Creating Conversation: Thresholds – a sabbatical reflection

Angie Song on the Camino de Santiago.

Creating Conversation is a weekly editorial, curated by the Centre for Missional Leadership (CML), which gives opportunity for people to speak about issues they believe are vital for the church in Vancouver.  

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“If you don’t come apart for a while, after a while you will come apart.”  Dallas Willard 

“Thresholds: brink, cusp, edge, point, verge.”  Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Tired. Exhausted. Done. (Sigh). These are common responses I hear nowadays when I ask fellow pastors and friends how they’re doing. They aren’t new sentiments, but the emphasis and explanations that follow are on a deep level and concerning. We’re longing for relief, rest and restoration after a season of hard work well done. But this need is often superseded by the responsibilities of work, ministry, families and life. 

A March 2022 Barna Research survey reported that 42 percent of Protestant pastors had given serious consideration to quitting full-time ministry within the past year. The immense stress of ministry was stated as the top reason. 

A journey to the Camino

Along the Camino.

My personal journey took me from the joys of serving in congregational ministry to the challenges of over-working, isolation, health issues and burnout during the pandemic. I ended up on mental health leave and eventually stepped down from ministry to seek the rest I needed.

A few weeks later, against the wisdom of family and friends, I found myself walking from Portugal to Spain on the Camino de Santiago.

The Camino de Santiago is a renowned pilgrimage road that began 1,000 years ago. In 2022, over 438,000 pilgrims journeyed to the Santiago de Compostela in Spain by following yellow arrow signs, enduring blisters, sleeping in uncomfortable bunkbeds and relying on the hospitality of others. 

This restless journey is an ancient spiritual discipline of the Christian church called a pilgrimage. Adam and Eve were the first pilgrims as they left the Garden of Eden and all of humanity has been walking since, with a longing to return to the full presence of God.

A pilgrim passes through countless thresholds on this journey. A threshold is the door or gate between two spaces. It delineates the end of one space and the beginning of another. Thresholds are not only physical, but also spiritual in nature.

Thomas Merton explained it like this: 

The geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out an inner journey. The inner journey is the interpolation of the meanings and signs of the outer pilgrimage. One can have one without the other. It is best to have both.

In reflection, I noticed five recurring themes and thresholds on my Camino journey which called for a movement from one posture or belief to another.

Threshold 1: Discernment

Moving from fear to invitation

A pilgrimage starts long before you take your first step on the road. Discerning how I might find rest brought up countless fears and internal tensions.

Would the church be alright navigating new territories post-pandemic? Am I dropping my load onto the backs of other leaders? What will I do without this community? Do I really want to be counted among the Great Resignation?!

But the fears slowly dissipated as I saw a recurring image during times of prayer: Jesus sat under a large tree and was inviting me to come join him. The invitation was both frightening and thrilling. But the decision was no longer on my shoulder – I simply had to accept the invitation from a most trustworthy One.

Rest and restoration is a gift from God and Jesus calls us into this rest in. The Message translation puts it this way: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.” (Matthew 11:28, MSG) 

God was also extending another invitation – an invitation to the congregation as they walked into a new season of renewal and growth. And as much as I longed and prayed for this, it seemed that our paths were diverging. I had to trust that God would call a new leader for the church so they can walk faithfully as they are called. 

In reflection: What fears are holding me back from walking into God’s invitation? How can I trust that God will lead me and Christ’s body to renewed life in new ways?

Threshold 2: Preparation 

Moving from insurance to simplicity

Pilgrims on the Camino carry everything they need on their own backs. One morning as I stopped at a cafe with others for breakfast, we had to make space for people joining our table.

In moving the backpacks to make more space, a young man yelled out, “Who’s backpack is this!? It’s so heavy!” I sheepishly raised my hand and everyone took a turn lifting it up. 

Preparation on the camino becomes the spiritual discipline of discerning what is truly necessary. I didn’t prepare well and packed too much by abiding to the philosophy of ‘just in case.’ My backpack was my insurance policy.

A pilgrim I met had a much smaller backpack and carried a different understanding. She trusted that she’d be able to get whatever she needed on the way, whether through credit card or hospitality. She assumed she always had what she needed and that was enough. “The camino always provides” is a popular saying amongst pilgrims. 

In reflection: Am I exhausted because I’m carrying a load too heavy with ‘just in case’ assumptions, thoughts and activities? What does it look like to simplify my life by trusting God and the kindness of others with my needs as they arise?

Threshold 3: Limits

Moving from ambition to humility

At the end of the second day of walking, I rolled into my bunkbed and checked my legs for the strange sensation that I was feeling. After crowd-consulting Dr. Instagram, I was diagnosed with what’s commonly known as a ‘Disney Rash.’ The only cure for it was to be off my feet, so the next morning I booked an Airbnb and an Uber and I rested for two full days by the beach! 

What looked like an unforeseen snag in my plans turned out to be the best days of my pilgrimage – of healing, gratitude and joy. As much as we dislike limits, perhaps they are the yoke that Jesus speaks of in Matthew 11:29 to lead us to find rest for our souls. Being yoked to Jesus, we are invited to learn his ways of gentleness and humility in heart. To know and accept our limits is a grace.

In reflection: How can I reframe my limits of time, ability, finances, etc. and embrace them as a companion towards humility and rest?

Threshold 4: Walking as prayer

Moving from distraction to clarity

Walking for six to seven hours a day for weeks offers us the gift of time for undistracted reflection and prayer that we rarely have in our regular schedules. But in silence and solitude, you quickly realize how loud it is inside your head. It became clear to me that my inability to be fully present with God and others wasn’t because I lacked time as much as it was because I gave my attention to too many things that resulted in a fragmented mind and heart.

The mundane activity of walking offered an opportunity for clarity. In dying to my ego, being assured of Christ’s love and being renewed by the testimony of God’s beauty in creation, I found clarity in the predictability of the step that comes after this one. 

In reflection: What mundane activity that I already do can become a time for communion with God and others?

Threshold 5: Friendship

Finding friends on the Camino.

Moving from self-sufficiency to support

Leaving early in the morning to complete a 33 km day, I started walking in the dark. The road soon took me from the village into a dark forest, for which I only had my cellphone light.

After some self-talk, praying and hymn-singing, I saw in front of me the faint light of better-prepared pilgrims. So I walked faster and caught up to them. These women became my closest friends on the journey.

On the last night before reaching the final destination, we laid in our sleeping bags at night and shared why we had come to the Camino and what we were leaving with. We were again in the dark, but it was a totally different experience looking up at the stars together with friends. 

In Reflection: Who might I connect with to support and to find support?

Looking back

The Camino leads to Santiago de Compostela.

Looking back on my journey, it became clear that true rest was not found in the absence of responsibility but a shift in my way of being in Christ as I work and play.

Though the journey towards sabbatical rest has often been challenging, God in his grace continues to lead me towards the promise of restoration. 

May we each have the grace to daily walk the road in front of us and may we know the deep joy of crossing these thresholds towards unforced rhythms of grace and towards communion with our God.

Angie Song is a ThM student at Vancouver School of Theology and a minister in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. She is studying faith formation and missions for the church today and has moved to Vancouver in search of the next great adventure.

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