On pilgrimage

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August 19, 2019

In this morning’s Fruit of the Vine, Bethany Lee reflects on Psalm 121 and the nature of pilgrimage: “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all wandered, so maybe it should have come as no surprise that they fathered a wandering nation. John the Baptist lived in the wilderness. Paul spent much of his life of ministry traveling. Jesus himself had ‘no place to lay his head’” (Matthew 8:20).

We, too, are wanderers.

If you’re familiar with Bethany, you may already know about the year her family spent at sea. “My daughters were in middle school, and our family managed to cut enough ties to land life to take a sabbatical year aboard our small sailboat. Since my return, I’ve found commonality when speaking to others who’ve spent long, slow miles in one direction.” Bethany’s brother-in-law hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, “one section at a time over the course of eleven years. My friends Martha and Sandra who walked the El Camino pilgrimage in Spain.” And Bethany has been reminded in these shared experiences that the value of pilgrimage comes at least in part from facing into “life’s inherent uncertainty, to get lost, to stumble over surprises, to follow a path as well as to wander, to leave where you are as a way of finding your way home.”

I can relate to this – life’s inherent uncertainty. Maybe you can, too. I wonder if this is why the psalmist offers both an anchor point – “I lift up my eyes to the mountains” – and a promise – “The Lord will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”

The psalm is a “song of ascent,” but it is also a prayer for pilgrims:

1 I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
    where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
    the Maker of heaven and earth.

3 He will not let your foot slip—
    he who watches over you will not slumber;
4 indeed, he who watches over Israel
    will neither slumber nor sleep.

5 The Lord watches over you—
    the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
6 the sun will not harm you by day,
    nor the moon by night.

7 The Lord will keep you from all harm—
    he will watch over your life;
8 the Lord will watch over your coming and going
    both now and forevermore.

Bethany admits that she didn’t know she was “embarking on a pilgrimage, but along the way, I began to walk in pilgrim shoes.” In the wilderness, she found both “struggles and gifts,” and she challenges us to consider how we might also already be on a pilgrimage of our own: “Consider where in your own life you are feeling unsettled or moving from one place to another.” After all, “it doesn’t take travel to be a pilgrim.”

Eric Muhr

P.S. Although Bethany is still working on the book about her family’s time at sea, you can find more of her short essays in this week’s Fruit of the Vine. Bethany’s book of poetry, The Breath Between, was released last spring and is available online in the Barclay Press Bookstore.


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