I had a ‘significant’ birthday recently. Of course, one day is like another and so such milestones are artificial. But milestones have a very useful function – or at least they did when we measured distance in miles and when people went on long journeys by foot or horse and actually took note of the numbers on a stone by the side of the road. Those numbers told you where you were on the journey; how far you’d come, how far yet to go.
A birthday milestone tells you how far you’ve come, but nothing of course about how far you have to go …!
Anyway, at a serious risk of cliché, life indeed is like a journey. I was going to use the analogy of a train that keeps going and you can’t get off. But that sounded too much like a prison and who wants to spend their life trapped by Irish Rail?
A pilgrimage is the classic way Christians have viewed this strange and wonderful affair we call life. For a pilgrimage is a journey with a destination at the end. There is a discipline and focus to a pilgrimage. It has a clear goal. And that goal is to shape how life is lived in the here and now.
C. S Lewis said that it was Christians who were the most heavenly minded that were of the most earthly use – I think he’s dead right.
If the purpose of the Christian life is future-orientated and relational – one day no longer ‘seeing through a glass darkly’ but seeing God ‘face to face’ – then how we live now, what we do with our lives, how we spend our days, time and money, will all be shaped by preparing for that future. It is lived with a very conscious awareness that ‘life now’ is NOT an end in itself. Yes, it will come to an end, but much more significant is what lies beyond the end. This is why Paul could talk of persecution and possible violent death in terms of ‘our light and momentary troubles’ (see 2 Cor 4 as a whole).
This is of course completely nuts within a western consumer culture that has its goal pleasure, wealth, comfort, convenience and limitless choice.
The author of Hebrews and Paul both use the image of a race for the Christian life for good reason. To run a race you need training, discipline, perseverance and focus. I’m trying to prepare for a 10K run in May and it is hard going for I have not enough of any of those things!
Acts 20:24 I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.
1 Cor. 9:24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.
Gal. 5:7 You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?
2 Tim. 4:7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
Hebrews 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us
Since these are musings, I wonder if Christianity in the West is in such bad shape because it is terminally distracted from running the race? Or even forgetting that we are even in a race? Has the idea of pilgrimage / race been eclipsed in modern church life? Are we more like tourists rather than athletes or pilgrims?: wandering around, taking in the sights, enjoying all the experiences life has to offer but not really getting anywhere?
In other words, I wonder if we have lost the New Testament’s overwhelming eschatological focus?
But on a more positive note: God’s grace is deep, he picks us up when tired and weary and lost. He forgives us our idolatry and pursuit of created temporary things. He gives us his Spirit to guide and empower along the way.
And we don’t run alone. By far the most enjoyable thing about my birthday was that it was spent celebrating with others. We need company along the road – to encourage and be encouraged to keep pressing on til the end.
Comments, as ever, welcome.