It sounds beatific in the NRSV, but I suspect it wasn’t easy: slapping down sandals all day with big, sweaty apostles, flushed by the heat, sneezing the dust, wondering where your next sip of cool water was coming from and keeping an eye out for pissed-off Pharisees carrying rocks. You try to listen to the rabbi in case you’re called upon to write a gospel someday, but your mind wanders. Sweat trickles down your face, you swat at a fly. Suddenly you realize the rabbi has just said, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas tunes in like he’s been on another planet. Imagine the chutzpa it took to interrupt the rabbi’s smooth delivery to tell him you missed something.
“Um. Where are you going?”
Actually, this exchange reveals the fallacy in the question, “What Would Jesus Do – WWJD?” The guys who walked, ate and slept with Jesus rarely had a clue what he was about to do, so it seems unlikely we would be any clearer about it. What would Jesus do? And where is he going? And who knows the way? What?
These are interesting theological metaphors. Any attempt at finding your way in an unmarked desert, and figuring out where to go next, is a theological exercise. That’s how we spend our lives: we wander in uncertainty, we search for the bread crumbs that previous wanderers have left to mark the way, and occasionally we discover a great truth. But mostly we wander.
This passage of scripture makes me think of a man who did a lot of figurative wandering in the intellectual deserts of the sixties, and in 1969 he literally wandered the Dead Sea wilderness, lost his way and died. You could say he was a famous bishop, although the term is oxymoronic for most people these days. You could also say he was media-savvy and had a knack for attracting attention.
James Albert Pike was an agnostic attorney who found God, attended Union Theological Seminary, and served as rector of Christ Church in Poughkeepsie. He then became chaplain at Columbia University and dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. In the fifties he attracted media attention by challenging Senator Joseph McCarthy’s claim that 7,000 U.S. clergy were part of the Kremlin conspiracy. In 1960 as Episcopal Bishop of California, he opposed Catholic Senator John F. Kennedy’s presidential nomination because he thought it threatened the separation of church and state. He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma. He championed LGBT rights. He wandered so far ahead of his time his followers had trouble spotting him.
But Jim Pike didn’t become famous in the modern media sense until he challenged the basic tenets of the faith, including the virgin birth of Jesus, the doctrine of hell, and the Trinity. All of this was too much for his church and his fellow bishops, and in 1966 he was censured and forced to resign his bishopric.
I met Jim Pike in 1966 when he was on a spiritual retreat in England. I have no idea what the senior USAF chaplain in England – an American Baptist – was thinking when he invited Pike to address the Protestant Men of the Chapel annual banquet at RAF Lakenheath. Probably ninety percent of the people in the room thought Pike was a hell-bound heretic.
I was an Air Force chaplain’s assistant and attended the banquet with my boss, Chaplain Harland Getts.
I thought Pike was quite charming. Wearing thick horn-rimmed glasses and a dark pin-striped suit with a purple Rabat – and reeking of cigarettes – Pike arrived early. He walked up and down the rows of tables, shaking hands and chatting amiably with everyone in the room. I was seated next to Chaplain Getts, a Southern Baptist with conservative views and a baby face. Pike noticed the latter and reached out to muss my boss’s hair and give him a paternal pat on the head. Harland flushed deeply. I turned away and smirked.
Shuffling just behind his dad was Pike’s son, Jim, who was attending college in England. Young Jim wore his hair stylishly long – something you noticed if you were in the Air Force – and sported a mod blazer and faded blue jeans. We were about the same age, so when we shook hands I asked him, “Did your dad make you come?” He smiled and said, “Naw, I came to keep an eye on him.”
Weeks later, in a hotel room in New York, young Jim committed suicide. The rest of the story filled newspapers and television news programs for weeks. The elder Pike began reporting poltergeist phenomena at home: books vanishing and reappearing, clothes in the closet disarranged and rumpled, and safety pins appearing out of nowhere opened to the approximate the time of young Jim’s death.
Convinced his son was trying to get a message to him, Pike consulted spiritualists and clairvoyants. In 1967 he appeared on national television with Arthur Ford, a Disciples of Christ minister who claimed to talk with the dead. Pike was convinced his son had contacted him through Ford. Pike’s former church colleagues were convinced he had finally taken leave of all his senses.
(Parenthetically, I don’t know what to make of clairvoyancy. Like most people, I’ve experienced my share of spooky phenomena – especially when I was stationed in England – but I’m a skeptic. Years ago, when I worked for the Baptists, I drove from Philadelphia to a meeting in Pittsburgh with a friend, a seminary professor. It’s a long drive and after we had exhausted all the gossipy subjects we could think of, my friend surprised me by announcing he knew Arthur Ford. My friend’s wife had died years earlier – by her own hand, I learned later – and my friend had been eager to contact her on the other side. The professor said that in a séance, Ford convinced him he was really talking to his dead wife – all the intimate details were in place, dates and times of key events in their lives, the couple’s private moments, even the minor experiences of their children. But his dead wife, who was supposedly communicating through Ford, got the middle name of their daughter wrong. My friend said he concluded that his wife deliberately gave him wrong information to warn him that further efforts to contact her might jeopardize his soul. We drove several miles in silence and I speculated how much of the private wifely information Ford knew about could have been gotten from newspaper clippings, obituaries, correspondence and other non-spiritual sources. Probably most of it, I concluded – right down to the details of sexual intimacy, which I suspect are common to most couples. As we neared our western Pennsylvania destination, my friend spoke again, softly to himself: “I wonder what that says about the empty tomb.”)
Both Jim Pike and my friend lost loved ones to suicide, and no doubt both were desperate to know how much they had contributed to their beloved’s final despair. I can understand how an obsession to contact someone on the other side might make you believe you had done it. I don’t judge either man, or jump to the conclusion that their journeys were delusions. But each man was clearly wandering in search of the way. In the midst of their tragic reveries, both men were jarred awake by Jesus’ distant voice: “And you know the place where I am going.” And both men realized they were no longer sure what Jesus was talking about.
Jim Pike’s story ended in the wilderness around the Dead Sea. He and his wife, Diane, who he had met at a clairvoyance convention, rented a car and drove alone into the desert. Jim wanted to experience what Jesus felt when he was tempted in the wilderness for forty days: the scalding sun, the thirst, the hunger. He wanted to know what the voice of God sounded like under the desolate circumstances.
Unguided, the couple turned off the main road and drove toward the Dead Sea until the tires sank beneath the crusty surface of the sand. Spinning the wheels dug them deeper and eventually Jim and Diane decided to retrace their route back to the road on foot. But they got lost, and soon the 56-year-old Jim – an overweight, chain smoking alcoholic – collapsed in exhaustion. He told Diane to go find help. “If I don’t make it by the time you get back,” he told her, “I am at peace.”
It took Diane many hours to stumble onto the main road and a passing motorist picked her up and took her to the police station in Bethlehem. Israeli soldiers launched a massive search for Jim. They found the rental car, which started immediately once they pushed it out of the rut, but found no sign of Pike. The search took several days until his badly decomposed body was found in a box canyon where he had apparently slipped and fallen.
I was a sophomore at Eastern Baptist College when all this took place in September 1969, and I followed media coverage of the missing Bishop with interest. The first report after he was found was that his body was discovered in a kneeling, praying position, but I don’t think that was true. He may have been praying, but he had fallen off a small cliff and was sprawled painfully on the rocks. Jim Pike’s wilderness journey was over.
Having opined that wandering in the wilderness is a theological metaphor, I’m now wondering how to make sense of Jim Pike’s last journey. His critics would say he lost his way decades before his excursion into the Judean desert. He started out as an agnostic and ended up as deluded spiritualist. In between, he abandoned the creeds of Christianity – the virgin birth, the trinity, the doctrine of hell – and finally he was abandoned by his fellow bishops.
No one knows what went through Jim Pike’s mind in September 1969 when he was alone in the same wilderness where Jesus fasted and prayed. No one knows the state of his soul, or what God said to him as he scratched his way through crevices and sun-baked rocks. All we know is what he told his wife: “I am at peace.”
But I would like to think God’s still, small voice would have reminded Pike – a biblical scholar – that the way through the spiritual desert need not be as twisted and torturous as we perceive it.
Two thousand years ago, when the rabbi was addressing his puzzled apostles, he said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
And then he said, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
That was when Thomas woke up and said, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Jim Pike was a publicity hound, a drinker, a bounder, a chain smoker, probably a sex addict, a lousy husband (three times), a failed father, and an arrogant doubter of God and the church. Yet his last act on earth was to search the Judean desert for clues to what the historical Jesus experienced when he talked to God.
What God said to Jim Pike on the day of his death must remain a mystery on this side of Jordan. But it could have been this:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”
Our own wanderings may not be as dramatic or as attention-getting as Jim Pike’s. But all of us have periods of wandering. And for each of us, the promise of Jesus remains, clear and unmistakable:
“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’
Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. John 14:1-14