An Anabaptist Pilgramage (and no, that’s not a typo)

My theme of “(Re)Discovering Ancient Spiritual Practices” at the Mennonite Church where I serve as the pastor seems a little odd to some.  Those religious rituals having little to no bearing with our Radical Reformation past.  In fact, our spiritual ancestors would likely reject many of these activities as human creation and therefore unhelpful in our walk with Christ. In many ways I agree with these sentiments.  It is easy for us as human beings to ascribe more worth to the activities than what the activity is supposed to point toward.  Still, I would like to make the case that it might be possible to design a pilgrimage that would be perfect for Mennonites/Anabaptists/Free Church folk.

Most pilgrimages in use today retrace steps taken by an important person within that faith tradition.  Anabaptism has a number of important people, many of whom made significant trips as a part of their faith expression.  Pilgram Marpeck was just one of them.

As a young man, he had been trained as an engineer and was growing in influence and prominence as a member of a political family.  The Radical branch of the Reformation meant not only that new and “dangerous” ideas were spreading across Europe, but also that the people holding those beliefs often needed to find safe places to hide from persecuting church-state authorities.  The hills and mines of Austria provided just the relief that these radicals were looking for, but an impending war between Turkish and Austrian forces also meant that loyalty was being tested in every possible way.

Pilgram Marpeck’s job was to manage the supply of wood and other building materials, co-ordinate employee housing, etc.  By all accounts he was good at that, but his superiors added something to his job description.  As a show of religious and civic loyalty, Marpeck’s mining company was asked to give the names of any suspected re-baptizing dissidents or risk being branded as a sympathizer.

It was obvious to everyone in town what happened to people who had joined the re-baptizers. Leonhard Schiemer, who was also an Anabaptist of some note, was executed in the same town Pilgram Marpeck lived.  The specifics of what come next aren’t a part of the historical record, but it’s fair to speculate. Whether or not he came to follow Anabaptist Christianity because of these miners, he would have still lived and worked in close quarters with them.  These friends and coworkers would have been killed if he followed through on his orders.

Marpeck refused to submit these names and soon he had to leave town.  Did he leave to find work somewhere else? Did he leave because of family pressure?  Did he leave because he had already embraced the radical faith of the people whose lives he had tried to save?  Whatever the reason, he left Rattenberg, Austria in 1528 and next appeared in Strassbourg.

What happened in between?  Did he visit other Anabaptist communities in Moravia, Switzerland, or the Black Forest?  Did he wonder if he had made the right decision?  Did he come to a new faith position as he walked?  Did he assemble his new beliefs after having already changed his mind in Austria? Did he lay the foundation of future faith changes which came to fruition once he reached his destination?  I would love to know, but I would also love to retrace his steps.

Pilgram likely did most of his travelling by boat, and even if a modern pilgrim wanted to walk from the same origin to the same destination, contemporary Europe isn’t as free to traverse by foot than it would have been in the era of the reformation.  I will likely never be able to embark on this pilgramage, but maybe someday this will be a route that other Anabaptists take.

Strassbourg was a free imperial city, meaning that neither the catholic holy roman empire or the German city states could exercise full authority.  Religious rebels flooded into the city and Pilgrim Marpeck was allowed to live and work there for many years.  He was an engineer again and was a very successful one.  He worshipped with other Anabaptists in freedom.  Years later that freedom would expire and he fled again.  He continued writing and offering leadership to various Anabaptist congregations and communities.  He traveled often, and his safety wasn’t always guaranteed.  These later Pilgramages took on a different meaning than the original one, but I would be honoured to be able to retrace those steps as well.

Why doesn’t this feel more sacred?

DSCN9230My theme for the year at our church is “(Re)Discovering Ancient Spiritual Practices.” As a part of that, I’ve introduced ritual prayer, labyrinths, sacred calendars, etc.  People have been generally supportive and willing to try new things, which has been great.  The latest spiritual practice I’ve talked about is pilgrimage.

Like many ancient spiritual practices, pilgrimages are sort of in vogue right now.  The Camino del Santiago through France, Spain and Portugal is as popular as ever, despite the declining levels of religious affiliation in Europe.  Pilgrimages to holy sites in other major world religions are only growing as well.

Rituals like pilgrimages aren’t traditionally part of the Anabaptist repertoire, for a variety of reasons.  Mostly, our Anabaptist spiritual ancestors felt that if you needed to go away or sequester yourself somewhere to connect with God, that was a sign of spiritual weakness, not strength.

So, reminding my congregation of that, and clarifying that rituals are fine as long as the actions point a person to Jesus and not to the actions themselves.  I talked from the pulpit about wanting to do a little pilgrimage of my own.  I said at some point soon I was going to walk the 20km from my house to the church building.  Making statements like that from the pulpit is a good way to ensure that people will ask you about it until you actually do it.

After one week of standing at the pulpit and admitting that rain and personal schedules prevented me from making the trek, I decided I would take the next available good weather day.  This past Monday was just such a day.

I set out just after ten in the morning and essentially walked four segments of 5 kilometers.  Each segment took a little longer than the one before it.  I got a new perspective on certain landscapes, I enjoyed nature more than I would have had I been driving, and got a new appreciation for the workings of the human body, but I didn’t experience what I would describe as a spiritual epiphany.

I have a few ideas as to why.

I imagine that people doing actual long distance pilgrimages don’t have the biggest revelations on their first day. A one-day pilgrimage like mine should probably have a different name, like “hiking.” I was barely able to unplug from the world before I was done.  I decided that morning to do the walk because the weather forecast changed, so maybe longer preparation time would have been helpful as well.  I also wasn’t able to walk anywhere unfamiliar, so I might be able to expect more from a longer, bigger time commitment.

I walked mostly on roads and gravel shoulders, so the solitude and quiet other pilgrims benefit from eluded me.  I wondered if even the path that I was taking was unspiritual in a number of ways.  While pilgrims around the world retrace steps taken by religious seekers and saints of old, I was following the path people drive from their home in a bedroom community to their workplace in a large city. I recognize there is a sacredness to our routines of work and vocation, but driving speed limit and above with the variety of available mind numbing radio stations rarely encourages spiritual reflection, so those travailing this route before me may have laid the spiritual foundation that I would be unable to break free of.

I also had plans for later in the day, so my mind was occupied and my pace was a little rushed.  Only when a fellow church member joined me near the end did I realize that I was at least half an hour ahead of the pace I had set for myself, did I allow myself to slow down.  At that more relaxed pace, I could enjoy the scenery a little more, but by then I was already quite tired, which leads me to my last point.

Maybe I didn’t have any revelations because it really hurt.  After about two hours of walking, I realized that blisters were starting to form.  Soon my skin, muscles and joints were making it clear to the rest of my body that I may have bitten off more than I could chew.  At the beginning of the walk I felt free to venture off the path for all kinds of reasons, but as the end approached, I knew that walking into the ditch and (legally) hopping a fence would mean more pain for my feet, so I walked the long way around.  If life is like a pilgrimage, you can be sure that the last little bit will be filled with various kinds of pain.

Besides the pain, I actually did enjoy the experience quite a bit, and I will be hoping to do a longer hike this summer.  More pilgrimage thoughts will follow.

Babies don’t fix anything

Every now and then I hear people talk as though having a baby will somehow fix a part of their life.  Don’t get me wrong, I love babies.  I think there are lots of people who aren’t having babies that should.  Still, it needs to be clear that having a baby, whether it’s by birth or adoption, will not fix anything.

I’m not trying to overstate things.  I really cannot think of a single thing that is a baby can fix.  Let’s look at the things people hope will improve:

  • Your marriage – Saying that having a baby will fix your marriage is a little bit like saying adding a second floor to your house will fix a crack in the foundation.  If there are major problems in your marriage, having a baby will make those problems bigger.  If you have a strong marriage, having a baby will test that strength and then reveal how necessary it is to have that strength all the time.  A baby will not strengthen your marriage.  A baby will simply remind you that you need to strengthen it on your own, or make you appreciate that you already have.
  • His commitment issues – This is the one that scares me the most.  Whether a guy and girl are dating or married, girls often think that the guy will be more likely to stick around/propose/appreciate her more if she gets pregnant.  I shake my head when I hear that.  Sure, the guys on TV and romantic movies have these delivery room moments where they take one look at a child and swear from that day forward that they will do right by this child and his or her mother, but that is not the standard response.  For me, with the birth of each of my three children, I looked at my wife afterwards and was overwhelmed by the show of self-sacrifice and devotion that I had just witnessed.  I looked at my new babies and committed to help these vulnerable little creatures find their way in the world they had just been born into.  But with each birth, I was terrified.  Despite having reason to believe that I possessed the physical, emotional and spiritual resources to make raising these children possible, I was still scared.  Sure I was committed to being a good father, but with each birth it seemed that the bar was raised, the bar of being a good father and husband was moved up, possibly out of reach.  If a man hasn’t already committed himself to you, the emotional turbulence of having a baby will not stabilize him.
  • Your relationship with your parents/in-laws – This is one of the things that people underestimate about marriage, that their parents will continue to interfere with their lives.  Sometimes there is an idea, and sometimes it’s spoken outloud, that if there was a baby involved, the relationship between the child’s parents and the child’s grandparents would be smoother.  That’s not true either.  A healthy relationship between parents and their adult children involves support when needed and freedom to make their own decisions.  Adding a baby to that mix is great.  They help when you need help, and they affirm the parenting decisions you make.  If there is an unhealthy relationship of pressure, guilt and judgment, that will make the already difficult process of having a baby more difficult.  If those parents second guess your parenting decisions about naming, feeding, clothing, and simply raising your child, that causes extra stresses on you and both your relationships between you and your baby and you and your parents/in-laws.
  • Your biological clock – This is a force that should not be underestimated, but it cannot be the primary deciding factor about if and when to have children.  The same impulses that will make you want to have a baby will also make you second guess every decision you ever make about that baby.  Every time that baby gets sick, misbehaves, experiences failure or even cries, you will wonder if there is something you did wrong to create this problem or if there is something you can do differently to fix it.  The answer will almost always be no, but that won’t stop you from contemplating all sorts of other answers.
  • Your credibility – In some places, women and men are taken more seriously if they have a child, preferably more.  As a married pastor with well-behaved children, I benefit from this kind of thinking.  This credit however, is temporary.  Whatever credit you get for having a baby will be lost when that child inevitably grows up and disappoints you or the people who measure you by your parenting skills.  Sometimes people will see that you are a parent and then give you credit for balancing work and family life, but that’s a really hard thing to do, and you don’t get the credit until you demonstrate it, and you may not ever be fully convinced that you deserve the credit at all.
  • Your bottom line – There are all sorts of tax credits, benefits and incentives to have children.  It can get you into somebody’s will. It can be a good long term business ownership transition strategy.  It’s obvious that kids are expensive, but they don’t need to be as much as we are told.  Still, no matter how carefully you draw up a budget, kids have a way of finding and creating extra budgetary expenses.  Kids know how to milk money out of their parents.  I’m sure you can think back to a time you convinced your parents to spend money, on ice cream, toys, vacations, etc, that they weren’t planning to spend.  That was in a time when parents could say no to their children and still be part of the mainstream.  Times have changed.

The reasons to have children are for more simple.  I firmly believe that each of us are equipped with the tools to raise children.  But a solid relationship and a healthy sense of self need to be the beginning point, not the destination.