Pilgrimage is a concept that is not often spoken of these days. Perhaps this is because of how easy it is to travel all over the world without leaving the internet. Or maybe because modern pilgrimage is associated with trips to Mecca or Lourdes as if somehow the journey is a mixture of religious compulsion or superstition. Or perhaps, pilgrimage is an act of desperation. I have been to many conferences filled with people willing to do anything for a touch of God’s hand.
But pilgrimage is in our hearts according to Psalms 84, and sometimes you need to make the trip without knowing exactly what you will find when you get there. One of the more interesting quests in the Bible is Abraham and Sarah. Most people know the story without understanding the historical perspective of the time and place.
Ancient Ur was an educated, civilized city. The first written language was born there in the form of cuneiform. The earliest musical texts known hails from Ur. In fact, the first frontal lobotomy was performed in Ur and their medicine was somewhat advanced, though that is not saying much. However, the people from ancient Mesopotamia recorded diseases, the symptoms, and their cures very scientifically, something no other ancient civilization did with any regularity or method.
They had laws too. The Hammurabi code is the earliest system of law, put well into place a good 800 years before the birth of Moses.
And they had gods. From the perspective of four thousand years, their religious beliefs read like an episode of the Vampire Diaries. Violence, conflict, and emotional drama are rife throughout their theological history. I will try to give you a brief rundown.
Creation kicks off with two bodies of water. How the water got there is not addressed. Anyway, one was sweet and the other salty. The sweet water was the male god and the salty was the goddess. I will ignore the feminist ramifications of this for now. As the waters mingle, they created and procreated successive generations of gods and goddesses who partied all the time and didn’t let the older gods sleep. Cue Vampire Diaries.
SO… the older generation kills some of the younger generation and emasculates others out of jealousy. The older ones don’t want to be superseded by the younger generation. I would say it is beginning to sound Freudian, except he wasn’t around yet.
The final conflict is between the older Mother goddess, Tiamat, and a younger god, Marduk. They have at it, with the win going to Marduk as he shoves the wind down Tiamat’s belly and uses her sword to split her in half. Her carcass becomes the sky and the earth.
The younger gods praise Marduk and request slaves to take care of their needs. He slays Tiamat’s husband and his blood becomes the human race, tasked with feeding the gods.
This is the society that Abraham and Sarah are called out of, though to where they do not know. How could they know that it is in the journey that the one true God will reveal Himself to them? You see, they have come to a couple of realizations about the nature of God versus the gods.
The gods of Ur are subject to the laws of nature. They eat and sleep. They can be killed. But Yahweh is someone very different. He is not subject to nature, but rather is the creator and nurturer of nature. Abraham and Sarah have to leave Ur so that they can reorient themselves to the reality of a personal God, an active loving God, who, unlike the Mesopotamian gods, created humans as the crown of creation rather than as an afterthought, slaves to serve the greedy, bloodthirsty gods. Humans are not menials but partners with God in the panorama of history.
Alice and Spencer Leave Ur and California, and Wisconsin, and North Dakota, and Indiana, and Georgia
And we have our pilgrimages we must make too. I have moved five times in the last five years. This was not part of my plan, but God called us out of our life in Lincoln rather forcefully. That is, our life there ended abruptly with difficult and ugly losses. So we have moved from place to place, as God opens doors and promotes Spencer to more and more responsibility.
Along our pilgrimage, God is faithful to expose our various misunderstandings about who He is as well as the nature of our purpose. I have learned that God is utterly faithful along this journey. He has provided miraculously for every move. Things that looked tragic worked in our favor. At one point, all of our stuff was in a POD and the other half in a house in North Dakota. We did not have the money to retrieve it. His employer in Indiana had not given us enough to really finance a move across the country. The only close house we could find was a woe-begotten aluminum sided house. Muncie doesn’t have a lot of rentals available.
So we waited for God to move. Within a couple weeks of our move, a hailstorm the likes of which I have never seen destroyed our cars. Golf ball sized chunks of ice rained down all along our block. The cars were drivable but utterly dented. On the advice of a friend, we did not get the repairs. We got a check for over $8000, enough to get our stuff. Sure, our old Lexus became the ‘car of a thousand dents’ but for the first time in two years, we had all our stuff in one place. And our rental got new siding that I got to pick out.
This last move had some real issues. My youngest daughter had worked so hard in her IB program. The move came in the middle of her senior year. There were no IB programs here in Katy, so all that work for her high school diploma seemed like it would be for nothing. Plus she had received a full ride to a small public college in Macon. She decided to stay with a friend of mine, though I did not feel peace about it. My friend was so gracious, but Polly was not ready to be on her own.
I begged God for a good answer. Meanwhile, she was having serious stomach issues that caused her enormous pain. The day the movers came, my youngest changed her mind. I couldn’t believe it. We only had the time to get her clothes, leaving her bed and other furniture behind.
In Katy, she attended a school that did not really give her any challenge academically. I couldn’t figure out why God would take this away from her. She did not get to graduate with her friends and she was lonely.
Her stomach issues turned out to be gallstones which needed surgery. We scheduled her for surgery at the Houston Medical Center, one of the premier hospitals in the country. Suddenly the easier schedule became clear. She took some time to recover and I will say that having her surgery here in Houston was infinitely superior to the hospitals in Macon where the mortality rate from simple surgeries was much higher.
But God was not finished yet. Polly and I applied to colleges all around the Houston area. They were expensive and again, we found ourselves really grieving the loss of her scholarship. But God answered our prayers. She is in her first semester at Houston Baptist University, where she received a scholarship covering nearly 90% of her tuition.
To put this in perspective, I am a really big believer in Christian higher ed. One of the biggest losses I grieved about our initial move was that while three of my kids received free tuition from the wonderful Christian university I worked at, Polly would not be able to benefit. This was restoration indeed.
We have wandered the United States, and while we have no deep roots in any one place at the moment, we have learned so much. God has increased our faith so much, the way He did for Abraham and Sarah, building their faith until they could believe for a son in their old age.
Is God urging you to take a pilgrimage? It might just be from the church where you are too comfortable or a group of friends whose growth has stalled. But like Abraham and Sarah, the pilgrimage is often not about the destination, but instead about who God reveals Himself to be on the way. I thought Lincoln was the place I would be forever. But now I know my Divine traveling partner in ways I couldn’t before. We were never meant to settle in our private Ur’s. We must set out for Canaan.
Some incredible books on the topic:
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