Canterbury Tales: Stories for the Pilgrim Way

Medieval folks always did love a good pilgrimage. Grueling journeys had a way of proving the mettle of heroes, and far-flung reliquaries held forth a treasury of grace to any long-suffering commoner willing to tread the pilgrim way.

The road to Jerusalem provided Richard I the way to earning his moniker Cœur de Lion–the Lionheart. And who can forget Henry IV’s treacherous journey through the Alpine winter to kneel before Pope Gregory VII in the snow? Moreover, medieval literature is filled with heroes like Roland, Sir Gawain, and Danté whose virtues were tested along a treacherous quest.

Pilgrimage is the unifying motif of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales–a curated collection of 14th century virtue parables, bawdy pub yarns, and good-natured lampoons. The story goes that thirty pilgrims set off together from London on a journey to visit the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury. Along the way, the party agrees to pass the time in a storytelling contest. Tales filled with farcical antics, fart jokes, saucy bits, and an occasional moral ensue, laced together with rhyming couplets and ample British humor.

A virtuous knight kicks off the contest as the party leaves London. “The Knight’s Tale” recounts two cousins Arcita and Palamon who turn from dear friends to bitter rivals when they both fall in love with the same lady. Sweet Emily lives completely oblivious to the brotherly strife her beauty has caused. In her defense, the two knights had never actually met Emily–they merely saw her from the window of a prison turret where the two were serving life sentences. After the knights both manage to escape, Emily stumbles upon them in the woods fighting to the death for her hand, and she prays rather that the gods would let her die a virgin. Alas.

The two cousins discover the foolishness of their rivalry too late, and only as Arcita bleeds out on the battlefield does he exchange forgiveness with his beloved Palamon for the jealousy that turned their swords against one another.

As the story concludes, Chaucer hangs a bit of wisdom over the wistful scene:

“This world is but a thoroughfare of woe / And we are pilgrims passing to and fro.”

The line is apt for “The Knight’s Tale,” for Canterbury Tales as a whole, and for us as mankind plodding through our fallen world.

The Scriptures themselves are a tale of pilgrims on a journey. They begin with Adam and Eve driven by their own vice into the wilderness of toil and strife. The Bible is the story of mankind’s quest to return to the presence of God and the Tree of Life–and how God himself had to come down as the virtuous Son of Man to gather us pilgrims up and lead the way back to the Father.

And yet, this world is but a thoroughfare of woe. We travel along a highway strew with sin, injustice, death, hate, violence, jealousy, misery, thorns, and thistles. We know that the path we now trod leads to eternal life, but in the meantime, what is to be done for us pilgrims passing to and fro? How are we to lighten our loads? How are we to brighten our path? What are we to do while we wait for our journey’s end?

Tell tales.

This is the point of Canterbury Tales. As pilgrims passing to and fro, we turn this thoroughfare of woe called “life” into a path of mirth and laughter through storytelling. And the Scriptures only further confirm Chaucer’s instinct. The heroes and villains embossed on its pages, the virtues and vices praised and decried in its verses, the crimson yarn spun through salvation history are not dry facts to be enumerated, categorized, and enshrined. They are stories to be told–tales to be sung, lived, and breathed. They are the Bread of Life for hungry pilgrims.

We are pilgrims in our homes, our churches, our workplaces, our towns. We are all traveling a dusty thoroughfare of woe. How are you enlivening the weary, bringing joy to the torn, and overcoming wickedness with laughter? We triumph through stories. We have victory through our Great Hero Christ.

At the dinner table, let us revel in tales. At the holidays, let us relive the old familiar stories. At church, let us delight in God our Scrivener. He has provided us stories for the pilgrim way. More than that–Praise God! He has become our fellow Pilgrim.

Cecily Had a Clown Abortion

Colin Jost: “It seems like you really do want to talk about your abortion.” 

Cecily Strong: “Well, actually I really don’t, but people keep bringing it up, so I gotta keep talkin’ about freakin’ abortion!”

This weekend, SNL’s Weekend Update segment featured guest clown Goober (Cecily Strong) and an uncomfortable mix of gags and thinly-veiled commentary about the Texas abortion legislation being debated in the Supreme Court.

The segment wasn’t funny.

Which was the point.

Dressed in a bright red nose, wacky checkers, stripes, and polka dots, Strong was trying to make a statement about the way clowns–à la women–are treated in the abortion discussion. The conservative response to the Goober the Clown skit proved her point. I saw several repost the video with comments to this effect: “They forgot about the unborn child” or “Abortion isn’t a laughing matter.”

It’s this very “meme-ification” of abortion that illustrates how we turn individual women who have actually had abortions into a punchline. A joke. A clown.

For most of us, when the topic of abortion comes up in the news, in the courts, in the voting booth, we offer up the party line–whether pro-life or pro-choice–and we move on. When a segment like the one from SNL pops onto the timeline, we share it tagged with our predictable support or disapproval, perhaps a sarcastic comment, and forget about it minutes later. Meanwhile, real women–women like Cecily Strong–are hearing everything that you and I mindlessly share and say. I can imagine how they might begin to realize, “The world thinks my life, my pain, my fear, my experience is one big joke.”

“Who’s Cecily? I’m Goober. And I wish I didn’t have to do this because the abortion I had at 23 is my personal clown business. But that’s all some people in this country want to discuss all the time…”

Who’s Cecily?

I wonder, do you know who the Cecily is in your life? Did you know 1 in 3 women have had an abortion? Strong says, “You don’t because they don’t tell you.” She’s not wrong. Which means, whenever you wax eloquent at the Thanksgiving table this year about your pro-life views, when you get heated in the church small group about the evils of abortion, when you share that latest political meme, there’s a Cecily within earshot. Do you care? Or is she just some Goober whose story doesn’t matter?

In his first epistle, John makes a point about our love. We are fools–clowns–if we think we love an unseen God when we don’t even love our seen brothers and sisters (1 John 4:20). But the same logic follows when it comes to abortion: “He who does not love [Cecily] whom he has seen cannot love [the baby] whom he has not seen.”

Can we love Cecily enough not to treat her like a clown? Can we care less about crafting just the right punchline to stick it to the other side and more about cultivating compassion for sinners? Can we learn to love the Cecilys we see everyday–but do not realize are Cecilys?

It’s a trite accusation against pro-lifers that we only care about unborn babies. But words are powerful things. The way we speak, think, and share about abortion in the abstract communicates to those who have had abortions how we will love, care, and extend forgiveness to them if we ever were to find out.

On the one hand, Goober the Clown may inspire many to “shout their abortion,” but I wonder whether it can spur churches on toward becoming places where women like Cecily can confess the truth–and find unconditional forgiveness. The local church ought to be a place where we eat and drink with the Son of Man, “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” And Cecilys--like you and me.

(photo credit)

Angry? Try Singing Together.

"Then I heard voices speak, entreating there
The Lamb of God who takes our sins away
For peace and mercy; this was all their prayer,

For Agnus Dei did they still begin,
So that one speech, one measure kept they all,
And perfect concord seemed to fold them in.

"Master," said I, "these voices I hear call
Are spirits?" "Thou are right," said he, "they go
Loosening the knot of wrath that held them thrall."

-Dante's Purgatorio

As Dante and Virgil pass into the third cornice of Purgatory, they stagger uphill through a blinding smoke. Feeling gingerly forward, Dante and his guide are first struck not by the sight but the sound penetrating the black haze:


A unified prayer.

Repentant sinners singing to the Lamb of God.

The third cornice is the place of the wrathful. And yet, voices that were once raised clamorously now sweetly join with “perfect concord” in gentle prayer.

In their worldly lives, these wrathful souls were blinded by rage. Now they endure the purging effect of a blanketing fog. However, in this God-given blindness they no longer pass their days in malice, “hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). As one soul explains to Dante, the blindness has awakened a koinonia of the ear: “Hearing instead of sight shall neighbor us.”

Anger has been overcome through listening.

Of course, James connects these concepts together in his Epistle: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). However, reading Purgatorio is the first time that I have considered how effective congregational singing is in “loosening the knot of wrath” that holds us in thrall.

Singing together requires listening. We have to listen to the rhythm of our neighbor’s voices, the pace, the tune, the words, so that we move together, swell together, start together, stop together. As the gathered people, we achieve “perfect concord” and “one speech” only as we tune our ears so that “one measure” keep we all.

Moreover, as the people of God, we must tune our hearts in one accord if we are to pray as a unified people. When we give our ears to one another, our hearts are soon to follow.

And this is the perceptive truth Dante has unravelled. As our ears are intently listening to our neighbors, as we endeavor in melodious prayer to Agnus Dei, the knot of wrath loosens. Tight anger against our neighbors, our spouses, our children, our co-workers, our bosses, our nation, slowly slackens.

And where does it start?

“Hearing instead of sight shall neighbor us.”

(photo credit)

Farewell to the Farm: A Personal Note

“My farm was a little too high up for growing coffee.”

Karen Blixen (1885-1962) begins the chapter “Hard Times” with a statement of surrender. This unyielding truth had brought a life both foreign and familiar, beautiful and dangerous, wearisome yet rewarding to a punctilious end. Blixen’s memoir Out of Africa (1937) does not wrap up at the end; it unravels. The farm, friends, efforts, and dreams woven into the landscape of the Ngong Hills near Nairobi, Kenya, are left a jumbled heap on the floor.

As she retells it, the truth becomes obvious in hindsight. And yet, the clarity does not make the truth easier to stomach–or the loss less painful. (I think you know where I’m headed with this piece.)

Several elements were outside of Blixen’s control. The elevation of her coffee grove meant late frosts killed young berries each year, hamstringing their production. The farm barely survived in years of frequent rain, and a pair of years with severe drought “were disastrous to the farm.” During the same time, the market price for coffee fell. After seventeen hard years of pouring her life into the soil, shareholders back home in Denmark wrote they would have to sell the farm.

In response, Blixen grit her teeth: “I thought of many devices for the salvation of the farm.” She tried planting flax to supplement her coffee earnings. She explained her scheme to a Belgian farmer. His response: “Ça, madame, c’est impossible!” She planted 150 acres anyways. With satisfaction, she watched the greasy, sky-blue fibers shoot up from the ground. However, dismay set in when processing the product proved too difficult: “So my flax-growing was no success.”

She tried spreading manure around the coffee trees to increase production. Nothing. She thought of growing lumber, but that would supply no immediate relief. She tried her hand at keeping cattle and running a dairy. All these scramblings and stunted starts formed the tangled mess of her final years on the farm.

“It is a heavy burden to carry a farm on you.”

Blixen took to wandering about the farm at night, a ghost haunting her dying landscape. Her manager Farah warned her about predators that had been spotted close to the house at night: “But I was too sad to get any idea of leopards into my mind.” The numbness of denial had set into her soul. Just before the coffee harvest, she left on a trip clinging to false hope that upon her return she might be surprised by their take. Her manager met her on her return. They avoided the topic all afternoon, but in the late evening she asked how many tons of coffee they had managed to pick. “Swallowing his sorrow, he said: ‘Forty tons, Memsahib.’ At that I knew that we could not carry on.”

That same year, locusts swept through the African continent. Towns sent runners to warn the next farmers of imminent attack. In the course of time, the messengers of doom came running up Blixen’s drive. She shrugged, “I have been told that many times…but I have seen nothing in them. Perhaps it is not so bad as people tell.” The messenger responded, “Turn round kindly, Madam.”

Blixen beheld what looked like a long stretch of smoke, a town burning.

“What is that?”


The locusts descended. Their sheer weight broke the limbs from her coffee trees. They destroyed her garden, eating all vegetation, fruits, and flowers. She describes how the hungry horde violated her farm: “They whir against your face, they get into your collar and your sleeves and shoes. The rush round you makes you giddy and fills you with a particular sickening rage and despair…”

The grasshoppers laid eggs in the soil. The next year when the rain came down, the grasshoppers came up. Again.

In the end, the money ran out, and Blixen had to sell the farm to a corporation. The new owners didn’t plan to farm the land anymore. They would pave over her seventeen years of labor, sweat, and toil with roads and parcel the land for development.

It all felt like a terrible nightmare; surely she would awake soon: “During these months, I formed in my own mind a program, or a system of strategy, against destiny…Lose [the farm], I thought, I cannot: It cannot be imagined, how then can it happen?”

“In this way I was the last person to realize that I was going.”

This past Thursday, I had to choke back tears repeatedly. I was teaching Blixen’s wistful tragedy in my World Lit class even as I was living my own. Her struggles, the inevitability of her failure, and the seeming futility of all her efforts hit way too close to home. The dam of emotions broke as I closed our class in prayer. I was shaking.

Lose the farm? I cannot: It cannot be imagined, how then can it happen?

And yet it has. After nine years of toiling in the fields of Newberry County, the Lord has refused to let me stay. Moreover, it seems he is determined–at present–to prevent me from entering another field of vocational ministry.

So many seeds planted. So much fertilizer slung. So many efforts, half-starts, and stunted endeavors. Looking back, it feels like I was throwing rocks against the wall of inevitability: “My farm was a little too high up for growing coffee.

A little too high. These are the challenges that are the most frustrating. The ones that feel just barely out of reach. God has been teaching me a painful lesson the past several years: “With God nothing is impossible–but with Chad, some things are.”

We hear about the ministers who ride off in a blaze of glory or the ones who fall like lightning from heaven. We posterize the stories of those who plant multiple church campuses, baptize thousands, write opuses, and build networks of international missions. The pastors who commit grievous sin, abuse, or adultery thus forfeiting burgeoning ministries find their way into the headlines too.

But where’s the story of the pastor who is faithful–and still fails?

I’m still trying to figure out that one.

It seems our natural inclination is to dig deeper: He must have done something wrong. There must be some hidden problem. I’ve thought the same. I suspect the reason we sow these seeds of doubt is that we want to deny the existence of this category altogether: Doing everything right, and still failing.

My point is not that I have done everything right in ministry–just ask literally anyone!–but that we want to believe that if we always do the right thing, we will always succeed. Build the right ministry structures, craft the right liturgies, hold to the right confessions, attract the right families, and preach the right style of sermons, and we cannot fail.

The old hymn is true: “His kingdom cannot fail.” But mine might. The author of Hebrews talks about faithful men and women being stoned, sawn in two, and killed with the edge of the sword. Sounds like losing. Sounds a lot like failure–at least in the short-term. But obviously, that won’t happen to me, we comfort ourselves.

“In this way I was the last person to realize that I was going.” Perhaps it is God’s grace that has prevented me from succumbing to defeatism all these years–or a bull-headed personality–but I have finally come to that place of surrender.

This morning, I was reading the story of the rich young ruler. He asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life.” If you know the story, Jesus baits the young man by enumerating several of the Ten Commandments. The young man responds, “I’ve kept them all–what else?” Jesus’s response is terrifying: “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

My terrifying moment has come. If I am truly to follow him, I must sell the treasure I have clung to these past nine years: pastoral ministry.

Pray for me to be filled with gratitude for this season. There is no greater joy than to sell everything to follow Jesus. And he has led our family to a place where I believe we will be deeply cared for this next year.

I pray the Lord will be kind to me one day and allow me the privilege of returning to the farm–to vocational ministry. As I follow him, perhaps what sounds a lot like “No” today, in hindsight, will turn out to have been “Not yet.”

If you have been a part of our ministry at College Street Baptist Church in Newberry, we would love to see one of our final two Sundays:

May 23 or May 30 @ 11am 3240 College Street, Newberry, SC.

The Tabernacle Is a Parable

“In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”

–Hebrews 8:13

As Americans living in a consumer-driven society, we understand the author of Hebrews intuitively. Our culture thrives on making the old obsolete by speaking of the new. It doesn’t matter what we are talking about—clothes, laptops, phones, movies, restaurants—the moment we hear that there is a new one, the old one begins to feel obsolete and worn out.

In Chapter 8, the author of Hebrews notes God’s pointed use in Jeremiah 31 of the word new. By implication, that tells us all we need to know about what came before–old.

What purpose then does the Old Covenant serve? Specifically, what was the purpose of the Old Testament tabernacle with its regulations and worship and priests and sacrifices and furniture and curtains and so on—if God knew he was just going to make it all obsolete when Jesus came? 

The First Covenant teaches us to long for the Second. The Law is our teacher. It instructs us not to long for the Law and all of its trappings but to long for the Gospel. Hebrews 9 expounds on this truth using three words to explain the purpose of the Old Covenant tabernacle.

The tent is a parable.

Our author begins, “Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness” (Hebrews 9:1). I’m not sure how familiar you are with worship in the Old Testament, but God instructed Moses to erect a tent with two sections: the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. Between these sections was a giant curtain. Day by day, the priests went into the first section, the Holy Place, but they could never go through the curtain into the second part, the Most Holy Place, in which was the Ark of the Covenant, the mercy-seat, and the glory cloud of YHWH.

Our author doesn’t go into great detail about these things, so we won’t either, but in verses 8 and 9, he says something interesting: “By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing  (which is symbolic for the present age).” What verse 9 literally says is, “which is a parable” (ἥτις παραβολὴ). The tent is a parable.

Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Lost Coin, Parable of the Fig Tree, Parable of the Mustard Seed. What is a parable? A parable is a visual aid to help us understand a spiritual reality. A parable shows us what something is like. The author of Hebrews is telling us that the two sections of the tent are showing us what the First and Second Covenants are like. It’s a parable–a visual aid to feed our longing for the Second Covenant.

Let’s say you’ve got an iPhone 11. It’s amazing! It’s so great! So powerful! But then Apple has a big event where they announce, “iPhone 12 now exists!” The moment you hear these words, you know that however great your iPhone 11 is, it’s second best.

Now consider the priests. You’re a Levitical priest! Amazing! You get to go into the Holy Place. So great! But also, a Most Holy Place also exists. The moment you see that curtain and know that something called the Most Holy Place is behind it, no matter how great the Holy Place is, it’s second best.

As a consumer, You may never have seen the iPhone 12, but simply knowing it exists tells you your iPhone 11 is old news. As a priest, you may never have seen the Most Holy Place, but simply knowing it exists behind that curtain tells you that your Holy Place is old news–and you know that you want to go in. 

It’s a parable. As great as the first section, the Holy Place, is, knowing that behind the curtain is something called the Most Holy Place makes you long for the second. As good and holy as the Law was, it’s not the Most Holy Place. In Second Covenant, the New Covenant, that’s where the presence of God is–that’s where we want to be. 

The tent is an imitation.         

The first teaches us to long for the second. A second word appears in verse 23: “It was therefore necessary that the patterns of things in the heavens should be purified with these; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.” Hebrews calls the earthly tent a pattern of the things in heaven–or more exactly, an imitation (ὑποδείγματα).

These days, to call something an imitation implies it is substandard. In countries that don’t honor trademarks, you can find some fun imitations. I saw online a pair of Mikes for sale. In a neighborhood overseas you could eat at Pizza Huh? or KFG or grab a latte at Sunbucks Coffee.

Here in America you will find all kinds of imitation flavors in the baking aisle. What is the purpose of imitation vanilla? It’s meant to taste like the real thing. But if you had both imitation vanilla and real Madagascar Vanilla Bean extract in your cabinet, which one would you reach for?

Once a year, the Old Testament people got a foretaste, a picture of what Jesus would one day do. On the day of Atonement, one man would pass through the curtain into the presence of God in the Most Holy Place carrying the blood of a bull and goat to take away the sins of the people. Question: Did it take away the sins of the people? Of course not. It was an imitation. It only tasted like the real thing. But that little taste in the first was meant to make us long for the second.

The tent is a copy.  

Everything about the first earthly tent was meant to make us long for the second heavenly tent. The author of Hebrews employs one final word of explanation in verse 24: “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” The earthly tent was a copy of the true things.

The difference between the first and the second is the difference between seeing a picture of the Grand Canyon and visiting the Grand Canyon. Seeing the picture is no substitute for actually being there. In fact, the copy only makes us long to see the real thing.

The first makes us long for the second by serving as a parable, imitation, and a copy. The Old Covenant with its earthly tent, high priest, sacrifices, and worship arouses in us a desire for the New Covenant with its heavenly tent, High Priest, eternal sacrifice, and worship. When the New appeared in Christ, the Old was pleased to say, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30).

(photo credit)

Books Are Friends

“Books are remote but reliable friends.”

-Victor Hugo

“A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24). Books are that kind of friend. Books are always there, waiting to be opened, waiting to be read. A good book sticks closer than a brother. A great book is not merely read—it reads us. Those are the kind of books Victor Hugo is talking about.

Books are remote friends. They are outside of us. Other. We need books that come from distance places, distant times, and distance worlds. Friendly books are the ones that are different from us. Their value lies in how foreign they feel. A book that flatters us is no friend; we need confrontation from differing perspectives to grow: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6).

Books are also reliable friends. King Solomon writes, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17). Great books never leave us. Their lines return to the reader in times of adversity and triumph. They reward the one who pores over them with treasures anew. Their stories and characters leech into our bones. They become the metaphors that shape our imaginations. 

Virgil’s Aeneid, Danté’s Divine Comedy, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Hugo’s Les Misérables–classics like these have befriended men and women for centuries. They are remote enough to draw us out of our parochialism by speaking to us from foreign cultures, languages, and eras. But they have proven to be reliable companions that push us toward the truth, raise questions about life and existence, and sometimes just provide a laugh in hard times.

Ultimately, it is the essence of the book that suited it so perfectly to special revelation. God, our remote but reliable Friend, comes to us in the Scriptures. He is both transcendent and imminent, both Other and Immanuel. And he comes to meet us in the reliable Word. The pages of Scripture are not merely metaphors but history. Not merely questions, but answers. Not merely an attempt at the truth, but Truth itself.

Many of the qualities we love about the Bible–many of the qualities we love about great books–are the same qualities that make a good friend. Spending more time with great books might make you a better friend. Spending time with the Bible surely will.

Make a friend. Read a book. Then go be that kind of friend.