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REL Time away enhances this preacher's personal search

By the Rev. John Wagner

lifestyle@postbulletin.com

I was giving a sermon to a congregation in northeastern England. In a moment of candor, I described this trip as "a pilgrimage." No one commented on that part of my message. Maybe it meant something to them, I don't know. It meant something to me, however. It meant something to have said it out loud.

You see, preachers sometimes discover themselves in their sermons. We might go back and edit so we don't reveal too much personal information, but if you listen carefully, you can hear the truth with a small "t." The preacher's truth. His or her honest searching. And the truth is, I'm on a pilgrimage.

Simply by being away, there is a freedom for me here to reconsider certain aspects of my life. I now hope to come back with something new. Not a new God or a new religion -- nothing nearly so radical as that. But not merely a new technique, either. It's got to be beyond where I am now, something that wants to be born, something I may have mocked back home but might embrace over here.

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The word "depth" comes to mind. I want greater depth to my life and faith. Very heavy sounding, of course. I'll be on a plane back to America in two short weeks, and should I be so uncool as to bring up this pilgrimage thing, I can well imagine whoever is next to me will want to move to new seat.

But I don't care about that right now. I'm too busy making memories. The people I meet, the conversations, are luminous. Each landscape or seascape, each morning or afternoon or evening, shines with its own special radiance. I ponder these experiences, trying to discern what God might be telling me.

And of course, being in Great Britain has shaped the character of my search:

History. There is so much history here, and so many amateur historians. I've gotten to know a man with a high-powered job in information technology who spends evenings on his bicycle with other young men exploring the countryside and examining the ruins of castles and country estates. He is not considered an oddball. Nearly everyone knows and researches some kind of history. Yet I'm also amazed at the attitude toward progress.

Quite a number of projects are under way in the city, and several churches we have visited are taking the bold step of merging and even building new edifices. I find myself wondering if a reverence for the past and a willingness to embrace the future are not quite the opposites we so often make them out to be.

The Celtic influence. I am very unqualified to speak of this, but when a reputable preacher told me that Celtic Christianity was quite influential in these parts, I suddenly got interested. Something to do with a sense of God's imminence, or closeness in the natural world. I'm highly intrigued.

The worship here -- how do I describe it? How about intense, yet with a kind of airiness and simplicity. They sing with real feeling for words and music and are anything but bored. And the way they speak of heaven, it's like they've already paid a visit.

Now, having written all this down, I wonder if my observations can survive rigorous analysis. Perhaps I'm seeing it all wrong, and these are merely a record of my foolish projections. I also wonder if, at this point in my life, I'm somehow more vulnerable to false ideas, to charlatans and manipulators, to New Age gurus. Who knows?

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All I can say is that this is the way God seems to be speaking to me just now. From time to time, I think, you've got to fall off whatever high horse you're riding, fall into something deeper. You have to lose your balance and trust that someone will be there to catch you

We have a word for this in the religion business. We call it repentance. Mostly we associate it with turning away from sins, but it can also refer to simply changing -- turning from an old way not because it's been so wrong but because something newer and deeply meaningful must take its place.

Scary stuff I suppose, but it feels like real living.

The Rev. John Wagner is a United Methodist minister from Dayton, Ohio.

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