“Unnoticed” Luke 16:19-31

Parables are meant to bother us and to make us think.  That’s the whole reason Jesus uses them as a teaching tool and device.

            They speak with power.

            They confound the learned.

            They bring good news to the disenfranchised.

            Parables are meant to nag at you, make you scratch your head, or see the world from a different perspective.

            Sometimes the “meaning” of the parable or its impact can be lost on us or hard to decipher because of cultural references, or differences in circumstances from that time to this time.  

You might not “get” (for example) the full force of “The Parable of the Sower” if you’ve never been connected to the land, sowing seeds or farming.  

You might not understand the “Parable of the Children in the Marketplace” if you didn’t remember to think back on what it was like to play childhood games where you imitated the actions of adults, or if you don’t know anything about funeral or marriage practices of Jesus’ day.

            You might be forgiven if you didn’t get a parable that was obscure.

This, however, is far from an obscure parable.  Everyone pretty much “gets” this one right away. 

            We get that the rich feast sumptuously.

            We get that there are the poor who sit at the gate and are largely ignored or go unnoticed.

            We get the idea of a “great chasm.”  If it isn’t fixed after death, it sure appears to be fixed here, so that rewards and punishments seem locked in and irrevocable.

            There is nothing obtuse about this parable.   If you are living high and easy now while letting others suffer at your gate, then be prepared for the great reversal of fortune!

            The trouble with the parable for us is not that we cannot understand it, but rather we aren’t sure what to do with it exactly.

            Are we supposed to take this as a warning?   “You best be taking care of the poor and the needy at your own gate or the fires of hell surely await?”

            Maybe, — if you are the kind of person who feasts sumptuously and are prone to order other people around as if they were your servants.   The problem with that is that we end up acting on behalf of our neighbor out of fear or obligation, not love. Acting out of fear or obligation is wearying and not in keeping with what Jesus seems to invite us into as “new life.”

            Are we supposed to see this as good news and vindication for suffering?  

            Maybe, — if you’re a person like Lazarus who has suffered one indignity after another, been shut out of even the crumbs of comfort and blessings in this life and has had no one but a hound dog as a friend.

            The problem with that interpretation of the parable is that it tends to make martyrs of us all, focusing on how we have been neglected, what others have not done for us, instead of looking at this as Jesus inviting us to see the world in a new way.

            Is this a parable about listening to scripture?  

Maybe.   Perhaps we’re like the 5 brothers who are well acquainted with what scripture tells us about caring for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the immigrant, but summarily ignore it and pretend it doesn’t apply to us. 

Maybe the warning in the parable is that we won’t listen to Jesus either, not even after he has come back from the dead.   If we don’t pay attention to what the scriptures have said throughout history, instructed us to do to follow God all along, what makes us think one more encounter, if a big and splashy one, will change us?

            It’s not that we don’t “get” the parable with all of its warnings, promises and predictions, it’s just that we’re not sure what it is meant to “do” to us exactly.

            Is it supposed to move us to change?   Comfort us in our affliction?  Warn us about complacency and ignoring those who have needs and are at our doorstep?

            I’m going to suggest that maybe this parable is meant to do something else. 

Maybe Jesus tells the parable less as an illustration of what to do, but rather as a way of flipping how we look at things in this world on its ear, and he does it with a name.

Think about this world as we experience it.   Who gets “named?”

Do not the rich and powerful?

Don’t we know immediately the “brand” of those whom this world has regard for.   Mention “Kardashian” and (for good or for ill) a whole flood of images will come to mind.  We watch them, pay attention to them, regard them as interesting solely on the basis of their name.  

If you’ve made it in this world, you only need one name, don’t you?   

Elvis, Cher, Fergie, Trump, RuPaul, Shaq, Bono…. The list could go on.

So, I think it’s significant that in this parable the only person whose name we know (besides Abraham) is Lazarus.   It is Jesus turning the expectations of this world upside down.  The ones usually regarded as “important” in the parable are nameless, and the one who we might expect to have no need of a name is specifically named, given identity and status.

            Even the rich man knows his name, (not that it changed his behavior) but he knew him.

            The unnamed Rich man knew what to call him when he tried to order him around.   “Send Lazarus to cool my tongue… to serve me.”

            It’s not that the rich man (or even his brothers, for that matter) did not know Lazarus. 

            It’s just that they had no regard for him.

            This is the point of the parable:  We must never become that person who is unable to have regard or care for others.

            Martin Luther was once asked if he believed the Christian was required to feed all the beggars in the city where he taught.   His response was:

“You cannot feed them all, but you can feed the one who is at your doorstep.”

It was a comment that took the matter of caring about the poor out of the theoretical realm of “everyone” or “those people” and put it into the specificity of “the one before you” – a person who has a name and a story and who is a person worthy of your regard.

            It never occurs to the Rich Man in the parable that the man at his gate was his responsibility or his concern.   He could walk by, perhaps even say something to him, and callously continue walking.

            That is the tragedy in the parable.

            Here is a man whom no one thinks of as worth their time or consideration.

            Here is a man who the rich and powerful see as just some lackey to be sent to do a task, or some inconvenience upon their doorstep.

            This is the real struggle in the parable, to envision Lazarus as being at the side of Abraham, a beloved child of God who is welcomed in.

            If I’m honest with myself, (if we’re all honest with ourselves,) this is struggle that we have as well.

            We see the man with the sign on the street corner and our mind does not automatically think, “this is a beloved child of God.”

            Our mind instead forms another story, based upon the scrawling on the cardboard.

            This man (or woman) is a bum!  Our mind says.

            There it is, a label to dismiss, a title to disregard.

            “He/she says he needs work, but it seems to me if he worked as hard at finding a job as he does at working a street corner, he’d not be here where I have to travel every day.” 

That’s the story that begins to form in our mind, a narrative that lets us disregard.

            “Anything helps.”   The sign says, and instead of our mind going to what we might have that he/she/they could use, instead it wanders to whether he/she/they would truly take anything.   A narrative builds in our mind about what we might offer to see just how desperate he/she/they are, maybe even devise plans of what we’ll carry with us next time to test that sign, see if they will take anything.”

            We can’t help it, really, like Lazarus at the gate we’re not sure how to REGARD this person, and so we insert a narrative that comforts us.

            This is how it begins, how the mistreatment starts.  It begins by disregarding the “named one” at our gate, the one for whom we begin inserting our own narrative, so our neighbor becomes simply “the enemy”, or the name we give that disparages.  A name that allows us to not think of them as completely human.  A name that we can order around, or deport, or exclude, or abuse.

            It’s hard to look at the Lazarus at the gate and think immediately, “This is a beloved child of God,”… isn’t it?

            But this is the point that the parable makes in spades.  

God sends the dogs to grant Lazarus unconditionally love when humans pass by with no regard.  

God sends the angels to bring Lazarus into the place of high regard, the bosom of Abraham, when he dies.

God welcomes Lazarus into the bosom, into the very heart of Abraham, into the family. 

The parable has Abraham instruct the rich man who feasted sumptuously of what God had said throughout scripture, (through Moses and the Prophets.)  It was that Israel was to have regard for the sojourner, the immigrant, the poor, the wayfarer….”for you yourself were once sojourners fleeing the land of Egypt…”

            Even when the instruction is given to the Rich man in torment, the term used for the Rich Man is “Child.”   Someone who is claimed and has belonging even in the midst of his own torment. 

            The point the parable makes is all are beloved children of God. God is the one who can see us in that way, we are the ones who miss it. 

            We are the ones who fail to have regard for those whom we meet day to day, and fail to think to ourselves, “This too, is a beloved Child of God.”

            But this is what we cannot do, what we must never let that happen lest we find ourselves also in unquenchable fire and torment, for that is what comes of disregarding God’s beloved.

            We can never see the other as less of a child of God than we are, or all suffer.

            We must never reduce the other to less than human, to a label, or dehumanize them, or we unleash torment in this world that we imagine only in the next.

            That one at our doorstep. That is a precious child of God!

The person fleeing Central American and crossing the border. — That is a precious child of God!  Remember that!

That person who has been waiting in a refugee camp for years because of war and famine in their own country, — That is a precious child of God!   Remember that!

That politician whom we are angry with, do not agree with, whom we deride or look at with contempt.  That is a precious child of God.  Remember that!

 Fill in the blank here of the one whom YOU have the most trouble seeing as someone to regard.   That is the one you must look upon and have regard for, for to do less than that is to ignore the teaching of Scripture, the urging of the prophets, and our own history, where WE came from, and to open the way to our own torment.

It is hard.

Jesus knows it.

Chasms get fixed in this world and in the next, and some cannot be crossed.

But Lazarus is at our gate, and Jesus knows him by name, (as indeed, he knows ours.)

Have regard for him, or her, for them, — for your own sake, and for God’s sake.

Day Nine — “The Journey and the Destination.”

One last time to pack up the bag.

One last time to fill the water bladder.

One last time to address the blisters, choose carefully the socks, decide what to wear and what to put into the pack.

One last day of walking.

We departed Parada de Franco at about 8:30 a.m., after another stunning breakfast by Guierrmo and the owner/chef. Homemade yogurt with raspberries, fresh squeezed orange juice, ham and cheese pannini’s and an assortment of croissants and quick breads.

A good start for a Pelligrino (pilgrim).

The way snaked through the back side of various small communities and through forested areas, and into Santiago. Much of it continued to be blessedly shaded, rural and gently rolling. Ups followed by downs, long gradual inclines capped with a level.

All along the way the Compestella markers continued to decline.

11,456 km…..

9,862 km….

5,498 km….

Each marker was like a cheerleader, urging us on, and because they were more frequent and distinct, they were beginning to pick up decorations. Stones were left on top, carried from somewhere, deposited here. Coins. Bits of rosaries, and medallions, and anklet bracelets.

It was as if the burdens or tokens that people had been carrying were being dropped away, one by one.

The final section of the walk was not well marked, but by this time the spires of the Cathedral were our markers. We wound through a final busy avenue (It was Saturday, and a festival was in progress. Galatian pipers, drums and loud rockets were being shot off was we walked in) and emerged into the square.

The five of us walking together burst into smiles and shouts of “we made it!”

Pictures were taken, we lined our feet up on the shell at the center and snapped the obligatory photo of them, and then looked around to admire the façade, take in the scene.

It was a scene that was varied.

To one side sat a small group laughing and carrying on going through their packs.

A Lithuanian woman walked with us into the square, and burst into tears.

I must confess I got a lump in my throat and I caught a gasp of emotion and tears as I saw the bell tower emerge for the first time, a wave of emotion, relief, and release.

A young woman in an orange shirt (part of a group, wandering around her) sat down and began to visibly sob, overcome by the moment, or the emotion, or the tiredness or whatever. She sat by herself and sobbed a long time, wiping her tears with the orange shirt.

Other members of our group who had gotten then ahead of us came up and congratulated us and then directed us to where to turn in our credentials for our official certificate.

I felt immense relief upon entering the square. Yes! Done! Made it! I snapped my selfie with the tower façade and posted it.

Then it was time to get back to the necessities. The credentials dropped off, the paperwork completed, the hotel located and room arrangements made. A short respite to drop off the pack and then to find some place to eat. Five of us settled into a side café. Beers were ordered, and then small plates of an omelet, octopus and potatoes (yummy!) and Calamari. One of us had a salad, and we freely shared back and forth. We realized that this was really the first mid-day meal we had truly eaten all week. The rest of the time we were focused on walking and content with a quick sandwich or fruit or trail mix or “protein bar.”

After a relaxed and fitful lunch, we went back to the Cathedral by way of the Church of Saint Fructuoso, (No, I had never heard of him either, and he has nothing to do with Corn Syrup.) He was a monk of great holiness and wisdom who founded 20 Monasteries in the Iberian Peninsula and was somewhat of a smithy of ingenuity.) It was a lovely church, piping in Gregorian chant for those who came in to light a candle and pray.

The Cathedral of Santiago is undergoing major renovation on the inside in preparation for a Jubilee year in 2021. Almost everything was wrapped in scaffolding and plastic, (including the huge thurifer that I had hoped to see swing at noon Mass) but the way to the statue of the Apostle was still clear for pilgrims to go up and hug him from behind. (I did not feel compelled to enter that que.)

The way was also clear to see the crypt and reliquary. That I did see, and in the area just inside the bars of the crypt were left a variety of gifts for the saint. Flowers, bits of paper, more stones, shells, trinkets, and one well-worn set of running shoes.

We picked up our credentials (rather, Kathy, our tour organizer did. She should be up for sainthood by now.) They are beautiful certificates hand printed and signed and stamped. The credential is returned with all of its stamps.

As an additional “badge”, Kathy also handed me a bright orange t-shirt the group had located the day before. A large pair of bandaged feet adorn the center with “No Pain, No Glory” emblazed above and below. I will wear it with distinction and proudly the first Sunday I’m back.

The card that I prepared for our daily focus today bore Psalm 106:47 as its verse. “Save us, O Lord our God, and gather us from among the nations, that we may give thanks to your Holy name and glory in your praise.” As I reflect now on the languages I heard in the square and the faces, it truly was a “gathering from among the nations.”

I will leave Santiago at 6:30 a.m. tomorrow morning on a plane bound for Madrid. I will not have even spent 24 hours here, after walking 8 days to reach it. It is the journey and the destination, both at the same time. But then, that is exactly what life is as well. The journey and the destination, all in one. I will ponder long what all this means, but what I do know is that it has been a very “Buen Camino.”


Day Eight — “It Was the Day of Preparation.”

Leaving Padron we knew our walk would be shorter. This was intentional. We wanted to get into Santiago de Compestella earlier in the morning, and so while most of our walking companions along the way were going on to complete the walk, we were scheduled to stop and stay in Parada de Franco, a small hamlet on the outskirts.

It was an easy walk by now, blisters and all. We came upon it almost unexpectedly right after a stop at a small church. In fact, we consulted out GPS twice not quite believing we were stopping already. Two of our crew (our most intrepid walkers) blew right past it and we had to message them to come back. The small accommodations here were picture perfect. A restaurant/bar on one side of the Camino, rooms to rent on the other side, in historic old buildings with two feet thick walls.

At a stop along the way an Irish couple who had done the Camino several times told us that since our walk was shorter, we should take a taxi into Santiago, look around, get your bearings and see some of the city before you walked in. This way you would know where you were going and be familiar.

This started a conversation amongst the group.

The idea was tempting, and a number of the group chose to do that very thing. Others thought about it for a while, and then decided that they would rather walk in and see it for the first time as the conclusion of the journey.

All of this got me ruminating on the words from the Gospel, “It was the day of preparation.”

In the context of Jewish life, this is the day before the Passover, when the lamb is slaughtered, the arrangements made, the unleavened bread baked. All things put in order to commemorate or “relive” the Exodus event of God delivering God’s people from bondage.

In the context of the Christian faith, the “Day of Preparation” marks the beginning of the Passion narrative, when (in Matthew, Luke and Mark) Jesus tells the disciples to go and prepare the upper room in which they will celebrate the Passover. John’s Gospel emphasizes the preparation and has the events of Jesus Passion happen on this day, the day that he Passover Lamb would be slaughtered.

In either case, there is a moment of anticipation, that something is about to happen that is known and unknown at the same time.

That’s the feeling I have.

I opted not to join the group taking the taxi in. My first sight of the destination will be as I arrive on foot, having started out on foot. I took the day to rest, to nap, to let sore feet recover a bit more and aching calves loosen and recover. It was a day of preparation, and probably the best meal and hospitality along the entire route. Tomorrow, I will be ready for whatever awaits.

Buen Camino — Merle

Day Seven – “It Is YOUR Camino”

The Camino as it exists today is a constant tug-of-war with the ways of this world. We plan it. We squeeze it in. We arrange our overnight stays, stops, and mileage per day.

All of this would have been a foreign concept to the pilgrim of the past. One walked to Santiago to pray, or to visit the relic, or to get the needed certificate, but the timeframe was much more fluid. The pilgrim walked as far as he/she could, with staff and water gourd and bread, depending upon the charity and kindness of those he/she met along the way. Or, one was ill, hoping for healing, and made one’s way as far as the body would take one, also dependent upon the kindness and hospitality of those along the way, both travelers and residents.

A pastor friend of mine once commented in the midst of a youth trip, “We make plans, and God laughs.” That was uttered after out backpacking trip had been completely re-arranged because of heat, an injury of one of the sponsors, and upon seeing our intended campground for the return trip engulfed in a forest fire from miles away, requiring us to go on and find makeshift accommodations.)

I was supposed to walk from Pontevedra to Padron today.

When I woke up, it was pretty clear that my body was not up to that, nor was another member of our group who had fallen on bad knee the day before. W

We opted for a “rest day.”

While the rest of our group took off for the 12 mile walk, we went back to bed. An additional 2 hours of sleep and antibiotic ointment on infected blisters overnight had the desired effect.

The two of us navigated a bus to Padron, meeting a lovely German couple and a man from Austin Texas whose 3rd Camino had been cut short by his own knee injury. We shared the comradery of transport and conversation. T

The experience made me wonder how many pilgrims through the ages had found alternative transportation along the way. Certainly a passing hay wagon, or cart would have been a tempting and welcome relief to the walk. The walkers along the way told the story of a family whose father had cancer but who had always wanted to do the Camino. They found electric bicycles to the answer, pedaling most of the way but using the motor assist for the weakened father to complete the journey. It isn’t, after all, the destination as much as it is about the journey.

The Bus dropped us off in Central Padron where we caught the trail again and walked the remainder 2 km to the hotel for the night, passing along the way Iria Flavia, an ancient church in Padron that was once the Diocese seat of power before it being moved to Santiago. We stopped, prayed, admired, and from out of nowhere a lovely old lady appeared and asked if we needed a stamp, and graciously marked our credentials.

We arrived at our hotel ahead of the rest of our group, (albeit, only a few moments before our “uber-hikers” and settled in, and then I positioned myself on the covered vestibule to greet our group as they arrived. It was a very hot Galatian day, and the sun was a bit merciless, so they did come in weary and ready for a break. There is something nice about being able to welcome and play the part of hospitality.

They, who had walked through the day, were worried about me.

I got up and walked around the table without much limping and with renewed vigor and we cheered one another on.

This is Camino. This is discovering (or re-discovering) that people are essential good when given a chance. This is re-discovering the power of shared experience, and how encouragement takes us all much further along the way than criticism or tearing down. One of the things that we were reminded of over and over is “it is YOUR Camino. Make of it what you need.”

Today I needed a day of rest.

Today I needed to be the one greeting those coming in instead of being the last one dragging in.

Today I needed to meet a German couple who are also walking, bussing, and riding the Camino. They were off to see a Monastery that I would not be able to visit because, quite frankly, after a day’s walk I’m just too bone tired to do anything else but eat and sleep.

It is YOUR Camino, do what you need to in the midst of it, and wonder of wonders, it is quite probable that you will make the Camino for someone else along the way.

Buen Camino — Merle

Day Six — “Head Up, Shoulders Back, Find Your Stride.”

The walk from Pontravedra to Caldas de Rais is a lovely one, winding you over stone path and gravel paths, through Eucalyptus forests, over little rivulets of water crossing the path in cobblestoned courses, up rocky inclines and then down through lush grape arbors where you are literally walking through the vineyards.

As you emerge on the outskirts, there is a lovely little bar “O Cubierto” where you can catch your breath and if you like, enjoy a little “pulpos” appetizer as an outdoor vendor was cooking octopus in a large 50 gallon drum with a fire below. He would dip a hook into the barrel and bring forth a good sized octopus, and then pull a heavy wooden plate from a large stack nearby and grab his trusty kitchen sheers, snip off ample portions, arrange them with toothpicks, douse them with olive oil and shake some sort of seasoning over the lot. I was tempted, but as I was there alone, did not get one to sample. It has to be one of my favorite parts of the walk so far, if not for….

“Head Up, Shoulders Back, Find your stride.” My feet and calves are now screaming at me on a regular basis. I have achieved “Pilgrim’s Feet” with blisters on the balls of both feet. In an attempt to cushion the blows I put on my heaviest pair of wool socks, hoping to wick the moisture away as well.

It was a mistake.

The socks were enough to compress inside the shoes a bit, so I now have blisters on top of a couple of toes, and one located underneath the big toenail on the left foot. How one gets a blister there, I will never know. I assume my toenail was just long enough to catch the thicker sock and wiggle up and down a bit. At any rate, I found a good portion of my time spent trying to find the comfortable stride that would allow me to favor the right foot.

Side note for Terry Noland back at church, who told me that in the infantry they used to tell you to “take care of your feet and your feet will take care of you.” I believe I have failed infantry 101.

The Camino teaches you many things, not least of which is the personal limitations of your physical and mental stamina. It’s not a pleasant lesson to learn, but probably an important one. The hotel at Caldas de Reis was a spa hotel, with natural hot springs, a thermal pool to lounge and soak in, and amenities. I just got to the room and collapsed. You’ll have to ask the others about the thermal pool and such, all I wanted was to sleep. My body shook with an imbalance of electrolytes. I downed a couple of “gator aid” kinds of drinks and snacked on nuts and dried fruit and released my feet from their sources of complaint and in doing so caused a spasm in my back.

Somewhere along the line the spasm calmed and I fell asleep for two hours.

I am clearly beat up.

Dinner was at 8, and it was the best of the trip as far as I am concerned. A nourishing leek soup, Galatian Roast pork with lovely pimentos, and an ice cream cone for dessert. Food for the soul for an old Nebraska boy.

In looking back over the day I am filled with gratitude for my companions on the journey. Some who slowed up enough to walk with me. Some who sensed it was o.k. to just “let me be” and find my stride. Some who checked up and encouraged and some who (the Irish contingent) blew past me talking about how they were not going to be drinkin’ as much tonight because it was starting to slow them down. (Insert laughter here. The Irish group is walking for Sudden Infant Cardiac Death to raise money, and the day before we had come across them in a field just off the Camino where a makeshift tavern had been set up. Trust the Irish to find a Pub and Craic in the middle of nowhere. The poor vendor had to go rushing up the hill to restock his beers after this crew descended!)

Oh, and I’m thankful particularly for Sandy, one of our group, who had overheard someone else giving instructions to his wife in walking uphill and shared that experience with me. “Head up, shoulders back, find your stride.” It got me through the day.

Buen Camino — Merle

Day Four — The Greater the Suffering, the Greater the Glory.”

The Camino exacts a toll of that you can be certain. Each day the body is a little slower to get moving, and the challenges new and different.
It was a welcome respite to not have to walk out of our hotel this time, trudging city streets and fighting pavement and traffic. We were taxied to the center of Redondela, and left off at city center to pick up the Camino trail.
Well, most of us were.
One taxi veered a bit off course and deposited our strongest hiking group at a different location than intended. We joked a bit that his was a handicap to even up the odds a bit. The group has developed a kind of rhythm as we have gotten to know each other along the way.
The hike this day was a strenuous one up rocky inclines and along Eucalyptus forest routes. Much prettier than the previous day’s mostly beach and traffic.
My feet are complaining bitterly. I can’t seemed to come up with the right combination of breaks, sock changes, and blister treatments. I now have blisters on the bottom of both balls of the feet, and while one has “settled down” and is well protected, the other is still active and causing fits. This in turn is making me compensate in my gait, and so I’m having some back spasms whenever we stop and have to get moving again. All in all, not a very enjoyable time walking.
That is when I see him.
A man and woman, maybe in their 40’s. He is wearing shorts and one cannot help but notice that while his left leg is muscular and strong, the right one is thin and weak. He moves with broken gate, step after step, and I think to myself, “What am I complaining over with just a couple of blisters?”
I am reminded that in the reading about the Camino the hope for many in doing the pilgrimage was to find healing or a miracle along the way. The early Albergues were semi-hospitals, where the walking wounded would find respite, sometimes healing, and occasionally a final resting place.
There are all kinds of healings to be found along the way. Some spiritual. Some of mind and body.
“I’d like a little on the right foot now God, if you please.”
As so often happens on the Camino, it happens that this couple is staying at the same hotel in Pontevedra as we are. It was a lovely place, but the food service was a little outmatched for the number of guests, and English skills in Galatia are much less than in other parts of Spain. (God bless Victor, for doing triple duty and for being so accommodating and honest.
“Someone left some money on the table.” It was one of our group, paying for the beer she did not know someone else had already paid for.
“I will see her later, and give it to her.” He simply stated.
Restores the soul.
Anyway, with the delayed meal service, I finally was too weary to wait for dessert and hobbled back to my room to get some much needed rest. In the elevator, the couple I had seen earlier joined me as I hobbled in. The kindly woman with her deep brown eyes smiled at me and said, “The greater the suffering, the greater the glory.”
Those were my words to end with last night.
Buen Camino — Merle

Day Four –“Sometimes Step By Step”

We started Day four of our journey together with our second day of walking, and it was the “Longest Day” – for a variety of reasons.

Last evening as preparation I played the Rich Mullin’s Song “Sometimes Step by Step” as a kind of earworm for folks to think about (You can find it on YouTube).   The point being that the steps the next day would be long, and the way filled with possibilities, and God guiding.

I had no idea.

We started out well together, and then settled into our “groupings” of walkers based upon ability.   Intermixed were various other walkers you would happen upon. Folks from Nebraska, Ireland, Asian walkers, etc.

The plan was to walk the coastal route which ducks in and out of a series of beaches and boardwalks, and eventually ends up at the edge of Vigo, a very large city, where was basically, “do your best” to find your way the hotel.

The way was not entirely well marked.

This section of the walk varies in markers from the official Camino shell seal, to color coded stickers on posts to spray paint in yellow, green or blue dispersed on various items. Sometimes light poles, sometimes concrete, sometimes on the pavement, sometimes on electrical boxes.

Oh, and sometimes arrow are marked out, or painted over.

Basically, on this leg of the trail, if you were a teenager with a couple of cans of spray paint you could wreak a lot of havoc.   Or, if you were an enterprising Albergue (place to sleep and eat) you might decide to go out and put your own “helpful” markers up, confusing the system.

All of the above happened, I am quite sure.

Our group was stretched out, and interspersed with others.

Some groups appear to have found the proper markers, made it through the proper beaches. (Including the Nude one we were warned about that I never got to – more on that later) and ended up at the hotel in good order.

Colleen, our most intrepid and “at her own pace” walker, (bless her soul) was helped out by some kindly Irish walkers, gotten on a bus to the right location to finish the walk, and made it back to the hotel in relative good order.

Then there was our group.

There was a fateful moment emerging from a very small beach where we were on a yellow path, and looked over to the side to see a spray painted green mark on the guard rail. At 12.8 km of a 19.2 km walk, we spied it.

Surely this can’t be it?

We walked further on the yellow path, and found no green markers, and so doubled back to the guard rail, crossed the road, and descended down a road and found another green marker.

“This must be it!”

We followed it diligently and it took us away from Oia and the beach and into a dense wooded trail that appeared to be an old Roman road.   As our directions indicated we were to be on a “rua Arquitecto Gomez Roman at about this location, we continued on it, along with a few other walkers into the deep woods.   It was rough going, but a well tread trail with typical Roman stones on the bed and lining the route.

Suddenly, as we were walking, the sound of Choral Music filled the still air.

We looked at each other. “Did you hear that?”

We listened again, and sure enough, some high school group of well blended women’s voices wafted out from what sounded like a far off sound system. The music swirled in the stillness of the forest.

It was good, a good moment.

We followed the trail further, and got to a marker that was yellow. Green was directing us up a hill into a clear cut path of forest.

Looking at each other, and debating, we decided yellow.   That must take us back to the right place.

After looking at the Google Map of the area, I now see that we veered roughly 6 Km off the intended path, so —-hmmm, 12.7km + 6km = 18.7km, or about 11.5 miles …. We should have nearly been there by now.

We followed the yellow path further, and it put us into a stretch of main road into Vigo.   Now a bit flustered, it was time to do what any ancient Pilgrim on “The Way” would do.

I activated my cell phone and pulled up google map navigation.

A direct route to the Hotel would allow us to arrive in 1 hr. 40 minutes, straight down the road.   We took off.

But then there was another pesky yellow arrow, and a then a green one, and so we decided that MUST put us back on the intended path.

We never again saw the water, or any beaches.

The marked path wound us up far to the west in Vigo, and deposited us at a lovely chapel, the Iglesia de San Pedro de Matama.   Candles were lit with the clink of a coin.   Ice cream imbibed and another stamp, and we were off again, this time going whole-hog navigation mode. Shortest path.

In the perverse way that Google maps tracks you, you can now clearly see the mistakes made.   We did 21 Km.

We saw amazing things.

Had a Spiritual Moment in the woods.

And arrived weary and bleary, but whole to a lovely place to stay and new friends found.

God is good, and “Step by Step, he leads us.”

Buen Camino – Merle

Day Three — “Keep The Ocean On Your Left.”

We are by nature anxious creatures. This has been “hard-wired” into us through generation upon generation of being hunters and gatherers. If you’re a hunter, the anxiety of finding the prey, whether you will eat, are you up to the task of outwitting or outrunning or out-tooling that which you pursue. Will you find it? Where does it reside in this time of year, type of weather, etc. If you are a gatherer, the anxiety of location. Where to look, how to manage. How much to store up and how best to keep it so that it does not rot, or does not run out, or does not get pilfered by any number of other kinds of gatherers. (Your own kind included… how much did YOU pay for that beer?) Were we being exploited because of language differences? Did we not understand? All of that is anxiety of the hunter/gatherer sort. This is a good thing because you want to have the proper measure of anxiety in order to survive. If you hunt, you better be aware and ready. If you gather, you better be paying attention to how things work. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with “anxiety by design.” It has keep the human species alive thus far. However, all of that “anxiety by design” is amplified, heightened and activated when we are put in “new” situations, and being put in new situations is one of the things that this world excels at doing. If it isn’t changing technologies, it is shifting priorities, rapid climate changes, shifts in political structures and corporate direction or emphases, and changes in societal norms. We are put on “high alert” and our “anxiety by design” kicks in. Our first day of walking (or the lead up to it) made evident the “high alert” mode. We met and poured over directions, quizzed where we would find things, what to look for, how this was all going to work. It was all good stuff but it tended to raise the level of volume and speculation in the room. After a good deal of pouring over maps and instructions and rising anxiety, I finally offered the probably not-too-helpful advice of “It’s the coastal route… just keep the ocean on your left and you’ll get there.” The next morning there were comments of how well we had slept, and for most it was not “well.” My distress (besides “anxiety-by-design” had to do with adapting to a new meal schedule. In Spain the main meal is much later, most restaurants not opening until 8 or 9 p.m. That’s getting close to bed time for me. I did not sleep well partly because I was “tasting tuna until 2 a.m.” as I adapted to a meal of way-too-large portions too late at night for my normal rhythm of digestion, but I also freely admit that part of not sleeping well was a mixture of the excitement and that anxiety of the unknown. On the day of the walk, the weather was beautiful. This lessened the anxiety. We were taxied to our starting point, a beautiful Monastery on the coast, got our first stamp so we knew how all of that worked, and began the walk. We kept the ocean on the left. This plan worked exceedingly well, up until (for the sake of scenic views and to divert us off of busy trafficways) we had to take a series of switchbacks down to the ocean, or up away from it. So much for keeping the ocean on the left. I expected to hear about that. There was also a point at which the trail diverged. Up the hill and a back country cut off to Baiona, or stay along the road and follow it all the way back in. That was a longer trek, but even going. The back route took you through pine forest area, hilly terrain, and places where the ocean view was obscured. So much for keeping the ocean on your left in that route. We split up based upon our relative abilities and comfort level. It all worked out well. Everyone made it back and all had stories to tell. Sometimes the best way to reduce the anxiety this world throws at us is to keep a simple directive in mind. Whether is always played out or worked as simply as we thought it would, “keeping the ocean on our left” at least gave us a reason to look up from whatever was stressing us at the moment to take in a view that could calm and direct. So, whatever you may be stressing about right now? Maybe keep the ocean on your left. Buen Camino Pastor Merle

Day Two — “Navigating”

We began our day with a walk around Baiona Spain. It is a city rich in history and (I am discovering) a good place to make connections with personal experiences of life and church. Let’s start with connections to church.
There is a replica of “The Pinta”, one of the Caravels that Christopher took across the “Ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety two.”. It is not a very large ship. Period. I would not have wanted to take it out on Lake of the Ozarks, let alone strike out in it on an uncharted ocean toward an uncertain destination.
You’ve got to give Columbus marks for moxie.
Touring the tiny vessel, there are several interpretive stations set up to tell you about the ship and the experience.  These are the ones that struck me as having connections with life and church.

First of all, there is the matter of steering.    A Caravel is directed by a tiller that sits below the aft deck.  This is a great innovation for personal comfort of the captain or person given the task of steering, as it means you are in an area protected from the weather, rain, waves, etc. 

However, this also means you can’t see a blooming thing.   The bow of a Caravel is swooped up to ride against the waves, so from the position of tiller what you “see” is the deck in front of you.  No horizon, no view of the water, no clear sense of the stars above you.  You are dependent upon the commands and direction barked at you from above somewhere.   And if that falls silent, or can’t be heard over the noise of banter or storm?

Well, one is steering blind.

One can see the connection I’m likely to make about pastering or currently leading a church in the American experience. 

It’s not that Pastors and leaders aren’t firmly clutching the rudder.  Some of them are probably white knuckled, fingernails clawing, and scared spitless to let go!

However, one should never confuse white knuckled terror with a “firm grasp on the situation.”

But there is an awful lot of noise in the world right now.   Competing messages, demands, thoughts about which is the correct way to go.  While ideally pastors and leaders would be listening intently for God’s voice, that voice is often mixed in and amongst the chosen vessel for God to speak, which is to say, through others.  

This has been the pattern biblically.   Very few get a “one-on-one” with God.   Abraham, Moses, the Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, and  Jesus  do, but most of the time when “Thus says the Lord” pops up it is through the mouths of God’s servants. 

Much like steering a Caravel, pastors are dependent upon listening intently to the sound of  the ship (the church) and to whoever is on look-out and barking directions to determine where to steer things, (conversation, resources, emphasis, etc.)

It’s a much less precise activity than one might think.   

There is also a pretty mighty storm a brewing.  Pick your storm, actually, or picture the convolution of things creating a “perfect storm.”   Declining membership, changing trends in people trusting or joining any institutions, failure to appeal to the next generation, aging membership, aging facilities that were designed for a very different era and participation level, tax structure changes affecting charitable giving, etc.

We haven’t even factored in political polarization or interpretation of the gospel, or prosperity gospel influence or cultural influences of the rise of nationalism, or confusion of manifest destiny or American Exceptionalism with God’s favor, or the movement toward tribalism globally, or….

You get the picture.

Now, try to figure out which way to turn the tiller.   Which voice does one choose?  Can you even hear it above the noise of storm?  Do you dare to inch it the way you think it ought to go, or will the ship creak and moan its disapproval or founder altogether?

So, for today,  I am staring at the “Pinta” replica and simply connecting with that person at the tiller. 

He is not the navigator.

That job requires someone who is up on deck, with sexton and compass and an eye onto he horizon and the position of the stars and sun. 

That’s the guy (in Columbus time) or the woman (in our time) who is staying above the fray and trying to discern as best he/she can where we are heading and just how to get there, before he/she shouts below to one holding the tiller.

A question asked at breakfast this morning was “Why are you walking the Camino?”  

Answers varied around the table and mine was probably vague about needing to get some perspective and time away.

But here’s the thing, I think I found my answer on the ship tour today.  

I need to let go of the tiller for a while, and step up on deck.

I need to stop being the guy who is “white knuckle holding” and wrap my hands around the tools for navigation instead of just steering.

I walk to get out under the stars, pay attention to the position and movement of the sun, and to maybe get a view of where all the noise I can’t really see is coming from.

Maybe after that, I can grab the tiller again, with a more gentle grip, and a surer feel for where we are going and how the ship is responding.

A few of my thoughts today.   Buen Camino


The Way of St. James – Day One. Welcome from Lisbon

Ah, the challenge of European travel. I write this at 8 p.m. Lisbon time, which is 1 p.m. Kansas City time, which would not be so bad except the only sleep I have had are sparse stints in airline economy class. Pardon me if this is less than lucid.

Our group spent most of the day walking Lisbon with an energetic young tour guide who was enthusiastic about his job and his love for his home country. He wove a great deal of history and context into the explanations. It’s important to listen to the voices of those who have recent experience with things to put some perspective on currents and trends in our own lives and experience. The signature landmark on the top of the hill in Lisbon is what looks to be a medieval fortification. He asked us to guess when that old fort was built. Lisbon had suffered a devastating earthquake and tsunami in 1755, so I reasoned it might have dated from the 1800’s, a rebuild or restoration. I was closest, the actual date being 1940. Portugal was under Fascist rule, and the dictator of the time embarked on a program of fueling the fires of nationalism as a way of motivating national pride.
In this young man’s voice was a cautionary tale of how Salazar with his promises and national pride at first seemed to be a savior of sorts, but with each passing year repression and hard fisted measures were employed in the name of “national interest” until soon everyone was oppressed. His words echoed a cautionary tale of how what at first seems good can turn to empty promises. “That citadel, there is nothing in it, it is a shell of show from the outside only.”.
The bible passage for the walk this day was Psalm 139:1-3. “Oh Lord, You have searched me and known me…. you are acquainted with all my ways.”
I’m feeling a bit “empty shell” today after so much travel an taking in. Maybe that’s not a bad way to start the Camino. Looking at what may seem impressive or strong from the outside, but is empty in the inside.
Time for some sleep, and mulling over of things.
What do people observe of me from the outside?
What is it like inside?
Do my words and actions match and are they leading to good things and life?