The gift of cycling (and writing about it yet again)

It is amazing what a difference a year makes. Last May I was totally immersed in a battle to save the property tax exemption for the Pres House Apartments. This May is a month of joyful renewal while on sabbatical. Last year at this time I was visiting legislators in the Wisconsin State Capitol by day, calling and emailing Pres House supporters in the evening, and praying and freaking out by night. This year…well, for the past two days I have been riding my bike almost exclusively. Last year my mind was full with property tax law, the names and office numbers of legislators, and strategies for responding to an unfair attack on Pres House. This year all I can seem to think (and blog about) is sheep, ancient Northumbrian saints, and cycling.

And what a gift that is. It is a truly remarkable experience of grace to have moved through a time of enormous stress into a time of restoration. My ability to disengage from the weight of responsiblity in my role as Co-Pastor and Executive Director at Pres House has been greatly enhanced by the fact that the staff and board members at Pres House have really, truly, let us get away. We don’t hear any news, any requests, any pressing updates from the great folks running things in our absence. I admit that on one level that is disconcerting. Are we that dispensable that they can really get along without us?! Seriously, I don’t think we are dispensable, but I also believe that yes, they can get along without us (at least for a little while!). And they have. And it has been a special gift. We will be picking up the yoke of responsiblity again soon enough and new problems will most certainly arise, but for this brief stretch of time we have been given the wonderful gift of space for restoration and renewal that is the aim of a sabbatical.

And so I will indulge this gift to write (yet again) about my joyful cycling adventures in England. On Monday I took the train from Hexham to Whitehaven on the west coast of England. I set out from there on a two-day, 115 mile ride back to Hexham. For most of the ride I followed an excellently marked national cycle route called the C2C (sea to sea) that runs across the country from coast to coast. Shortly after leaving the west coast I entered the spectacular Lake District of county Cumbria. The Lake District is a stunningly beautiful area where natural lakes are nestled amidst soaring peaks. At almost every turn I had to stop to gasp (and then pull out my camera).

The region contains the tallest mountains in England, but the cycling isn’t too difficult as most of the roads travel along valleys…Except for the ones that go over the passes like this one:

When I told folks I ran into later in the day that I had ridden over Honister Pass they invariably asked if I had to get off and walk my bike. Well I didn’t. But I might as well have as I could have walked just as fast as I was able to manage pedaling.

After spending a perfect day winding my way through the Lake District heading generally east I stopped for the night at a bed and breakfast in a tiny hamlet called Troutbeck. After trying to catch up on lost calories with dinner and washing my jersey in the sink with shampoo I crashed for the night.

Today was harder riding than yesterday. I left the Lake District after about 15 miles but then I had to climb up into, and eventually over, the Pennines – a ridge of hills that runs most of the length of England down its spine. That took basically the rest of the day.

And that is one of the marvelous gifts that this sabbatical has given me – time. Time to ride all day, to stop whenever I feel like it, to sing songs into the wind, to feel burning in my legs from a steep uphill rather than the ache of stress pounding in my head. Thanks be to God.

– Mark

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Welcoming the Pilgrims

We have visited a lot of churches here in England during our sabbatical. But we’ve only been to a minute fraction of the 16,000 Church of England churches that are dotted throughout a country smaller than the state of Illinois. And that number of churches doesn’t include those of any other denominations. More than 75% of them are listed for special architectural or historical interest. They range in size from tiny churches where just a few people gather every other Sunday for worship (St. Aidan’s,Thockrington) to the largest Gothic cathedral in all of Northern Europe (York Minister). I put together a little video montage of some of the churches we have visited during the past weeks. Most of these churches were painstakingly built by hand in the 12th and 13th centuries, but many contain older elements like the crypt of Hexham Abbey that dates from 674.

One of the most amazing features of these churches is not their age (old!), their beauty (spectacular!), or their history (rich!). It is that they are open all the time. All of the churches we have visited are open to visitors during the day and some are open 24/7. Even if no one is there. And they are designed with the pilgrim in mind.

The churches we have visited here in England are set up for people to stop in as visitors. The large, famous, churches like York and Salisbury are almost museum like. At these great cathedrals visitors are charged an entrance fee (although York did allow us in for free because we are ministers). They are filled with incredible relics like old clocks, the graves of famous people, cases filled with communion chalices, and displays detailing the history of these grand cathedrals. They always have a gift shop. Although I am not a big fan of the commercialization of the church I do appreciate that they are designed for visitors and pilgrims in mind. There are staff members and volunteers on hand to provide interesting commentary on the features of these large churches and most of them have a chaplain available to speak with pilgrims about their spiritual needs.

But it is the smaller churches that I am most intrigued by. I have stopped in a number of churches way off the beaten path when I come across them riding my bike and found the door unlocked, fresh flowers on the altar, and welcoming information set up in some corner of the church. There is never anyone else there. No church office. No custodian. No sign on the door with open and closed hours. Yet these churches are open day and night. They are open for pilgrims, even if we don’t know we are pilgrims, to come in and find a quiet place to sit with God.

Like in the United States, the past decades have marked a significant decline in the number of people attending “mainline” churches regularly. But I don’t believe that a decrease in church worship attendance necessarily means people are less interested in exploring important questions of meaning and seeking connection with God. Over lunch with the Rector of Hexham Abbey we learned that Church of England churches function differently in the community than most churches in the United States. The church here remains the church for all people in the parish (the local catchment area) no matter what. Even if the people don’t attend. Even if they don’t believe. The church is there for all of them. When they need somewhere to be married, the church is there for them. When they need somewhere to be buried, the church is there for them. When they wander in not sure what they are looking for, but perhaps mulling on the divine, the church is there for them. Next Hexham Abbey is hosting a picnic for the entire town to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

I am a believer in the separation of church and state that makes the relationship between a church and community different in America. But I am drawn to the image of a church being there for its community no matter what.

In some ways I feel that this is the role Pres House has to play in the middle of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. We don’t actually have membership in any traditional sense. We are not officially connected with the university in any way. But we sit right in the center of the heart of campus and our “parish” is all 40,000 students who call UW home for a few years.

The buildings of Pres House are infants compared to the age of churches and buildings here in England (about 80 years old for our chapel and just 5 years old for our apartments). One of the bells I have been ringing in Hexham Abbey was cast before the United States even existed as a nation! Pres House doesn’t have the bones of any famous saints buried on-site (at least that I know of) or thousand-year-old holy relics. But because of our location, and the beauty of our buildings, people do stop in regularly. Sometimes it is just to look around. Sometimes it is to pray. Sometimes it is to study. Often, I believe, people come in to Pres House without really knowing what they are looking for. And I’ve been wondering if there are ways we could be more welcoming of these pilgrims.

Throughout my visits I’ve noticed a few things in particular that make the space of churches more welcoming to pilgrims. Perhaps we might try to incorporate some of these into the life and ministry of Pres House.

  • A description of history prominently displayed: We should have an easier time of this since our entire history would be one tiny part of the timeline of a typical English church. But the history of a place informs its present and future. God’s work through past “saints” fills us with courage to do our work today. And that we have at Pres House.
  • Bibles available with tips on finding words of scripture for our lives: At one church we found a number of Bibles out with bookmarks in them at places where God speaks words of encouragement, hope, or peace for those who come in needing to hear such a word as such a time as this.
  • Prayer request boards: At one church there is a beautiful wooden board that stands in the sanctuary inviting visitors to jot down anonymous prayer requests and put them on the elastic of the board so that members of the congregation can pray for them.
  • A description of what the different spaces inside are for: This seems silly but after visiting churches that are architecturally different from what I am familiar with (which would be all churches for someone who may not attend) I realize it is helpful to know what the various spaces are for and what I as a visitor am invited to do there. Simply explaining that lounge space is for studying and fellowship and chapel space is for quiet relection clarifies and invites visitors to use those spaces in those ways.
  • A description of what the church is: Again this might seem self-evident. A church is a church, right? But I’ve read some very good summaries in churches that are designed to help visitors understand what they have walked into. Not a statement of belief to warn people off, but a description to help them envision what happens there at different times of the week and year, how it is important, and how they might join in the pilgrimage with others who are a part of the church community.
  • Music: Whenever I have wandered into a church and heard a choir rehearsing or the organist playing it fills the space with an added depth of experience. When appropriate, visitors to churches here are allowed to sit and be touched by such rehearsals.
  • Tea rooms: Hexham Abbey is currently raising money to expand their ministry of hospitality to the community with new facilities. One of the parts of their renovated space will be a tea room to welcome visitors and pilgrims. Some of the staff at Pres House have thought of this idea already and have made use of their exemplary cooking skills to welcome Badger pilgrims with food. I’ll be bringing back a recipe for English scones to add to the menu!
  • Pastors and others to talk to: Smaller churches here are usually empty when I’ve stopped in but the larger ones usually have a sign prominently displayed saying that a pastor or chaplain is available to speak with visitors if they would like to talk about anything on their mind. Since I know there are pastors at Pres House who are happy to speak with pilgrims who wander in, maybe all we need is to put up a sign…

“Buildings do not make a church, a church.” That is said a lot, at least in America. And it is true. A community of people is what makes a particular building one of God’s churches. And yet buildings can be special places that the community of people uses to welcome the pilgrim whatever they are looking for and whoever they are.

– Mark

Namesake

Northumberland is full of beautiful little villages nestled in the sheep covered hills. One of my favorites is the tiny village of Elsdon. My namesake. According to the local tea shop owner at least one branch of the Elsdon family name began with a foundling left on the steps of the church in the 1700s who was named Cuthbert Elsdon. Cuthbert after the church (which was of course named after St. Cuthbert) and Elsdon after the town.

I have been to Elsdon three times so far during our sabbatical. The first time was a few weeks ago when I met two friends to do a spectacular bike ride that started in Elsdon and took us up into the Cheviot hills. As my brother-in-law put it, the ride was “from Elsdon, to Elsdon, by Elsdon.” One of the best parts of the ride was riding off the map. There is a beautiful road that follows the River Coquet and then simply ends. At least on the map. But in reality the road continues up into British Ministry of Defense military practice ranges. As long as the red warning flags aren’t up cyclists are welcome to ride into this stark and ruggedly beautiful territory. But even when the flags aren’t up they still warn you that…

This sign is a little unnerving, but I found that the most dangerous element of the ride was not unexploded weapons but a small, new-born lamb. In much of the countryside sheep and lambs are contained behind stone walls or fences. But up in the more remote and rugged regions there are no such barriers separating human from woolly beast. As we were making our way down a very welcome descent, we came to an area that was teeming with sheep and baby lambs. Most of the time they paid no attention to us until we were right upon them at which point they would bolt off up the hills on either side of the road. But one lamb made a mistake and ran the wrong way. Right into my bike. After I got over the shock of hitting a lamb and not being thrown off my bike, I stopped to see if the lamb was okay. He must have been well enough, because instead of running away he circled back around, dropped his little head, and ran at the wheel of my bike! I must have released some kind of butting instinct because he was mad and was going to make me pay. Thankfully he hadn’t yet grown the big horns of the mother sheep that was eyeing me with great consternation. I didn’t want to find out what kind of damage she could do with those horns so we quickly rode on. I later asked my cycling friend how old the lambs are when they are eaten. He responded, “I guess whenever you run them over with your bike.”

A couple of weeks ago I went to Elsdon again – that time I rode there on my bike. It was a lovely 60 mile round-trip ride. I ate at the tea room and chatted with some of the many cyclists who make Elsdon their destination or starting point.

And then today I went back for a third visit. This time it was with my family. My sister, brother-in-law, and niece are visiting from California. My parents are also here in the area staying with my grandmothers. So we all piled into cars on this rainy and very cold day and took a trip up to Elsdon.

There really isn’t much to see or do in Elsdon. The population was over 2000 people hundreds of years ago but is now home to just 177 people. It is made up of a central village green surrounded by a circle of homes just one house deep. There is a pub that I’ve never seen open, St. Cuthbert’s church, and a tea room. So we did the natural English thing to do on a cold rainy day – we had a cup of tea and a scone. We chatted with the tea room owner, the same man who told us the history of Cuthbert Elsdon last year. He pulled out a list of Elsdon’s who had visited the tea room over the years. As my dad looked over the list he exclaimed, “There was someone here from Roswell, Georgia in 1989! We lived in Roswell for a number of years.” We all exclaimed that was such a coincidence until he continued by saying, “And they lived on the same street as us” at which point it slowly dawned on us that the mysterious visitors from Georgia in 1989 were not some long-lost relatives but were in fact, us. We had come to Elsdon back when I was in junior high.

There isn’t much to do in Elsdon. The main purpose of going was to get a photo of all three generations of us in our namesake village. But it is a special place that connects us with our past. With past visits that we have made (and forgotten!) and with possible ancestors that we’ve never traced on a family tree. As a kid I always thought it was cool to know that I shared my surname with a pretty village in northern England. As our girls return home from this English experience I hope that they too will find some grounding in the memory of the ancient village that may have given them their name.

– Mark

Sheep on the road

This is a short follow-up to Erica’s post about sheepdogs.

A few weeks ago we had a very nice lunch with the vicar (pastor) of a number of small churches in Northumberland. One of his churches is in a tiny place called Thockrington. The tiny church sits high up on a hill near what was once a village before cholera wiped it out. He encouraged me to take a bike ride up to see this unique church. So yesterday I did.

Lord William Beveridge and his wife are buried in the small cemetery surrounding the church. Beveridge is the esteemed economist who helped create the modern welfare state in England that led to the establishment of the excellent universal health care system called the National Health Service among other valuable social services designed to ensure a minimum standard of living “below which no one should be allowed to fall.”

After exploring the cemetery and spending some time praying in the quiet of the small church I made my way back through the field towards the road that runs past the church (there is no road to the church itself). But just as I went to get back on my bike a mass of sheep came up the one-lane road. They were being herded along by a shepherd and some sheepdogs. I captured this little video of the sheepdogs at work and watched with fascination as they did their work of trying to help move the sheep along. A number of times the sheep wandered off or started off back down the road but eventually the dogs, under the guidance of the man, helped guide them forward along the road and around the bend.

– Mark

The sound in this video is the wind blowing across the Northumberland moors. A few minutes later I had to suspend my ride again to protect myself from a sudden hailstorm!

Yoked–Remembering…

I wrote this post for a dear friend, Mihee Kim-Kort, who is doing a series (among many) on clergy couples on her blog.

Atlanta Braves Games, Summer 1998

Mark and I have been a couple for 15 years and have actually been serving together in ministry for almost all that time. There have been many different seasons, but the most recent chapter in our lives has been consumed with the birth of our family (two kids, currently ages 8 & 5) and the re-birth of Pres House (which we half-jokingly call our third child). Somewhere along the way of becoming parents and co-pastors, the role of being individual people and lovers slipped into the shadows, making only rare appearances on special occasions.

It is why this current Sabbatical has been so vital to us. Sabbath is a defiant act of remembrance, especially for parents of young children and pastors—doubly so when those roles pile up on top of each other. Much of the past eight years has been hurrying from here to there, a constant motion that left barely enough room to remember the kids’ lunches never mind a more vivid reality of a holy and awesome God.

In this season of Sabbatical, I have to be honest and admit I haven’t been reading the Bible, kneeling in prayer for hours, or studying classical theological texts and spiritual disciplines. Instead, I have been engaged in an act of remembrance. Remembering what it’s like to have a whole day (or at least a few hours) of silence; reading a book with no thought of producing a sermon; eating a meal (and going to the bathroom) without any interruptions; sitting in worship to simply, well, worship.

In these acts of remembrance, I have been rediscovering bits and pieces of myself—sort of like going through old boxes in the attic. Those who are mothers can attest to how easy it is to forget oneself. Old hobbies and passions; relationships that have been shelved due to lack of time and energy; the truth that I am an interesting person in my own right (and not just as a source of food, band-aids, and moral compass)—indeed that I am a precious child of God.

This act of remembering who I am has also helped in the hard work of reclaiming my role as lover. As one might surmise, parenting and pastoring are not terribly romantic activities and while there is often drama, it’s usually not the kind conducive to dreamy evenings lit by candle light. Mark and I have had the good fortune of being pretty good colleagues and partners; not that we don’t ever disagree or have challenges, but we work well together. What’s harder to do, especially after a long day, month, or years of work combined with the marathon that is parenting, is to nurture the flame that is uniquely ours alone. We realized this a number of years ago when we tried to have a conversation without talking about either the kids or work.

And so we have been given this holy opportunity (for it is truly set apart from ordinary time) to also remember the love which started us on this wonderful journey. Thankfully it’s not like dating (which I found to be a roller coaster of emotions that made it difficult to focus on anything). But there are elements of excitement, passion, and mystery. My dear friend, Kate Wiebe, recommended the book “Passionate Marriage” in which the author makes counter-cultural and radical claims about the long-term, monogamous couple. It’s been refreshing to give attention and space to remembering that beyond being mom and dad, co-pastor and co-pastor, we are lovers given a precious gift by God.

It has been an excellent season of Sabbath, of remembering God’s good creation and blessings. My hope is that this time of renewal will help us sustain the callings we have to be lovers, parents, and pastors together.

–Erica

Just Call Me…Sheepdog

Mark and I went for a walk in the hills last week, and like most of Northumberland, there was an abundance of sheep. We were following a guidebook that took us through many pastures, and as it happened, had to go through an enclosure where four sheep—two mamas, two babies—had somehow found themselves, separated from the other sheep in the field.

Now, wherever we have wandered, the sheep always respond the same. When they see us, they freeze for a moment like the proverbial deer in headlights. Then they start bleating in a panic and stumble away from us, even though most of the time there’s a fence that separates us. After trekking maybe 20 yards, they stop and look at us suspiciously again, and based on our location evaluate whether or not they have moved far enough to safety. That’s what always happens (well, almost always—ask Mark about the time a feisty, little lamb head butted his bike wheel).

So imagine the anxiety we raised with these four sheep that couldn’t get far enough away from us as we hiked through the enclosure they were trapped in. Of course, being the brilliant creatures that they are, they ran the direction I was clearly heading and didn’t quite know what to do with themselves when there was nowhere else to go. I think I heard a collective bleat of relief once I exited the enclosure.

And now for the clichéd (but necessary comparison since I am a pastor) sheep metaphor analysis. As biblical images go, the shepherd is one of the most prevalent. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” (Psalm 23), “I am the good shepherd…” (John 10:11) The church has often transferred that imagery to the pastor, who shepherds over his or her flock, the congregation. Rev. Craig Barnes has suggested that a better metaphor for the pastor is “sheepdog,” which I really like since it reserves the role of shepherd for God alone. Sheepdog makes more theological sense to me; they have a role to play, but they are not ultimately who is in charge.

Anyway, I did a quick search on sheep dogs and discovered that, like pastors, there are a variety of breeds and they have different styles of herding. I found it amusing to imagine these dogs as pastors with their distinctive characteristics.  Perhaps you have experienced some of these styles of pastoring in your own churches!

Australian Cattle Dog – typically nip at the heels of animals to get them to go
Border Collie (“headers”) – get in front of the animals and use a strong eye to stare down the animals and stop their movement
Australian Kelpie (“heelers”) – get in back of the animals to keep driving them forward
New Zealand Huntaway – uses its deep, loud bark to muster mobs of sheep
German Shepherd – act as a “living” fence, guiding the sheep to graze and preventing them from eating certain crops or wandering into roads
* These dogs have been selectively bred for their herding instincts, with an effort at minimizing their natural inclinations towards predatory behavior. You don’t want them eating the sheep!

I’ll let the members of Pres House make their own judgments about what kind of sheepdog I am!

–Erica

CVTHBERTVS

Yesterday I made a pilgrimage to St. Cuthbert’s Shrine in Durham Cathedral.

St. Cuthbert’s Tomb in Durham Cathedral with a copy of the Lindisfarne Gospels on it. This is a photograph of a postcard because photography is prohibited in Durham Cathedral.

St. Cuthbert died in 687. The Venerable Bede wrote this about St. Cuthbert’s death in his History of the English Church and People:

“Above all else he was afire with heavenly love.”

For over 100 years people flocked to visit Cuthbert’s shrine on Lindisfarne. Holy Island became one of the most important sites in early medieval Christianity. But in 793 Lindisfarne was suddenly no longer a safe resting place for the body of the “Fire of the North”. The Vikings attacked. After repeated raids on the northern coast of England, the Bishop of Lindisfarne decided to move Cuthbert’s body (and the whole church piece by piece!) onto the mainland. That new location was short-lived as Viking raids laid waste to another nearby priory and the great church in Hexham. So in 875 the monks put the head of St. Oswald, and some bones of St. Aidan, into Cuthbert’s coffin and set off on what would be an over 100 year journey around Northumbria. His body is said to have rested in many churches and villages throughout the area including here in Hexham and in the village of Elsdon where perhaps the first person with the surname Elsdon was given the first name Cuthbert.

St. Cuthbert’s Shrine

In the late 10th century a monk had a vision that Cuthbert wanted them to go to Dunholm (Durham). So the company of men found their way to a high plateau and there set up a new shrine for their beloved Cuthbert. But alas there was still no permanent rest for the weary. 1066 brought William the Conqueror and the Norman Invasion. The Bishop of Durham fled before the Norman army, taking Cuthbert with him. Finally, a period of calm descended upon the area and Cuthbert could be returned to Durham. The first stone was laid for the magnificent Durham Cathedral in 1093 and in 1104 Cuthbert was finally laid to rest permanently in the shrine behind the high altar. At that time Cuthbert’s coffin was opened and his body was said to be found totally intact having not decomposed in over 400 years! This miracle only added to the mystery and wonder associated with St. Cuthbert.For over 1300 years pilgrims have visited St. Cuthbert’s shrine seeking divine guidance and intervention in their lives. I made my own pilgrimage this week.

My pilgrimage was quite different from those of medieval Christians walking over the hills and through the valleys of Northumberland to the great cathedral on the hill in Durham overlooking the River Wear. But I did go on my own power. I rode my bike. Despite this being the wettest April in England in more than 100 years, I have done what I can to get out on my bike. So partly to enjoy another beautiful ride through the countryside, and partly to make my journey to Durham without a car, I rode the 40 miles from Hexham to Durham. I did get lost along the way a couple of times and had to struggle up 20% grade hills with my bike loaded down. But all in all it was a very pleasant way to journey between two of the greatest churches in all of northern England.

I have been to Durham a number of times before. It was a place that I went routinely with my family when visiting this area as a child. Erica and I watched a very young Daniel Radcliff and a very white Hedwig filming this scene from Harry Potter in the cloister of Durham Cathedral 12 years ago. I remember checking out the tomb of the Venerable Bede who is also buried in the Cathedral. But this time my visit was different. After reading a great deal about St. Cuthbert I wanted to spend some time as a pilgrim.

When I arrived in Durham a choir from the Netherlands were performing a choral concert. I gingerly walked by them to get to the shrine of St. Cuthbert – a difficult feat decked out in my blindingly bright yellow cycling jacket. There were a couple of other people quietly looking around in Cuthbert’s shrine when I got to it up in the very front of the church. I stood for a while looking at the tomb, taking it in a totally new way this time. And then I decided to kneel. I am thouroughly Reformed (Presbyterian) in my theology when it comes to saints. That is to say, I am not familiar with, or particularly comfortable with, praying to saints. But there on the stand just in front of me was this prayer to God:

Almighty God, who didst call thy servant Cuthbert from keeping sheep to follow thy Son, and to be a shepherd of thy people, mercifully grant that we, following his example and caring for those who are lost, may bring them home to thy fold, through thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

These words, and remembering that Cuthbert was a pastor before he was a saint, helped me to set aside my misgivings about praying at the tomb of a saint in front of other visitors and open myself up to God’s presence with me in that place for that moment in time.

As a pastor I find it difficult to pray much of the time. Too often I compose my own prayers the way I compose them for worship – to be prayed in front of and with other people. It was a wonderful moment to simply pray as myself – thoughts to be heard by nobody but God…and maybe St. Cuthbert.

– Mark