There are some sacred pilgrimages even Protestants should make, especially in October.
As you drive VT-100 north to nowhere in particular, the eyes are caught, the heart leaps up, and something nearly holy happens in the mind. The world is suddenly larger and more colorfully diverse than we knew. And we grow quietly ashamed that we have thought of God in monochrome, in categories that we can comprehend. I’ve sometimes wondered if more people have been brought to faith by a brilliant, red-orange flame of maples on what Yankees call “the most beautiful road in America” than some sermons I have preached in solemn temples made of stone.
There may be atheists who can look upon such glory completely unmoved—who see only the accidental mix of moisture, soil, and anthocyanins—wondering at what diner they will stop for lunch. But then, atheists rarely go on pilgrimage: by definition, most are not seeking experiences that baffle the eye and overturn established understandings. A pilgrimage is always a deliberate choice to unsettle one’s world—to look for holy in what’s new and unfamiliar.
Driving VT-100 north has been a joy denied me for the last 25 Octobers. In the wisdom of unbreakable tradition, the church’s Annual Council always falls at just the time the hills are bursting into color. But I have often secretly been elsewhere while I’ve sat among the brethren, my mind alight with memories of joys for which there are no words. Even a major policy change can pale by comparison to magenta mixed with gold, backlit by shades of marigold and honey. And I have found my faith restored, my trust confirmed in Him for whom the finest words will always fail. It is a grace to know, as only faith can know, that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.”*
This is no lack of love between me and my church: I claim each truth we cherish, the mission we affirm, the love that moves across the body on so many Sabbath mornings. But I could wish my church was better at seeing color and diversity, that it could consciously embrace what it can never fully comprehend—the glorious mix of men and women from every race and culture; young and old; newcomers and long travelers. God is always bringing to us those His Spirit has been moving, whether they are flinty Anglos from the hills or gloriously attired Ghanaians moving rhythmically down the aisle to lift the morning offering. We are a richer, kinder, warmer people when the roof lifts off our greying sanctuaries and we glimpse what baffled even John the Revelator: “There was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” (Rev 7:9, NRSV).
The travelers on this journey to the kingdom appropriately bring with them both their culture and their heritage of faith—a faith that cannot be contained in those steepled white churches that huddle in the valleys of my homeland. To be an Adventist has always meant belonging to a pilgrim people—walking on the narrow way—even when the bends in the road take our breath away with either joy or challenge. Believing in a worldwide movement of faith and obedience requires that we regularly unsettle ourselves by welcoming both people and experiences we haven’t known before—affirming that God is working in places we have never been, and that He will aways do so.
And if you can’t drive northward in Vermont this month, at least walk across the aisle at church to hold and welcome all whom God is bringing. The colors and the cultures you embrace are only hints of glories yet to come.
*G. M. Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur” (available at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/ poems/44395/gods-grandeur).