A Pilgrimage Draws to Its Close

Today, after just a little less than 700 miles of cycling, I arrived in Durham, England—the final stop in my sabbatical pilgrimage. As I begin to sift through all the experiences of the last six weeks, it feels a bit premature to know what will turn out to be the most meaningful parts of my journey. But just to get you caught up on what I’ve been doing since my last post, let me offer this.

I left Edinburgh on Saturday, July 30, and headed for Dryburgh. The route that I had planned to cycle wasn’t particularly long—just about 38 miles. But it did include a lot of climbing. And since there was a readily available commuter train that covered most of the distance, I decided to give myself some grace and watch the hills roll by from the comfort of a Scot-Rail passenger car. As Providence would have it, this gave me time at the end of my train ride to investigate the remains of two medieval abbeys, one of which was located just across the street from my hotel, which had once been the home of a wealthy British lord.

After a night in Dryburgh, it was off to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, which became a key mission station in the evangelization of Europe after Aidan—a monk from Iona, which I visited earlier—established a monastic community there is 653 AD. Like Iona, Lindisfarne is uniquely isolated. It’s connected to the mainland by one, two-lane road. But the tides submerge the road twice a day, which means that you have to plan your crossing carefully. Apparently, many tourists have decided they could beat the tide, only to end up needing rescue from the roofs of their flooded cars.

In any case, there are some interesting sights to see on Holy Island. The remains of a medieval monastery stand on or near the location where Aidan first planted his original church. A medieval fort that was later converted into a vacation home for one of Britain’s landed gentry towers over one end of the island. And a small spit of land called St. Cuthbert’s Island still holds the stone foundation of a small retreat he built there sometime in the mid-600’s, so that he’d have a place he could go for private prayer.

But what makes Lindisfarne special—in my mind, at least—is the quiet. After the day-trippers leave to beat the impending tide, a reverential peace descends upon the place. Almost all one hears are birds and winds and waves. In a certain sense, it would be hard not to have a prayerful and meditative mindset. No wonder so many people have found this to be one of the “thin places” that figure prominently in Celtic Christian tradition.

In any case, I left Holy Island on Thursday morning and headed for Durham, with an overnight stop in Newbiggin-by-the Sea. Even these more-or-less “transitional” cycling days brought a few surprises—like two castles and the seaside charm of Newbiggin itself.

In any case, I’m now in Durham for a few days. Not surprisingly, there’s an ancient castle and a fabulous cathedral here, which I look forward to touring. In addition, there are several mundane matters to attend to, like making sure my travel arrangements from here to London and London to home are all in order – and finding a suitable home for the bicycle I’ve been using for the last six weeks. But all of that is making me look forward to being home. This has been a great experience. But I’m ready to see my family and my church family again. And I’m ready to see what God has done and will do as we all move forward together.

I might get a few pictures from Durham posted before I head back to the states. But this is probably one of the last posts from the sabbatical itself. There will be reflections on my sabbatical experience that will come after I return. But I haven’t yet decided whether this is the proper format for sharing them. In one way or another, however, I look forward to processing with many of you the lessons of these recent weeks. Thanks for following along! And God bless you.

From Glasgow to Edinburgh and Beyond

It’s been several days since my last post. However, I’m happy to report that this delay wasn’t caused by any “issues.” There simply have been a lot of things to do and see!

Last Sunday, for example, I had the chance to worship with the members of Adelaide Place Baptist Church in Glasgow, which—aside from the Scottish accents and the beautiful building constructed in the late 1800’s—felt a lot like being at home. The people were very friendly and welcoming. And they were clearly excited about the work God is doing among them. In fact, it made me look forward to being back with my own church family at Calvary, where I find a similarly warm and passionate spirit.

After worship, I spent much of last Sunday afternoon soaking in the ambiance of Glasgow Cathedral, which dates back to the early 1100’s but which still hosts worship every Sunday. One of the more striking visual elements that captures this “ancient yet new” reality is a neon sign above the arch that separates the nave from the altar area. Although the picture below is a little hard to make out, the sign says, “Returning and into your arms,” which creates a reminder of God’s immanence and intimacy amid an otherwise transcendent space.

My final day in Glasgow was spent visiting several other local attractions, including the University of Glasgow (established in the 1400’s), the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, and the Glasgow Botanical Garden.

Now, as I prepared for last Tuesday’s bike ride from Glasgow to Edinburgh, I have to confess that I was feeling a bit uneasy. It wasn’t so much the distance (although, at just over 50 miles, I knew the trip would take some effort). It was the fact that my route had the potential to run alongside some well-travelled roads. Thankfully, I stopped in a local bike shop to ask if they could suggest an alternative, and they told me about a greenway that runs almost all the way from Glasgow to Edinburgh on an old canal towpath. As a result, my ride turned out to be relaxing, beautiful, and traffic-free. In fact, it was even hill-free! Praise the Lord!

Upon arriving in Edinburgh, one of the first things I noticed is the city’s unusual geography. Apparently, ancient volcanic rock was carved out by passing glaciers, leaving several dramatic rock formations that tower over the area. In fact, Edinburgh Castle—which rises several hundred feet above the heart of the city—sits atop one of these outcroppings, making it the perfect spot for a defensive citadel that has existed in one form or another for more than 3000 years.

Along with the Castle, I’ve enjoyed making visits to some of Edinburg’s other sights…

Tomorrow (Saturday, July 30), I’ll be leaving Edinburgh. And after an overnight stop in a small community about 40 miles south of here, i’ll be cycling on to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, which is the next place that I’ll be staying for several days. Like the Isle of Iona that I visited previously, Lindisfarne is the site of a very early and very significant monastic community that played a key role in re-evangelizing Britain and Europe following the fall of the Roman Empire. As a result, I’m hoping it will be one of those “thin places“ that invites reflection on the movement of God’s Spirit, both past and present.

As always, I value your prayers for my safety and for my ability to receive the gifts, lessons, and/or challenges that the Lord wants to give me through this sabbatical pilgrimage. Rest assured that you are in my prayers, too. And this week, I’ll be praying especially that you’ll be as inspired by Kyle Matthews this coming weekend as I’ve been inspired by him in the past. So keep resting, keep reflecting, and keep trusting in the renewal that God wants to send as we continue to serve Him.

Grateful for Rest in Glasgow

In my last post, I indicated that I was getting ready to undertake three of the more challenging cycling days in my trip. And frankly, I didn’t know the half of it! My first day took me from Oban to the tiny Scottish village of Bridgend—a distance of just under 60 miles that included four steep ascents that I couldn’t climb under pedal power, forcing me to dismount and walk. On the upside, a beautiful portion of the ride took me beside Loch Awe, where the scenery included the remains of the 15th century castle.

The second day took me from Bridgend to the city of Dunoon, which was a ride of only 41 miles, but which included almost as many feet of ascent as the previous day’s ride did. So yes, once again there was quite a bit of walking. I’m not sure the pictures below will do the terrain justice. But here’s a shot of the loch on which Dunoon is located as seen from on overlook near the top of the first climb:

If you’re not sure how high that is, this might help. Apparently, Noah’s Ark actually settled near the top of my second climb:

And last but not least (and especially for those of you who are familiar with National Lampoon’s Family Vacation), a third climb took me beside a lake created by a dam high in the hills. So I took this dam picture. Unfortunately, there was nowhere to buy some dam souvenirs.

My third day of cycling took me from Dunoon to Glasgow, which is only about 33 miles, but which begins with about 1000 feet of ascent—all of which I had to do in the rain. Fortunately, my route eventually found its way onto some fairly level cycle path, which even included some amusing artistic installations created by local residents:

So in the end, I did make it to Glasgow, where I will have three days to rest and recuperate before I do anymore cycling. In fact, I spent most of this morning just riding around the city on one of those “hop on/hop off” bus tours, just so I could get an idea of what’s here:

So, even though I felt a bit like this statue must feel when I first arrived:

I think I’m going to enjoy my time in Glasgow. I’ll be attending worship tomorrow morning at a Baptist Church that I found not too far from where I’m staying. I’ve got a tour of the cathedral interior scheduled for tomorrow afternoon. And then there are some art galleries and other attractions that I hope to visit before I set off on Tuesday, bound for Edinburgh.

Thank you all for your ongoing prayers. Without your support, I don’t know if I would’ve made it this far. Please know that you continue to be in my prayers, too. And I will look forward to hearing about your summer adventures when we’re all back together again.


For anyone who’s following this blog closely (or who just gets way too excited about seeing what I’ve been up to), you might wonder about the longer-than-usual interval since my last post. So just to put your mind at ease, the reason for this delay is that I’ve been to Iona, which—while being a place of rich history, austere beauty, and deep peace—has very poor internet connectivity. Now that I’m “back” from Iona, however, I wanted to share a little update. And the update begins with a few reflections about the journey there.

One does not get to Iona by accident. From Oban (where I last posted), you take a ferry to the Isle of Mull, and then you traverse Mull from one end to the other—a distance of about 35 miles. Now when I left Oban last Friday morning, I thought I was in for a rather unpleasant trip. It was raining when I boarded the ferry; and so, for the first time in my sabbatical I had to put on all my rain gear and try to psyche myself up for a messy ride. However, by the time we reached Mull, the clouds had parted and we were having one of the most beautiful days I’ve experienced here in the UK. And what a day to have the weather cooperate! The ride to the other end of the island wasn’t easy. But as I think the photos below will show, it was definitely worth it.

So, after a day of seeing God’s grandeur unfold before me, I took one last short ferry ride and arrived at Iona. I’ll reflect more on my time there in future posts or in things that I share when I return home. But for now, let’s just say that Iona‘s reputation for being “a thin place”—a place where the boundary between the physical realm and the realm of God’s Spirit is more permeable—seems well deserved.

Maybe it’s the unadorned beauty of the island. With far fewer distractions than we’re accustomed to, getting quiet and focusing on God’s presence seems to come a bit more naturally. Or maybe it’s the sacred history of Iona. The Christian community here was founded by Saint Columba back in 563 AD when he and 13 brothers in Christ arrived in a small boat from Ireland, having trusted that the Lord would bring them to the place He wanted them to be. And for several hundred years—despite repeated attacks from marauders—it served as a center of worship, discipleship, art, and mission that in many ways changed the course of Western history. Or—for me, at least—maybe it’s the fact that Iona is still a place of meaningful community. The Abbey here (parts of which date back to the 1200’s) hosts an ecumenical ministry that sponsors daily worship and weekly programs of spiritual enrichment. And they were kind enough to invite me to participate, even welcoming me to join them for lunch in the Abbey.

One highlight for me was a hike to the center of the island, where one can visit “The Hermit’s Cell.” This circle of stones pictured below is believed to be the foundation of an isolated hut, where members of the Iona community could retreat for times of solitude and prayer. Of course, it seems like Iona would’ve already had plenty of solitude and prayer! And yet, this is a testimony, I think, to the importance of establishing a rhythm in our lives that includes times of seeking God together and times of seeking God alone.

There’s much more I could tell. But for now, let’s just say that it was a wonderful visit. After cycling back across the Isle of Mull today, I’m spending tonight in Oban. And in the morning, I’ll set off on three days of cycling that will bring me to Glasgow. These will be some of my more challenging cycling days, both in terms of distance and climbing. So please pray for my safety and endurance. But do so knowing that I’m having a good trip and that I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to be here.

On the Way To Iona

Since my last post, I’ve mostly been “in transit” between Downpatrick in Northern Ireland and the next major stop on my sabbatical pilgrimage: the Isle of Iona. Of all the places I’ve been looking forward to visiting, Iona probably tops the list, largely because the Christian community established there in the mid-500’s played a significant role in sharing the gospel not only with Scotland but also with the rest of the European continent. I suspect that I’ll share a few things about Iona while I’m there or after I depart (depending on the availability of Wi-Fi). But before I board a ferry and then cycle the length of the Isle of Mull to reach Iona, I thought I’d share a few pictures of my most recent travels.

The ferry from Northern Ireland dropped me off in a little town called Cairnryan. Those of you who’ve been following my “official itinerary“ might be aware that my original intention was to cycle from Cairnryan to a community called Ayr. However, the Lord laid on my heart (or maybe “weariness laid on my heart”—I’m not sure which) that it would be better to take a train. So, rather than cycling all day to reach Ayr and arriving in the mid-to-late afternoon, I actually made it there by late morning and had the opportunity to do some sightseeing.

As you might be able to tell from the photos, visiting Ayr was an unexpected pleasure. The city is located on the Scottish coast, and so there’s actually a boardwalk of sorts. In addition, Ayr has a very “European“ feel, with multiple bridges that span a river running through the heart of the city, and with multiple churches and historic landmarks rising up above the narrow streets.

From Ayr, I cycled to Glasgow—a distance that should have been about 50 miles. However, after I was about 7 miles outside the city, I realized that I didn’t have some of my cycling equipment with me. So I had to turn around, go back, and pick it up; which lengthened my total ride that day to about 64 miles. Still, the route took me through some beautiful territory. And I got to ride much of the distance on dedicated cycling pathways, which made the ride much safer and much less hilly. The shots below are some of the scenes that I saw on the way.

This morning, I took a train from Glasgow to Oban. And while my stay here was meant to be just a “layover“ on my way to Iona, walking around this afternoon in this small but lovely port city showed me that it, too, has a surprising charm.

Now, some of the distant hills that you see in these photos might be obstacles that I need to cycle around tomorrow. So please be in prayer that my legs will be as fresh as they ought to be after a couple train rides. All of you continue to be in my prayers. And may the Lord give you opportunities to rest in Him and reflect on His activity in your life as we look forward to being renewed in Him for growth and ministry.

A Few More Downpatrick Pics

I’ll be leaving Downpatrick tomorrow morning. After a relatively short ride to Belfast, I’ll board a ferry that will carry me over to Scotland. Before I make that journey, however, I wanted to share photos from the two sites I visited yesterday: Inch Abbey and Saul Church.

Although Inch Abbey has been the host of a Christian presence since approximately 800 AD, the ruins that remain on the site date “only“ from sometime around 1180 AD. What makes them somewhat fascinating, however, is the way that they tell a story about the nature of community life in an ancient monastery. Although it’s hard to tell from these pictures, the site contains the foundations of many different structures. There’s the church itself, where the daily cycle of prayer and worship would’ve taken place. Immediately adjacent to and connected to the church are other spaces in which the monks would have lived, worked, studied, and conducted the business of the monastery. And then there are several other structures—buildings that have been identified as an infirmary, a bakehouse, and even a guesthouse, where the monks would offer hospitality to anyone who came seeking it.

I’m not sure that many (if any) of us would be up to the rigors of monastic life as it was practiced in the Middle Ages. But a lot of authors that I’ve read reflect upon the power of having “A Rule of Life”—a set of commitments that shapes our life together as a Christian community. And being in a place like this invites one to consider how powerful it must’ve been (and perhaps still would be) for outsiders to see a group of believers living together with single-hearted devotion to the Lord.

Saul Church is really a small chapel built on the site where Saint Patrick established his first church in Ireland back in 432 AD. Obviously, this building isn’t anywhere near that old. But it’s kind of inspiring, I think, to step inside and realize that you’re in a spot where Christians have been worshiping together for almost 1600 years.

After attending worship this morning at Saint Patrick Cathedral, I took a leisurely stroll on the foot path that leads by the Quoile River. My walk included a stop at a site that was once used in the filming of “Game of Thrones.” I’ve never watched the show. But if you do— and if you remember the episode where Lord Hoster Tully was given a river burial by having his boat set ablaze with a flaming arrow—perhaps you’ll recognize the location.

Welcome to Northern Ireland

After the ride from Clonmacnoise to Athboy that I described in my last post, I had a comparatively short ride (about 35 miles) from Athboy to Dundalk. And from there, I spent a chunk of yesterday cycling from Dundalk to Downpatrick, which is a city with deep ties to Saint Patrick and the location in which I’ll be spending the next few days before heading into Scotland.

View from the Carlingford Ferry, which took me from Ireland to Northern Ireland.

The trip to Downpatrick, which was about 50 miles, ended up being mostly more pleasant than I had expected. The route included a windy and chilly—but also very beautiful—ferry ride (see the photo above). But there were also several hours of actual sunshine, a breeze that was mostly at my back, and a section of rode that took me between picturesque and dramatic hills on my left and the Irish Sea on my right. As you can see from the photos below, the topography is really changing from what I encountered earlier in my travels. And I just hope my legs will hold out when I start to hit some meaningful climbs.

Now, you might have noticed that I said this leg of my journey was mostly more pleasant than I had anticipated. There were two factors, however, that made the cycling a bit problematic. First, many of the roads that I was traveling on were very rough—course asphalt…lots of potholes…the kind of bumping around that makes a cyclist’s bones ache. In addition, many of the roads were quite narrow and somewhat heavily traveled. Not “major interstate“ kind of traffic. But still, not the kind of surroundings about which one can afford to be complacent. And as a result, much of the trip was somewhat stressful and not very conducive to the kind of “spiritual attentiveness“ that I would like to be cultivating as I ride.

The good news, however, is that I did make it safely to my destination. And I was able to spend most of today visiting some of the locations in Downpatrick that motivated my desire to visit here in the first place. I’ll save the stories for later. But here’s a taste of what I saw…

I’m a bit jealous of my church family members this weekend, because they’ll have the chance to hear from Tracy Radosevic, an internationally renowned Christian storyteller. I’ll be praying that the Lord will use her messages to teach everyone about God’s Story…and their own stories, too! And I will also look forward to sharing more about my travels, which will probably happen sometime after I cross into Scotland next week.

Catching Up on Some Photos

Today, I cycled from Clonmacnoise to Athboy, a distance of about 60 miles. It was a good ride, in part because I had the wind at my back; and in part because 18 miles of my journey was on old railroad right of way that had been converted into a hiking and cycling trail, which meant that it was flat and traffic free. (Yay!) More important, however, I was able to take to heart the lesson that the journey is just as important as the destination. And so, I took my time and allowed myself several breaks. And as a result, I was in a much better place—both physically and spiritually—when I made it to my destination.

Anyway, since I finally have decent Wi-Fi, I thought I’d catch you up with a few pictures of the things that I’ve been seeing. As I mentioned in a previous post, the countryside here is beautiful. It would be even more beautiful if the sun shined a bit more often. But still, it’s wonderful territory to be cycling through, and here are a couple photos:

As you know if you’ve been reading my posts, I spent the last couple days in Clonmacnoise, a Celtic Christian monastic community that was established by St. Ciaran back in 548 AD. At one point, the community was a major center of faith, learning, craftsmanship, trade, and political influence. In fact, several early Irish kings are buried on the site. However, Clonmacnoise was raided repeatedly during its history by Irish marauders, Vikings, and Anglo-Norman’s. And it ceased to be a major monastic center when Catholics in Britain came under intense persecution following king Henry VIII’s establishment of the Church of England.

Although all of the buildings that were part of the original monastic community would have been made of timber, many of the stone structures that still remain were built as early as the 10th century. In addition, Clonmacnoise has several “high crosses,” elaborate monuments that were used to mark the entrance to the monastic compound and to instruct lay people in the stories of the Bible.

Finally, I mentioned that several miles of my cycling today utilized an old railroad right of way that has been converted into a trail. What was really unique, however, was that several old rail stations have been left standing and have been renovated to be points of interest along the way.

The next few days are primarily filled with cycling. So I probably won’t be posting much. However, thanks for following along.

A Tourist to Holiness

I spent much of my July 4th touring Clonmacnoise, the site of a Celtic Christian monastic community founded by St. Ciaran sometime around 548 AD. Admittedly, I’m not sure that my spirit—at first, at least—was in the best place to make the most of my visit. I awoke to a somewhat grey and windy morning; not exactly the weather I had hoped for. And to make matters worse, I was feeling a bit more sore than expected after suffering a minor tumble off my bicycle yesterday. (Happily, both the bicycle and its rider are fine.)

The bigger challenge, however, had to do with my expectations. I was hoping that I was going to see some impressive remnants from this ancient Christian community. (And in that regard, Clonmacnoise didn’t disappoint!) But I think that what I also wanted was for “the holiness of the place” to rub off on me in an almost mystical fashion. I wanted the sacred setting and the legendary devotion of its former residents to instill magically within me a sense of God’s presence.

Of course, I don’t think I’m the only one who has wanted to be what we could describe as “a tourist to holiness.” Much like we go to Disney World anticipating a boost of joy from “the happiest place on earth,” I think we’re sometimes tempted to seek out sacred sites and experiences—a retreat center or a church service, a mountaintop or a Bible study—assuming that we’re almost automatically going to be closer to God coming out than we were going in.

Happily, God is good. And because He graciously wishes to give His children good gifts, we often do receive a “spiritual pick-me-up” from these “visits to the sacred.” But as I sat there thinking about the men and women who sought Christ at Clonmacnoise over the centuries, it occurred to me that probably very few of them received a “jolt of Divine energy” just because they showed up. No, it was in the daily process of being still, studying scripture, and praying (not to mention, of course, sharing in all the mundane tasks that were part of doing life together) that they learned—not how to be “bowled over” by God in the extra-ordinary—but how to be drawn closer to God in the ordinary. To borrow the words of Brother Lawrence, they discovered “The Practice of the Presence of God,” which can happen in every place, and not just those places that have been hallowed by centuries of Christian worship and prayer.

As I sat pondering this, the Lord brought to mind a passage of scripture that I used in a sermon not too long ago: “Blessed are those whose strength is in You, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage” (Psalm 84:5, emphasis added). Perhaps it’s not in visiting some “outpost” of God’s kingdom that we should most expect to find God’s presence, but in learning to find Him on the way. And with that thought in mind, I was able to be still, to pray, and to sense God’s presence in a fresh way. And that has made my visit to Clonmacnoise holy indeed.

Because I don’t have very good Wi-Fi in the place I’m staying, I’ll have to wait for another time to post some photos.. I’ll be leaving Clonmacnoise tomorrow morning and cycling to a town called Athboy. Please pray for safe travels, and for the ability to slow down and perceive God in the journey.

Lessons from Cycling: Day One

Today, I completed my first “significant” cycling of this Celtic adventure: a ride of about 53 miles from Kildare to Clonmacnoise. I had hoped to share several pictures with you of sights along the way. However, three things got in the way:

  • First, most of the roads that I travelled were lined on both sides by thick hedges. As a result, views of the countryside were a bit more limited than I had anticipated.
  • Second, when I did get to see the countryside…it’s countryside! Don’t get me wrong; it’s quite beautiful—lush and green with the occasional flock of sheep or herd of cows. But still, most of the vistas weren’t that different from what you’d see in the fields around my home in Mount Airy. So I didn’t feel a need to take too many photos.
  • Finally—and to be honest, this is the probably the biggest reason—my “task-oriented” nature compelled me to ride by some interesting sights, because I was more focused on completing the journey than enjoying the ride. Of course, to be fair, since this was my first leg of cycling I was a bit uncertain about how much “extra time” I’d have. And yet, this touches upon one of the things I think I need to learn from this sabbatical. So I formulated a “sabbatical lesson,” which I’ll share with you in a moment.
All dressed up and ready to ride.

Before I get to that, however, I will confess that today’s ride—while manageable—was a bit tougher than I had anticipated. I’ve done rides that were twice as long, and at the 50 mile point I’ve still been “rarin’ to go.” But a couple factors made this effort unexpectedly draining. For one thing, there was the wind. Naturally, I knew there’d be wind here in Ireland…but sheesh! Rarely in my hometown have I encountered resistance this strong and this constant. In addition, I was surprised by how much more effort was required to propel both me and the gear that I’m carrying with me. Again, I knew this would require some additional work, but I was surprised by how much.

And so, when you put all of this together, here are the “sabbatical lessons” that the Lord began to teach me on cycling day one:

Jesus said, “The wind blows wherever it pleases.”
Some days, it blows against you.
So stop whining and keep pedaling.

God made downhills for a reason.
So, what’s your hurry?
Sit back and coast a while.

And most important of all:
The goal isn’t just to get to the place that I’m going.
The goal is to be in the place that I am.

The place that I’m staying here in Clonmacnoise has somewhat spotty Wi-Fi. So I might have to wait for my next stop before I’m able to share some photos with you. It also is about 2 miles away from the nearest restaurant. So I might have to add a few unexpected (but blessedly short) cycling trips to my itinerary to get something to eat. So pray that God will grant me strength…and that the wind will be blowing in a more helpful direction!