Soft-hearted Pilgrims

Just this week I finished reading Walking Home From Mongolia: Ten Million Steps Through China From the Gobi Desert to the South China Sea (Hodder & Stoughton, London 2013. 298pp: £13.99 ISBN 978-1-444-74528-3) by Rob Lilwall. It tells the story of how the author and his cameraman Leon walked some 3000 miles across China – partly because they were raising funds for a children’s charity, and partly because they love adventure. It is an extraordinary tale – full of amusement and interest.

It is also an honest tale, in which the author describes the relationship difficulties which developed between himself and his companion, and how they resolved these difficulties. Although not a specifically ‘Christian’ book, Rob Lilwall is a Christian, and in the final two paragraphs he reflects on the nature of pilgrimage. He writes: 

“I belong to a faith, at the heart of which is the claim that I am completely loved, and which also calls me to live courageously as a pilgrim. On this pilgrimage of life there will be times when I fall down. But instead of giving up or becoming bitter, I must get up and keep walking and reject the view that life is all about winning. Rather, I must keep a soft heart which, despite the tests and trials, is learning to love….”

Yes, for Christians life is pilgrimage. In the words of the Authorised Version: we are “strangers and pilgrims” (Hebs 11.13: see 1 Pet 2.11) – alas modern versions have removed the concept of pilgrimage and speak of us being “strangers and foreigners” (NRSV), or “foreigners and refugees”(GNB) or “foreigners and strangers” (NIV). Indeed, the commentators suggest we have here a term for ‘resident aliens’. But although this may be true, these modern translations lack the sense of movement which is present in the text, where the author says that the heroes of faith were “seeking a homeland” (11.14); and ‘looking for the city that is to come’ (Hebs 13.14). We are on a journey – or in the words of the old hymn “we are marching to Zion”.

Like the journey made by Rob Lilwall, it is a challenging journey full of twists and turns, ups and downs. It is not a smooth journey. On this journey many of us will from time to time fall. The question arises: how will we cope with those tough times when everything seems to go wrong. Will we become hard and cynical – or will we remain soft-hearted and trusting? Alas, all too many people develop a ‘chip on the shoulder’ and become angry and bitter, as they focus on what they believe to be the ‘unfairnesses’ of life. In the words of Deborah Ann Belka:

Some people have a chip,
It’s not just on their shoulder
It’s embedded so deep within
You can actually see it smoulder…. 

They carry around a grudge
About something from their past
Like a time bomb about to go off
You can sense their deadly blast

They do not seem to realise that life is not about ‘winning’ in the here and now, but about keeping going, whatever, and to allow the so-called ‘unfairnesses’ to become opportunities to grow in grace (see Rom 5.3-5; Jas 1.2-4). In our call to be pilgrims, our focus is to be on the future hope, and not on past hurts. In the words of Michael Saward’s modern paraphrase of John Bunyan’s great hymn, “Who would true valour see”: 

Though evil powers intend
To break our spirit,
We know we at the end
Shall life inherit.
So fantasises, away!
Why fear what others say?
We’ll labour night and day
To be his pilgrims

The journey can be tough. But where there is faith, God can sustain and strengthen. To quote the Psalmist as the pilgrims pass through “the dry valley of Baca, it becomes a place of springs; the autumn rain fills it with pools” (84.6). Dry valleys do not, of course, literally suddenly become filled with refreshing pools simply because pilgrims are passing through. But beneath the poetry is the conviction that God makes all the difference to the pilgrim life. Where God is looked to, troubles are transformed, new strength is received. Instead of getting weaker on the journey, the pilgrims actually “grow stronger as they go” (84.7). 

So in this journey through life, let us look to God – and in so doing may we keep what Lilwall calls “a soft heart”.    

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