Living life as a pilgrimage

“To journey without being changed is to be a nomad. To change without journeying is to be a chameleon. To journey and to be transformed by the journey is to be a pilgrim.”

This is a quote that rang true to me. It seemed worthy of reflection. Since I didn’t know the author, Mark Nepo, I checked him out on Wikipedia and his website. I found myself become unsettled – irked even.

The home page on his website seemed out of sync with the quote. It was too … put together. Too cool. Center stage on it was a series of links to scenes of him talking with Oprah on her Super Soul Sunday show (a take-off, in case you missed it, of Super Bowl Sunday, around which even the most devoted of Christians will orchestrate their lives.) That’s when it hit me. Nepo was talking about transformation, the meat and potatoes of what I am concerned with as a pastor, and I felt threatened. I felt threatened by his sound bites (all 10 of them, each with their own window) and by his slick presentation. It wasn’t for myself that I felt threatened but for the Church as I’ve known it.

The data have long been in that Christianity in our culture is on the decline. I recently met a young woman who shared her experience of this decline. She had recently graduated from college where, among all the people on her dorm floor, only three of them had faith of any kind, and she was the only Christian. Seventy-eight percent of us in America say we are Christian. If regularly participating in the worship of a Church is any indicator, only 37 percent of us take our Christianity beyond the label. Maybe not in your church, maybe not in mine, but on the whole our numbers are down.

Our percentages are not diminishing because other faiths are ascending, but because 30 percent of people under age 40, college-educated or not, don’t find the Christian message meaningful. At least they don’t find it meaningful enough to go to church. That would mean hearing a message that when they leave Jesus might be expecting them to love those who are hard to love, give their time to care for those who need it, and do good to those who hate them. Better to just stay home and use the time for something else.

So here was Oprah (a national figure who has done some wonderful things) on a Sunday morning no less (when much of Christian worship takes place) attracting people who aren’t in church. Perhaps you have watched Super Soul Sunday. I haven’t. (I am busy on Sunday mornings.) Given the quote with which I began this article, though, I would assume at least some Sundays there are thoughts and messages worth considering; messages that can be helpful. But transformative? I wonder.

Transformation is not something that happens overnight. It rarely happens because of a sound bite. You don’t hear the latest spiritual teacher or “soul-to-soul superstar” or see a bumper-sticker and bingo, you are Christ-like. Transformation happens within us bit by bit. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum either. While prayer and sacraments lay the groundwork, as often as not, God uses other folks and the events of our lives to transform us.

Someone on the Super Soul production team may have understood that. I wonder if instead they weren’t just aware of their audience – people sitting alone at home watching SSS who might want some company. In a sidebar on their webpage is an invitation (more cynically, an advertisement) for “Your Complete Brunch Kit.” It offers everything you need to host a “viewing party,” complete with “recipe ideas, downloadable games, and more.” Maybe this is where the Church is heading – small house gatherings, interestingly not unlike first-century Christian gatherings.

But then I read Oprah saying that if you follow Nepo’s teaching you “can begin … to have the life you want by being present to the life you have now.” And I wonder where the egotistic focus on the self crept in. I wonder what happened to Jesus’ teachings about serving the poor, giving of ourselves, and the first being last.

Transformation can be unsettling. We can choose the life we want. We can choose to be nomads or chameleons or anything else. We will probably enjoy our lives just fine. But to become a pilgrim – to give ourselves to be transformed by the God of the universe – now there’s a journey worth living.