Last week when I wrote about setting our hearts on pilgrimage, I couldn’t help but think about how the life of a missionary sets one on pilgrimage.
A missionary journeys to foreign places to join God in his sacred work.
It’s an arduous–passing through the fire–kind of journey. It’s a pilgrimage where transformation happens. There are treasured nuggets of progress all along the way. But there are also perils.
We often talk about the good parts of the pilgrimage. Not that the good is easy. It’s a ”good” like going to the gym is “good”—hard work that produces results. Like learning humility while learning a language. (I still remember Fabian, my 8 year old Costa Rica friend, correcting my pronunciation of Xerox when he asked me to read the billboard from the crowded city bus). Or like learning to depend on God the Provider more than on myself (and God always provided—he provided for our needs, gave me energy for another day, truth from his words, wisdom for advise. And my faith grew.)
But today, I want to look at some perils of the pilgrimage. It’s important to talk about the dangers of the journey because they transform us too. We need to pay attention to them so the transformation moves us closer to God rather than farther away.
As missionaries, we all trip over these perilous stones on the path of pilgrimage. Sometimes we’re able to kick them off the path and carry on. But other times we stumble. We dust ourselves off, pick up the stone and hide it in our hearts to tend to later. We’re sure that we will tend to it eventually. We plan to throw it out further down the road. But sometimes, we forget. We keep walking, but the stone doesn’t remain small. The longer we walk with the stone, the bigger it becomes. It occupies more space in the heart. And it gets heavy.
You can help me add to this list of perils to watch out for, but I’ll begin with the two most common ones that I’ve seen. I’ve tripped on them multiple times myself, and I’ve journeyed with fellow missionary pilgrims who carry these stones as well.
1. PRIDE —
It’s a little stone at first. It’s small enough that others don’t notice. Maybe we mistakenly pick it up in an effort to comfort ourselves. “Life is hard. This pilgrimage is long. But I’m going to be a better person for it.”
And subtly, we shift from comforting ourselves to believing that we are the better person. We look in the mirror and start to flex the new spiritual muscles. We’ve journeyed far. We have the scars to prove it. We begin to feel proud of our progress on the pilgrimage.
As the stone grows in the heart, we begin to look down on others who haven’t travelled as far. We go back home and visit our peers in the predictable ordinary and feel proud that our life is anything but predictable (and a little jealous at the same time).
Our pilgrimage is visible–we post it on facebook and write newsletters to keep it that way. But our friends’ pilgrimages aren’t. They could be on their own inward journey even though they don’t have stamps in their passport to show for it. But since we don’t see the mile markers of their inward journey, we can think that we are journeying farther.
We forget that God blesses everyone who sets their heart on pilgrimage. And we forget that God journeys with each of his children in his own unique way. We look at ourselves. We look at our friends. We forget to look at God. And the stone of pride gets heavy.
2. BITTERNESS –
The other common peril on a missionary’s pilgrimage is bitterness. It usually begins with disappointment. And there are plenty of disappointments on a perilous pilgrimage.
There are valleys of unmet expectations and unanswered prayers. Maybe we encounter a lack of funds, lack of friends, or a lack of results. Miscommunication or no communication lurk in the shadows. And there are problems with the kids, problems with the spouse, problems with your own self—wondering if you can make it. Then there are the unexpected bumps–theft, sickness, a rejected visa or another farewell. The neighbor, the church, your family or God, they can all disappoint.
We accumulate the little stones of disappointments along the way until it seems like we have more than our fair share. If we spiritually tend to the disappointments, God teaches us perseverance. Our faith grows, and we throw the stones away from the path.
If we accumulate them without paying attention to them, we begin to resent how many we have to carry. Others’ loads seem lighter. It’s not fair. Before we know it, the stones of disappointment perilously turn into rocks of resentment. The rocks take up so much space that bitterness permeates the heart, takes root and touches everything we do. There’s no space for joy on the pilgrimage because the bitter rocks are so heavy.
Both of these perils are common on the missionary’s pilgrimage (anyone’s pilgrimage, actually). There should be no surprise at finding these stones along the way. I’ve encountered them. We should be surprised, though, if we walk with them long enough that they weigh us down. Because neither has to result in a spiritual casualty.
So perhaps the greatest peril, more than the stones we trip over along the journey, is neglect.
We simply forget to pay attention to the pilgrimage of the heart. We don’t notice the stones we accumulate along the way because we–
- are too distracted with the outward journey of living in another country.
- too busy inviting others on pilgrimage that we forget our own.
- rely too much on the outward missionary journey to take care of the inward journey.
The invitation, then, is to pay attention. Are you carrying some stones that you need to throw out? Are you paying attention to the the pilgrimage of the heart?
Pay attention to the perils. Pay attention to the blessings, because…
“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage…They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.” Psalms 84:5-7
What are some perils that you have encountered on the missionary pilgrimage? Share in the comments so we know we are not journeying alone.