We are pilgrims on a journey

As I wrote in Living out the Call: Book One – Living for God’s Glory, “There is in the Christian life an inherent dynamic of the Spirit. When by the Spirit of God we are born again into the family of God, we are born to grow. Conversion may be the end of one life, but it is also the beginning of another. This dynamic may be in part expressed by one of the first descriptions of the Christian faith:  “the Way” (see Acts 9.2; 19.23; 22.4; 24.14). This new movement represented not just a way to salvation, but also a way of living.  Men and women of the Way were by definition travellers.   There is nothing static about the Christian life. We are travellers engaged in ‘the long walk to God…”

What I have discovered on this journey is that there are stages. Earlier this year I was struck by the way in which the NRSV described the calling out of Abraham in Gen 12.9: “And Abram journeyed on by stages” (NRSV), and in checking noticed that the Revised English Bible had a similar translation: “Abram journeyed by stages”. Unfortunately this idea of stages is not present in other translations: for instance, the Good News Bible read, “He moved on from place to place”, while the New International Version has “Abram set out and continued towards the Negev”.

I checked to see what the commentators had to say. Joyce Baldwin (The Message of Genesis 12-50, IVP 1986) wrote: “At regular intervals stages marked the resting-places along all the ancient routes” Walter Brueggemann (Genesis, John Knox 1982) did not highlight the stages, but did draw attention to the ever changing nature of the journey:

This text introduces the metaphor of journey as a way of characterizing the life of faith… The metaphor of journey or sojourn is a radical one. It is a challenge to the dominant ideologies of our time which yearn for settlement, security and placement.

As I look back on my past fifty years of ministry, my life has very much been a journey, marked by ongoing change and yet also by stages – and I have little doubt that the remaining years of my life will continue to be marked by change and also by stages. Precisely what the outcome will be, I do not know. As Alistair McGrath wrote in his recent memoir: “We are provided with a compass that gives us bearings, rather than be a detailed map that defines our destination” (Through a Glass Darkly, 2020).

When I set out in ministry I was a convinced Evangelical. I became Chairman of the Evangelical Council for the Manchester Area and was on the Council of the Evangelical Alliance. At heart I remain an Evangelical, but am appalled by the narrowness of many Evangelical churches whose noticeboards declare they are ‘Bible-believing’ rather than ‘Jesus-believing’.

When I set out I was a blue-blooded Baptist and wrote a best-selling textbook on Baptist identity, Radical Believers: the Baptist way of being the church. I still am an accredited Baptist minister and wince when I see a baby baptised. However, I am disillusioned with the way in which I feel the Baptist Union has ‘lost the plot’.

For many years I was ‘Mr Church Growth’, travelling all over the world to teach others on how they could lead their churches into growth – but, although I still want to see churches grow, I now realise it was a truncated vision of church which lacked a holistic understanding of the church’s mission.

Although never a ‘card-carrying’ charismatic, I was deeply influenced by charismatic renewal, which in turn l led to a real interest in liturgy – in my retirement nothing gives me greater pleasure than to sing the Gloria in Chelmsford Cathedral. And so I could go on listing even more stages of the journey.

The journey has been ‘quite a ride – with all kinds of ups and down; with moments of euphoria and also moments of desperation. Yet even in the tough times God has been there to 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” (Psalm 84.6). Dry valleys do not 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, we actually “grow stronger as we [lit. they] go” (Psalm 84.7).

3 comments

  1. I really identify with your blog this week, Paul. This is certainly my (our) experience too. From being somewhat inhibited from mixing with other ‘ unsound’ groups of Christians in early years, as time has gone by and we have moved around for David’s work, I have learned so much from other groups and denominations and am so grateful for each of these different stages of the journey, though sometimes the learning has been hard. The riches in Christ are inexhaustible. Love to you both, Rosemary

  2. The following versions have similar wording:
    New Jerusalem Bible (1985): “Then Abram made his way stage by stage to the Negeb.”
    New Living Translation (2015 / 2018): Then Abram continued travelling south by stages towards the Negev.”
    Christian Standard Bible (2017): “Then Abram journeyed by stages to the Negev.”

  3. re; Pilgrims on a journey
    The sufi Bayazid (Persian, 9th century) said this about himself: I was a revolutionary when I was young, and all my prayer to God was, “Lord, give me the energy to change the world.”

    As I approached middle age and realized that half my life was gone without my changing a single soul, I changed my prayer to “Lord, give me the grace to change all those who come in contact with me—just my family and friends—and I shall be satisfied.”

    Now that I am an old man and my days are numbered, my one prayer is, “Lord, give me the grace to change myself.”

    If I had prayed for this right from the start, I should not have wasted my life.
    from the website of Anthony de Mello
    https://www.demellospirituality.com/uncategorized/a-sufis-tale/
    and passed to me by my friend Scott Gailer

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