On my seventh birthday, March 1, 1956, my mom and dad gave me my first Bible, at least one that was really and truly my own. (I’m sure I must have had previous Bibles but none were kept as mine!) In this birthday Bible they wrote on the presentation page: “John H. Armstrong: Our Little Pilgrim.” They also wrote: “Born Again” (February 10, 1956). Had my parents not written down this date I am not sure if I would remember the precise date all these years later. But what stands out to me, especially as I hold this same Bible in my hands more than fifty-six years later, is this reference made by my mom to me being “Our Little Pilgrim.” As I previously noted, this was undoubtedly a reference to the Protestant bestseller, Pilgrim’s Progress, written by John Bunyan.
The full title of this classic religious book is: The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come. The author used an allegorical story of a single pilgrim to tell how a follower of Christ makes his way from this world to the next. Pilgrim’s Progress was first published in 1678 and to this day is regarded as a classic of English literature. Pilgrim’s Progress has been translated into more than 200 languages and has never been out of print. Today we have various versions, aids and videos to enhance the way that we can use this incredible book to teach the Christian faith.
The word pilgrim refers to one who undertakes a religious journey or pilgrimage. The pilgrim (Latin from the word peregrinus) is a traveler on a journey, often understood as a journey to a specific holy place. In the great treasury of Christian spiritual literature we see how various mystics and writers on spiritual growth and formation,used this same idea to teach what it meant to grow in God’s grace. The concept of the pilgrim, and thus of a spiritual pilgrimage, generally refers to the experience of life itself. Life in this present world leads the real follower of Christ to seek for a better kingdom, one that is not perishable or fading away.
When Jesus began his earthly ministry he encouraged those who met him to follow him. We might say, in our best modern sense, that he urged people to “come (be) with me.” I believe discipleship, about which we make a great deal regarding various methods and programs, is really as simple as that–being “with” Jesus. The more you are with him, and with those who know him, the more likely it is that you will become a faithful disciples. Thus to disciple another person is really to “be with them” as you teach and show/live the way. I have been asked many times, “How do you make disciples?” The answer is all about relationships. I build a friendship and seek to pour my life in Christ into the other person in the normal course of sharing life along the way. This is the way of the pilgrim.
Here is how an easy-to-read Bible version puts my point: “Jesus said to them, ‘Come with me! I will teach you how to bring in people instead of fish’” (Matthew 4:19). Discipleship is coming to Jesus and going on with him. When you do this you will catch people, not fish.
We read in Matthew 16:24: “Then Jesus said to his disciples: ‘If any of you want to be my followers, you must forget about yourself. You must take up your cross and follow me.’” To be a pilgrim requires following and dying, day-by-day. Most Christians seem to have no idea what this dying means. This is why I so value great books like Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship.
I knew from the very beginning that I was called to follow Jesus; i.e., to be with him. I probably thought that being with him meant daily Bible reading, prayer, memorizing Scripture, attending Sunday School and church services, etc.; but my heart was truly that of a young pilgrim who wanted to follow Jesus all the way home. Strange as it may seem I thought about being with Jesus when my life ended a lot of times before I was twelve. I recall sharing the gospel with one boy before I was twelve and then attending his funeral only weeks after he was baptized. I was powerfully reminded that life could be short and thus I should live each day to the glory of God. My life should count and I should remember to “number my days.” I would generally end each day thinking about dying and being with Jesus. This childhood prayer was often used: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” You know, that is a truly great prayer. I still pray it to this day. I was impressed several years ago when the late Richard John Neuhaus wrote about being near death and praying this simple prayer over and over in the darkest of times. If you think about it this is a wonderful prayer.
During my pre-teen years I had a lot of friends but I often felt quite different from most of them. I am not precisely sure why this was so but I would guess, as I reflect upon this fact all these years later, it had to do with my great desire to totally follow Jesus. I loved fun, baseball and great parties. I was not serious in the sense of always being quiet and sober. I was outgoing, never shy. I was tabbed a leader by my grade school principal. (The context of this labeling was not very flattering. He accused me of leading some of my friends to deflate all the bicycle tires of our peers at McClain School. The charge was not true but I was believed to be guilty because I had so much influence over my peers.) My teachers thought me to be a good student, though not always motivated by certain subjects. This was true and remained true all the way through my formal education until I was in graduate school, where I loved every course and worked very hard to get the best grades. If a subject motivated me I read and studied hard. If I found it boring I did just enough to get by. My grades were good enough but never what they could have been because I bored so easily with some of my teachers and several of the subjects!
One thing I did love, at least from the second grade on, was reading. I read more books than anyone I knew among my peers. I devoured books one after another. I was fascinated by authors and how they wrote books. There was a deep desire inside of me to write! (My parents saw this and cultivated it, very wisely I believe. My dad even bribed me into taking typing in high school in a summer short term, believing that it would someday help me. In those days boys did not study typing. I am grateful my dad did this now that I type thousands of words a week. The bribe was a trip to St. Louis to see the Cardinals play my favorite team, the Milwaukee Braves, for a three-game series.)
I was never a rebel but I was hard on a few of my teachers because I did not always pay attention. I also talked a lot in class. I wrote a lot of notes, fostered more than a few outbursts of laughter around me and, in general, got myself into an occasional crucible of classroom discipline. I only remember two profound spankings during my childhood. One was for lying to my father and the other was for smart-mouthing my mother in front of my dad. (I had enough raw intelligence but I did not always use it well, as these stories prove!) In the case of lying to my dad I had found a petty cash box in his dresser where he put his pocket change. I began to steal coins slowly. When I had enough I would buy either baseball cards or model airplanes. One day my dad grew suspicious about the money situation and asked me where I got all the money I spent on these things? I lied, several times in fact. Finally, I broke down and confessed my lie and faced the serious consequences of his wrath. Ironically I have never been tempted to lie again but strangely I was tempted once or twice to “excuse” the use of petty cash for something I wanted and had to repent. I even had to restore a few dollars not rightly accounted for in order to settled accounts and clear my conscience. Thankfully, this is no problem now but it didn’t just go away over night. “Little foxes spoil the vine” as the proverb rightly says. Watch the little foxes in your life carefully.
I also loved to explore and find space where I could be alone. We had a house keeper by the name of Hassie Tubbs. She was an African-American “maid” but in our home she was a more like a second mother. She was early loved and figured prominently in my life story, as I will tell later in this series.
Sometimes when my mom would come home she would ask Hassie, “Where is John?” Hassie would answer, “Well, he said he was just going out and that he’d be around.” To this day I do the same thing. I’m just going out and will be around, whatever/wherever that is. I may go to a coffee shop, a bookstore, a ballgame, whatever. But I am still “just going out” to be alone for awhile. My wife is more than understanding of this somewhat odd pattern and I have become (generally) quite sensitive about letting her know what I am doing and where I’m doing it. I see this as my own way of creating alone space. I wanted to have this space as a little child and need it as much, or more, today, now in my seventh decade. I like to explore new places, visit friendly people and places and just see what’s on the other side of the road. I’ve done this on four continents and in scores of cities and small towns. I once even thought I’d like to ride the “blue line highways” for months on end. (Of course, that was pure fantasy and I knew it.) Maybe in another life I would have been a real explorer.
As much as I now love dogs I actually only had one dog as a child. (I am not sure my mom liked dogs that much!) This one little dog, a cocker spaniel mix, was given the name of Huckleberry/ I gave him the name because of the popular cartoon dog of that name, Huckleberry Hound. Somehow Huck got away from home and we never saw him again. When Anita and I got our first dog–a red, smooth-haired, miniature dachshund–we appropriately named him Huck. Except for my one childhood dog I was only allowed to have cats as a boy. There was only one problem. My next door neighbor kept killing my cats with his car. The cats would get up inside the car for warmth and then not get out in time when he started his car in the morning. Or he would back over a cat as well. I buried each of my cats in a row in my backyard,with crosses marking their burial spot. Each one got a proper funeral as I practiced my skills as a minister before I even had a distinct sense of my life’s call. The neighbor, who was the mayor, did not care for all of those crosses reminding him of my deceased cats so they had to come down.
Now I am happy to have enjoyed four miniature dachshunds (over the last forty-plus years). Each has been one of our special “children” in our lovely home. Anita gets all the credit for being the true “dog person” but now she has completely converted me. My life would seem incomplete with a little dachshund in my home. When I come home from a trip away my dachshund greets me with such joy. When I leave she whines at the airport. It is lovely to have such a companion.