As I approach this season of pilgrimage, Scripture offers me a theology of travel.
My husband, Daryl, experiences more wanderlust than I do. He grew up in Southern California, traveling across the valley for high school basketball games, taking class field trips up the coastline, and loading up the church van for missions to Tijuana. On our family Sabbath, it’s Daryl who takes us out on the roads of Orange County. When I ask where we’re headed, he smiles and nearly always says, “I’m not sure. Let’s just have an adventure.”
In particular, our trips to visit extended family bring out the differences in our travel methods. I plan ahead while Daryl enjoys serendipity; I prepare for every eventuality while he prefers to throw a few diapers and a bag of tortilla chips in the car and hope for the best. But since my husband’s side of the family lives in Los Angeles—a thriving metropolis with all manner of convenience stores and restaurants—I’m learning to hang loose on these local treks.
As these drives to LA become more common, God is faithfully teaching me that my rigid, planned-up-to-the-minute travel method isn’t always the best one. In fact, the biblical model for following Jesus is much more Spirit-led than plotted in advance. It isn’t that preparation isn’t necessary or helpful, it’s that openness to the Spirit of God is more important still. “The wind blows where it wills,” Jesus tells Nicodemus in John’s gospel.
Paul’s journeys were continually interrupted by storms, bandits, imprisonments, and mobs, and once, when he made it all the way to the outskirts of the province of Asia, the Spirit of God turned him away at the last minute. Perhaps that’s why when God speaks to individuals in Scripture, his first call is often for them to step out in faith, to follow a new and previously unsought path. Much of the time God doesn’t even give the destination. The command is simple (and, if you’re a homebody like me, perhaps a little unsettling): “Go,” he says. “Go.”
God uses this word with Abraham, Moses, and Elijah. “Go,” he says to Jonah. Simeon is “moved by the Spirit” to go to the temple, where he welcomes and blesses the infant Jesus. “Get up,” an angel says to Joseph in a dream, warning him to flee from King Herod’s murderous rage and go to Egypt.
As pilgrim people, we, too, are called to travel with our eyes open to the work of the Lord in the world around us. As N. T. Wright puts it, “A pilgrim is someone who goes on a journey in the hope of encountering God or meeting him in a new way.” Whether we fly across the country or simply drive an hour to visit a friend, travel provides us with a unique opportunity to experience God anew by approaching our journey not just as travelers but pilgrims—people on the lookout for God at work and opportunities to join him.
Jesus was the ultimate pilgrim, after all, leaving his heavenly climes to not only visit with but live among humanity. He faced all the usual obstacles to comfort that plague us when we travel—difficulty in finding food and shelter, misreading the vibe of a particular place, and having to rely on the hospitality and grace of strangers, family, and friends. “Foxes have dens,” Jesus said, “and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
Jesus leans into this discomfort, telling his disciples to “take nothing for the journey.” He invites us to do likewise. (Though, to be fair, none of the disciples was toting a two-year-old. Surely then even Jesus would have advised bringing an extra snack or two.) Away from our usual environment, at the mercy of the road or the airlines or the weather or the host home, we are given the opportunity to see the world with new eyes: to receive welcome, to develop compassion, to grow in faith and trust that God will care for us throughout the journey and see us safely home at its end.
In my upcoming summer travels, I want to practice Christlike pilgrimage, watching for God as our family journeys, looking for opportunities to love those in my path with the love of Christ, and doing my best to accept discomfort and even disaster as means of discipleship and grace.
I also need to seek ways to slow down and listen—something that doesn’t come naturally to me. One of the lessons God offers to us in travel is to find peace amid the storm, to leave behind the intensity of our work lives and schedules and family pandemonium and settle into the quieter days of travel. As Carlo Carretto puts it, “That is the truth we must learn through faith: to wait on God. And this attitude of mind is not easy. This ‘waiting,’ this ‘not making plans,’ this ‘searching the heavens,’ this ‘being silent’ is one of the most important things we have to learn.”
This insight comes home to me every time I visit my parents in the northern woods of Wisconsin, where I’m cut off from the busyness of my normal life. My parents’ internet is spotty; my cellphone works only intermittently; the last time I heard a siren of any kind was at the town Fourth of July parade half a decade ago.
Back home, Daryl and I often fall asleep watching The West Wing or The Office in an effort to still our ping-ponging thoughts. Here, however, any digital streaming takes literal hours to download, so we simply don’t. At night we open the windows to hear the oak and maple leaves blow in the wind, falling asleep with books on our chests. When we spend these days in the quiet of the northern forests, it’s as if Jesus stands at the helm of our proverbial boats during the storm of the usual daily grind—ministry, school, appointments, errands, household chores—and says, “Peace. Be still.”
In these pilgrimage moments, I’m ever so slowly learning to listen. I’m learning, too, that the journey, provision, and destination all belong to God.
Courtney Ellis is a pastor and speaker and the author, most recently, of Almost Holy Mama: Life-Giving Spiritual Practices for Weary Parents (June 2019, Rose Publishing). She lives in Southern California with her husband, Daryl, and their three kids. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, or her blog.
This essay was adapted from Almost Holy Mama by Courtney Ellis. Copyright (c) 2019 by Courtney Ellis. Published by Rose Publishing, Peabody, MA. hendricksonrose.com