the life of a pilgrim

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my attempt at an artsy packing photo (I promise it looked NOTHING like this once I finished)

For those of you who know me, you know that I have been dreaming of studying abroad for as long as I can remember. I have lived in the same place in South Central PA my whole life, went to college an hour away from my home, and have only been out of the country once. So for me, this trip is a long time coming. Actually, one of the main reasons that I chose to attend Messiah College was for their stellar study abroad program, although I never imagined at the time that I would be packing my bags to head to Australia. I began my college career with great aspirations to double major in Spanish and go abroad to Chile or Spain. Sometimes things change though, and you find yourself heading off on an adventure you never expected.

So here I am, less than three days from leaving, with all of my friends either back in the swing of school life or already abroad in their own locations. I feel like I have been kind of floating along aimlessly these past few weeks; I am a woman who likes keeping busy, so I am sure you can imagine what this free-flowing, structureless existence has been doing to me. Luckily my friends have been kind enough to humor me and entertain me despite their own busy schedules.

As I am packing and preparing to depart, I am realizing just how crazy it is to up and leave your whole life for four months to head off to so many unknowns. All of a sudden you are dependent on a small suitcase with a paltry amount of personal items that somehow have to get you through a whole semester and hope that you have enough street smarts to navigate a new country. It doesn’t help that my mother always raised me to be prepared for every scenario; that means packing 10 pairs of jeans – just in case – even though I am going to be in 90 degree weather (I’m exaggerating, I promise 😉 – I tend to do that frequently, just a heads up).

An idea that really resonated with me recently, however, is to treat this journey not as a tourist experience, but rather as a pilgrimage. I was rereading through the Australia Studies Centre (ASC) manual to make sure I didn’t forget any little details for my travels when I came across this novel thought, and it really hit home with me. According to William T. Cavanaugh, the life of a pilgrim is characterized like this:

The pilgrim travels in order to strip themselves of their external sources of identity. The pilgrim searches for their deeper identity in Christ. The pilgrim is dependent on those around them to host and care for them. The pilgrim’s experience is therefore one of humility, of complete reliance on God. The pilgrim often makes their whole journey on foot, diving fully into the experience which at times includes fatigue and pain. The pilgrim rejoices in traveling with other pilgrims, it’s a communal journey together toward God.

This stands in stark contrast to the typical persona of a tourist: one who indulges in the external pleasures in order to gain something for themselves; who travels at their own impulse, not dependent on anyone or anything; who chooses the easiest route instead of challenging themselves; and who travels alone for the sake of independence and nothing more. American culture has taught me all my life to choose the role of tourist, but now – maybe, just maybe – I am being called to try something new.

This idea of traveling as a pilgrim reminded me of a passage in Mark 6, which talks about Jesus journeying around and teaching the people from different villages and sending out his disciples to do likewise. My roommate Natalie shared this scripture during a Bible study we had about a week ago as something that really struck a cord with her as well after traveling to Ghana and living in the simplicity of life there. The passage said that Jesus instructed his twelve disciples by saying, “Take nothing for your trip except a walking stick. Take no bread, no bag, and no money in your pockets. Wear sandals, but take only the clothes you are wearing.” Talk about minimalism at its finest!

This message hit me hard with twofold meaning. First, practically, I thought about all of the stuff I wanted to pack to take with me to Australia. The emphasis on materialism in my life truly stared me in the eyes as I considered all of the options I wanted to have in regard to my wardrobe or all of the conveniences I wanted available to me, just in case I needed them. For once, I hope to embrace the simple life.

The second impact that this had on me – and this is the biggest one – is the level of faith that God requires of his people. He wants us to go out empty handed and trust solely on Him, and in the world that I (and a lot of us) live in, that is just unheard of. Our culture says that we are in control. We decide our future. We call the shots. We aren’t supposed to rely on something or someone we can’t see, because we have to take command of our own lives. I have nurtured this perspective for years, but now I hope to grow in the discomfort of knowing that I don’t need all the extra stuff. All I need is Jesus, and the unwavering confidence that He will provide for me because He is faithful.

I haven’t even left yet and I’m already learning things! Mind-blowing.

So as I embark on this journey, please send prayers my way! I’ll take all the Jesus I can get.

xoxo, Riss

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