First Stop – Reims

Reims was the first stop on our cathedral pilgrimage as we journeyed counterclockwise around the Île-de-France. Reims is the birthplace of Christianity in France. Around the year 500 A.D. Clovis, king of the Franks, was baptized here by Saint Remi, the Bishop of Reims. This started the tradition of the kings of France being crowned in Reims. Famously, Joan of Arc fought to insure that the uncrowned Charles VII could come to Reims for his coronation.

I was especially looking forward to touching this piece of French history when visiting the cathedral. Using Google Maps I could see that there was an equestrian statue of Jeanne d’Arc right in front of the west facade of the cathedral. Having read the delightful “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc” by Mark Twain, his most researched work, Joan of Arc has become one of my heroes. Our first cathedral was going to bring us face to face with the deeply Christian history of France.

Arriving at Charles de Gaulle Airport we called the car company to pick us up. I was unsure how to navigate this part of the trip because our French is so basic. Lisa and I used Duolingo to study French for about a year and half hoping it would give us some ability to interact with French speakers. It helped, but only a little. I had to ask a bystander who spoke both languages to help me communicate with the car company. Once we connected with them everything went perfectly. Our brand new Peugeot 208 had a lot of bells and whistles and a staff member showed us how to use everything, setting the GPS to English.

Our first stop was at a gas station. Now I had to figure out how to use the pump. It seems like an easy enough task, but the language barrier slowed me down, although I was ultimately successful. The gas station was small, so I had to squeeze by the other cars to leave, nursing the gas and clutch in order to move the car inch by inch without scraping anyone or anything, especially our brand new Peugeot. I hadn’t driven a manual transmission for about 20 years, so this was adding to the stress of the language barrier.

We found a little cemetery parking lot to pull over and program the GPS for our apartment in Reims. Later we learned how to use CarPlay and the Google Maps app on our phone which made navigation so much more easy. Driving in France is very similar to driving in the US except for the sheer number of roundabouts. It’s only about an hour and 40 minutes to Reims from Charles de Gaulle, but navigating the twists and turns around the airport and the heavy traffic through the endless roundabouts slowed us down considerably.

Reims is in the Champagne region of France so many tourists go there to sample the famous beverage. Our purpose, of course, was to visit the cathedral and we were delighted to see it standing head and shoulders among the city’s buildings as we approached Reims. Winding our way through medieval streets to our apartment a couple blocks away from the cathedral we settled into a comfortable, although cold, homebase. As Lisa unpacked the food I had to steal away for a quick glimpse of the magnificent church.

Dusk had fallen and the cathedral was lit up. It was a cold evening so few people congregated in the square outside Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims. I was surprised to see a middle-aged couple enter the church, supposing it was closed for the day. Excitedly, I followed them inside, taking in the grandeur of gothic beauty. Though it was dimly lit, the scale and features of the building were plainly visible. I reverently walked up the central aisle of the nave and discovered a paving stone inscribed with the sentence: “Here Saint Remi baptized Clovis king of the Franks.” This was going to be an incredible pilgrimage.

Index of blog posts for our Cathedral Pilgrimage

Preparing for a Pilgrimage

Mapping Gothic

Once we decided to do a cathedral pilgrimage we had to choose the location and extent of our journey. Columbia University’s Mapping Gothic showed us that our task would not be an exhaustive one. We were going to have to be selective. Since the Gothic style was invented in the Île-de-France (the region surrounding Paris) it was logical to make that our focus. Mapping Gothic confirms that it has the greatest concentration of Gothic churches in the world.

Circumnavigating the Île-de-France counterclockwise, we could hit some of the best examples of Gothic churches while taking in the beauty and history of France. Our plan could not have easily been accomplished using public transportation, so we decided to rent a car. Since we were going to be traveling for about a month a short-term car lease made a lot of sense. You get a brand new car, full insurance, and unlimited miles. We were very pleased with our experience and it gave us the freedom to visit places off the beaten track.

For housing, we picked six strategically located cities to use as our home bases. We rented apartments from Airbnb and All of them were equipped with kitchens so we could cook most of our meals, saving time and money. We chose inner city locations close to cathedrals so we could revisit them several times during our stay (with the exception of Mont-Saint-Michel for various reasons).

Of course, a cathedral pilgrimage in France would be incomplete without visiting the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, the best-preserved Gothic cathedral in the country. Since Rouen has three magnificent Gothic churches itself, we decided to use it as a home base from which to visit Chartres. And since we would be in striking distance of Bayeux, which has a beautiful cathedral and the famous eponymous tapestry chronicling William the Conqueror’s conquest of England, we had to include that lovely city.

While in Rouen I kept looking at our itinerary and realized that when we went to Bayeux we wouldn’t be that far from Mont-Saint-Michel, so we decided to turn our day trip into an overnight stay in order to visit the ancient abbey. It’s hard to elevate one of our many experiences to the category of a highlight, but Mont-Saint-Michel is a contender. There really is nothing like it.

Finally, we made it back to Paris, spending two nights at an airport hotel. This allowed us to sneak into the city for a day before our flight home. Paris has so much to offer, but our concern on this trip was primarily cathedrals. We had to “see” Notre-Dame (sadly, that’s all you can do since it’s being repaired) and visit Sainte-Chapelle; those were absolute requirements. We didn’t visit Saint-Denis (the fountainhead of Gothic) or famous sites like the Eiffel Tower because there’s only so much you can do.

Lisa and her many talents made this trip possible along with the loving support of our community. Our deep dive into Christian France has changed my worldview. We are standing on the shoulders of giants.

 Lancets of the main facade of the south transept of Chartres Cathedral
“Bernard of Chartres said that we are like dwarves perched on the shoulders of giants, and we can see better and further than them not because our sight is more piercing or our size is larger, but because we are raised into the air and carried up into the air thanks to their gigantic height” Wikipedia

Index of blog posts for our Cathedral Pilgrimage

A Cathedral Pilgrimage

A pastor once told me that his ministry was becoming less liturgical and traditional which was allowing him to be more sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s work. As a protestant monastic community our journey has been the exact opposite. We have tried to plumb the depths of the Christian tradition, taking on a more liturgical life and appreciating the ancient features and practices of our faith. Interestingly, this journey has enhanced our sensitivity to the Holy Spirit and His work.

Included in our spiritual adventure is the study of Christian architecture. Compared to the “form should follow function” attitude toward contemporary places of shopping worship, our spiritual forefathers understood church structures as places of transcendence, beauty and storytelling. The building itself was part of the task of spiritual formation.

That’s why Lisa and I spent March of this year exploring Gothic Cathedrals in France. Not every church we visited was technically a “cathedral,” the central church of a diocese or seat of the bishop, but all were medieval and had either Gothic or Romanesque features.

We were inspired to explore these marvelous buildings from watching the excellent course on cathedrals presented by Professor William R. Cook on the streaming platform Wondrium (formally Great Courses). Columbia University’s Mapping Gothic project guided us, too.

Our journey took us to the cities of Reims, Laon, Amiens, Beauvais, Rouen, Chartres, Bayeux, Mont Saint-Michel, and of course, Paris. It goes without mentioning that we were inspired, overwhelmed, and a little exhausted. Through a series of blog posts I’ll try to convey the wonder of what we experienced and some insights we gained along the way.

Index of blog posts for our Cathedral Pilgrimage

The Ring of Truth

The Ring of Truth: Wisdom of Wagner by Sir Roger Scruton takes us on a philosophical and technical journey through Wagner’s masterful tetralogy, The Ring of the Nibelung. Scruton offers us his insights and critique on what has, sadly, become an often undervalued and misjudged opera. It is a story of mythic figures and heroes, full of characters that offer us allegorical and symbolic pictures of redemption through self-sacrifice, the corruption that power brings, whose will shall have authority, and more. Wagner does not rely only on words, however, to transmit such a captivating narrative; words alone are insufficient (though often texts are considered the chief vehicle of meaning). The true genius of Wagner’s Ring, Sir Roger helps us understand, is the incorporation of all operatic elements to make the whole effect on listeners that much more compelling and rich. The words are supported by the setting, and both are thematically and emotionally conveyed by the glorious music. 

But not all who listen to this masterpiece perceive the meaning Wagner meant to convey: why? The Ring of Truth addresses the fact that for many, an artist’s personal life merges with his creations. Virtue and theme are then shadowed by what one perceives of the artist’s life–in the case of Wagner, his openly anti-semitic views, now frequently interpreted in  and assigned to his operas. Interestingly, Scruton points us to the testament of a personal friend and disciple of Wagner, Heinrich Porges, a Jew himself, who in his own writings addresses Wagner’s flaw as separate from the root musician, composer, and artistic genius that he was (though grave indeed). Scruton also traces the rise of psychoanalysis in the early twentieth century, and its efforts to explain The Ring based on what people perceived of Wagner’s character and flaws, particularly in the realm of his sexual conduct. 

Sir Roger offers and develops a different paradigm, one which acknowledges the context that Wagner drew from, that of old pre-Napoleonic Germany, with its rich mythic lore. Wagner utilizes the archetype of the folk tale in which a lost child returns and rediscovers his father-figure (this theme embodied in the composer’s relationship with his own stepfather). Wagner instilled the ideals and vision for the drama of man’s struggle between law and love, redemption through death, and other themes, while still accommodating a quickly modernizing world. Religious thinking and perception were on the wane in the wake of rising materialism, and Wagner employed mythos, legend, and fantastic creatures to allow allegorical and symbolic caricatures in his narrative to mirror the religious nature of the subjects he chose. 

If we are to ask how to discern Wagner’s actual meaning in The Ring, we must deal with all aspects of his work. The words, action, context, and music all play their role in communicating their author’s intentions. Modern analysis, Sir Roger points out, has given the music its most grievous slight. In fact, it is the musical development, especially Wagner’s famous leitmotifs (recurrent melodic themes linked to a character or situation), that lifts the symbolism and vision to its full potency, working to focus, enhance, and bind the work. The characters themselves–Wagner’s cast of deities, fey and mythic figures–are most appropriately and fully appreciated in their symbolic roles, despite the convenience of an allegorical reading. When we consider all the facets of their symbolic roles in Wagner’s vision for morals, ideals, and ubiquitous principles, the story and meaning are enriched. 

Sir Roger Scruton’s book offers insight into Wagner’s meaning and theme, as well as some technical analysis of The Ring of the Nibelung–a work of genius often discredited by assuming Wagner’s personal life and character had to permeate his art. We should understand that the man’s character did not vitiate his recognition and transmission of virtues, religious principles, and deeply human struggles. Neither did his flaws prevent his genius, inventiveness, and musical insight from creating the masterpiece that still entrances multitudes today.

Christmas Concert 2022

We had the wonderful opportunity of sharing the Christmas message at Abundant Living in Buena Vista, New Jersey. Pastor Ken and his wife, Kim, have been friends of Life Mission Fellowship for over 25 years. Each Advent Season they graciously invite us to present our Christmas program led by our music director, Jared Barton, and choir director, Catherine Krell. This year we had three special guests arrive from the East, but there was only one star of the show. Below is the program and a link to the presentation. Enjoy, and Merry Christmas! 

Wagner’s Ring Cycle

Life Mission Training Center recently had the pleasure of hosting a lecture on Richard Wagner delivered by a friend of ours, the knowledgeable Dave Murphy. This was the first of four planned lectures on Wagner’s Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen); each lecture will cover one part of the four-part opera. Wagner spent an astonishing twenty-six years working on his Ring Cycle, writing both the beautiful libretto and now-famous melodies to at last produce a lavish work of art. Wagner’s incredible vision not only provided the motivation necessary to complete his masterpiece; he also invented his own instruments for the music and designed the first orchestra pit. Mr. Murphy chuckled about how Wagner became very good at fund-raising/begging, receiving donations sufficient to finance his own made-to-order opera house specifically designed for his magnum opus! 

Mr. Murphy, an exceptional teacher, introduced us to the specialized topic with his warm demeanor, a master educator’s confidence, and a fan’s enthusiasm (he first became enthralled at age eighteen!). We were easily swept into the world of Norse gods, flirtatious river nymphs, tricky dwarves, and masterful set design.

But why are Christians studying pagan gods and giants, curses and power-hungry creatures so eagerly? Doesn’t it matter that this work of art was created by a man whose moral life hardly bears close scrutiny? To answer those good questions, we note that truth, goodness, and beauty are God’s and declare Him from all good art. Wagner may not have lived Christianly, but he was still made in the image of God and thus had the ability to create art that speaks to the truth, goodness, and beauty of reality and its Creator. A dissolute life undoubtedly affects an artist’s output somehow; yet we can find so much that reflects God if we attend well to the work itself. These fascinating lectures are part of that enjoyable effort.  

You are cordially invited to join us December 9th for the second lecture in this four-part series. The event will be held Friday, December 9th, at Life Mission Training Center, and will start at 7 PM with hors d’oeuvres; the lecture will begin at 7:30 PM. To RSVP, please click the link here.

Reconciliation – God is reconciled to us

“Reconciliation, a central theme in the New Testament, primarily has to do not with our attitude toward God but with God’s attitude toward us and our wrongdoing.” John Goldingay

What’s interesting about Goldingay’s quote and his work on reconciliation is that it’s so relational. The finished work of Christ is finished because God has overcome the right and natural alienation He experiences from the betrayal of humans. The “finished work” is that He has accomplished this act of personal sacrifice and love. There is no way the relationship could be made well if the offended partner (God) wasn’t willing to “absorb” and “carry” the evil and betrayal of human partners. That’s the real difficulty which was solved (on the cross but also throughout the Old Testament as God suffered under Israel’s selfishness). The reconciliation God accomplished is to be reconciled to us by setting aside His natural and just anger and pain of injury in order to create a possibility for us to return to Him. Christ didn’t “pay” for our sins, but “carried” them – he was reconciled to the fact of our rebellion. An impoverished view sees this as some legal resolution. That reading is so far from what actually happened. The finished work isn’t some legal “fix” so we can be forgiven. The finished work is God’s personal sacrifice and willingness to set aside the injury of betrayal.

“Man has become the greatest loser, but God the greatest sufferer.” Gordon Olson

“Know therefore that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments” Deuteronomy 7:9

Tension and Release

In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, the youngest brother, Alexey, is a novice in the local monastery serving as an aid to the revered monk, Father Zossima. From his long hours attending Father Zossima, Alexey compiles notes of the saint’s reflections and life story. Before becoming a monk, Zossima served as an officer in the army and it was during this part of his life that he was converted. 

A young man having come into his inheritance, Zossima was vain and arrogant, even though he was raised in a god-fearing home. Like all officers in the army, Zossima had an orderly who attended him. He regularly abused his orderly, but the night before going to a duel he had instigated he beat him mercilessly. The next day, Zossima woke up early in a pensive mood. Looking out the window of his room he was struck by the beauty and tranquility of the morning. He sensed a disturbance within himself that led to a series of questions.

He began trying to discern why his heart was so provoked. Was it a fear of death or the vileness of shedding blood? No, that wasn’t it. He continued to listen to his heart until he came to the conclusion that it was the mistreatment of his orderly that was disturbing him. Faced with the beauty of creation and the ugliness of his behavior his conscience generated a tension in his soul that finally broke through his hardness. Dostoevsky writes:

“It all rose before my mind, it all was as it were repeated over again; he stood before me and I was beating him straight on the face and he was holding his arms stiffly down, his head erect, his eyes fixed upon me as though on parade. He staggered at every blow and did not even dare to raise his hands to protect himself. That is what a man has been brought to, and that was a man beating a fellow creature! What a crime! It was as though a sharp dagger had pierced me right through. I stood as if I were struck dumb, while the sun was shining, the leaves were rejoicing and the birds were trilling the praise of God. . . . I hid my face in my hands, fell on my bed and broke into a storm of tears.

Dostoevsky is an astute observer of human nature and a master of character development. He captures the workings of conscience beautifully in his novels. In the case of Father Zossima we see the familiar pattern of tension and release common in human experience. Conscience is the mechanism that powers the oscillations of tension and release we experience during learning, growing, and loving. 

A teacher from my early years as a disciple used to say that where there is disturbance the Holy Spirit is moving. The Holy Spirit uses the voice of conscience to awaken us to His will. Turmoil in the soul can become the birth pangs of new life. The Holy Spirit comes alongside us as a faithful companion and guide helping us to navigate the rhythms of tension and release essential for our development.

The experience of tension and release is illustrated by the biblical scene in Genesis one where God separates the light from darkness. When we experience tension we are in darkness, a state of lack. There is something we don’t know, don’t have, or don’t acknowledge. Once the light of truth breaks through, all is made clear and we are released into a new experience of life. Moving from tension to release, from lack to supply, is a pattern inherent in Creation.

Creation is animated by the breath of God. When we are alienated from God’s life, either through ignorance or disobedience, we naturally feel out of sorts. The Lord Jesus proclaimed, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. (John 6:53)” Ultimately life can only come from God. If we are not in harmony with the source of all life we are spiritually dead. We experience that deadness in the form of tension and disturbance. Breaking through to a new experience of the true, the good, and the beautiful we cannot but help feeling release and fulfillment. Union with God is our intended destiny. Rhythms of tension and release, of lack and supply, are the transformative experiences that enable us to realize that destiny.

Without disturbances we would never progress in life. Disturbances are uncomfortable, but avoiding them short-circuits our development. We may prefer a frictionless life, however, the only way to achieve that is to forfeit life. Death is the ultimate cessation of friction. If we want to live and grow, we are going to have to embrace the pattern of tension and release that inevitably comes from being creatures of Creation. This is especially true for a person moving from spiritual death to new life in Christ.

Dostoevsky’s story of Father Zossima’s transformation illustrates the tension and release process involved in a person’s journey towards reconciliation with God. All conversions bear this same signature in one way or another. It is hard to kick against the goads and the tension created from trying to live life against the grain of reality is used by God to provoke us to seek after Him.

Lived their way into a new kind of thinking

“Christian leaders assumed that people did not think their way into a new life; they lived their way into a new kind of thinking.”

Alan Kreider, in his excellent two books, The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom and The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, shows us that early church leaders focussed on training people to live out the gospel not simply teaching them Christian doctrines.

If only the church today would follow their example.


The following is from our friend and mentor, Alec Brooks. You can read more about Alec and his work at Charis International.

The Last Supper (Juan de Juanes)

At the last supper, Jesus says to the disciples as he gives them the bread, “This is my body which is given for you.” It is interesting to note that he did this after he gave his body to them in the washing of their feet, and will soon give his body for them on the cross. Each act was an act of self-giving in an embodied form, a revelation of who God is by what Jesus does in, through, and by his body. God becomes embodied in order to show himself to us and to give himself to us and for us, because as embodied persons this is the only way that we can experience what it means that God is love. This is one reason the resurrection of our bodies is essential to our eternal knowing of God. It also means, I believe, that we cannot know what it means to be loved by God or to love God unless we give our embodied selves to and for each other, and this means living together in ways that make this possible in daily living, in the ordinary and necessary tasks of life such as washing feet.

Most Christians are content to experience communion together as a spiritual experience of some kind at what we call The Lord’s Supper, even though most don’t believe anything is really communicated through the physical elements. Also, most do not believe that in order to love others we must be willing to do as Jesus did before and after the Lord’s Supper, that is, give our embodied selves to them in the daily routine of life and receive love from them in like manner. We are more influenced by Gnosticism than we realize.

I think this is one of the reasons most people either eschew community or find it very difficult. We are happy to have spiritual communion—Jesus’ body given for us in some mystical way, but not to give our bodies for others or to receive embodied love from them as the embodiment of God’s love. And yet, John tells us that there is no other form of love that is truly God’s love. Our society doesn’t know what to do with bodies—they are traps, or impediments, or finally sources of pain and misery from which we must be released at our own hand or the hand of others rather than the means by which we truly love others and serve them in all aspects of life: in sickness, and in death, as we give our bodies in service to and for them as the disciples did when they took the body of Jesus down from the cross and lovingly cared for it and prepared it for burial. Without knowing it, they were preparing it for resurrection.