Tourists or Pilgrims

Tourists or Pilgrims

According to the World Tourism Organization, 946 billion dollars were spent globally on tourism in 2008. While the economic downturn has no doubt had an impact on that figure over the past couple years, there seems to be little doubt that we are a culture of tourists. There are things to see, places to visit and digital cameras to fill with exciting pictures. I confess I’d like to visit Florence, Italy one day (I am a Renaissance history buff).

Back in my high school youth group days, we used to sing a song that contained the following line; “This world is not my home, I’m justa passin’ through…” It reflected the biblical truth that God’s calling through the gospel was a call to both Himself and a heavenly city, the everlasting kingdom of Christ. The idea of the ‘heavenward’ calling (Phil 3:14) has fallen on hard times in evangelical circles in the last few years. In an effort to bring the gospel to the streets, we have sometimes let go of the sense of journey, of being aliens and strangers in this world, of being pilgrims on our way to God. The truth at the heart of that old song has nagged at me for a long time and fuels a real dilemma. How do I live as if I am on a journey that leads me beyond this world, while at the same time interact with this world in a way that is meaningful and life giving with the gospel?

In his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Petersen notes “Religion in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset. Religion is understood as a visit to an attractive site to be made when we have adequate leisure.” (p 12). And herein lies the problem: there is a vast difference between being a tourist and being on a journey. A tourist trip ends with a return to our comfortable homes and familiar patterns; a journey is undertaken to ultimately reach a destination; it requires a life-changing commitment. Several years ago, Deb and I traveled by car across the upper United States on our way to visit family in the Washington. When we arrived at the breathtaking canyon formed by the Columbia River, ready to cross over that daunting, windblown chasm on a safe and modern bridge, it struck both of us that at some point in their journey those early pioneers could have said, “Ok, that’s it. I’ve come far enough.” What for us was a pleasant trip of a few days was for them a relentless pursuit of a vision, a journey to a new place that kept beckoning. They could easily be called “pilgrims,” much in the same way that the Pilgrims embarked on a journey to a new world and left the old one behind.

The concept of “pilgrim” actually has been helpful to me. It’s interesting how those words (especially at Thanksgiving) immediately conjure up images of people dressed in big brimmed black hats, with buckles on their shoes. However, the word actually describes who they were and what they did, not what they wore. “Pilgrim” is also the word used to describe the ancient Israelites who journeyed every year up to Jerusalem for the great feast days. They left their normal lives and together “ascended” the mount of God to the Temple. In this way they were living out physically what was to be true of them spiritually. They were God’s called people on a life-changing, totally committed journey of faith. Pilgrims….Israelites…..American pioneers…none of these could be called “tourists” – their lives were defined by where they were headed; it made them who they were.

It is my hope that by studying the songbook the Israelites used when they went to the Temple each year (the Psalms of Ascent; 120-134), we will find some help in freeing ourselves from a tourist mindset and learn what it means to be a pilgrim people again. Not forgetting our mission, but calling others to join us on this journey with Christ. The class is called 21st Century Pilgrims. Hope you will join us.

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.” (Psalm 84:5)

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