The categories of refugee and pilgrim don’t just apply to individuals. They apply also to communities and institutions. No one can miss that we live in a time of great upheaval, and the section of the culture where church lives is a transitional neighborhood with a vengeance.
At my school we study times of social change: early Christianity, say, or the Reformation ---a moment when everyone had to become a new thing, a new Protestant thing or a new counter-Reformation Catholic thing, or a wild Anabaptist thing. But the one thing you could not be was just the same as what was before. I had studied such times of social change for a long time before it dawned on me that I lived in one. A job at Kodak or at the postal service once looked like a punched ticket for life. No longer. Much higher education and a lot of churches have that queasy look about them, like the cartoon character who has run off the cliff into thin air but hasn’t quite realized it yet. In the movie Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges’ character has a song with the refrain “Falling feels like flying….for a little while.” Entrepeneurs may delight in the adrenaline surge that goes with timing the leap from the plane that’s crashing to the one that’s taking off, but most of us don’t.
In many of our religious institutions, it is as though we were exiled in place. Our denominations, our buildings, our institutional structures, our memories of the way things were just one generation ago, and many of our assumptions are very much still here. But they belong to a world from which we are exiled. No one volunteers to be a refugee. At times it feels as though our tradition is being left behind, just as the people of Israel in exile in Babylon remembered the temple in Jerusalem, and could hardly remember there was a time they knew God without the temple.
Refugee or Pilgrim? This does not just apply to individuals. Social movements are pilgrims…they set out to change or go outside existing institutions to realize something not known before: religious freedom, a market economy, same sex marriage. Institutions are the preserved achievements of past movements, past pilgrimages, the realization of great hopes. When they are threatened or dissolve, their constituents and leaders are exiles, feeling the loss of so much good and longing to retain or restore those blessings.
Churches, and that includes this one, are living in this tension today. One approach is to say that we will do whatever dramatic, costly, unconventional thing that might be required…..to get us back to that golden land we remember. We are exiles, who will put up with almost anything, if we can go home. Another approach is akin to being pilgrims. We are more like people who have run away to join the circus than people waiting in a red cross shelter until the flood damage to our house is repaired. We will pitch our tent but we need to keep going….toward somewhere we’ve never been and a life we’ve never had.
Exiles are trying to get back to something…and feel alienated from where they are. There is faithfulness in that alienation, a countercultural power in insisting on singing our old songs in a strange land. Pilgrims are also not natives. They are passing through. They going somewhere they haven’t been and the journey is part of the purpose. Where I am right now---in all its uncertainty—is where I set out to be, for the purpose of changing and growing.
Our religious communities are increasingly themselves mixtures of refugees and pilgrims. The two have a lot in common. Both have to travel light. Refugees have things taken away; pilgrims leave things behind. Both fall back on essentials. They are not yet where they long to be. Both share the curious experience that there is a special poignancy, power and sweetness to the present moment when we know it is not where we are staying.
I feel that sweetness here, in this community of refugees and pilgrims. Flying or falling? We call it faith, because you can’t entirely tell.