The Pilgrim Way: relearning life as a journey with God from the faithful in Hebrews 11

pilgrim way.jpgAn old spiritual offers describes our life as Christians this way:

I am a pilgrim and a stranger, traveling through this wearisome land,
I’ve got a home in that yonder city, good Lord, and it’s not…not made by hands.

It is an overused description to say that life is a journey. The reason this idea is overused, even cliché, is that it is true. We are, as the Apostle Peter writes: “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11). Day after day, year after year, we move along the twisting path of our lives until we reach some sort of destination. Of course, many people perceive the destination differently but the author of the letter to the Hebrews says that past people of faith “acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth….seeking a homeland….they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:13-16).

This theme returns throughout Scripture, coming to striking focus in the psalms of Ascent. The concept of pilgrimage guides the journey of the psalms of Ascent (see our seeries Ascend: A Study of the Psalms of Ascent), which is outlined as a practice of God’s people in Deuteronomy 16:16-17:

Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Booths. They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed.  Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you.

Pilgrimage is something woven throughout the faith life of the Hebrew people. It is something Jesus Himself participated in with His family and neighbors, traveling to Jerusalem at least twice in his early life that are recorded in Scripture (Luke 2:22-38, 41-51), but likely more often than that.

Yet, pilgrimage is a foreign concept to most of us in North America. While we turn to vacations to help us recover from life, the idea of taking a religious journey is not something we search for too often. The concept of religious pilgrimage, however, is not only part of other faith traditions, but is woven into the history of Christianity as well. The Camino do Santiago, or the Way of Saint James, a well-worn pilgrimage route through Europe has become an increasingly well-known in North America, perhaps in part due to the movie “The Way” featuring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez.

In his book, The Way is Made by WalkingArthur Paul Boers relates his own journey on the Camino, offering insights about how this physical pilgrimage taught him about the spiritual pilgrimage of our life with God in Christ. Here is an excerpt that gives the feel of why we need to recovery pilgrimage as a guiding metaphor for our spiritual lives:

Pilgrimage in its truest sense is religiously motivated travel for the purpose of meeting and experiencing God with hopes of being shaped and changed by that encounter. Pilgrimages are often concretely physical – journeying to a particular place, perhaps with some extraordinary expense and exertion – and spiritual – one hopes to meet God in this travel.

An irony – indeed a danger – of pilgrimage is that we try to settle in a final destination, considering only that particular place holy and forgetting the call to be faithfully on the move for God. Think of Peter wanting to remain on the mountain where he, John and James (Santiago) experienced the transfiguration: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” His suggestion is dismissed: “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified” (Mark 9:5-6). Christian pilgrimage always calls us to further growth. As Origen wrote: “Travelers on the road to God’s wisdom find that the further they go, the more the road opens out, until it stretches to infinity.”

Pilgrimage sites are not merely an end in themselves. They are not strictly speaking even necessary. They richly symbolize the fact that our lives are to be a journey with and to God. Even if not all of us can afford or are able to go to famous places for prayer, every time we venture to church for worship we make a small pilgrimage to deepen our faithfulness. The Greek word paroikia means “sojourn” and is “also the root of English word ‘parish’, meaning a congregation of pilgrims.”

I love that phrase at the beginning of the last paragraph: “our lives are to be a journey with and to God.” Wherever we are today, let’s lift our legs for one more step, lift our hearts to our God, and fix our eyes on the eternal kingdom, which is just around the next bend in the road.

Sabbath: recovering identity through God’s rhythm for life

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When I used to hear the word Sabbath, I thought of something legalistic and rigid or just plain out of touch with my life. I would picture flowing robes and beards of Old Testament characters exhorting people to rigidly ‘keep the Sabbath day.’

But the more that I have thought about Sabbath, the more I have come to see it as perhaps one of the most important and most ignored aspects of our lives. Sabbath literally means to cease or stop. God ordained the Sabbath as a way for human beings to recover their identity by entering into God’s own rhythm for life: six days on and one day off. God Himself rested after the powerful work of Creation (Genesis 2:2-3). God has given us this rhythm of life so that we might recover our identity in Him, reflect His ways, and also be refreshed in life.

Sabbath as a day is often incredibly difficult for us. I struggle to absolutely be still or to set aside a day in which I will not check email or scan through the internet. But Sabbath is an all-important chance to both adore God and be refreshed. We neglect at our own peril. As Eugene Peterson says, it’s about praying and playing. We gather with brothers and sisters in Christ to worship in the morning and then we are renewed through playful enjoyment of life given by God throughout the day. Even though setting a day aside for a Sabbath is difficult, it is something that we both need for our own benefit and for our connection with God.

But Sabbath is more than a day. It is an attitude. We are no longer bound by legalistic obedience to God’s law, but we are set free by Christ – through His fulfillment of the law – to enjoy a life of Sabbath rest. The peace in life and trusting relationship with God that flows from the Sabbath day should rightly impact all of our minutes, hours, and days. We are set free to be at peace because of Christ. We can trust that God cares for us each moment. Our lives are different.

So, Sabbath is something very old, but so very important for our lives today. I hope we might all recover Sabbath, even in the midst of the chaos of the world, so that we regularly recover who we are in God.

Lamenting Our Losses: three vital parts of lament in the pandemic

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I was talking with a friend the other day about some of the changes we have experienced during the pandemic. Some of them were simple—activities we could no longer enjoy or places we could no longer visit—and others were more complex—missed milestones in our lives, friends and family members suffering with sickness, and concerns about the future.  Maybe you have had conversations like that recently as well. I certainly hope so because one of the most important things we can do in this time of the pandemic is to lament our losses. 

lamet 003Lament is commonly defined as “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.” Within Scripture lament has the added significance of mingling our grief and sorrow with prayer as we bring it into the presence of God. Lament takes up a considerable amount of space in the Bible, from the psalms of lament to the Hebrew prophets to the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane and more. I often distinguish between complaint and lament by saying that with complaint we practice the presence of our problems, but with lament we practice the presence of God while simultaneously bringing our problems to Him. Complaint lives in agony with the self. Lament lives in agony with God. Each and every one of us needs lament these days. Let me suggest three parts of lament that are vital during this time of the pandemic.

The first is to name our losses. At a spiritual retreat I attended not too long ago, participants were asked to write a list of losses we had experienced in the past year. It was illuminating for me to write down things, whether small or large, I perceived as losses. When I read the list later, I realized some things that seemed small initially had become larger over time, occupying a lot of my background attention in life. Until I named those losses it was difficult for me to deal with them or let them go. Consider the words of the psalmist in Psalm 73 where inner troubles stewed until a name was given to the real source of trouble, both internally and externally.

But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. (Psalm 73:2-3)

So, let me ask us: have we named our losses? Have we written them down, given a name to  them, or voiced them aloud as a loss to ourselves or others? We cannot lament without naming our losses.

The second vital aspect of lament is to grieve our losses. For some of us, this can be particularly difficult. My Scandinavian upbringing has taught me how to work hard and persevere in trials, but it has not always helped me to grieve things appropriately. Grieving was something that I had to learn how to do. Grieving is an essential part of lament. As mentioned above, lament gives space for passionate expression of grief or sorrow. Think about David grieving the disastrous death of Saul and Jonathan at the hands of the Philistines.

A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel.
How the mighty have fallen! (2 Samuel 1:19)

Here is the anointed of God, a mighty warrior, a man after God’s own heart, lifting up loud cries of grief over the loss of a dear friend and the untimely ruin of a ruler. What about us? What are our losses? Have we given expression through grief about these things? If not, our souls become a cesspool of hidden pain and difficulty often leading to bitterness and anger.

lament.002The third vital aspect of lament is to bring our losses to God. You may think this last point is obvious, but I have found over the years that this more difficult than we might expect. One the one hand, we find it easy to linger in our troubles. We readily practice the presence of our problems to the point that they become a sort of sick companion. But lament is not about lingering alone in our griefs. Psychology without acknowledgment of God often becomes narcissistic. On the other hand, those of us familiar with the church seem to find it easiest to be happy or joyful in the presence of God instead of giving voice to our griefs and angst. A quick search through the most popular worship songs today reveals very few songs of authentic angst and pain brought into God’s presence. Spirituality without space for lament quickly becomes superficial. Consider with me the book of Habakkuk, where the prophet meets with God again and again in his pain and complaint.

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?

I will stand at my watch
and station myself on the ramparts;
I will look to see what he will say to me,
and what answer I am to give to this complaint. (Habakkuk 1:2; 2:1)

Habakkuk shows us what true lament looks like, when trouble and pain is named, grieved, and expressed in the presence of God.

Friends, I find it hard to express how important it is that we recover lament today. I am sure each that every one of us could fairly quickly make a long list if we tried to name our losses. However, I am less confident we are truly making space in life to grieve our losses and to do so in the presence of God. I worry for all of us that without lament the deep places of our souls will fill with bitterness and anger, and that such foul waters, undrained, will spring out into our lives and those around us when we least expect it causing great ruin. May God help us to lament!

Unfinished: Growing with God through our limitations

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One thing I ask from the Lord,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord,
and to seek him in his temple. (Psalm 27:4)

“A leader who leads well is a lifelong learner, always seeking to find out more about who we are now and who we are becoming.” – Stephen W. Smith, Inside Job: The Work Inside the Work, 45.

“A humble self-knowledge is a surer way to God than a search after learning.” – Thomas à Kempis

I seek You, Lord, in the morning as a way to say that You are the first thing of importance to me. I seek You that I might find my sense of meaning, love, and belonging first in You. There is no other person or place in which I can truly find these things other than in You. All others are limited and changeable, but You are limitless and faithful. Draw me into Your presence where truth and grace are found in all their fullness. Show me Yourself and then also show me who I am in You.

We are unfinished in life, yet held in the hands of the Finisher. We are not yet complete, but in Christ the promise of completion is secure. To be unfinished means:

  • we are looking for more and will not settle
  • we are open to growth and yielded to opportunities for growth, even when this is difficult
  • we are eager to learn and apply ourselves to lifelong learning
  • we are not surprised to encounter our weaknesses, limitations, and sins, but we see them as opportunities to meet with God for transformation
  • we recognize that others, too, are unfinished, and we meet them with grace that urges them toward growth and truth that calls them to more than where they are now
  • we recognize joys as places of celebration and troubles as opportunities for renovation of life
  • we are ever beginners and all our wisdom leads us to greater humility with God, self, and others
  • we need other people in our lives because we are aware that we have blindspots in our lives

Lord, unfinished as I am, teach me to accept that and to grow through that for Your glory.

“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

What Is Ash Wednesday and Lent?

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the traditional season of Lent, a 40-day journey (minus Sundays) toward Easter. Here are some common questions about Lent.

“What is Lent all about?”
Lent is more than a worn-out tradition marked by self-absorbed sorrow and meal-skipping. Instead, Lent is a journey into greater depths of life with Jesus Christ. The 40-day journey reminds us of Jesus’ 40-day temptation in the desert before starting His public ministry. It reminds us of the people of Israel led by Moses through the wilderness for 40 years before entering the promised land. We enter into Jesus’ journey toward, into, and through the Cross. It is a preparation for a deeper experience of the joys of the resurrection on Easter Sunday.

“Why do people have ashes on their foreheads ?”
It is common practice on Ash Wednesday for Christians to begin the Lenten journey on Ash Wednesday by having the sign of the cross marked upon their forehead with ashes. This is a sign of our mortality, “that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14) and to dust we shall return. The ashes also are a sign of repentance similar to what we encounter in the Scripture: “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). In some traditions, the ashes are made from palm branches used on Palm Sunday of the previous year, thus connecting one Lenten journey to another through the suffering of Christ.

“Do we need to pay attention to human traditions like this?”
No, there is no Scriptural requirement to observe Lent. However, generation after generation within the Christian church have found great value in observing this focused journey toward remembrance and celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It may rescue us from merely ordering our lives around academic or holiday calendars, where the high points of Spring are holiday vacations or Easter candy. Instead, we order our lives around the life of Jesus Christ, with His Cross and Resurrection as the high points of celebration.

“How should I observe Lent?”
Lent is intended to be a community journey, so it is important to enter into this with others. This happens best through a local church community that takes on certain practices together, such as our 40-Day devotional at Eastbrook Church. Along with that, I often encourage the practice of traditional Lenten spiritual practices, such as fasting, prayer, sacrificial giving, and reading Scripture. These practices strengthen us to say “no” to ourselves and “yes” to God, through the movement of abstaining from something (fasting), turning to God (prayer), and putting another discipline in its place (almsgiving).

Here is a short video we put together at Eastbrook to help explain the significance of Ash Wednesday.