The Long Journey Home: A Beginner\’s Guide to the Christian Journey

FOR over two hundred years, most homes in western society would have owned two books. Even if they weren\’t rich, even if they weren\’t highly educated, they would have these two books, and (what’s more) they read them both. One was the Bible – no prizes for knowing that – and the other was . . . John Bunyan\’s Pilgrim\’s Progress, written in about 1676, while Bunyan was in prison in England for his Baptist faith. Building on the idea that life is a journey, Bunyan explores what that image might mean in terms of Christian spirituality – what the journey is all about and how it should be traveled.

I want to pick up Bunyan\’s image of following Jesus as a journey, and unpack some of the richness of the metaphor.
From the Beginning to the End   The Christian journey begins with Christ inviting people to join the journey. He invites everybody, whoever they are, wherever they have been in their lives before. There is a restriction, but it’s an obvious one: to follow Jesus, you have to give up on other roads and to choose this road. The technical terms for that switch of roads are repentance and faith. \”Repentance\” is literally changing your mind: \”No, I don\’t want to travel that road any more: I want to follow this one.\” And “faith” is not some mystical quality which only religious people have: it means simply trust or commitment. Faith is taking the first step on the new road.

That’s how the journey begins. And the end of the journey? Well, you can call it heaven if you like, though that’s not the way the Bible generally speaks of it. The Bible speaks more often in terms of a city as the goal of the journey, a new Jerusalem; or it speaks of a new heaven and new earth where righteousness lives. Certainly the end of the journey is knowing God fully, and seeing the Jesus who is invisible to us now face to face. If we want to know God intimately, that’s what life is all about. If we don’t want to know God, of course, heaven would feel remarkably like hell. But that’s another subject.

The journey from here to there is long and often difficult. How can we make it? Since the journey is God’s idea, and God wants us to make it, God has also provided resources to make the journey possible.
Friends for the road   The first and most basic resource is that God provides traveling companions. There are times on the journey when you feel alone, there may be times when you actually need to be alone, but the normal mode of travel on this road is in a group. There’s safety in the group, there’s encouragement, and there are resources.

For example, among the traveling companions, there are some who are great map-readers. We need that. Some are good at first aid, which is important because people get hurt on this journey. Others in the group can light a campfire, and others can create a wonderful meal out of almost nothing. Still others are great at telling stories when you’ve had your meal in the evening and you\’re watching the campfire slowly die down before turning in. In the Bible, these different contributions to the group are called the “spiritual gifts” that we bring to the journey.

Now the Bible doesn’t explore this image of the journey in that much detail, though it is there. But it draws attention to the importance of traveling companions in other ways. It says that the Christian community is like a body, with each limb and each organ playing an important part. It says we are like a building in which we are all stones, living stones, bonded together for mutual support to create a beautiful temple. It says we are a family, brothers and sisters together on the road. It says we are like an army, working together to fight evil and injustice and oppression in the world.

I think you get the idea. On the Christian journey, we need one another. If you have felt attracted by the idea of being a follower of Jesus, and you are beginning to follow the path, you need to find companions for the road.

Personally, I love getting together with my fellow travellers. There\’s friendship, there\’s lots of laughter, there’s lively conversation, there’s a warm welcome, often there’s pizza and coffee. We can share our joys and our sorrows. We can pray together and sing together. I know I come away feeling stronger because I have been there. I’m encouraged to continue on the journey with Jesus. And somehow, if we are to keep following Jesus, we need to find companions who will continue to help us on the road.

If you’re not sure where to look, talk to someone who’s been on the road longer than you, and ask them where they find their traveling community. That’s the first resource for the journey. It’s a great gift from God.
Evenings around the campfire   The second has to do with evenings on the road. In many ways those are the best time of day. The evening meal is over, coffee is served, and as people are beginning to mellow out, someone starts a song ñ a song of the road, maybe a very ancient one, sung by travelers for hundreds of years ñ about the joys and hardships of the road, and about the King and his city ñ and everybody joins in. Then someone will tell a story of the road ñ a story of heroes like Abraham and Sarah, of David or Deborah or Paul or Mary Magdalene, or of those magical years when the king was seen in human form walking on the road himself.

And then perhaps a silence falls, and in the deepening darkness, one of the grandmothers of the group lifts her voice and prays to the King ñ a prayer of thankfulness for the day, for the companions, and a prayer for those who have strayed from the road or never found it, and a prayer for safety and strength and courage for the day ahead. Then perhaps there’s another song or two.

The Bible’s word for this ritual is worship. I don’t know your image of worship, but it’s basically a time when the Christian community gathers from whatever tasks the members have been doing, and they remind themselves who they are and what they’re about. They tell the stories of those who have followed God in previous generations. They sing songs of the faith, and they pray to the King who rules the road.

There is another form of worship on the road. Some groups call it the Mass, some the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion – but it’s basically the same thing. That’s a special form of meal on the road. In some ways it’s just a very simple picnic ñ just bread and wine. But it is special because it is sent direct from the King’s table in the new Jerusalem at the end of the road. And there is always a message with the picnic: “This is to remind you how much I love you, so much that I died for you. This is food to sustain you for the journey. It may not look like much, but it’s a foretaste of what we’ll share together when you get here. Love, Jesus.” That’s why travelers love this meal.
The Book   There is a third resource for the journey, and it’s the big Book of stories about the road. If you joined the journey as a child, you probably didn’t think too much about where you were going. Life was on the road, and that was normal, and you didn’t stop to think about it. But as you grew, you began to ask questions: Why are we on this road? How do we know which way to turn? Are there other roads worth following? I don’t like how difficult it is sometimes. Or even, Couldn’t I be the leader sometimes? But how would I know where to lead us?

And at some point, the leader of the group says to you, Listen, when we stop for supper tonight, you come and sit by me, and I’ll show you the Book. And so, that evening, as you sip your coffee, the leader sits by you and opens the Book. It’s huge, it’s very old, and it’s covered in handwritten notes and sketches and diagrams and maps. It tells how the journey began (you hadn’t heard that before), it describes where the journey ends (you knew something about that). It tells the stories of the heroes of faith: how they got on the road, how they slipped off the road, how the King went after them to get them back, sometimes by the scruff of the neck. There are tales of fights with dragons and tales of false friends who misled the travelers.

Some of the old songs you’ve heard are there: the upbeat Jazz ones and the sad Country and Western ones and the angry Rap ones and the dignified Classical ones. There are also the travelers’ reflections on the journey: they discuss the dark valley, like the one you went through a few months back; they tell you how to find the lookout points where you can see for miles ahead down the road.

And as you look through it, you say to the leader, This Book is wonderful. Could I look at this some more? I want to read some of these stories for myself. And she smiles and says, Somehow I knew you’d say that. Sure you can.

Well, there are no prizes for knowing that the Book is the Bible. I don’t know how you view the Bible. At one level, it’s simply the stories of those who have struggled to follow Jesus before us: as we read, we learn from their successes and failures, their battles and their celebrations, their relationships with their fellow travelers, their longing to be home. There is also advice on how to keep on the road, how to live as followers of Jesus when the world around doesn’t even seem to know there is a road.

Because this is so important, followers of Jesus try to read something of the Bible every day, either by yourself or in a group, or by someone teaching it to you. On the days I’m at home, my wife and I read the Bible and pray together after we finish breakfast. On the days when I commute in to work, I read the Bible and pray on the commuter train or the bus. It helps keep my feet on the path, it encourages me, sometimes it sobers me and challenges me, and, best of all, it reminds me of the King, King Jesus, whose road it is.
When the going gets tough . . .   There’s another thing I need to tell you about the road, though I think I’ve implied it already, but I want to spell it out because we often miss it, and it’s this: The road can be hard, very hard, and sometimes it’s difficult to go on. Sometimes the path comes up against a cliff, and the only way forward is upward, hanging on with your fingers and toes, and you have to shed some of your baggage in order to go on. Other times the path seems to go through endless bog or thick forest, and the sun never shines, and you just get sick of it. But the stories are clear: some days will be like this, some weeks, some months. The Book emphasizes: it will be tough, don’t be surprised, don’t give up. And you sing the songs, and you tell the stories, you carry one another’s packs, and you get through.

Under those circumstances, the Book encourages a quality our society doesn’t appreciate very much: obedience. The word conjures up pictures of stern policemen, or evil dictators. Obedience suggests losing your individuality and your ability to think for yourself. But it’s not necessarily like that.

My son Ben is a jazz trumpeter. After some years of learning trumpet, he got a new teacher, who happened to be one of the top trumpet players in Canada. And Mr. Oades said, You’re doing it all wrong. If you want to develop in your playing, you’re going to have to start over, and relearn your embouchure. Did Ben do it? He could have said, No way. I’ve spent years playing this way, and I feel comfortable with it. Don’t cramp my style. I just gotta be me! But he didn’t. He obeyed the teacher, and, as a result, he was able to move ahead in his playing, way beyond where he would have got to any other way.

Now Jesus is a teacher, not just of trumpet, but of life. Does it make sense to obey him? You bet. Does it make us feel uncomfortable? Frequently. Does it cramp our individuality? Not at all, because Jesus knows us intimately, and he knows what he’s doing, and obeying him will only serve to enhance our individuality.

When the road gets tough, we obey.
An internal resource   There is one last thing. Archbishop William Temple once reflected on the Christian journey, and he said something like this: “If you asked me to live a life following Jesus’ footsteps, and learning to be like him, I would tell you it was impossible. It’s as crazy as if you asked me to write plays like Shakespeare’s. But if by some mystery, the spirit of Shakespeare could come and inhabit my personality, fire my imagination and expand my vocabulary, then, certainly, I could do it. And in the same way, if the Spirit of Jesus could come and inhabit my personality, and change me from the inside, then I could follow Jesus and grow more like him.”

And, of course, the Christian claim is that Jesus is not just sitting comfortably in the castle at the end of the road, twiddling his thumbs and wishing we would hurry up. Jesus is present in the world right now in the form of his Spirit, willing and able to help us follow him every step of the way, until we get home, and the real fun begins.