“A JESUS PILGRIMAGE”
October 3, 2008
The weather was a bit cool with an intermittent fierce wind, but the sky was a brilliant, cloudless azure, a perfect backdrop for the rugged mountain vistas of the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area northwest of Denver, Colorado. A week long vacation at the home of relatives had afforded this California resident the opportunity to get away by himself and enjoy the wonder of God’s creation. It had been over two years since I had been able to find the time for a hike in this alpine wonderland. Distance and a busy schedule had combined to keep me away. But now at last I was enveloped by the eerie stillness of the dense forest listening only to the occasional chattering of a chipmunk, the babbling of a nearby brook, and the dull rhythmic thud of my hiking boots navigating the rocky trail.
My destination was a stunningly beautiful jewel of alpine scenery, a crystal clear pool of pristine water with an unpretentious name, Blue Lake. Surrounded on three sides by the snow-laden granite cliffs of Mount Audubon, Mount Toll, Paiute Peak and Pawnee Peak, and situated just above timberline at an elevation of 11,300 feet, Blue Lake is unsurpassed in its inspirational grandeur. It is certainly well worth struggling up the three-mile trail just to gaze at its splendor. But for me, Blue Lake has an even more appealing attraction.
Nine years ago, during a time of extreme personal turmoil, I had an amazing encounter with God at this very site. A ministry in which I had labored for over three years was disintegrating and I was having severe doubts as to my calling as a pastor, even to the point of questioning my faith. In addition, I had recently lost my father to a series of severe strokes. The struggles with my ministry at our church had prevented me from spending any time mourning for him. In the midst of this life-crisis God had met me in a profound and personal way, giving me the faith and the strength to continue in His service. Blue Lake will always occupy a special place in my heart. Now, whenever possible, I take advantage of any opportunity to visit this sacred venue. It has become a pilgrimage for me, returning to the place where God spoke, hoping and praying that He will speak once again.
I reached the lake early in the afternoon and sat down next to a large boulder to shelter myself from the icy autumn wind. While taking in the heavenly beauty it was easy to imagine the Creator sitting on His throne in this hallowed spot. “Speak to me, Papa,” I pleaded out loud, “your servant is listening.” But the only answer came from the whistling of the breeze and the windblown ripples splashing against the shore of the lake. For an hour and a half I carried on a passionate conversation with the Lord, at times even singing to Him. But the communication was purely one-sided. I heard nothing but silence from “Papa.”
After a while, knowing I needed to start heading down the trail in order to arrive back at the house before my wife began to worry, I gave up the monologue, lifted my pack onto my shoulders, took one last look at the lake, and began my descent. I was deeply saddened that God had apparently ignored His servant. Didn’t He understand that for weeks I had been looking forward to connecting with Him here in this spot? Didn’t He know how special this place was to me? Wasn’t He pleased with the fact that I had worked so hard and burned so much energy just to climb up to this place in order to speak with Him? Why couldn’t He have given me a message, a sign, something that would have revealed His presence and communicated His love?
After I had trudged a few hundred yards down from the lake with a broken heart and a frustrated spirit, a foreign thought coursed through my mind, a gentle, loving comment with the aura of the Divine. I stopped in my tracks having recognized His voice.
“By the way, Bill,” I heard “Papa” say, “you don’t have to come all the way up here to connect with me.”
That was it. After anticipating this outing for weeks, flying halfway across the continent and spending several hours climbing up to this sacred site, His only comment was a rebuke lasting barely ten seconds! I must admit to being more than a little annoyed over the experience. My pilgrimage, for all the effort it had consumed, had born precious little fruit. Or had it?
As I have pondered over “Papa’s” message in the days since He spoke I have discovered far more truth than I originally thought was there. Something within the human spirit lends itself to affixing great value upon certain locations. We do it with our loved ones. “That’s the place where we first met.” “That’s the hospital where you were born, son.” “That’s the building where I got my first job after graduation.” “That’s the house where we first lived after we were married.” And we do the same with our spiritual experiences. “That’s the church where I came to Christ.” “That’s the church where we were married.” “That’s the church where our children were baptized.” “Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’” – Matthew 17:4.
I don’t believe it is necessarily a bad thing to cherish such locations of our spiritual heritage. But I do think we can easily overdo it turning the site into a shrine and placing undo expectations upon our heavenly Father to touch us the same way every time we visit the place. I am reminded of the Old Testament prophet Elijah who ran away from his ministry to encounter the Almighty on the “mountain of God.” Elijah had undoubtedly heard how Moses had encountered God on this mountain. From the burning bush to the giving of the law God had certainly shown a great fondness for this particular edifice. Had not God told Moses to remove his sandals for this was holy ground? Surely Elijah would be able to encounter God here. And he did, although he didn’t receive the message he desired.
“And the word of the Lord came to him: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” – 1Kings 19:9.
I must confess to having a certain affinity to this great prophet. I believe God had given me a similar message under somewhat similar circumstances. We both had engaged in a pilgrimage to a high mountain seeking an audience with God. And we both were gently and lovingly corrected for our erroneous efforts. Just as I discovered around three millennia later, Elijah didn’t need to travel all the way to the “mountain of God” in order to connect with the Lord. Under the Old Covenant God did prescribe pilgrimages to Jerusalem for every man three times each year. In the New Testament, however, no such requirement is found. After the resurrection of Christ we find no mention of regular pilgrimages for His saints. So why do we persist in attaching such sacred value to earthly locations? I suppose it is just human nature to do so, but it certainly isn’t a spiritual requirement, nor is it even a recommendation.
Why do I think this is such a big issue? The name of God is “I Am,” not “I Was.” He is forever contemporary. While we are memorializing our history, He is plotting our future. While we are clinging to the moments when He connected with us in the past, He is trying to connect with us now, in new ways, in new locations, with new revelations containing new directions for our lives. Continuing to make pilgrimages to where God spoke to us in the past might very well prevent us from hearing what He wants to say to us now.
I have nothing against getting away from the rat race of modern life and finding a quiet, inspirational place in which to seek the Lord. Whether our destination finds us sitting by a glacial lake in a natural, outdoor alpine sanctuary or couched upon a pew in a stained-glass cathedral, such retreats can prove to be extremely valuable to our spiritual growth. But when we avail ourselves of such opportunities let’s not carry with us any preconceived expectations from our past. And let’s not turn our spiritual getaway into a pilgrimage during which we beg God to recreate His previous glory. Contrary to popular opinion, God is not obligated to respond to our every beck and call, nor does He promise to live up to all our expectations.
There is, however, a certain pilgrimage which is always appropriate, one which comes highly recommended. I’m not talking about a periodic journey to an earthly location, but rather a daily pursuit of Jesus. He is so much more than a pristine alpine lake. He is the source of “living water.” “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” – John 7:38.
He is so much more than a mountaintop experience. He is the “Rock that is higher than I” (Psalm 61:2). “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” – John 6:35. “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.” – John 11:25. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6. “I am the Alpha and the Omega…who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” – Revelation 1:8. Why would we waste time in any other pursuit?
“…I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ…I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings…Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” – Philippians 2:8-12.
Pursuing Jesus is the ultimate pilgrimage, not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity or even something to engage in three times a year, but a daily, continual seeking after Him. No earthly experience could compare with scaling the heights of His glory or exploring the depths of His love. No worldly sanctuary, manmade or otherwise, could ever begin to match the beauty of dwelling in His presence. We dare not settle for anything less.
Bill, a child of God on a Jesus pilgrimage