If your life, right now, were made into a movie, what kind of movie would it be? Would it be like “On Golden Pond”? With Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda? That’s a story about growing old gracefully together and finding peace after long-standing family struggles.
Maybe it’s a romantic comedy, like “When Harry Met Sally”? The hopeful message of that movie reminds us that sometimes love is right under our noses, a closer and more perfect fit than we realized. Could it be an adventure, like “Swiss Family Robinson,” a story of overcoming, like “Gone with the Wind,” or a beautiful, sweetly simple drama that lifts up the challenges of trying to live a faithful life, as we saw in “Friendly Persuasion”?
I certainly hope that whatever your movie might be, it’s not something overly dramatic, like “Titanic” or the “Blazing Inferno”! I hope your story has at least got at least a little of Mel Brooks’ humor, a la “Young Frankenstein” and maybe some of Robert Redford’s eye for beauty, as we saw in “The Horse Whisperer” and “A River Runs through It.”
Perhaps as long as we humans have had the ability to think back on our lives, we’ve envisioned them as a long journey, a story that unfolds, bit by bit, character by character, season by season. Along the way, we pick up wisdom, we learn from our mistakes, we face challenges that ask us to choose by what measure we will live. What values serve as our north star? What is the stuff our souls are made of? What kind of people do we want to be?
It’s all a big adventure, and none of the answers are certain when we set out. We reach forks in the road again and again. We try to move consistently toward what we see as good, but we also forget, stumble, slide down cliffs, hit detours, and get drawn toward things that have little to do with what we value. What we do about that is also up to us. Do we give up? Do we start again? Do we blame others for our lack of progress? Do we blame God for holding us back, for not giving us the opportunities we need? Do we find ourselves and begin moving again? The answer is yes, yes to it all, yes to learning, yes to the journey, and yes to the stumbles—and the recoveries–along the way. And also, yes to the good news to our arrival—eventually, whether we’re living a comedy, a drama, a love story, or all of the above, we get to our intended destinations, thanks to God and lots of divine help along the way. That’s the happy ending to our story. But we’re all still on the road.
George Fox would have us know that we never make any part of this journey alone, even though it may sometimes feel like we do. We have an inward light that never leaves us, nudging us forward, reminding us that the perfect peace of God—the light of Christ himself—is with us as our guide and companion. We need no other shepherd.
As a young man seeking spiritual answers, George Fox had had a direct experience of the Light that convinced him that, “Christ is come to teach his people himself.” Later, on Pendle Hill, he had a vision of a great gathering of people and knew God wanted him to share what he’d been given. Soon after, he started traveling throughout England, speaking at the close of Puritan services and addressing large crowds in fields and on hillsides. He called for those present to listen for the leading voice of Christ within themselves, exhorting them to be honest in their business dealings, to have compassion for those who needed help, and to share the loving, grace-filled message they’d heard. Wherever he spoke, people became “convinced” of the truths he shared, and by the mid-1660s, there were more than 50,000 people in the world who considered themselves Friends.
During this same timeframe, in the center of England, there was a nonconformist pastor named John Bunyan who had learned about these Quakers and felt so strongly that they were wrong that he wrote his first book to expose the error of their theology. He and George Fox were contemporaries on many levels—they were born about 60 miles and four years apart (with Fox being the older one). Both men were drawn to new ideas for religious faith and practice. Both pushed back against the forced governance of the Church of England, and both spent time in prison for that. They often preached in the same towns of England, although at different times. But where their similarities end, a theological antagonism begins.
Friends believe that the light of God is within all persons—although not all awaken to it and follow it in the same way. Bunyan felt strongly that, “this is an error […] because the word of God saith plainly, that some are “sensual, having not the Spirit.” And [that] the unregenerate man, in the time of his unregenerate state, is without Christ.” So Bunyan’s theology told him that people are in a fallen, depraved state until they discover Christ; Fox’s epiphany showed him there is that of God in everyone, and the Light of Christ, as we allow it, leads us and transforms us more and more into his likeness, experience by experience. Quaker Edward Burrough, one of the Valiant Sixty, and George Fox wrote extensively to push back on Bunyan’s published criticisms, but it’s safe to say that they never came to unity on that gap in their understandings of the truth.
Nearly 20 years later, in 1678, when George Fox was traveling extensively in the world—through Europe, the West Indies, and the new American colonies—John Bunyan wrote another book that would go on to become one of the most famous books in the world, the fifth most translated work of all time (translated into more than 200 languages). It’s also credited as being the first novel ever written in English. In all these years—340 years since—it has never been out of print.
The book is Pilgrim’s Progress—you’ve probably heard of it; maybe you’ve even read it. The story is an allegory about the long, arduous tale of a character named Graceless, who after meeting Evangelist, feels inspired to leave his home and family and begin making his way to the Celestial City. When Graceless makes the decision to start the journey, he is given the new name Christian. His adventures introduce him to many people—some who help him, like Evangelist and Faithful and Goodwill (who turns out to represent Christ), and some who tempt and delay him, like Obstinate and Hypocrisy and Mr. Worldly Wiseman, who makes his judgments based on advice from the world instead of listening to God. Christian’s journey is the first part of the story, and the second part shares the journey of his wife and family, who follow along soon after.
In addition to colorful and oddly named characters, the story paints unforgettable pictures of places we may recognize from the inner landscapes of our own journeys, like the Slough of Despond, where Christian struggles with feelings of discouragement, and the Valley of the Shadow of Death, where he is frightened by ghouls that mock him for believing he can even reach the Celestial City. There’s also the River of the Waters of Life, where pilgrims find a sense of God’s solace and peace, and House Beautiful, which “sits atop the Hill Difficulty,” but gives travelers a lovely place to rest and provides a far view of the Delectable Mountains, which they will one day cross themselves as they get closer to the Celestial City.
George Fox and John Bunyan never did resolve their different ideas about who it is that carries the light of God within, but if Fox had ever had a chance to read Pilgrim’s Progress, I think he would have seen Light shining from many of its pages. It’s in Christian’s heart at the very outset, causing him to yearn to hear God’s voice, putting him in the path of the Evangelist who started him on his way. It shines out at every juncture of the story, where Christian chooses hope over despair, kindness over suspicion, generosity over greed, forgiveness over anger. Fox would have seen the truth he knew and has passed on to us: that Spirit is ever-present and ever-guiding, a constant companion who truly “leads us beside the still waters” and “restores our souls.”
In our New Testament reading today, we heard Jesus giving instructions to the disciples who are about to begin a challenging journey of faith across an unknown and potentially threatening landscape. He expects them to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons, just as he has done. He wants them to travel from town to town without any supplies at all. No gold, no change of clothes, no backup sandals. They were simply supposed to trust that whatever they needed would be given them, each step of the way.
It must have required an almost superhuman faith to start out with nothing but God’s presence and Christ’s teaching as their guide. Who knows what they would meet or what their journey would ask of them? We are living this story too, as faithful people in a hurting world: We have God’s presence and the teachings of Jesus to guide us, but we never know, when we get up in the morning, what we’re going to meet or what our situations will ask of us or how we will respond. Hopefully with faith, kindness, generosity, gentleness.
Two centuries after George Fox and John Bunyan battled over ideas, Hannah Hurnard, an English writer born to Quaker parents, read Pilgrim’s Progress and then wrote a novel of her own, called Hinds Feet in High Places. She continued the story of one of the characters named Much Afraid and shows how her faith helps her overcome fear and depression that imprisoned her. Hannah Hurnard had herself had a difficult childhood and struggled with a terrible speech impediment, but she was healed through prayer and trust and began a new life of ministry. Right after college, she joined the Friends Evangelistic Band and traveled throughout England and Ireland, preaching in the streets. Later she would go on to be a missionary in Palestine.
It’s heartening that even though George Fox and John Bunyan were never in their lifetimes in agreement about the ideas they brought to the world, 200 years later, a Quaker woman planted a seed from Pilgrim’s Progress and it blossomed in a new way that honored both their views. God just wasn’t done with their story yet. And God’s not done with our stories yet either. We each continue to gather seeds from all that inspires us and helps us along, and we plant those seeds in our own unique ways. As the landscapes of our souls unfold around us, we can see beautiful evidence of a faithful God, present and guiding and loving us through all the seasons of our lives.