One of my favourite Christian books, one that has enthralled me over many years is Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress. The story is of Christian fleeing the City of Destruction, moving towards the hill of the cross, guided by key people he meets and eventually making his way to The Celestial City. It is a story of chance encounters. The characters he meets are vivid and memorable; many wonderful guides, but also enemies who attack and imprison, distracting and discouraging him from walking the King’s highway.
This year I am setting my heart on Pilgrimage: a walk from Winchester Cathedral to York Minster over 12 days. My hope is to pray and worship my Creator but also to meet a variety of people.
In preparation for this walk, I want to talk about my life upon the Christian road and something of the characters I have met. I will caricature them, not in order to mock, but to draw attention to traits you may find in others on your journey. My heart in this is to encourage and equip readers to be an eschatological people, pressing heavenwards and being prepared to meet other walkers on your way.
I dreamed a dream, and in that dream I drew close to an old ragged cross and there I encountered God in the person of his Son Jesus who saved me, clothed me in fair raiment and pointed me to walk upon his narrow highway. But it was not long upon this path that I came upon a man all in black with piercing blue eyes set in a thin, gaunt face. His countenance was hard, his face lined by the ages through which he had lived. Beneath him the ground turned hard and behind him a tortuous line of frosty footprints. He beckoned to me with gnarled bony finger and drawing close was addressed with harsh gravelly voice,
"And what pray are you doing upon this Kings Highway? You look unsuited for such a long journey, your garments simple and your rucksack too small to carry such burdens you must.”
"Sir, I am young and but days upon my pilgrimage, and in need of counsel to aid me on my journey."
"Ah so rest awhile and let me help you in the serious business of our faith" he said.
And so in that place, I stripped naked, abandoning the simplicity of Joseph’s multi-coloured robe, and in its place covered myself with the itchy hessian black overcoat of religious pedigree. And so I sat, many a long time, learning from my sage friend the vital badges of this new community of travellers I was soon to be a part of. This included the non-conformist uniform of polished shoes, suits, ties, short hair for men, long for the ladies plus obligatory scarf, and the all-important jellyfish handshake of greeting. I learned when to stand or sit, to nod and Amen, to fast and tithe, as rule upon rule, list upon list and tradition upon tradition was added to my load. I received the Law and was schooled in its mastery over me, were I to attain a right standing before my Father in heaven. I was bound to a liturgy of austerity, spontaneity and informality. Joy vanished in that classroom to be replaced by a grim stoicism, a life of No upon No, blood, sweat and tears where so many of life's simple pleasures were now off limits if I were not to find myself backsliding. What a sad condemned prisoner I became and what a hypocrite. Straining at microscopic religious gnats, I grew religiously fat by swallowing herds of spitting camels.
I lived condemned and condemning. A prisoner to a perfect man and unable to see the path I had so happily started upon.
It was to be many years before I happened upon the next amazing characters.....
Notes to readers
We meet many religious well-meaning people upon life’s journey. Never forget that it was the religious people who opposed and crucified the Lord of Glory.
Luke 11:39: "You Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish but inside you are full of greed and wickedness......you neglect justice and the love of God.”
Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Ephesians 2:8: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith- and this not from yourselves, it is a gift of God- not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Galatians 2:21: “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if a righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”