Pilgrim beginnings

Starting out in Grand Rapids it was Pilgrim. That is how they got permission to film. When it came out of Hollywood, Paul Schrader’s film was entitled Hardcore. The Grand Rapids audience howled at the scene of George C. Scott’s character explaining his Calvinist TULIP faith to a “Venutian,” one who believed in the love goddess. Her reaction is classic bewilderment.

They started out in England, moved to the Netherlands, and then to America, pilgrims. They have become part of the American lore celebrated on Thanksgiving.

Some of my students started in China. How would “pilgrim” translate for them? I asked. They translated the word into Mandarin, but they could not translate the image into their culture. At best, it was the wandering Buddhist monk, but without pilgrims or pilgrimage sites.

Melissa, an American Masters of Fine Arts student, returned from walking in Spain 500 miles in a month. She walked the Camino de Santiago, the way of Saint James. Others of you may go on Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s 1678 Christian allegorical classic.

Maybe you start in Kansas but soon realize that you are not in Kansas anymore. Following the Yellow Brick Road, joined by others searching for love, courage or wisdom, you are looking to get back home. We adventure forth and yet long for home.

Pilgrimage is my primary life metaphor. One of my favorite texts is Psalm 48, a pilgrim song about going around Zion to be oriented in life. I recall getting students out of the classroom to walk, literally and literarily, through the Abraham story by moving around campus.

Abraham’s pilgrimage
The pilgrimage begins in the Abram/Abraham story. Here the people of Israel read their national story, and we read our personal ones. Called by God out of a cycle of rebellion, judgment and death into a new way of life. Called by grace, not any merit. Called to journey with God’s promise but to an unknown land. Called to be blessed and a blessing that will change the world, but slowly, step by step.

We join Abram walking in a broken world of famine. We limp with fear and failure that threatens the future, abuses faithful partners, harms the neighbour, yet still protected by God and delivered. We wrestle with the internal seductions of the easy life and the external attacks of the powers, but discover mysterious colleagues of faith.

God meets us in our questions and doubts and stakes his very existence on keeping his promises. When we fail again, trying to do it our human way, God calls us to commit ourselves to his way, to sign up and sign in with a new name that changes our present identity and future hope.

Mysterious travelers are met and eat with us in new community. For a broken society heading for destruction we intercede. We stumble again in fear and failure and wonder why we do not learn. There are celebrations on the journey, births and laughter, gifts of God that show his working. Still there is family strife and conflict with neighbours. The struggles may come to a culmination, a test, where we may not understand, but we follow and learn, “Jehovah Jireh,” “as it is said to this day, ‘On the mountain of the Lord it shall be provided’” (Gen. 22:14).

Pilgrimage continuing
The pilgrimage continues. One generation dies and is buried in a little homeland plot. The next marries and has children. It is not an endless wandering. It is a meaningful pilgrimage. God is at work. God is developing his people. God is leading towards life.

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going . . . For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Heb. 11:8, 10 NIV).

People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own . . . they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one (Heb. 11:14, 16 NIV).

Let everyone say, “Amen.” Re-formation by faith, trust in the Lord, brings hope, comfort, meaning and direction to our pilgrim beginnings. 


  • Dr. Thomas Wolthuis is a CRC pastor serving as the English pastor of the Chinese Church of Iowa City. He has been a campus minister, institute president, professor, pastor, and church planter. His Biblical Studies podcasts are at www.geneva-ui.org.

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