Pinnacle Presbyterian Church

Echoes Blog

Preparing for Pilgrimage


For the last few weeks members of the choir and other Pinnacle family members have been preparing to go on a pilgrimage. Now, this pilgrimage may not look like others; we are not walking from London to Canterbury to see the blessed saint Thomas Beckett, and ask for miraculous healing after a journey of 55 miles on foot…as the ‘sundry folk’ of Chaucer’s tale did seven centuries ago. We are going to New York City…by plane. Now, New York’s not the first place one thinks of going to on a spiritual pilgrimage, and yet as a part of the family of faith we are going there to sing, fellowship and learn…learn about how ‘sundry folk’ in the big city live their lives of faith.

How does one prepare for such a pilgrimage? Well, to tell you the truth, I haven’t done much mental, emotional, or spiritual preparation. Basically, I spend all my time getting done all those things that allow me to be away for a week. This pilgrimage’s preparation has required of staff and participants a lot of practical preparation…and we’ve had little time to ready our souls for genuine encounter with God who in Christ “plays in 10,000 places.” Perhaps all of us will “prepare the way for the Lord” as we are sitting on the plane Thursday morning…very early.

Isn’t that how one gets ready for a pilgrimage? Look busy. Take care of business. Make sure someone will feed the cat while we’re gone?

Well, yes and no.  The most important thing to say is: every day is a pilgrimage of faith.  So, whether we are going across the country, or across the world, or across the street, each and every day gives us opportunities that pilgrims face out there in the wide world on their wild and unpredictable peregrinations. So, how do we prepare for the daily pilgrimage faith we all make?

I found these wise words to help us out: “The first moment of the pilgrimage experience is the decision to depart, a true inspiration of the heart, but also a vocation, a calling, an invitation to become a part of the pilgrim humanity, which has always set off on the path towards the chosen encounters with the Divine.  Along with the decision comes waiting and expectations: every pilgrim, who has decided to depart, cannot wait to set off on the road, to reach the destination, to contemplate, to listen, to physically and spiritually rest.  In a certain sense, the items a pilgrim packs reveals the kind of experience that he/she wishes to have! The luggage of a pilgrim should contain the essentials of travel, but also those that help to learn and pray.  

Set the stage: What will I find? Who will travel with me? What is God preparing me for? For the pilgrim, leaving is sorrow, yet also life, joy, waiting, expectation, and hope.  The duration of the journey, whether short or long, is not lost or wasted time. Instead it is in itself a time of grace, a precious occasion, and little by little as the minutes and miles pass, the desire for the destination grows.

Before departing, we can dedicate time to reading texts, such as the Bible or spiritual writings. We can gather in prayer and open our hearts to the Word of God allowing our docile, vigil spirit to welcome God’s splendor. We can participate in the worshipping community and begin to ask what it means to “come back to ourselves” and reenter the plan of Creation.”*

These words help us each enter the pilgrimage of every day. Set the stage for encounter and to “prepare the way of the Lord.”


So Much To Be Done


The thirteenth century Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, is part of that long procession of men and women who have encouraged their generations to take time to be still and to wait upon the Lord. “There is a spark of God,” wrote Eckhart, “in the soul of man, and that is what is truly real. Look inward quietly so that God may be born into your soul.”

I wish I could report that the message of Meister Eckhart is alive and well in my life. Unfortunately, the flurry of activity which accompanies the beginning of a new season (both in work and in life) has left little time for stillness and looking quietly inward.  Perhaps that’s true for many of us.

The legendary Winston Churchill, so the story goes, was once presented a plaque by the women’s temperance union.  As the chairwoman placed it in his hands, she pointed to an imaginary line on a nearby wall and said rather caustically, “Sir Winston, do you realize that if we poured into this room all the brandy you have consumed in your lifetime, the mark would reach about here?”  Slowly, Churchill first looked at the imaginary line on the wall and then at the ceiling above and replied, “So much to be done and so little time to do it.”

Since the fall is in full swing, I have had reason to think about Sir Winston. Alas, there seems “so much to do and so little time to do it.” In fact, I am writing lists at my desk these days, and that is always a bad sign that life is getting too complicated for my own good and the good of those around me.

What’s the answer? I’m not sure exactly, but I suspect it has something to do with making sure that one’s priorities are sorted out and in proper order.  After all, it doesn’t make much sense to help lead a choir through this wonderful season and lose sight of the God for whom you are doing it, or to work so hard for a family that there is no quality time left to spend with them, or to weed a garden and not see the flowers, or to labor so hard at relaxing that it is no longer relaxing, or to worry about preparing a meal that there’s no joy left in sharing it, or____________________________________.

Well, you fill in the blank. If you’re at all like me, you will know exactly what needs to go there.

 AP/Matt Rouke

AP/Matt Rouke

My first response was lament.  As a former resident of Pittsburgh I know the Squirrel Hill area well. Saturday morning was a sad day and I was glued to the news reports of a community I knew and loved.   

I joined the thousands of people across the country and around the world who mourn the murder of eleven Jews who were worshiping. Individuals have responded with outrage that someone would even consider aiming a gun at another living person and the challenge of confronting the hate that still lives among us. Others respond with overwhelming grief for the loss of life that is paralyzing. And then there are those standing together with signs saying “Stronger than Hate.”

I went to Pittsburgh for seminary and I learned to love the city that thrives on sporting events (the mood of the day after a Penguin, Steeler or Pirate game changes based on the win or loss). A community that holds onto their identities through neighborhoods while still being welcoming to their neighbors.

But this isn’t always easy.  They have fought hard to live in equality. Are challenged as they move through seasons of racism. And the financial gap grows between neighborhoods causing disagreements.

Like many, I have asked what Mr. Rogers might say as a neighbor to this Jewish community and good Presbyterian.  I am sure he would be saddened by this event and he might suggest to “look for the helpers.” A well-known line that Mr. Rogers often said during tragedy. The rescue workers and police officers who put themselves in harm’s way to help. A sign that something good is happening in the midst of the tragedy.

Jesus said the “Greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. The second is to Love your neighbor as Yourself.” 

In the midst of this tragedy we are reminded that we are called to live differently—to live with love.  To love our God who loves us all equally. Who doesn’t see Jew or Greek, Slave or Free, who doesn’t see black or white.  God invites us to love.

We are invited to show our love to our Jewish brothers and sisters. To love our literal neighbors, the neighbors we like and the ones we don’t, and the ones in Pittsburgh grieving for their loved ones and the ones here.  We do it with love.  This is our opportunity to share with the world what it means to truly love. 

To love beyond the fear.
To love beyond ourselves or the safety of our own home.
To love with grace and forgiveness.
To love with the call to peace.
To love with hope that things will be different.
To love each other no matter the differences we have.


In 1933, French Jewish thinker Simone Weil wrote an essay called, “The Power of Words.” While she wrote of many things during those years, and took action in several ways, in this essay she wrote of what she saw happening to language and public debate in Europe during that fateful time. She wrote of a loss of measure, the loss of a sense of gray in a battle of absolutes, of judgment in wars of rectitude, of diminishing ability in public to qualify passions. It all made reasoning through problems feel less and less possible. It distorted politics. Messed with religion.  Left the life most folks lived so very different from how they were being told life was. And contributed to frustration, injustice, and violence. 

Language matters. It has power and is a precious gift to be cared for, not exploited.  Don’t you agree? 

Here’s one part of her essay.  The language is a bit complicated, but I think the meaning feels clear:

In every sphere, we seem to have lost the very elements of intelligence: the ideas of limit, measure, degree, proportion, relation, comparison, contingency, interdependence, interrelation of means and ends. . . . Our lives are lived, in actual fact, among changing, varying realities, subject to the casual play of external necessities, and modifying themselves according to specific conditions within specific limits; and yet we act and strive and sacrifice ourselves and others by reference to fixed and isolated abstractions which cannot possibly be related either to one another or to any concrete facts.  In this so-called age of technicians, the only battles we know how to fight are battles against windmills.[i]

You know the windmills reference, don’t you?  Comes from the early 17th century English novel by Cervantes, Don Quixote (Remember the musical Man of La Mancha?).  The term is actually “tilting” at windmills, with the world “tilt” a term for jousting.  It’s about battling imaginary giants, which are actually just windmills that serve a useful purpose, thinking that one is both righteous by doing so and will profit from victory.  Here’s from Chapter VIII of Don Quixote:

At this point they came in sight of thirty forty windmills that there are on plain, and as soon as Don Quixote saw them he said to his squire, "Fortune is arranging matters for us better than we could have shaped our desires ourselves, for look there, friend Sancho Panza, where thirty or more monstrous giants present themselves, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay, and with whose spoils we shall begin to make our fortunes; for this is righteous warfare, and it is God's good service to sweep so evil a breed from off the face of the earth."

"What giants?" said Sancho Panza.

"Those thou seest there," answered his master, "with the long arms, and some have them nearly two leagues long."

"Look, your worship," said Sancho; "what we see there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the sails that turned by the wind make the millstone go."

"It is easy to see," replied Don Quixote, "that thou art not used to this business of adventures; those are giants; and if thou art afraid, away with thee out of this and betake thyself to prayer while I engage them in fierce and unequal combat."

So saying, he gave the spur to his steed Rocinante, heedless of the cries his squire Sancho sent after him, warning him that most certainly they were windmills and not giants he was going to attack. He, however, was so positive they were giants that he neither heard the cries of Sancho, nor perceived, near as he was, what they were, but made at them shouting, "Fly not, cowards and vile beings, for a single knight attacks you."

It’s been a truth we’ve known for a long time.  I leave it to you, dear friends in faith, to consider what it means.  But I will say that it’s our hope to create a space where we can talk with care and love about it all—as people of faith, as citizens.

[i] “The Power of Words,” in Simone Weil, An Anthology, ed. Sian Miles  (New York: Weidenfeild and Nicolson, 1986): 222, 223

The Orange Theory of Life


And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone… Matthew 14:23  

A little over a year ago, I joined a new gym called Orange Theory. They claim to be a 5 zone interval training gym.  Each zone is based on a percentage of your max heart rate. The grey zone, is light activity with a heart rate zone up to 60%. Blue is a warm up with the heart rate between 61 to 70%. Green is 71% to 83% and should be challenging but doable. Orange, the ideal zone, 84% to 91% should be uncomfortable. The last zone is red, which is all out at 91% and higher.

With a name like Orange Theory, my first day in the gym I thought the goal was to spend the entire 50-minute workout in the orange zone. Hence the name Orange Theory. So on my first work out, I did everything I could to stay in the orange zone. I ran fast, rowed hard, lifted weights as fast as I could, all while keeping my heart rate in the orange zone as long as I could. I even went so far as jogging to refill my water, in an effort to get as many minutes in orange as possible. It was hard and uncomfortable, I was barely able to catch my breath in my effort to stay in the orange and red zone. At the end of that first class I looked up exhausted, but with pride as I spent 39 minutes of the 50 in the orange zone. Despite the fact that I felt like my heart was going to explode, I rocked it!! I spent more time in the orange zone than anyone else in the class, and it was only my first day. I thought it wouldn’t be long before I was able to reach the 45 to 50-minute mark.

Being full of pride, the trainer took me over, after the workout, to discuss how I did. I was excited by the expectation of hearing her say, “I have never seen anyone destroy a workout like that before!” I sat there waiting, but instead of praise I got, “That is a good start, but we need to work on getting you out of the orange zone.”  I was confused because what I thought was the goal, actually wasn’t the goal at all. The goal is only to spend 12-16 minutes in the orange zone, and the rest of the workout in the green or the doable zone. That is the ideal amount of time to burn calories. Any more than that exhausts your body, causing an excess level of physical and emotional stress on your muscles and ligaments. I found out that the workouts are designed to raise your heart rate up into the orange zone and then drop you back into the green so that you get the most out of the workout without having burnout. 

We often find ourselves spending our lives the same way I spent my first class, always in the orange zone. We feel if we run hard enough, if we spend enough time in the orange zone teetering on red, we will be better off or that we will get more done. That is a lie the world tells us. Running our lives in the orange zone should be uncomfortable, but for many of us, it is the norm. However running our lives at 84-91% every day only leads to burn out, isolation, anxiety, and depression, and it is not what Jesus had intended for us when he talks about having an abundant life. If we want to live the life that God has intended for us, we have to spend less time running our lives in the orange and red zones and more time in the green.  The only way to do that is to slow down.

Jesus knew the importance of taking time to rest. After a long day of teaching, ending with him feeding 5000 people, he dismisses the crowd, including his disciples. Jesus knew he had spent enough time in the orange and red zone, and he needed to rest and more importantly spend time in prayer. This isn’t the only time in the Bible where we find Jesus intentionally removing himself from a crowd and the needs of the community to seek solace and to pray. Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah, the one who walked on water and raised the dead, knew that it was essential to take time to rest. So why is it that we often have a difficult time doing it ourselves?  Is the stuff we have to do more important than the things that Jesus did?

October is almost over, and we are gearing up for the holidays. I would like to encourage you when you find your life running in the orange zone or even the red, to take time to slow down, rest, and pray. If you take the time, you will be amazed at how much better you will feel and how much more enjoyable life is, when you only spend 12 minutes a day in the orange zone.