With the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, many Christians have responded in fearful panic. We are entering an era very different from the last century. Among American Christians, there is fear of changing societal norms and the continued marginalization of Christianity in what was once believed to be a “Christian nation.”
By contrast with the “Christian panic,” I am really excited about being a Christian in this new era. Why? We are returning to our pilgrim roots.
A pilgrim is one who journeys a long distance; a traveler and wanderer in a foreign place. God’s people have a pilgrim history, living as strangers in a foreign land, exiles in a country not their own (Gen. 12:1). Augustine wrote, “The Heavenly City, while on its earthly pilgrimage, calls forth its citizens from every nation and assembles a multilingual band of pilgrims.”
While pilgrims make a home in lands that God has given, they are never quite comfortable in any one place. If we put too much faith in an earthly dwelling, we find ourselves disappointed. So we tread on, our feet walking the earth below, our eyes set on a land beyond. Because we know of a heavenly City, we live lives on earth that are distinctly hopeful.
The church in this modern era must reclaim the pilgrim way, discovering what it means to be a church “at the margins” and not at the center. What is the pilgrim way?
Here are five pilgrim traits:
Because they are on a journey, pilgrims live in the present. We do not regret the past or fear the future. We live in the world as it presently is, not pining for the way it was. Nor do we obsess about the way it will be.
Certainly we learn from the past and from our mistakes. And certainly we make plans for the future. But living fully in the present means we are attentive to the work God calls us to this day. Jesus said, “Tomorrow will have enough trouble of its own.”
Many Christians long for the “glory days” of 1950’s America. Or they lament the future, as America is “headed to hell.” Living in the present tense means we are free to do what God calls us to do right now. And it means that we take people as they are, not as we wish them to be. We “love our neighbor” in their present state, knowing that none of us are as we should be.
Pilgrims don’t pray with neatly folded hands. Pilgrims pray while walking, with their eyes open. This is because we live in the world and not in a monastery. Prayer is naturally prominent for a pilgrim because we encounter many challenges along the road. We are convinced that we can only travel by reliance on the power of God.
We are tempted to respond to the headlines of the day impulsively. Fools respond impulsively. Fools speak before thinking. Fools talk insensitively. Prayer keeps pilgrims from being fools. We speak with God before we speak to others. In such a complex cultural context, we need to be wise and shrewd. We pray for divine discernment. We pray for guidance on how best to live faithful and true lives in an ever changing world. We are prayerful as we navigate the way.
People Over Place
When you journey, you realize that places change. Buildings are built and torn down. Land is developed, it grows, and it decays.
A pilgrim occupies a place, but is ultimately focused on people. The Great Commandment means that we “love the Lord our God” more than the land we live in. And it means “loving your neighbor as yourself.” Pilgrims love their neighbors by walking with them, regardless of the place in which they find them.
Pilgrims are relentlessly people-focused. As a pilgrim along the way, you will encounter people in all kinds of places. Gay and straight, liberal and conservative, Muslim, Jewish, and pagan neighbors. Because pilgrims are people-focused, we don’t pass people by on the other side of the road, avoiding those who are different than us. We walk with them, and we take them with us on our pilgrimage.
Pilgrims live in two places at one time – the earth beneath their feet and a City yet to come. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20).
There are so many paradoxes in Christian life. Ours is a faith where two seemingly opposite things are true at the same time. We are “sinners and saints.” We uphold “law and gospel.” Christ came full of “grace and truth.” Jesus is fully God and fully human. Jesus “ate with sinners and tax collectors,” and said to an adulterous woman, “Go and sin no more.”
Here is an example. A man has a friend with an addiction. Should he show his friend compassion? Or should he be tough to help his friend break the addiction? The answer is "yes." Both.
You have a family member who holds a different view of sexuality than you do. Do you speak of your conviction about God’s created order and intent? Or do you find ways to love them and serve them? The answer is "yes." Both. Pilgrims live in paradox. And when we live in paradox, it makes us peculiar.
Pilgrims, as they follow their Lord, will live lives that look uniquely peculiar. The life of a pilgrim will surprise, astound, and confound. Why? Because our values and customs are not native to any one land, but a Kingdom yet to come.
As we move further into the 21st century, our views on how to live life appear more and more peculiar. For example, a biblical view of marriage will appear increasingly distinct. By the way, this peculiar view of marriage challenges everybody, not just the homosexual. The one flesh union is an ideal we are all striving for. And it challenges those of us living with divorce, adultery, or pornography. It challenges dull marriages, selfish marriages, and abusive marriages. We are all humbled by God’s peculiar ways.
Russel Moore, in a piece he wrote for the Washington Post , contends that we will seem “freakish in 21st century culture.” He goes on, “We should not fear that. We believe stranger things than that. We believe a previously dead man is alive, and will show up in the Eastern skies on a horse. We believe that the gospel can forgive sinners like us. Let’s embrace the sort of freakishness that saves.”
The days of Christian social and political influence in America are crumbling. And that’s OK. God’s people have always been pilgrim in nature, most effective when at the margins. For when a pilgrim is weary and struggling on the road, we place our hand in that of our great Guide.
Hebrews 11:8-16; Phil. 3:12-4:1