Theology as Metaphor – “Pilgrimage”

Why This Image? Development of the Metaphor: Long before this relatively recent entry into chaplaincy, I have always understood my relationship with God through Christ as a journey. I was intrigued by the synoptic gospels’ narratives, where a large group of disciples literally followed Jesus on foot. From within this greater mass are the twelve with whom we are most familiar. No doubt, each had a personal relationship with Christ that was unique and a corporate experience with Christ which they shared more in common. Peter and “The Sons of Thunder” seem to have a particular in-grouping with Jesus, adding to their experience of the Christ.

As a Pastor of Discipleship, it was my responsibility to oversee and nurture our church members’ individual development and corporate engagement as they lived out their discipleship, believing that orthodoxy and orthopraxy both needed to be a vital part of our growth. The predominant metaphors used by many within discipleship ministry to communicate this intent are related to journeying or growth (as in plants).

My initial metaphor for my ministry, which I believe should be an extension of who I am and not simply a function I perform, was that of “Walking with the Master.” I would often reflect on Luke’s narrative and his telling of the disciples on their walk toward Emmaus with the risen Christ. They were disciples, and at the moment, they were hopeless and confused. Jesus joins them, and from the Hebrew Scriptures, explains the events of the preceding days with His person and God’s purposes being at the center of the events. Not only do they find comfort, but they come to understand the person and ministry of Jesus in a new way that changes how they think, feel, and act. I settled on using Rembrandt’s “Road to Emmaus” as a physical reminder of this disciple and discipling intent.

During my time in church ministry, my metaphor morphed slightly. As a younger person, my understanding of my discipleship journey was primarily personal, with a few corporate aspects. My move to vocational discipleship produced a “both/and” priority of individual and corporate discipleship. Through my doctoral study and original research, I came to view the Rembrandt image as beautiful but too individualistic. In response, I adopted an image from Jakob Fürchtegott Dielmann entitled Pilger vor Hoechst showing a medieval entourage traveling a pilgrimage pathway together.

Transitioning from vocational discipleship to chaplaincy, I began to assess this metaphorical image for my ministry further. I came to understand that I had unintentionally or unquestioningly placed myself in the role of symbolic leader. I must assume I saw myself as the leader in grey, cross over his shoulder, isolated in the lead and smoking my pipe, taking my people to a predetermined destination. During my second unit of CPE, I came to more closely identify with the grey-bearded gentleman in the middle of the pack, in conversation with the woman to his right. This man participates in the pilgrimage and is distinguished as one of the three cross carriers in the frame. But he is also engaged with those around him. He appears not to be speaking to but rather to be speaking with the woman. I imagine his concern is less about what is ahead and more about the opportunity provided in the present moment, informed by what is ahead.

During my third unit of CPE, I understood this image of pilgrimage to be less about a formal group and more of a group of intermixed pilgrims and locals who share the road to their different destinations. Travelers join the confluence and leaving again, sharing portions of the journey with each other. I understood my role as engaging those who happen to be (providentially placed) beside me at any given time until we are separated, whether we have the same destination in mind or not. The goal of the pilgrimage becomes insignificant. The significance is in the momentary co-journeying that is being engaged.

What About It Works?: I believe the metaphor works because it provides an overarching context for every patient encounter. My theology of pastoral ministry is based on what I believe is a common human need for connectedness which is ontologically common to all persons as a function of our created nature. A journey metaphor’s very nature communicates movement from a past-shaped present into a new and unknown future. The movement of my imagined location at the center of the pack relieves any sense of responsibility to steer or direct my fellow pilgrim’s steps, and ultimately, her destination. My theological framework places the power and responsibility to change hearts and grant faith upon The Divine. That does not mean that I am without obligation to participate in a way that demonstrates personal faith in Him. Still, I am free to participate by less directive means that support the individual, from the individual’s perspective, in the moment, without feeling I have compromised my conscience.

What Breaks Down?: The image of pilgrims on the road communicates the idea that there are a common destination and a common path (means) for arriving at that desired destination. Generalized in the broadest way, the image implies that all faiths ultimately teach the same thing and lead their adherents to the same ultimate destination. My faith’s assertion of the uniqueness of the person and work of Christ does not allow for this generalization. Persons who enter and exit the group could be understood as those who inquire and later abandon a relationship with God through Christ. It might be assumed that a pilgrim’s role would then become ensuring that people who joined the entourage do not depart “The Way,” using any means at their disposal to garner continued association. When some do eventually leave, they may well be treated as “sinners and tax collectors” in the most ungracious understanding of the term by the “faithful.”

How Do You Correct?: The correction is to remember that the person with whom I have an opportunity to connect is there not by chance but by Providence. The backstory is not chance, but Providence. And the outcomes are likewise not chance, but Providence. The place of ministry is at the ontological level, Divinely designed as a cause behind the effect, which we hear and see when we learn of the patient’s story. The patients’ “comings and goings” are not at the level of rejection but represent opportunities to demonstrate the agape ethos that should characterize all true disciples. My ministry is not the only means by which God works His purposes in the lives of others. And while Paul had the privilege of knowing Apollos would follow him to further the work (I Corinthians 3:6-9), I can trust God to provide others as He sees fit to accomplish His purposes in the patients’ lives.

Apply to an Encounter: I had a recent encounter that forced me to press hard into my “corrections.” A patient stated that she “didn’t have faith” and wanted me to “give her hope.” Her conversation seemed to center on religious systems and practices of particular groups. She shared experiences in charismatic Evangelical, Catholic, and Native American Spiritualistic groups. In each context, she shared ways in which she engaged and how she withheld herself, generally due to a sense of incomplete inclusion. While she felt welcomed, she did not feel included. She tearfully recounted being pressured to participate in a baptismal service when she felt unprepared. She was disowned by friends at work who attended that church. They considered her resistance to baptism to be an abandonment of their in-group.

When I asked the patient how she would self-identify, she stated, “Christian.” She then started qualifying her response with a litany of sympathies toward religious practices of other faith groups. The patient seemed to be conflating spirituality and religion, so I suggested that the latter was an outworking of the former. I asked her to speak to what was important to her, what brought her joy and peace. She started by explaining her pride in her self-sufficiency, and she was able to catch the contrast between this posture and her previously stated longing for connection.

“Where did you feel most connected, most loved, and most hopeful?” She responded, and I encouraged her to consider reconnecting with that faith community. She seemed relieved but then questioned, “What about my interest in [other religious practices].” “That’s fine,” I replied. God can use our interests and our passions, even those outside of the groups with which we affiliate, to draw us closer to Him.”

This patient has contacted me, and she has requested that I reply to her if I am willing to continue to communicate with her. I have not responded to date, hesitant about whether doing so would represent a breaking in the metaphor and result in the usurpation of another’s opportunity to be the next Apollos.

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