your car of the train, you might find yourself getting off one stop earlier than you ought to. 6 of us stepped off of the train and within seconds we realized, as the train sped on without us, that we had made a mistake. We got off one stop too soon and we found ourselves in a very small town several kilometers from Astorga.

Bill and I pondered for a bit, walked into town a little, wondered if there might be a taxi service but recognized that this town was still very much asleep and we could very likely walk to Astorga by the time people were stirring and starting their day. It was 8 am and our experience so far had been that Spain doesn’t get up until 10 am. I saw the steeple of their village church and we decided to walk to the church building. Two of the things we had learned on the Camino were that the Camino provides and that when in doubt, start at the church.

As we walked toward the steeple, we noticed a small car pull up outside a building with signage that made us think it must be a government building. A woman had exited the car and entered the building and as we approached her car, she came back out. We greeted her in our very best, very weak Spanish and we asked about the availability of a taxi. She told us we could wait for a very long time and we still wouldn’t get a taxi there in the village. Taking pity on two pilgrims – she could see from our packs and the shells we had tied to them that we were peregrinos – she offered to drive us towards her village and drop us off at the edge of town which would get us closer to Astorga before she turned towards her home. It would cut the distance we would have to walk in half.

Bill jumped into the back of her tiny car, smashing himself in beside her ironing board. I crawled into the front seat and off we went. We tried our best to cross the language barriers between us and learn a little something about each other. Her name was “Femma” and she warmed up to us very quickly. It was one of those moments on the Camino we could not have planned for but when you are in you realize that something beautiful is happening. We talked and talked and as we approached the turn off for her village she told us that she would go ahead and take us the rest of the way.

the yellow arrow

In just a few minutes we reached Astorga and Femma dropped us off right on the Camino, right beside one of our beloved yellow arrows. She put us right where we needed to be and our happy accident had saved us wandering around Astorga looking for the Camino and we had a delightful encounter with a very generous Spanish woman.

the Camino provides

As Bill and I climbed the hill to another church building in Astorga along the Camino route, we came upon a man who was parked outside and albergue, loading pilgrim’s packs to transport them to where people would be stopping next. Back in Leon, I had managed to book the next few days of accommodations so we wouldn’t have to race for beds again, so we quickly decided to check our backpacks in with the carrier and go with daypacks for that day’s journey. The Camino was providing in the most unexpected and delightful ways.

We made our way through town from there and followed the yellow arrows back out into the countryside for a long walk.

Eventually we arrived in Rabanal del Camino and the Albergue Nuestra Señora del Pilar. Little by little the walking was becoming easier, my belt was tightening and there was an ease developing around albergue style accommodations, showers and meals. There were dozens of us sleeping in bunkbeds arranged inside of a large room. To maximize the number of beds there was very little space between them. When I rolled over during the night I was staring into the eyes of an elderly German pilgrim who had also woken up and rolled over (at least I hope he hadn’t just been laying there staring at me). We were close enough that it would have felt awkward a week before but that night I just closed my eyes and slept on.

We attended an evening mass with other peregrinos and locals in a very old building in which I was scolded for taking a picture as mass was about to begin. The priest was right to scold me. I’m very happy to have taken the picture as well.

Here’s an excerpt from my diary – this is why it was so helpful for me to have my friend Bill on this journey – if it didn’t bother him, I didn’t let it bother me. I wrote, “I have a rash on my right foot this evening. No idea. But of course I suspect the plague or something worse.” Bill looked at it, shrugged and didn’t seem bothered by it so I was able to carry on without anxiety.

On the downside, my blisters were starting to become epic. One substantial blister had to be drained, threaded and covered with a larger bandage.

I was feeling the distance from my family in the worst way. The Camino was getting me in touch with how much life I get from my family. My wife, my children and grandchildren. So much of my spiritual formation has actually happened through my relationships within my family that it makes the pain of missing them even more acute while on pilgrimage.

The promise of the following day was that we would finally reach Cruz de Ferro, a place that was almost mythical in my mind and to which Bill and I were both carrying something to lay down and leave behind there as part of our Camino journey.

Camino Diary, Day 18

A day of rest.

We spent the entire day exploring Leon. It was all about resting and recuperating even though we did a lot of walking around the city. And it is a beautiful city.

Our thinking was that Leon was the beginning of the end. We spent time planning out the “final stage” of our Camino with only 2 weeks and 2 days left. If you were just starting out that might seem like a long time still to go but after 18 days, it felt like Santiago was coming way too quickly. We had found a rhythm, and while we both still missed home, Bill and I were feeling comfortable with the pilgrim life.

Gelato is good for the soul.

We slept in until 8 am, went out and found some breakfast and then explored museums, a couple cathedrals and amazing historical sites. We rested in the afternoon in our posh accommodations and that night we found a cheap meal in an out of the way bocadillo shop.

For dessert we found a gelato shop and I had an amazing raspberry gelato.

One of my constant consolations on the Camino was Bill. Having so much time together had concerned me when we started the journey. Everyday for more than a month – I’m still constantly amazed that my wife can take that much of me, let alone someone else. But we always had things to talk about and I was rewarded in conversation after conversation with the depth inside of Bill.

Of course there were moments when we drove each other crazy. People do that. But I found that Bill was like a deep well with something to say that made me think or feel or learn or that reframed something I was experiencing or praying through. It would not be an exaggeration to say that one of the greatest treasures of my Camino was the time I spent with my friend, Bill.

That night, as I enjoyed the room, the bed, and the air conditioning one last time, I prayed for a miracle for my friend Carole. A big miracle. And I made plans to get up extra early to shower one more time.

That afternoon I had managed to book beds for us for the next 5 nights. It was becoming a race for beds the further along we went and the closer we got to Sarria where a large number of pilgrims would be joining the Way, the harder a bed would be to find in the traditional stages of the Camino guide.

I didn’t know it yet, but the next day would be one of the craziest, “the Camino will provide” days of our whole journey.