April 1 – A Pilgrimage to Pleasant Places

Santa Cruz

Eight days after Easter. It is a tradition that stretches back to my days as a youth director. Eight days after Easter, the West Coast Presbyterian Pastors Conference begins at the Mount Hermon Conference Center in the redwood forest near Santa Cruz, California. Since I was youth director at First Presbyterian Church in Santa Cruz, California, the conference was a 10-minute commute. My trip to WCPPC began to take the shape of a pilgrimage when it became an annual trek first from Portland, Oregon, then from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, next from Western Pennsylvania and now from Langhorne.

The dictionary defines a pilgrimage as “a journey, especially a long one, made to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion.” Or, for the less spiritually inclined, “A long journey or search, especially one of exalted purpose or sentimental reasons.”

This coming Monday will be eight days after Easter, and I will be on the 7:40 a.m. non-stop from Philadelphia to San Francisco, arriving around noon, and then taking a leisurely drive along the coast down Highway 1 to Santa Cruz. I’d like to think of it as more than a sentimental journey, but there will plenty of sentiment to go around.

If I arrive in Santa Cruz with time to spare, I may visit the campus of the University California where, as a frightened 18-year old, I began my college studies and one of the most important chapters in my life. I left Santa Cruz ten years later with a firm commitment to Christ, an undergraduate degree, a vocational call, friends to last a lifetime, and Becky as my wife and life companion. Not a bad ten years. At the pastor’s conference I will be rooming with a friend I met when I was 18 and who was the best man at our wedding. I will visit with an amazing retired couple who were part of the youth ministry in Santa Cruz forty years ago.

At the conference I will spend time with friends I have known in Portland, Oregon, Menominee, Michigan, and Beaver and Langhorne, Pennsylvania. Jonathan and Kristy LaBarge, Princeton seminary interns at LPC my first couple of years here, will be at the conference and our times together are always rich.

I guess in some ways my eight days after Easter pilgrimage is a sentimental journey.

Both conference speakers will be new to the WCPPC, but I am looking forward to learning from them. The morning speaker is a Church of Scotland scholar now teaching at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C. The evening speaker is Dean of the Chapel at Fuller Seminary in Los Angeles. I always learn at the WCPPC and am praying for the ways God will use this time.

In other ways my eight days after Easter pilgrimage is something of an act of religious devotion.

When the conference closes my pilgrimage becomes a kind of journey home – not to a place, but to roots.  I will spare you the travelogue details, but I will visit with one of my brothers and both of my sisters and each of their spouses, and it will be good to be together for the first time since my mother died in January.  I am eager for the time with them.

Sandwiched between the sibling visits will be a Sunday morning at the community chapel where my mother worshiped for the past 17 years. I have been asked to preach, probably my fifteenth time in their pulpit, and most likely a farewell to a loving group of people who were my mother’s family of faith in that good and long last season of her life.

My pilgrimage will be a long journey first to pause with the best kind of friends and to learn and to share faith, and then to drive – I will see half of California and half of my siblings, roots sunk more in memory than in place.

This year my annual pilgrimage will be a pilgrimage of thanks – thanks for family and friends and life companion, for faith and calling.

In Psalm 16, David writes:
The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.

Monday, eight days after Easter, I will begin what has become an annual pilgrimage. I think I will call it a pilgrimage to pleasant places.

Oh, and, yes, this is the conference where I will need to pick one word to describe the twelve months since eight days after Easter last year.  Still working on that.