Pilgrims to Nowhere

Freedom isn’t much good if you don’t have a sense of direction.

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today, April 2004 (Vol. 48, No. 4), p. 100.

Once upon a happier time, when the Middle East seemed more distant but less dangerous than it does today, I flew from London to Riyadh on Saudi Arabian Airlines. It was shortly before the beginning of Ramadan, and the plane was full of pilgrims making the most important journey of their lives.

The 747’s television screens offered the usual array of information about our journey: a frequently updated map showing the location of the plane, our current speed, the alarmingly frigid temperature at our cruising altitude. But they also displayed a compass, with a silhouette of an airplane and a mark indicating the Qibla, the direction of Mecca.

I recognize in these companions a shared willingness to give up our status as spiritual free agents.

My fellow travelers had boarded wearing Western clothing or the traditional dress of various countries of the Muslim world. But by mid-flight nearly everyone had changed into white ihram garments, the simple unsewn clothing of pilgrims. A few at a time, they laid down their prayer rugs in the economy class galley, the flight attendants respectfully making room, and offered their prayers toward Qibla. I watched two twentysomething parents make their way to the galley and pray with their six-year-old son, instructing him gently and quietly. Their faces were shining: a family on pilgrimage, all in white.

Jesus once met—or, actually, didn’t meet—a Gentile whose faith made a deep impression on him. A Roman centurion in Capernaum sent the local Jewish elders to ask Jesus to heal his servant, but when Jesus approached his home the soldier sent more messengers to say that Jesus’ presence was unnecessary. Jesus’ word would be enough: “For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (Luke 7:7-8). Jesus, astonished, stopped in his tracks and told the crowd of onlookers, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”

“I myself am a man under authority.” Why didn’t the centurion say the words that would have come more naturally to a battlefield commander—“I myself am a man in authority”? Somehow this representative of Roman power, ranked in a chain of command that stretched from Caesar to his own sick servant, was able to grasp that the entire created world was also “under authority.” Facing the loss of his valued servant, he also was able to grasp how little his own dignity mattered, and to place himself at the disposal of an itinerant preacher in occupied territory.

Sometimes I recognize something familiar in a stranger. We may not share the same language, and we may not agree on some very basic matters of belief. I cannot accept Muhammad’s testimony about God, yet watching that Muslim family on the 747 taught me something about prayer.

I believe Jesus was the Messiah just as he and his followers claimed, yet when I was a college chaplain, I shared an animated conversation about the study of Scripture with the campus’s Conservative Jewish rabbi.

At moments like these, I remember the words, “I myself am a man under authority.” I recognize in these companions a shared willingness to give up our status as spiritual free agents, taking our place within the limits and expanse of a story that stretches back for four thousand years.

This does not come easily to Americans, even American Christians. I found a kindred spirit in my Jewish colleague, but also among my fellow chaplains was a Presbyterian minister who cheerfully overruled the Sermon on the Mount in one of his own sermons, proclaiming, “The way to life is broad, and there is no narrowness in it.” Those are profoundly American words, the words of someone who recognizes no authority but his own.

Authority can become tyranny, of course—when Jesus died unjustly, a Roman centurion watched over the execution. Our present-day world, not least the Muslim world, offers plenty more cautionary examples of the abuse of religious and political power.

But people who fly American Airlines more often than Saudi Arabian Airlines are more at risk from the tyranny of aimless autonomy—able to travel anywhere, but pilgrims to nowhere. Americans, and American Christians, don’t lack freedom—we lack a Qibla, a direction that both constrains our freedom and makes it worth having.

Until we find one, it’s unlikely that Jesus—or a curious world, or our own children—will be astonished by our faith. They may be more impressed by those who, like the centurion, never meet him at all.