By Rob Renfroe
In 1875 a remarkable woman was born. Her name was Mary McLeod Bethune. Both her parents had been slaves. At the age of five she began working in the fields. But as a young girl, she took an interest in her own education and found a way to attend a small, one-room, segregated school in South Carolina.
After graduating, she attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. She returned to the south and began to teach. But she didn’t stop there. She believed God was calling her to start a college for black students so they could receive a quality education – and so the world could see just how brilliant and beautiful young black men and women could be.
“If our people are to fight their way up out of bondage we must arm them with the sword and the shield and buckler of pride – belief in themselves and their possibilities, based upon a sure knowledge of the achievements of the past,” Bethune wrote in 1938.
She didn’t let the cost of starting a private school for African American students stop her. She didn’t let what others said stop her. She didn’t let the fact that she was young or black or a woman stop her. The spirit within her was not a spirit of timidity and fear. It was a spirit of strength and power. And in 1904 at the age of 29, Mary Bethune founded what would become Bethune-Cookman University.
In 1941, Dr. Bethune wrote an essay entitled “Faith That Moved A Dump Heap” to explain the origins and inspiration of her trailblazing school. The article’s title comes from the fact that the only land available was an undesirable plot that had become the town’s dump site called “Hell’s Hole.” She was able to raise the money to purchase the land through the sales of sweet potato pies and homemade ice cream to work crews.
Through her pioneering work and God-given vision, the first building on that land was called “Faith Hall.”
“We burned logs and used charred splinters as pencils, and mashed elderberries for ink. I begged strangers for a broom, a lamp, a bit of cretonne to put around the packing case which served as my desk,” she wrote in her essay. “I haunted the city dump and trash piles behind hotels, retrieving discarded linen and kitchenware, cracked dishes, broken chairs, pieces of old lumber. Everything was scoured and mended. This was part of the training – to salvage, to reconstruct, to make bricks without straw.”
For twenty years as a college president, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune made the most of her remarkable ability to inspire young people to dream their own dreams, overcome their own obstacles, and win their own battles. At the graduation exercises each year she would send her students into the world with these words: “Faith ought not be a puny thing. If you believe, have faith like a giant. And may God grant you not peace, but glory.”
It was Bethune’s way of telling her students that the battles that matter and the causes that are worthy of our lives are rarely accomplished without difficulty, courage, and sacrifice. You can live a comfortable life or you can live a great life. You can live an easy life or you can live a glorious life. Now, which do you think you were created for? Peace – or glory?
As Jesus saw the cross approaching, he told his disciples: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:23-24).
Jesus told the disciples he was about to be glorified and then began to talk about his death. Boys, if you want to see glory, keep your eyes open because it’s about to be on display. It will look like a man hanging on a cross. It will look like a back torn apart by thirty-nine lashes. It will look like blood flowing from a crown of thorns. It will look like a man who is exhausted and spent, struggling for breath. It will look like suffering and sacrifice, like giving your life to do the Father’s will and bring blessing to others.
We can live a life of peace and comfort. Or we can live a life that is great and glorious. But we cannot do both. We can live for self or we can live for others. We can protect ourselves from the pain of this world or we can step into that pain, knowing that it will cause us to suffer as we try to help others. We can endeavor to create for ourselves a paradise on earth or we can go to the hell holes of this world and do the difficult things that will bring hope and redemption to those who are lost. Now which do you think we were created for?
To those who are doing the difficult work of being a loved-one’s caretaker, setting aside your own needs and plans, and often unseen as you do it – that’s glory.
To those who are loving a child with special needs or being crushed by the weight of trying to help a teenager or a young adult overcome the power of an addiction – that’s glory.
To teachers, first-responders, and health-care providers who have been overwhelmed over the past two years and who have been tempted to quit, but you are still at your post because you know we need you – that’s glory.
To pastors who have and who continue to provide care for those who are struggling; to pastors who are tired and weary because of all the extra strain created by the pandemic; to pastors who have seen the attendance of their churches decline and who have watched members leave over the past two years but who work as hard as ever to prepare sermons that are encouraging and inspiring – that’s glory.
To churches that have expanded their ministries during the pandemic to those who are hungry, homeless, and struggling with mental illnesses; to churches that have overcome the natural tendency to turn inward during a time of stress and uncertainty and that have decided to be here for others – that’s glory.
To faithful pastors who find themselves demeaned and ostracized by their progressive peers and a liberal bishop, but who continue to stay strong, love all, and exemplify joy – that’s glory.
To those who overcome their fear and give generously, even sacrificially, to ministries that are bringing the Gospel to the lost, caring for the poor, and defending the faith, whether the amount is large or small – that’s glory.
We often think of greatness as being seen and celebrated. Doing big things and being recognized by others. But Jesus thought of glory as being a servant, remaining faithful, and sacrificing ourselves so some part of this world is made better, more the way the Father wants it to be.
So, I join Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune and our Lord Jesus, and I wish for you and for our church, not peace but glory.
By David F. Watson
Since the 1700s, it has been commonplace in Western Christianity to question, or even reject, the veracity of claims about miracles, or what theologians refer to as “special divine action.” Sometimes, God acts directly in ways that transcend the normal course of events in nature. When we recognize such divine action, we call it a miracle.
Enlightenment philosophers and the theologians they influenced have at times argued that, if there is a God, this God does not enter directly into the goings-on of creation, exercising agency to change what would otherwise be the natural course of events. In the wake of two World Wars, the Holocaust, the detonation of atomic bombs over Japan, and countless other atrocities throughout the twentieth-century, many theologians simply regarded miracles as a non-starter. No, they said, the unavoidable conclusion is that we can no longer believe in the God of the Bible who so readily enters into the goings-on of our lives.
The problem is, there are so many cases in which Christians actually see miracles happen. They witness them in their own lives and the lives of those they love. There are simply too many accounts of God’s action in the world for us to ignore them. Miracles happen. They are in some senses shrouded in mystery, but the evidence for them is overwhelming.
Nevertheless, there remains much skepticism of miracles throughout the academy and segments of the church. Moreover, in parts of the church where miracles are generally accepted, there can still be considerable misunderstanding and irresponsible teaching. Thus in 2011, Professor Craig S. Keener published a two-volume magisterial work, Miracles: the Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic). At almost 1,200 pages, this work is an indispensable scholarly investigation into claims of special divine action, not only in the New Testament, but today as well. This book may be a bit much for the non-specialist, however. Not everyone has the time or inclination to make his or her way through such a weighty scholarly tome, valuable as it may be. Keener is aware of this, and has therefore provided a much briefer and more accessible volume, Miracles Today: The Supernatural Work of God in the Modern World (Baker).
The book consists of seven parts which are divided into relatively short chapters. Part 1 is called “Perspectives on Miracles” and asks the question, “What is a miracle?” It then provides a few answers, dealing in the process with some skeptical responses to claims of the miraculous, and particularly that of Scottish philosopher David Hume. In Part 2, Keener discusses witnesses to miracles. Are there many of them? Do people other than Christains report them? Is healing a new phenomenon in the history of the church? He then offers a few testimonies of healing. With Part 3, “Videos and Doctor’s Reports,” the book becomes a bit more testimony-heavy. Keener deals with cases in which healings are captured on video and medically-attested healings of such conditions as severe brain injuries and cancer. Part 4 describes healings of conditions such as blindness, deafness, nerve damage, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, and leprosy.
Many Christians find faith healing to be plausible, and even pray for it. The next two sections, however, will likely be harder pills to swallow. Part 5 deals with the raising of the dead, and Part 6 with nature miracles. Keener provides documentary evidence that the prayers of the faithful can even raise the dead. In fact, he provides testimony of this phenomenon from within his own family. He then goes on to discuss what are often called “nature miracles,” such as the calming of storms or the multiplication of food through the prayers of the faithful.
Part 7, “Kingdom Mysteries,” takes up more philosophical and theological matters related to healing and deals with some common objections. After discussing some miracles that he himself has witnessed and experienced, Keener addresses some questions that many inquisitive readers will ask. Why don’t we see more miracles in the West? Correlatively, why do these reports seem so commonly to come from the “mission field”? How should we understand occasions when we pray for miracles and they don’t happen? Why do conditions that God heals sometimes return later?
Following this seven-part discussion are three appendices: (A) Did Prayer Make Things Worse? (B) Some of Hume’s Other Arguments, and (C) False Signs.
Even in this briefer volume, Keener’s descriptions and theological account of miracles are substantial and compelling. He marshals considerable evidence in support of his primary claim, which is that God acts in miraculous ways today, just as he did in the time of the Bible. He offers testimony after testimony of miracles of various kinds. These testimonies are drawn from historical and contemporary sources, including people he knows personally. He even offers his own testimony in a few places.
Testimonies can help to build faith, and I found my own faith strengthened as I read. The quality of the research in these testimonies is impressive. These are not the equivalent of Bigfoot sightings. They are the thoroughly researched accounts of a meticulous scholar.
Keener doesn’t dodge difficult questions, either. While most of the book consists of testimonies, particularly in the latter chapters Keener deals with some important objections and problems related to belief in miracles. One objection he addresses, which I often hear as well, is that accounts of miracles seem to come much more often from faraway places than from the United States. Does this not diminish their credibility?
Keener addresses such questions adroitly. First of all, he provides numerous testimonies throughout the book of miracles occurring in the West. Further, he argues, the U.S. contains only about 5 percent of the world’s population. It is only natural that more miracles occur outside of the U.S. than within it.
Additionally, “when miracles happen here, our antisupernatural mindset often renders them invisible to us because we grasp at other explanations,” he writes. “Since miracles are therefore less meaningful to us, they are less likely to happen.”
Keener also suggests that “God usually performs dramatic signs either when people desperately need them or when he is getting people’s attention for the good news of Christ’s love in a special way.” In Africa, for example, which is the world’s second most populous continent, there is only one doctor for every ten thousand people. There are also many people in Africa who have yet to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. God wishes for these people to have the opportunity to know and love him. In this context, miracles are more prevalent.
Dr. Randy Clark, founder of Global Awakening, has seen miracles firsthand all over the world. He once told me, “The way of healing is the way of the cross.” What he meant was that a healing ministry can be a painful one because people are not always healed. The compassion that motivates one to engage in a ministry of healing necessarily leads to heartache over those who are not healed.
Keener discusses cases where a person is healed for a time, but then the same condition returns and takes his or her life. He also discusses cases in which people are not healed. A particularly moving account involves the death of his friend Nabeel Qureshi. Nabeel had a prominent ministry, and thousands of people were praying for his healing of stage-four stomach cancer. Keener even prayed that he himself might die in Nabeel’s place. “I felt that I had already accomplished enough for one life, if need be, whereas Nabeel had many years of fruitful ministry ahead of him.” God did not heal Nabeel in this life, though. “Toward the end of his mortal life,” Keener writes, “Nabeel suffered terribly.”
Many Christians know the pain of praying fervently for someone who nevertheless dies. Many know the pain of being with the sick through their last days of life. These can be a gut-wrenching, traumatic experiences, and we may understandably wonder why God did not heal in these cases. It may make no sense to us. Keener remarks, “After Nabeel’s death, I felt that God was saying we would understand this matter someday. It is beyond me to understand now, but I trust that God does know and understands much more than I do.”
Miracles Today is a sensitive, well-researched, theologically sophisticated work. I have seen miracles in my life. In fact, I have prayed for people who subsequently received healing. Yet reading through page after page of these testimonies of God’s goodness was a great encouragement to me, particularly after these two very difficult years of dealing with a global pandemic. I also learned a great deal from reading this work. Keener is one of the finest scholars working today. He is both a faithful Christian and a first-rate intellect. I give this book my strongest recommendation. It is a treasure.
One final note: in many ways, the postmodern West is returning to the kind of pluralistic environment in which the first Christians found themselves. Their milieu was permeated by all manner of religions and philosophy. To those early Christians amid the religiously chaotic world of ancient Corinth, the Apostle Paul wrote, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:4).
Paul knew that it would be the visible power of the Holy Spirit that would bring that generation to faith. In our day, so very chaotic in its own ways, it can be hard to get a hearing for the faith, regardless of how wise or persuasive one’s words may be. We are once again going to have to rely upon the power of the living God and believe he will reveal himself through miracles of various kinds for his name’s sake and for the salvation of the lost. In recovering this kind of faith, we will need guides along the way. Professor Keener is one we can trust.
David F. Watson is Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is the author of several books, including Scripture and the Life of God (Seedbed), and lead editor of Firebrand (firebrandmag.com).
By Walter Fenton
While the vast majority of theologically conservative United Methodist local churches are waiting to part ways with their denomination once the General Conference adopts a plan of separation later this year, others are not.
In late January, Frazer Church, one of the largest congregations in the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference, voted to disaffiliate with the United Methodist Church and join the Free Methodist Church. It is one of several dozen other local UM churches that have left the denomination over the past year.
In light of several local churches that have disaffiliated from the Missouri Annual Conference, Bishop Robert Farr, the conference’s episcopal leader, recently released a statement and frequently-asked questions document regarding the disaffiliation process. While the statement briefly notes the grief Farr and the annual conference feel over the departure of sister congregations, it is principally a word of advice to other local churches contemplating disaffiliation.
“[S]ome attorneys [representing local churches] have engaged in disappointing practices,” Farr wrote. “[T]hey have refused to share the calculation of disaffiliation payments until after a congregation votes for disaffiliation, taken actions in violation of the Missouri Nonprofit Corporations Law, and made statements they knew to be false. In many cases, small churches have paid tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees on top of the same payment a similar church that worked directly with the Conference paid.”
Legal fees can quickly add up as attorneys acquaint themselves with the UM Church’s Book of Discipline, and then begin interacting with conference officials. When both parties are committed to reaching a fair and amicable agreement, the process can be straightforward, though inevitably time consuming and costly for a local church. However, if the parties perceive one another as adversaries, and attorneys offer unsound advice, local churches can spend tens of thousands of dollars in legal expenses on top of exit fees owed to the annual conference.
“As an attorney myself, I’m thankful the majority of people in the profession practice according to the highest standards,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, my colleague and the president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. “However, like any profession, we have our share of bad apples. When it comes to church law, some attorneys do poor research and then pass along bad advice to their clients. And even worse, some are unscrupulous and wittingly maneuver their clients into paying much higher legal fees than necessary. I wholeheartedly concur with Bishop Farr’s advice that local church leaders should do their due diligence before hiring an attorney.”
The Wesleyan Covenant Association has encouraged theologically conservative local churches to wait for the adoption of the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation and then, under its terms, join the Global Methodist Church. While acknowledging the Protocol includes compromises neither centrist-progressives nor conservatives like, the WCA continues to believe it resolves a decades-long dispute as amicably as possible. It allows theologically conservative local churches to join the new denomination with all their property and assets without costly disaffiliation fees. The adoption of the Protocol would also keep the general church and local congregations from engaging in the bitter civil litigation that has cost other mainline denominations tens of millions of dollars.
Unlike some UM Church episcopal leaders, Bishop Farr wrote in his statement that he and Missouri Annual Conference leaders are willing to amicably and fairly work with local churches that want to disaffiliate. He noted that congregations and clergy that have expressed an interest in exiting the denomination have not been “the target[s] of any type of retribution.”
“We do have our differences with some of the terms the Missouri Annual Conference seeks to impose on disaffiliating churches,” said Boyette. “We think certain terms are contrary to what the Discipline clearly states. We counsel churches who choose to disaffiliate not to agree to terms that differ from those adopted by the 2019 General Conference. Nevertheless, we welcome efforts to allow local churches to depart as amicably as possible. In that spirit, while the Protocol has yet to be adopted, we believe annual conference leaders and local churches should use its terms as a model for parting ways.”
Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergyperson and the Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Reprinted from the WCA’s Outlook by permission
By Carolyn Moore
So much of what gets published these days regarding the state of Christianity paints a desperate picture. We’re led to believe that in our lifetimes, the Christian movement could well wither on the vine. And in our corner of the world, maybe. There is no question that the U.S. is transitioning into a post-Christian era, if by “post-Christian” we’re talking about regular church attendance and an agreed-upon set of core beliefs.
But that’s just America. Globally, Christianity is more than holding its own.
Let’s consider both the facts and the long-term trajectory. When Jesus was born, maybe half a dozen witnesses had some sense of his divinity. He began his public ministry as an adult with twelve people. Over the course of the four gospel accounts, we read that thousands were exposed in the next three years to the preaching and miracles of this early team. Not all who heard believed, but they did hear – and many followed. The resurrected Jesus appeared to more than 500 people before his ascension.
In the book of Acts, chapter two, after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, we read about the first mass conversion of people to the way of Jesus. Three thousand people were converted in one day. This event set a faster pace for this new movement. After that, we read accounts of explosive growth in the known world. By the year 150 A.D. – roughly 120 years after that event we call Pentecost – there were an estimated 40,000 Christians in the world. Count 50 more years to 200 A.D., and that number had exploded to something like 250,000 believers. By the year 250 A.D., it was well over a million.
Philip Jenkins and Rodney Stark are the historians who did this math (see Stark’s 1996 book, The Rise of Christianity). A few years ago, Jenkins notes that it is stunning to think that within another 50 years (by 300 A.D.), “Christianity would be the dominant religion in the whole Roman Empire.”
To think that Caesar Augustus – when he called for that census that moved Mary and Joseph into position to birth a Messiah in Bethlehem – assumed he was just counting heads in the Roman empire! His count was actually a foretaste of the census to come, when this movement begun in a manger would begin to spread first through the known world and then eventually across the globe. Since the census of Caesar Augustus (which undoubtedly counted some of the first souls who in years to come would hear about the Kingdom of God from Jesus himself), an estimated 13 to 14 billion followers of Jesus have walked the earth.
Today, it is estimated that one in three humans walking the face of the earth are part of that count. That isn’t just folks who have heard the name of Jesus, but folks who are following him. One in three people call themselves followers of Jesus!
Which leads me to conclude that while Caesar Augustus was counting heads in the Roman empire (and unwittingly moving God’s agents into place), God was moving heaven and earth – for you.
Let that fact sink in when you are tempted to believe that you don’t matter, that your life has no purpose or is too overwhelming, or that God doesn’t care. Don’t fall for that lie.
The same God who moved heaven and earth to create the story of His Messiah stands ready today to move mountains for you. And that same God is perfectly capable of seeing this global movement called Christianity all the way through, until one day every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Carolyn Moore is the founding and lead pastor of Mosaic Church in Evans, Georgia. She is the chair of the Wesleyan Covenant Association Council. Dr. Moore is the author of many books including Supernatural: Experiencing the Power of God’s Kingdom. She blogs at artofholiness.com. Reprinted from her blog by permission.
By Angela Pleasants
I am an avid hiker. My passion for hiking began in high school when my advanced biology class explored the Great Smoky Mountains to examine various species of lichen, mushrooms, and insects. The greatest joy on a hike is looking at the wonders of God’s creation. When I find rare plants, majestic landscapes, and cascading waterfalls, I think only God can create such a masterpiece.
Recently, I was on one of my hiking adventures on an uncharted trail. It was not one of the National Parks. It was unexplored woods. It was one of those places you will not find on any Global Positioning System (GPS).
I was so caught up with looking at the beauty around me I neglected to notice I had wandered deep into the woods. My hiking shirt says, “All who wander are not lost.” Well, I was lost. I looked at my phone, and I had no signal because I was so far into the woods.
Soon the beauty that surrounded me became dark and foreboding. What was the difference? I was in the same wooded area that once was beautiful and light, but now it seemed dark and cold.
The difference in my perception came from the unknown. I was in unfamiliar territory with no tracking device to find my way out of the woods. In the beginning, panic set in, and I felt the shock waves throughout my body. Questions emerged in my mind, “No one knows where I am, what if I run across a wild animal? What if darkness sets in before I find my way out?” I had a lot of “what if” questions with no answers.
What happens when we are confronted with challenges where we don’t have all the answers? What do we do when we are in our wilderness and don’t see a clear path out?
I had to step back and assess my situation. Instead of reacting to the rising panic, I calmed my breathing and focused on what I knew.
A friend gifted me with a portable mini compass for hiking which I always take on my adventures. When I was finally calm, I remembered I had the compass with me. Once I was thinking rationally, I began to use my wilderness skills and followed nature’s guidance. I know moss grows most abundantly on the north side of trees. So, with my compass and signals from nature, I determined my direction and ended up safely out of the woods.
Instead of seeing challenges as obstacles that cause anxiety, how can we view challenges as opportunities for innovation? How can we navigate successfully through the vicissitudes of life?
“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43.18-19).
I’m not too fond of surprises. I want to know what will happen before it happens. Sometimes we are like that with life. We want all the answers before we make decisions. Therefore, if something worked in the past, we cling to it while fearful of an unknown future. Even if what we are clinging to no longer works effectively, we still know what we have instead of the unknown before us.
In the Isaiah passage, we are reminded of the work God did in the past through Israel’s exodus from Egypt. We are also reminded not to enshrine God’s methods. God will also act in new ways.
Through our challenges, God can strengthen our faith when we release our grip on needing to be in control of the outcome. Instead, we can stretch our vision to trust in the God who makes a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. Notice, God did not remove the wilderness or the desert, but he did make a way in the wilderness and desert.
Sometimes our greatest wilderness is fear and anxiety that can cripple our faith and hinder our creative innovations. We cannot be so consumed in panic and fear that we miss the power of God operating in our wilderness experience.
So how do we respond? When I was lost in the woods, I could not give in to panic. I had to assess what I knew. I put years into study and application about hiking and wilderness experiences. I have a friend who is an environmentalist and experienced hiker; I have hiked alongside him and learned great lessons. When I was lost, the one thing necessary was to draw upon the lessons I learned and my experience as a hiker.
In our Christian journey, where we encounter challenges and obstacles, we should never forget the one thing necessary. “But one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10.42).
How often do we spend so much time worrying about our challenges, others, or decisions? Martha was busy doing valuable work, but she became consumed with her work and the affairs of Mary. She tried to draw Jesus into her complaint against Mary. Instead of Jesus giving room for Martha’s complaint to grow, he honored Mary’s choice. Busyness will often be a part of our life. But we cannot neglect our time of sitting before Jesus in prayer and studying scripture.
How else do we respond to challenges? Before Jesus ascended, the disciples came to him because they had unanswered questions. They wanted to know when the kingdom would be restored to Israel. In Jesus’ response, he does not answer their specific question. Jesus gives the answer that mattered for the work they would begin.
The disciples were focused on an earthly kingdom, but Jesus directed them toward a heavenly kingdom. Jesus replied, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1.7-8).
As I used my compass to navigate the woods, it became my guiding light. When we are in our wilderness journey in life, the Holy Spirit will direct our every path. It is the power of the Holy Spirit that is necessary for the Christian life and ministry.
When the Holy Spirit filled the disciples, they stood before a diverse group of people. It may have seemed like a challenge to speak before people who were diverse in their culture and language. But empowered by the Holy Spirit, they began to preach, and the people understood in their language. As a result of the Holy Spirit that empowered Peter, three thousand souls were saved.
When I entered the woods, there was no trail. But I could not become consumed with the “what if” questions that provided no definitive answers. The only way out of my wilderness was to remember and trust what I learned through my experiences. Likewise, God makes a way in our wilderness and provides water in our deserts. So, let us trust his provisions, stretch forth our faith, and receive the new thing God is doing among us.
Angela Pleasants is a United Methodist clergyperson and the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s Vice President for Clergy and Church Relations. She is based in Charlotte, North Carolina. This article first appeared WCA’s Outlook and is reprinted here by permission.
By James R. Thobaben
In 1864, as the American Civil War turned toward its inevitable (and proper) conclusion, Methodists in North Carolina published The Southern Zion’s Songster. Included in the work, albeit uncredited, was “I’m a Pilgrim and I’m a Stranger,” a poem written by Mary S. B. Dana Shindler and composed in the midst of war, as well as her own significant personal tragedies. Perhaps she was influenced by Methodist Mary Hamlin Maxwell’s 1849, and similarly named hymn, “I’m a Pilgrim and a Stranger.”
With slightly different words, but quite common sentiments, the two women drew from pilgrim imagery to describe their own revivalist spirituality. They were not alone. Highly influential 19th century hymnals, such as The Sacred Harp and The Southern Harmony, are filled with songs of pilgrimage. Life is a journey, and an uncertain one at that. Yet, it is not random, nor a matter of achieving a self-constructed purpose: there is an end, a telos, that draws one through a process toward a goal.
The song “I am a Pilgrim” – as it is generally known today – is a mixture of lyrics from the work of those two women and anonymous contributors along the way. It has been sung as an African-American gospel song (perhaps most wonderfully performed by the Soul Stirrers in 1965), as a Bluegrass / Appalachian music standard (memorably, by Doc Watson, drawing on the shapenote tradition), and by innumerable small country and inner-city church congregations.
But why? Why sing songs of pilgrimage? Why use the imagery? Did not Protestants give up on ‘pilgrimage’ as a spiritual discipline? Both the Anglican and Methodist Articles of Religion include a rejection of “Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration … of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, [with any such action being but a] fond thing, vainly invented…”
The Protestant Reformers questioned the value of physical pilgrimage, with more than a few condemning the practice. They were picking up on suspicions that had begun to appear several centuries earlier, in the late Middle Ages. Some had been arguing that pilgrimages simply provided an opportunity for sin, as Geoffrey Chaucer described throughout Canterbury Tales. Others asserted they were spiritually insufficient – not worth the trouble – as seems to be the argument in William Langland’s Piers Plowman.
Looking back, it may be that a turning point was reached when pilgrimages to sites associated with Christ in Israel and places where martyrs had been killed or buried (such as Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls in Rome) were forced just prior to 1100 AD to compete with new sites associated with the Virgin (e.g. Walsingham in England, 1061 AD) and, then, eventually those places with “remaining relics of heaven” (e.g. remnants of the body of Jesus, like his umbilical cord, and pieces of the eucharistic bread, such as at Wilsnack in Germany, 1383 AD).
The proto-Protestants (that is, reformers before the Reformation) began openly challenging the value of such journeys. The true pilgrimage, they strongly argued, is the sojourn of the soul toward heaven. Therefore, physical pilgrimage is, at best, a distraction and, at worst, a corruption.
• For instance, around 1400 AD, reportedly Master William Thorpe told the Archbishop of Canterbury, “I call them true pilgrims travelling towards the bliss of heaven.” These will not “waste God’s goods in the vain pilgrimages, spending their goods upon vicious hostelars…”
• Similarly, church reformer Jan Hus condemned the Wilsnack pilgrimage site and comparables in no uncertain terms; it was one factor leading to his martyrdom. In 1403, he proclaimed: “True Christians should rather remember Christ’s words spoken to the doubting Thomas: ‘Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’ Instead of running after false miracles they should turn to the resurrected Christ who is existent in the Holy Sacrament…”
Rejection of physical pilgrimage was all but required during the Reformation. For instance, the site of Archbishop Thomas Becket’s death in Canterbury likely had in excess of 100,000 visitors annually before the shrine was destroyed in 1538. The site of the supposedly inflammable, blood-stained eucharistic wafers at Wilsnack had drawn its own huge crowds, but suddenly closed down when a reforming priest demonstrated they would burn after all in 1558.
Within 50 years of Luther, the “de-physicalizing” of pilgrimage was generally accepted in Protestant regions. By the time Bunyan released The Pilgrim’s Progress in 1678, the single most important devotional work written in the English language, few English-speaking Protestants would have considered the behavior anything but blasphemous.
Does not “earning grace by a work-of-walking” create a sort of spiritual elitism? Yes. Does not required adoration of an object deny the ever-presence of God? Yes. When taken to an extreme, does it not seem more magical than spiritual? Indeed, yes. Could any earthly object or place act as an intermediary when God is directly accessible? No. And, hence the Anglicans and Methodists included that above cited article of religion. Reform was necessary.
Still, as tends to happen, there was an overcorrection. Might not physical pilgrimage, properly conducted, be an instrument, a tool, a means of grace? Yes, it might. Analogically, even if the sacramental bread and wine is not “transubstantiated” into actual body and blood, is it not still the “real Presence”? Yes, it is. Can it not serve instrumentally as what is called a “means of grace”? It can. So, too, can physical pilgrimage.
It certainly seems that humans find instrumental spiritual value in journeying. Sometimes it is to a local church for prayer, sitting in the same pew one has used for years. Sometimes it is proclaiming the Gospel from the top of one’s own father’s grave, as John Wesley did when he returned to his home church in 1742. Sometimes it is journeying to early Methodist sites in Britain in what is called a “Wesleyan pilgrimage.” And, sometimes it is something almost identical to a practice of the Middle Ages, such as a journey to Jerusalem to walk in the steps of Jesus Christ on the Via Dolorosa.
Some 20 years ago, while coincidentally (or providentially) re-reading John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and using William Langland’s 14th century poem in a course I teach, I decided I really should walk a pilgrimage route. I chose the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Since then I have walked the Camino a second time (along a different route). In Ireland, I trudged up and down Crough Patrick and fasted three days and stayed awake through the night on the island of Lough Derg. My pilgrimage experience has included walking up a dusty road (with cars driving too fast) to reach Chimayo, New Mexico. In England, I’ve journeyed from Rochester to Canterbury (along the path walked by Chaucer’s pilgrims) and waded the tidal pool to Lindisfarne. Mostly out of academic interest, I’ve walked from just north of Berlin to Wilsnack. I am scheduled to go to Israel this summer, and some day – God willing – hope to visit Ethiopia, Armenia, and maybe Rome.
What have I gained? Nothing I might not have obtained through another means of grace. That, though, is true about all the spiritual instruments we use – none are necessary, for Christ alone saves. Walking toward a Christian destination, then, can be a means of grace, but is never a garnering of “spiritual credit” nor proof of spiritual heroism. Rather, physical pilgrimage makes known to us at the deepest level, that our true selves are not disembodied spirits (even in heaven according to I John) and that our Lord assumed this same corporeality.
Physicality matters spiritually. We all recognize that in a hospital room or at the quickening of a baby or when we see cruel injustice. Similarly, the palpable nature of physical pilgrimage reminds one with every step of the tangible nature of the Incarnation and of our journey to be like Him. Pilgrimage is just a tool for focusing one’s mind and will on what the heart should be, but it is a useful tool.
Here, then, are my five suggestions for Protestants interested in using this means of grace:
• The pilgrimage routes one chooses should be focused on Jesus Christ, the Incarnate God. Christian pilgrimage is not a trip to an interesting place, though it may be interesting to take the trip. The final purpose is not exercise, weight loss, seeing new places, wondering at beautiful art or architecture, or enjoying nature – it is Christ. Those other things may and will happen, but only properly if Christ is the focus – ideally of each step, but at least of the last few as the end is reached.
• A pilgrimage should be costly, but reasonably so. It may or may not cost money, but it must cost time and effort. This is not tourism. It is a spiritual discipline. Select a journey that is manageable, but requires effort – significant enough that one moves through discomfort to the recognition of both the cost of discipleship and the joy of walking with Christ toward heaven. By the way, this requires a balance of “means of grace,” so one should commit to the same cost in effort and money for “works of mercy” – some significant service to others – upon return.
• Follow a route that has a history – going where others have gone to worship our Lord. Even if their theology was not always perfect, it is essential to recognize and be part of the community of faith through time and space. Acknowledge one walks in the company of the cloud of witnesses, and seek out places where people knelt, where they gathered, where they stayed.
• The best way to keep that disciplinary focus is to simultaneously use other disciplines – especially, daily Scripture reading and focused prayer (remember, intentionally, those you meet who need Christ and those at home who miss you). Multiple times through the day, journal both as a diary of travel and as a record of spiritual struggle and of the felt presence of the Lord. Take communion. Serve others along the way. Be intentionally polite in accepting the gift of hospitality.
• And, enter into mutual accountability. Recognize that you, as a pilgrim, need the earthy community of saints. Seriously consider whose company you keep while walking. The criticisms in the late Middle Ages still have some validity – too many walking near you recognize they have a spiritual need, but are too ready to seek gratification in pleasures that are not true joy, but worldly and fleeting. Still, you will certainly have the opportunity to tell some confused and lost seekers why you walk and, thereby, speak the Good News. And, you thankfully will meet faithful others on the Way (just as did the character “Christian” in The Pilgrim’s Progress).
One final suggestion: do not listen to people who say “all that matters is the journey.” That simply is not true. You must want to “get there.” That is true about the physical peregrination and true about life’s sojourn to heaven. If this, or any supposed “means of grace” does not further your journey with Jesus Christ toward the goal of the kingdom of God, then abandon it and use something else.
As that old revival hymn “I am a Pilgrim” says, “rough and thorny is the road … but it leads to God.” While that song refers to the pilgrimage to heaven, physical pilgrimage is a foreshadowing that can be a useful tool toward reaching the goal of the upward calling, but it is nothing more.
James Thobaben is the Dean of the School of Theology and professor of Bioethics and Social Ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of Healthcare Ethics: A Comprehensive Christian Resource. In addition to his work at the seminary, Dr. Thobaben is co-pastor at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Mercer County, Kentucky.