travel as pilgrimage

Travel as Pilgrimage #1: Costa Rica

Today I explore the first stop in a series I am calling “Travel as Pilgrimage.” Click here for an intro to the series.  My hope is that these experiences and stories will do two things: 1. Expand our worldviews to the extent that we realize God’s Kingdom is alive and advancing in people/regions of the world that we may not have otherwise considered, 2. Ignite our imagination and desire for travel as an act of personal and spiritual pilgrimage.

The first installment of this series takes us to the beautiful shores of the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica.  This was the first time Janny and I had ever done any extended time of travel in our marriage.  We had five weeks, two backpacks and zero reservations, so adventure was sure to ensue. Our goal was to relax, learn some Spanish and leave lots of time for me to write this book.

After traveling around for a week or so, we stumbled onto a little cottage on the beach in Mal Pais where we would stay for the rest of our time.  Surrounded by the crashing waves, 80 degree water, endless iguana’s, howler monkey’s and rain forest, it was a small slice of heaven on earth.  Little did we know that our greatest companion wouldn’t be the surrounding creatures and creation, but our Canadian neighbor named Mike (not real name).

We would see him leave his cottage every mid-morning to journey up and down the beach for most of the day.  He was about 50 years old, traveling alone and was very reserved.  We would say hello and smile, but didn’t interact to any extent until one evening when he walked to our place and asked for some salt.  In that moment, we began a friendship that would shape the rest of our time in Costa Rica.

Over coffee in the morning and a beer at night, we would play cribbage while overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  At first we would simply share stories from our day, but as the days passed we moved into conversations on politics, religion and family.  One evening I asked why he was down in Costa Rica by himself for 3+ months.  He first responded by saying that he needed to escape the dark, cold Canadian winter, but I could tell there was more to the story…and there was.

Mike was a really friendly guy, but he always had somber disposition about him.  After a few more games of late night cribbage, he looked at me as said, “My wife died three years ago.” I said I was sorry and we sat in silence looking out to sea.

The only voice was that of the wind, ocean waves and occasional monkey howl.

He continued, “After she died, all of my kids moved away to go to college and I stayed at home to continue my nearly 30 years working at the local newspaper printing press.  With the newspaper industry falling apart, I was forced to retire and I was left alone in a big house with way too much time on my hands.  I needed to get away, so here I am.”

I quickly realized that Mike was grieving and he needed a companion. Not someone to tell him all the answers, but someone to simply be present.  He was not only grieving the loss of his wife, he was grieving the departure of his kids…he felt extremely alone.

In the weeks that followed that conversation, our friendship deepened and Janny and I spent parts of every day with Mike.  We rode bikes through the jungle, we taught him to surf and we played A LOT of cribbage.

I’m not real sure how much Mike knew about Jesus or the reality of the God’s Kingdom, but I’m sure he experienced both as we laughed, cried and played as new found companions…I know I did.

Any stories/experiences of companionship coming out of an unexpected context?  Could those needing companionship be the ones closest to us (neighbors, acquaintances, barista’s in your local coffee shop)?


Travel as Pilgrimage

I recently read a book with an illustration that profoundly resonated with my life experience.  The author (Paul F. Knitter) compares one’s inherited worldview (culture, tradition, geography, etc.) to that of a telescope.  A telescope offers a beautiful and clear view of a few starts in the sky, but it fails to offer such a view of the whole universe. Because we all look through our telescope with a specific worldview, we must humbly ask to look through another’s telescope in order to get a more full understanding of the way God works in the world.

Jan and I have traveled to roughly 30 countries in the past few years.  Our travel has been less of vacation and more of a pilgrimage.  From refugee camps in the West Bank to war torn towns in Croatia to the rainforests of Costa Rica, our worldviews have been expanded and our faith been made real in the midst of such pilgrimage.  Having taken note of endless conversations and experiences around the world, we have been able to see the face(s) of the Kingdom of God in myriad contexts. For so long, our worldview could only be articulated through the lens of the West, now we can’t help but see the hand of God in the stories of all the inhabitants of the earth.

I once heard pilgrimage beautifully described as seeking self-knowledge in humility while walking down the path of obedience.  For the religious, a pilgrim’s destination is the place where God meets humanity. It is a place where they encounter earlier parts of their story and get a glimpse of the divine on earth.  Holy pilgrimage has been a central practice in major religions for much of history.  For the Muslim, it is the pilgrimage of obedience to Mecca as a way to encounter Allah.  For the Jew, it is to Jerusalem where God met his people in the Temple.  For the Christian (more common in the Early Church), it is to Jerusalem where one can walk in the footsteps of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

A pilgrimage is less about transforming the world and more about being transformed yourself.

When we first started to travel, I can’t say I approached it as one on pilgrimage.  No, it was more about having some fun with my wife and exploring the world.  The reality is, when you explore the world you quickly find that the world is not simply made up of interesting destinations, but of dynamic individuals.  As I began to be swept into the stories of those we encountered, I was quickly confronted with the reality that the God of the universe was just as much at work in the refugee camps of Palestine and the bustling streets of Barcelona as he was in America.

I don’t know if I would have put this in words, but I subconsciously believed that Western Christianity had a corner on the market of God’s favor. As if I/we had it all figured out and travel was simply about visiting other places and people who hadn’t quite “gotten it.”

While I didn’t begin my journey on pilgrimage, the pilgrimage found me. I began to stumble upon earlier parts of God’s Story (which is also my story) and encounter the reality of his inaugurated Kingdom in the most unlikely of places and individuals.

It is those stories that I will share each Monday for the next few months. I share them as one who has been transformed by the unlikely pilgrimage I stumbled upon, and I invite you to look through the telescope they may offer as we encounter the mystery of God’s diverse and growing Kingdom.

Have you had any similar experiences or revelations as a result of cross-cultural travel?


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