Pursuing a God Who Beckons

Pilgrimage toward a whole spiritual relationship

by Karen L. Klein

A pilgrimage and trip are not the same thing. The main goal of a trip is to get to a destination and, once there, accomplish a purpose. Often it’s to relax and rejuvenate, have a little fun and bring back souvenirs. Or perhaps a trip might involve a particular objective—to secure a new job, meet a colleague, find out a diagnosis, bury a loved one, or visit a relative. A trip has different priorities and obligations than a pilgrimage.
For a pilgrimage, the goal is not about reaching a destination or meeting an obligation. It’s not about relaxation or finding keepsakes to take home. A pilgrimage is about the journey—the entire process—with the goal of personal growth or change. The intentionality of a pilgrimage holds a significance not present in a trip because a pilgrimage is often about moral or spiritual discovery—inner transformation that leads to connection with God, community and self in a way that deepens faith, expands trust or begins a new encounter with the Holy One.

A pilgrimage is often about moral or spiritual discovery—inner transformation that leads to connection with God, community and self.

Healing in the Journey
When Abraham (known as Abram at the time) encountered God in Genesis 12 and received the promise from God that he would be the father of many nations, this was the beginning of a pilgrimage. It was the start of a journey less about a reaching a destination and more about learning who God was, who Abraham himself was, and what the relationship between God and humankind would—and should—be. Scripture makes a point to tell us that after Abraham encountered God, he packed up and left. He went immediately to the future land of promise, the destination laid out for the people of God (Genesis 12:5). But the pilgrimage had just begun, and the focus was not on the destination, the land, or getting somewhere fast. The journey was a process that would take form in the twists and turns of a pilgrimage toward a healthy and whole spiritual relationship. The goal was learning to be with and live with and encounter this particular God, Yahweh. The aim was, in part, learning what it meant to be healthy from the inside out.
And so Abraham and Sarah “pilgrimed.” They journeyed with this God. The ancient rabbinic teachings about Abraham point out that he had to undergo ten tests during this pilgrimage, culminating with the command to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Some of the ancient rabbis believed that these tests were a means to prove Abraham’s faith in God. Others believed they were a way of purification for Abraham through the years of journey and trial. Still others claimed the tests may have been a means of deepening Abraham’s understanding of Yahweh. Regardless of the reason for these tests, many years of pilgrimage occurred between God’s call on Abraham’s life and this final challenge of relationship and surrender. We see in Abraham’s journey a growing maturation not only of his trust in this God who had called him but also a growing awareness of who he is and who he is going to be as “the father of many nations.” In fact, the entire journey that Abraham and Sarah took with God could be seen, at least in part, as a way for us to begin our own journeys of spiritual, communal and physical health.
We do not know what physical ailments may have plagued Abraham and Sarah, other than their infertility. However, infertility is no small matter of health, as it cuts deeply not simply through the physical challenges of reproduction and progeny but also into the identities of the people affected by it, often causing spiritual and emotional pain for which sufferers seek healing as well. While Abraham’s pilgrimage was more than the healing of infertility in his marriage, it culminated in the birth of a son, indicating physical healing and the trust in God’s goodness on a mountainside when he is asked to sacrifice this same son.
Abraham’s pilgrimage has a full circle of physical and spiritual healing not because of the destination but because of the journey. The healing of Abraham began with accepting the call of God. He set out from his homeland in Genesis 12 to discover a new depth of faith in Yahweh and experienced the healing that comes from continual walking with God over time. The destination—a land, a birth, a nation—wasn’t the goal. The journey itself was the medium for wholeness, starting with a deepening relationship with the God who called him.

The journey itself was the medium for wholeness, starting with a deepening relationship with the God who called him.

Healing in the Community
We find in Scripture that the pilgrimage of health is not simply an individual endeavor. While there is something to a journey toward health in our spiritual and personal relationship (including the relationships we have with and in our own bodies), the act of healing in Jesus’ ministry was more than recovery from blindness, lameness, deafness, or even death. The healing miracles of Jesus very often restored a person to a community. Consider, for example, Mark 1:40–45. In the Gospel of Mark, we are thrust rather quickly into Jesus’ ministry, and a man who contracted an illness called leprosy confronts us. Leprosy at this time often referred to many different skin diseases, some of which might have been something other than the disorder we know now as Hansen’s disease. It was a greatly feared disease that not only caused intense trepidation should one be touched by someone with leprosy but also cut off and alienated people from their communities. It is commonly believed that at this time people who were diagnosed with this skin condition were forced out of their homes and their towns into leper colonies, where people who were suspected to have the disease would live and suffer together.
Because the communities around us—families and loved ones, neighbors, coworkers, congregations, the rest of the community—shape us, form us, and inform us of who we are and the worth that we have, to be cut off would have been an added insult to the already crushing weight of the physical deformity that leprosy caused. Healing, then, in the miracles of Jesus, did more than change a person’s physical condition. It healed the loss of community. It healed the isolation that undoubtedly wreaks havoc on a person’s inner being. In fact, in Mark 1, Jesus’ responded to the humble request of the man with leprosy by touching him. This is significant because people with leprosy were not touched. The disease was believed to be so contagious that touching someone with the ailment was risky at best. At the cry of this sick man cut off from physical and communal health, Jesus reached across the divide and initiated physical contact in the act of physical healing. A man who may not have been touched for a long time was touched by Jesus and healed.
For Jesus, healing went beyond the physical. Instead for him, healing restored persons to the group of people who shaped them most. In many ways, anyone who sought Jesus out for healing was entering a pilgrimage that resulted in communal restoration as well. While shorter than the Abraham’s decades of journeys, in the time of Christ, a sick person, or another on behalf of that person, still would have had to leave wherever he or she was—a mat on the side of the road, a leper colony, a sick room in a home—and seek out this man who could heal. In some cases, this person would risk scathing responses from those who might scatter in the presence of illness. The intention of this sort of pilgrimage may have been physical healing, but along the way, communal healing resulted as well. As an ill person stepped out in pilgrimage toward Jesus, the fractions that the illness had caused in relationships were given a chance to find restoration as well.

Our Winding Stories
While the reasons for our own pilgrimages and the results of those journeys may differ as wildly as the winding stories of our lives, the intentionality with which we pursue God and divine healing has a wide effect, not simply on us, but on those around us. It changes the way we interact with others, with creation, and with our own souls. The healing of God is not limited to one person, event or circumstance. Instead, as we see in the life of Abraham, who became the father of many nations, and in the movement of Jesus’ life and ministry, the pilgrimage of healing sweeps us into something that is much bigger and more intentional than even our deepest dreams at the outset of our journeys. For God in Christ, the journey of the individual is only one part of the larger story—a story that beckons us to experience God’s healing not simply of bodies and minds, but of souls and entire people, even the entire world, which we see best and most in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
That interplay between our personal, communal and spiritual healing shapes the pilgrimages of our days. While some people may literally attend a long physical pilgrimage in a geographic place as Abraham and Sarah did, many of us are more like the man living with leprosy in Mark 1. Perhaps we are seeking inner or outer healing in shorter journeys, in the daily pathway of our home, neighborhood, office, or school. Perhaps our pilgrimages take shape in the mundane and boring segments of the day, in the thirsty longing of a soul needing rest. Rather than on the soil of an actual pilgrim’s path, our pilgrimages may require a deliberate desire to encounter God anew in our own homes. Regardless of whether we are called to a literal pilgrimage or to the daily pilgrimages of our everyday lives, the healing comes in the journey, in the restoration of our spirits as we learn to walk with this God who is always beckoning us farther and deeper. Healing comes in the restoration of the broken places in our souls or our relationships that weep for the touch of Christ. Healing comes in the journey, and the places we walk are transformed by it.

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