Friday 30 June 2017

Is pilgrimage for Christians today?

The Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century eschewed pilgrimage as a devotional practice and this quote from Martin Luther well represents their wholesale condemnation: “...there is no good in [pilgrimages], no commandment, but countless causes of sin and of contempt of God’s commandments”.[1] They continued to embrace the concept of pilgrimage as metaphor (John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is a good example of this), but reinforced that since God is omnipresent, “access to the courts of heaven”[2] does not require pilgrimage to so-called sacred places – this resulted in a widespread dismissal of pilgrimage as a spiritual discipline by Protestants that has influenced the attitudes of evangelical Christians up to the present.[3] 

While it is true that pilgrimage to holy places is nowhere commanded nor specifically recommended by Scripture as a spiritual discipline, and it is certainly not a necessary condition of being a good Christian, during the second half of the twentieth century “spiritual travel” (for the most part Protestants do not call it pilgrimage) has experienced an extraordinary resurgence of popularity even among Reformed evangelicals who are rediscovering the benefits of travelling Reformation pilgrimage routes and journeying to the Holy Land to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.[4] It is almost as if Protestant Christians have begun to recognise the spiritual dimension that millions of Catholic and Orthodox believers have long sought by setting out along ancient pilgrim pathways: an inner journey of spiritual growth and mental transformation.[5]

The act of Christian pilgrimage is imbued with strong meaning-making potential and may be described as an act of faith that involves stepping out of one’s everyday life and self into an Abraham-like existence of relative simplicity which can strengthen the sense of community between fellow travellers as they share physical hardship, personal struggles and support each other (i.e. social connection), and pilgrimage also provides opportunities for prayer during parts of the journey covered in solitude and silence (i.e. spiritual connection).[6] Studies have shown that even secular pilgrimage journeys can have therapeutic or healing dimensions by providing a communal structure with similar individuals who gain a narrative framework for coping with emotional pain and issues such as guilt, alienation and loss as pilgrims move through rituals concurrently.[7] There is also research which suggests that repetitive movement facilitates experiences of transcending that lead to heightened awareness, sudden insights and revelations, therefore the rhythmic activity of walking would be conducive to self-reflection, prayer, contemplation, and meditation on God.[8]

Last, but not least, pilgrimage allows Christians to discover “that places where Jesus walked and talked, suffered, died and rose again can and do resonate with the meaning of what he did."[9] This is what separates Christian pilgrimage from other forms of travel: it goes beyond merely appreciating
the historicity of the biblical story to the incarnational nature of the Christian faith which enables pilgrims to experience the reality of its happenedness and invites believers into fresh intimacy with God.[10] There is something about simply being in the Holy Land which does not leave the true pilgrim unchanged: 

“We will come back changed. Of that I am certain. But of course that is why you go on pilgrimage in the first place, to find the holy, stumble upon God in action, and be changed forever by the experience”.[11]

[1] J. G. Davies, Pilgrimage Yesterday and Today: Why? Where? How? (London: SCM, 1988), vii; Ted Olsen, “He Talked to Us on the Road: The Surprising Rewards of Christian Travel”, Christianity Today (April 2009), 23. 
[2] This is part of a statement from Jerome (Letter 58) who wrote: “Access to the courts of heaven is as easy from Britain as it is from Jerusalem for the kingdom of God is within you. Nothing is lacking to your faith though you have not seen Jerusalem”. Ian Bradley, Pilgrimage: A Spiritual and Cultural Journey (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2009), 35.
[3] Olsen, 23; Tom Wright, The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 1, 2.
[4] Dee Dyas, “Christian pilgrimage today”. WWW page.  <> (n. d., cited 30 July, 2016); Olsen, 23, 24; Wright, 9, 10.
[5] Philip Jenkins, “Restored pilgrim paths”, Christian Century (September 2015), 45; Andrew L. Wilson, “The Genesis, Development, and Reception of an Ecumenical Pilgrimage”, Journal of Ecumenical Studies 49.3 (2014), 505.
[6] Tatiana Schnell & Sarah Pali, "Pilgrimage today: the meaning-making potential of ritual", Mental Health, Religion & Culture 16.9 (2013), 887, 891; Heather A. Warfield, Stanley B. Baker & Sejal B. Parikh Foxx, “The therapeutic value of pilgrimage: a grounded theory study”, Mental Health, Religion & Culture 17.8 (2014), 860-861; Wright, 10.
[7] Warfield, Baker & Foxx, 861.
[8] Schnell & Pali, 892; Wilson, 505.
[9] Wright, 7.
[10] Bradley, 30; Olsen, 26; Wright, 10.
[11] Canon Trevor Dennis introducing a pilgrimage to Russia, quoted in Bradley, 17.

Rahab, a Hero of Faith (Part 5)

This is the final in the Rahab of Jericho series and follows on from Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

A flower of the field ~ Israel ~ June 2012

Remarkably, Rahab’s sins are never mentioned in the New Testament – only her faith and good deeds. In Hebrews, Rahab is commended for her faith, and James calls her righteous for what she did!

Hebrews 11:31
By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace.
James 2:25
And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute considered righteous by what she did when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?

Rahab’s testimony is nothing short of miraculous and an amazing example of God’s loyalty - his steadfast love (Heb. ẖesed) - toward an exceptional outsider. While pious Jewish rabbis thanked God for not making them a Gentile, a woman, or a slave, Rahab’s life is testament to the fact that God’s power to save transcends all of these categories (cf. Gal 3:28). She, like all of the other heroes of faith before and after her, embodies what it means to put one’s trust in God...

Glance back at Hebrews 11:1 and 6...
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

Joshua 2:9-11

[Rahab] said to [the spies],
‘I know that the LORD has given this land to you 
and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you.
We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt,
and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed.
When we heard of it, our hearts sank and everyone’s courage failed because of you,
for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below. [1]

This female Canaanite prostitute was sure that the Lord had given the land of Canaan to the Israelites – she says, “I know” (v. 9) – even though it had not happened yet. It appears that what she could not see with human eyes (i.e. the consequences of opposing Israel) she could foresee with eyes of faith (Heb 11:1). And in a radical declaration of belief, Rahab goes even further and makes a statement of confession that, “...the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Josh 2:11)! [2]

Rahab is different from all the other inhabitants of Jericho. They had all heard something of the Israelite victories and the God who supernaturally intervened for and empowered them (v. 10). Everyone living in Jericho was faced with the same irrefutable reports and had access to the same limited amount of information, but Rahab was different she was the only one who believed

Be a Rahab! Dare to have faith!

Bonhoeffer once wrote: "the one who believes is obedient, and the one who is obedient believes"[3]. And according to Hebrews 11:31, the difference between Rahab and the other inhabitants of Jericho was that she had faith - she believed and welcomed the spies - while they were those who were disobedient and did not. Having heard of the mighty deeds of God on behalf of his people, those in Jericho should have acknowledged God and welcomed his people instead of resisting them. On the other hand, Rahab obviously had a heart which was earnestly seeking God, and she was rewarded with LIFE: life as a result of not perishing when Jericho was defeated, but I think the text points beyond that, implying eternal life as part of the covenant community.

See a Rahab! Look out for those who are earnestly seeking God.

Even today, there are people in our country, our city, our homes, schools, and workplaces who are earnestly seeking God. Most might be dismissive or even openly critical of the Christian faith, so that those of us who are less bold become fearful of negativity and scepticism when sharing the gospel. But there are still people who are seeking God. They may only know a little, but God can do a lot with a little... and like Rahab, some of them are waiting to be given the opportunity to know more.
[1]  Rahab's speech in Joshua 2:9-11 forms a chiastic structure. "The casting of Rahab's words in a deliberate design conveys the impression that Rahab's actions are thoroughly thought out and not a result of panic". Elie Assis, "Chiasmus in Biblical Narrative: Rhetoric of Characterization", Prooftexts 22 (2002), 276, 278.
 [2] The final sentence (v. 11) is the climax of the speech in which Rahab expresses her belief in the might and sovereignty of God demonstrating that this Canaanite has now adopted Israel's monotheistic belief. Assis, 277.
[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, trans. R. H. Fuller (New York: Macmillan, 1979), 99, 69.