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?


“Don’t Act Like You’re Not Impressed.”

I love to impress people.  I mean, who doesn’t?  For example, just last night at our friends’ house the topic of Giants baseball and my long time fanhood jumped into our conversation.  I was asked how painful it has been to be a Giants fan for so long and I quickly responded by retelling the gut-wrenching story of the Mets’ Benny Agbayani hitting a 13th inning game winning homer against us in the 2000 playoffs.  My friends were impressed by such specific Giants’ knowledge (or maybe they just thought I was pathetic) and I was happy to oblige, especially now that those memories aren’t so painful having won a World Series.

A trusted counselor of mine once told me, “Jon, you probably write/teach about the importance of authenticity, but you need to do a better job modeling that in your own life.” Ouch…

On my best day, I write what God has put on my heart and I share it with conviction.  On my worst day, I write while asking the question, “What do people want to hear and how can I impress them?”  I don’t have the time, desire or calling to simply write what people want to hear.  Plus, that is just bad writing and doesn’t make for a compelling story.

Over the past three years, I have sensed an overwhelming conviction to tell the stories that often get dismissed, over looked or that are culturally taboo within our Western narrative.  Whether stories from the alley behind my apartment or stories from our travels in a war torn Middle East, I commit to tell them with honesty, conviction and creativity (more on this in my next post).

For now, help me live out the advice of my counselor by engaging in critical conversation and story that sheds light on God’s Kingdom, even if it rustles our feathers and makes us a bit uncomfortable.  Because if I’m authentic in telling these stories, we will be uncomfortable…and hopefully inspired towards action.

Our Stories Determine Our Values

This past Sunday night I had the opportunity to teach at our local church gathering.  We have been studying the book of Acts all fall and I was assigned chapters 19-23, which make up Paul’s 3rd missionary journey.  There are two incidents in the passage that end up turning into all out riots against Paul and the early followers of The Way.  The first riot (in Ephesus) comes at the hands of the Greeks, while the second (in Jerusalem) comes at the hands of the Jews.  Each riot gives insight into the values that were inherent within the two narratives (although not ideal, “worldview” may be substituted for narrative).

(Pic: Roman Road where Paul would have walked in Ephesus)

Values of the Greek Narrative – Ephesus

  • Reasoning, intellect and philosophy  bred out of Socrates, Platoand Aristotle
  • Religion and magic – They would create gods that would give them power over the forces of life/nature. The god of Ephesus was the fertility goddess Artemis.  She represented wealth, security and power.  Having sex with prostitutes was a form of worship to Artemis.
  • It was acceptable to worship any god, but it was unacceptable to claim that your god was the ONLY god

Values of the Jewish Narrative – Jerusalem

  • Oral/written, literal authority of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Test.)
  • Monotheistic (YHWH is only God to be worshiped)
  • Liberation from exile will be found in the coming Messiah.  He will be a Davidic king who will overthrow the ruling power by military conquest.  Jesus did not fit such a description, so (in this narrative) he was not the Messiah.
  • Ultimate obedience to Hebrew Scriptures and the Temple

Values of the Narrative of The Way (early church)

  • Jesus is the Messiah.  He is the Son of God, who after his life, death and resurrection is now enthroned at the right hand of God.
  • Kingdom of God is welcome to ALL
  • Not measured by wealth, tradition or intellect, but by believing and living as followers of Jesus.

Riot #1 in Ephesus: Acts 19

Although Paul was a brilliant philosopher, who carried much weight in his abilities of intellectual argument and reasoning, his radical message of The Way (affirming the narrative inaugurated in Jesus) posed a threat to the values of the Greek narrative and their god Artemis in Ephesus.  To enter his narrative, the Greeks would have to set aside their idols of wealth, security and power.  They responded by gathering up 25,000 citizens in a mob-like frenzy and chanting “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” for two hours.

Riot #2 in Jerusalem: Acts 21 & 22

Although Paul was formerly a Pharisee, steeped in his understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures and traditions, he was nearly killed in Jerusalem when he was accused of bringing a Greek (foreigner) to the Temple during festival.  In his defense, he tells his story of encountering Jesus on the road to Damascus and the crowd responds by saying, “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!”

(pic: Temple Courts in Jerusalem)

Summary: The values of the narrative of The Way were offensive to the Greek and Jewish narratives.  To re-align their values with the values of Jesus would call into question their livelihood, comfort and security.

Values of the Western Narrative

  • Mass consumption leads to stronger economies and a better way of life
  • Freedom and peace are found in military strength and overthrow
  • Intellectual ascension and reason are more true than experience and story
  • Nominalistic religion (faith is inherited/assumed rather than embodied in ALL of life)

As Jesus followers whose primary allegiance is to the narrative of The Way, we have to ask the hard questions of our cultural narrative.  We can easily be blinded by our Western values and assume they most clearly define truth, when in reality they often are designed to simply ensure wealth, comfort and security for those of us on this side of the globe.

To question our values hurts.  To change our values hurts. I am not saying all of our values are wrong, but I am saying that we have to ask the hard questions of them.  Does mass consumption lead to a better way of life for all inhabitants of the earth?  Is lasting peace and the freedom of Jesus best achieved through military advancement?  Does having all the right answers trump authentic experience as an invitation into God’s Story?  Did Jesus’ life, death and resurrection allow for a faith that only impacts certain segments of our lives?

When our values are called into question by the values of Jesus, may we not start a riot, but willingly give up our idols…even if our idols have the appearance of bringing life to our immediate needs.

Which story will we choose to define our values?

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