“You Killed Our Lord”…

I just finished a book which was out of the norm for me. (The BOOK was out of the norm, NOT that I finished it. Although I do have more than a few still lingering for me to finish…) The name is: The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, by Amy-Jill Levine. Levine is Jewish, and is the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee. As a practicing Jew, Levine brings an interesting slant to the study of the New Testament. She does a remarkable job of straddling the un-declared, yet very real line of demarcation between Judaism and Christianity. She also explains the ministry and teaching of Jesus from a Jewish perspective. Levine gives insight into not only the distinctiveness of Jesus’ teaching from first century Judaism, but also how much in line with Jewish instruction and tradition Jesus was, and is; of which many parts of the church seem to have either been ignorant, at best, or deny and castigate, at worst. She is especially interested in developing, and helping others develop, an ongoing conversation between different faith traditions; especially between Christians and Jews.
Levine became interested in Christianity when watching the funeral of Pope John XXIII on TV as a child. She became so interested, in fact, that she told her mother that she wanted to be pope when she grew up. Her mother responded dryly, “You can’t. You aren’t Italian.” (Pg. 1. Love that line!) Her interest was furthered by her surrounding neighborhood. “I was in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, a suburb of New Bedford, in a neighborhood that was predominantly Roman Catholic, and Portuguese. Thus my introduction to the church was through ethnic Catholicism, and it was marvelous: feast days and festivals, pageantry and mystery, food and more food.” (Pg.1-2) She attended both Hebrew school at her synagogue, and catechism with her friends at a Catholic church. Her early years were spent crossing the cultural and religious lines of Judaism and Christianity.
One of the first signs to her of dissonance between the two traditions occurred on a bus ride home from school one day at the age of 7: “…a friend on the school bus said to me, ‘You killed our Lord.’ ‘I did not,’ I responded with some indignation. Deicide would be the sort of thing I would have recalled. ‘Yes you did,’ the girl insisted. ‘Our priest said so.’ Apparently, she had been taught that ‘the Jews’ were responsible for the death of Jesus. Since I was the only one she knew, I must be guilty. But at the time, I did not understand the reasons for the charge or have the means to address it.” (Pg.2)
Eventually, when in high school, she read the New Testament, and began to understand from where the little girl’s charge emanated. However, she states, “…I had, fortunately, been inoculated against seeing only hate. My Christian friends had modeled for me the grace and friendship that are at the heart of the church: my parents had told me that Jesus was a Jew speaking to other Jews, and that his basic message was exactly the same as that of Judaism: to ‘love the Lord your God,’ and to ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ So I knew that, although the New Testament could be read as being anti-Jewish, it did not have to be read that way.” (Pg.3)
Levine’s purpose in the book seems to be at least three-fold, in my opinion:
1. To inform and educate Christians on the importance of remembering the time and place of Jesus’ message, as well as the fact that Jesus was a Jew speaking to Jews in the context of a first century occupied territory of the Roman Empire. She speaks of Jesus as part of “…a continuous… line of Jewish teachers and prophets…” (Pg.20) She reminds us that Jesus said he came to fulfill the Law and prophets, not abolish them.
2. To publically confront anti-Jewish teaching which the church inadvertently or purposefully promulgates in the message it teaches about Jesus’ life, teaching, and death as it relates to Judaism.
3. To encourage interfaith conversations, events, and ministries within communities.
As I sat in church today while we were finishing a discussion/series on the book of Galatians, I realized just how easy it is to step over the line into anti-Jewish language and thought. Trying to define the distinctiveness of the Christian faith can sometimes become exclusion instead. As Paul combats the teaching of people trying to deny the new Gentile freedom of faith practice, by requiring adherence to Jewish practice and tradition, it is easy to frame the argument into good versus evil; and some of the language of the New Testament seems to do just that. However, it is too easy for us to use our own cultural biases to interpret ancient culture and the scriptures which address issues the first century people were facing. Doing so only clouds the message, and robs it of its continual power to enlighten and change perspectives and lives. In the following, Levine makes the above point well:
“Historically, Jesus should be seen as continuous with the line of Jewish teacher and prophets, for he shares with them a particular view of the world and a particular manner of expressing that view. Like Amos and Isaiah, Hosea and Jeremiah, he used arresting speech, risked political persecution, and turned traditional family values upside down in order to proclaim what he believed God wants, the Torah teaches, and Israel must do. This historical anchoring need not and should not, in Christian teaching, preclude or overshadow Jesus’s role in the divine plan. He must, in the Christian tradition, be more than just a really good teacher. But he must be that Jewish teacher as well.
Further, Jesus had to have made sense in his own context, and the context is that of Galilee and Judea. Jesus cannot be understood fully unless he is understood through first-century Jewish eyes and heard through first-century Jewish ears. The parables are products of first-century Jewish culture, not ours; the healings were assessed according to that worldview, not ours; the debates over how to follow Torah took place within that set of legal parameters and forms of discourse, not ours. To understand Jesus’s impact in his own setting—why some chose to follow him, others to dismiss him, and still others to seek his death—requires an understanding of that setting.” (Pg.20-21)

There are many voices in the church which espouse strong interpretations as to the deep, rich message of scripture, and allowing others to hold differing interpretive messages without responding in arrogance and disrespect doesn’t always seem to be the norm. We do need to delve deeply enough into the history of that time and place, in order to catch the meaning there. We then can re-interpret both the impact and meaning into our own setting.
Levine points out how many of the church’s interpretations about the practices and beliefs of Judaism in first century Judea and Galilee, as well as the message of Jesus towards the Judaism of his day can cause an anti-Jewish sentiment in Christianity; even when it isn’t intended. She writes in detail of ways Christianity typically stereotypes Judaism in the first-century and then responds with rhetoric which shows how Christianity uses these stereotypes in ways which promote anti-Jewish thought and even action. (Pg.119-166)
Personally, I was struck by this notion. At first, I felt Levine was being too sensitive and defensive. I especially found my first impression to be interesting when she later notes that other Christian theologians responded in like manner when she confronted their statements in articles they had written and the anti-Jewish slant their views communicated. I believe we don’t really know the depth of our own prejudice until life brings it into full, frontal nudity.
However, I have also come to believe Jesus’s hard statements can be directed to the church in similar ways today. In fact, I have a theory that all organizations eventually drift from originating structures, and intentions which takes them away from the forms and priorities that made them successful in the first place. This drift must be corrected by re-defining or re-interpreting the original intentions of the organization. If this process isn’t undertaken, vitality is lost. This is, to me, one of the lessons of the Tower of Babel. When architects, engineers, and builders lose focus of the point of the structure by turning it into a self-aggrandizing project, communication lapses, and they speak in “different languages” because they are only concentrating on their piece of the building process, and their vision of how it “should” look and be. I think religious organizations are no different. We can build theological, economic, political, or corporate Towers of Babel. The principle is the same.
Phyllis Tickle (Google her…) theorizes that every 500 years, the church undergoes a theological re-interpretation crisis in response to changing understandings of the world, culture and the universe in general. I think it especially likely that the growth of science, technology, and overall knowledge increases the importance and likelihood of this re-interpretive crisis within the church. When we understand the universe, the earth, and people differently; we have to look again to the founding principles and revelation of God in order to understand how they relate to our new knowledge of reality. Since Christianity grew from the same roots as Judaism, Levine’s emphasis on the importance of cross-faith (my term) interaction is well-founded. There is no threat to deny the distinctiveness of Jesus and his message, or the redemptive nature of his death and resurrection, by interacting with Jews. Nor is there any need to try to proselytize. We must realize God’s freedom to draw people to God in the manner God chooses. As Christians, we are told to lift Jesus up. God does the rest. But lifting up Jesus doesn’t mean putting others down through exclusion.

I Have No Argument…

I bought a book the other day… big surprise… but it was a good deal… Being The Body, by Charles Colson and Ellen Vaughn. It is a rewrite of the original: The Body, also by Colson. I loved the original and am just starting this one. It’s been around a little while, since 2003, so the introduction is about the way in which a church in New York City responded to the falling of the Twin Towers. I’m including a section of the intro. Although the culture has changed…. in 6 years, amazing… we are still tempted to fear, now due to financial reasons, and the fabric of our civil union is under great strain… face it, we are arguing over pretty rediculous things, like the president talking to school children? Really? I would suggest, that now is the time for The Church to choose something as radical as love with which to respond to the cry of fear-filled people. Like those in the clip of Rent, following this post.

“Early in the morning on the third day after the terrorist attacks, while it was still dark, a construction worker named Frand Silvecchia was working in the tomb that had been the World Trade Center. He had just helped to remove three bodies from the smoking wreckage. He wiped his face with the back of his sleeve and bent over, hands on his knees. When he stood up… there, in the midst of the chaos, he saw the cross. A perfectly straight, twenty-foot cross made of cast-iron beams. Silvecchia knelt in the ash and wept.

The cross, it turns out, was not simply two cross beams remaining from one of the buildings. It was formed out of girders from Tower One that crashed into Building Six, shattering in the collapse to create a symmetrical sign in the midst of utter ruin.

In the weeks and months that followed, the cross at Ground Zero became a potent symbol of hope. Hard-hats prayed under it. Victims’ families laid flowers at its base. In a ceremony soon after its discovery, it was blessed with holy water; priests, nuns, pastors, and construction workers sang, “God Bless America” and fire department bagpipes played “Amazing Grace.” In a land where crosses usually dangle from fine gold chains or atop the lovely churches of landscaped suburbs, this cross was different. It was a sign of contradiction, of defiance, of paradox, of hope in the horrific remains of devastation and death.

And in that it had much in common with the bloodstained cross of Golgotha.

“When I first saw it, it took my heart,” Frank Silvecchia said of his discovery of the cross at Ground Zero. “It helped heal the burden of my despair and gave me closure on the whole catastrophe.”

For many, Ground Zero is still  a raw and open wound. But in every such wound, in every catastrophe that has followed September 11, small and large, national and individual, the question is, Where is the good?

Where was God on September 11?

Certainly the “wild truth,” as G. K. Chesterton called Christian theology, can address such questions persuasively, for those who have ears to hear.

But as it was for John (a manager of The Window on the World restaurent in Tower One,  spoken about earlier in the intro, whose life was spared  and wandered into a homeless shelter after the Towers fell,  where an African-American man missing a tooth and obviously very poor, invited him to shower the soot off in the shelter’s shower and then gave John the only other shirt the man owned because John’s was ruined.), the presence of Christ in a broken world is best demonstrated by deeds rather than words. And the challenge for today’s church is not so much convincing skeptics of the truth of the gospel as it is really believing it ourselves. Believing it in the radical way that compels us to be the Body of Christ, undeniably alive in the midst of death and destruction.

That is the improbable plan Christ put in place two thousand years ago, leaving the evidence of His continuing presence in the world in the hands of a motley crew of flawed human beings.

“What about you?” Jesus asked them. “Who do you say I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon, Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.”

Are not these days of the early twenty-first century a season of urgency, shattered complacency, hellish loss… and unprecedented opportunity? If freedom is at war with fear, if catastrophe can turn from death to resurrection, if hope can triumph over despair… if there was ever a time for the church to be the church, it is now.”

No argument.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and A Wish Dream…

An important book for me within the past 5 years has been: Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He writes about the challenges of working out our faith in community with others. Here is an excerpt:

“Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a god of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of dilillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself  becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethern and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for what He has done for us. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by His call, by His forgiveness, and His promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what He does give us daily. And is not what has been given enough: brothers, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of His grace? Is the divine gift of Christian fellowship anything less than this, any day, even the most difficult and distressing day? Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by the one Word and Deed which really binds us together— the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.

In the Christian community thankfulness is just what it is anywhere else in the Christian life. Only he who gives thanks for little things receives the big things. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts He has in store for us, because we do not give thanks for daily gifts. We think we dare not be satisfied with the small measure of spiritual knowledge, experience, and love that has been given to us, and that we must constantly be looking forward eagerly for the highest good. Then we deplore the fact we lack the deep certainty, the strong faith, and the rich experience that God has given to others, and we consider this lament to be pious. We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts. How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things? If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.”

 

I think all of us are guilty of having high expectations for anything calling itself  “Christian.” Whether it be a church, college, business, or whatever. However, a reality of life is that we are all so ingrained with the disease of self-absorption, that we unconsciously expect the world to conform to how we want it to be. We try to control, even as we are unaware we are trying to control. God graciously allows our expectations to go unmet, so we can deal with the disfunction of others and ourselves. We are given the opportunity to love and forgive, and in so doing we experience a better understanding of how God loves and forgives us. And that’s the point of community.

Another Book I’m Reading…

Phillip Keller has been a shepherd, pastor, and held an assortment of other jobs. The favorite of which for me has been shepherd. I originally ran across him when I read his book: A Shepherd Looks At The 23rd Psalm. I love the style with which he writes and love the way he explains the culture of sheep ranchers. The book became part of an idea I had to help people understand the portraits of Christ in the bible by introducing them to the culture from which each portrait came. Most of the United States is no longer an agrarian economy, so much of the language and metaphors used by Jesus and other writers in scripture have lost the power of description in our day. Phillip Keller helps restore the beauty and depth of the portrait of Jesus Christ as “The Good Shepherd.”

Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, I lost the book, so I had to order another paperback by Keller: The Shepherd Trilogy. The book contains two other works also by Keller: ShepA Shepherd Looks At the Good Shepherd and A Shepherd Looks at the Lamb of God.  I am almost finished with the second book and ran across a beautiful passage. I have always been interested in how God interacts with individuals. I grew up in a faith tradition characterized by rules. I have spent the past 7 years, redefining many of the concepts I heard growing up and God has been infusing the redefinitions with grace and love. So when I read the following passage, I was struck with how it encompassed the process of being a follower, friend, and lover of God:

“We are not, as people of His pasture, merely the recipients of good gifts which He dispenses to us in random fashion from afar. To think this way is to be terribly impoverished in our lives.

For much of my early Christian life I laboured under this delusion. To me God was a distant deity. If perchance I needed extra strength or wisdom or patience to face some perplexing problem, He who resided off in the immensity of space somewhere could be appealed to for help and support in my dilemma. If my conduct was commendable He would condescend to comply with my requests. If all went well He might just drop down a bit of wisdom or strength or patience to meet my need for the moment.

To imagine or assume that this is abundant life, or abundant living, is a caricature of the true Christian life. Yet multitudes of God’s people struggle along this way. Their lives are impotent and impoverished because of it.

The simple truth is that the abundant, dynamic life of God can be ours continuously. It is not something handed out in neat little packages as we pray for it sporadically.

A man or woman has the life of God to the extent that he or she has God. We have the peace of God to the extent that we experience the presence of Christ. We enjoy the joy of the Lord to the degree we are indwelt by the very Spirit of God. We express the love of God to the measure we allow ourselves to be indwelt by God Himself.

God is not ‘way out there somewhere.’ He is here! He not only resides within anyone who will receive Him, but equally important is the fact that He completely enfolds and surrounds us with His presence. He is the essence of both our inner life and outer life. ‘O God, You are here! O Christ, You have come that I might have abundant life. O gracious Spirit, You are as invisible as the wind yet as real as the air that surrounds me, which I inhale to energize my body! You are within and without.’

‘It is in You, O my God, that I live and move and have my being. You are the environment from which my total life is derived. You are the energy and dynamic of my whole being. Every good and every perfect bestowal is derived from You. The vitality of my spirit, the energy of my emotions, the drive of my disposition, the powerful potential of my mind, the vigour of my body; in fact, every facet of my total, abundant life is a reflection of Your life, O Lord, being lived out in me and through me.’

To become aware of this is to become charged mightily with the  abundant life of God, in Christ, by His Spirit. This is to experience being ‘in Christ,’ and ‘Christ in me.’ This is to know God. This is to enjoy eternal life, the life of the eternal One being expressd through my person. This is, as Paul put it, ‘knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection.’

This life of God, given so freely to us in and undiminished supply from an inexhatstible source, is not intended to end in us. We are not an end in ourselves. The abundant outpouring of God’s life to His people is intended to be an overflowing, out-giving, ongoing disposal of His benefits to others around us. More than this, it is designed to bring pleasure, delight, and blessing back to our Lord Himself. It is not just a case of His blessings being bestowed on us, but also our abundant lives in return being a blessing to Him.

The full and complete awareness of this concept of abundant Christian living can come to us only as we grasp the nature and character of God, our Father. The scriptures reveal Him to be love. By that is meant not a selfish, self-indulgent, sentimental love, but its opposite.

The love of God spoken of so extensively is total selflessness. It is God, in Christ, sharing Himself with us unhesitatingly. It is He giving Himself in glad, wholehearted abandonment to us. It is God pouring Himself out for His people. It is God losing Himself in our little lives that we might know the abundance of His life. It is God giving Himself to us without measure in overflowing abundance so that in turn His life spills out from ours to go running over our weary old world in streams of refreshing.

The life of God comes to us in many ways. So majestic and marvellous are they that this little book cannot begin to list or catalogue them all. The life of God given to men is the same life that energizes the entire cosmos. It sustains the universe. It is the essence of being.The best a mere mortal can to is to go quietly to some place, still, alone, there to meditate before the spendour of our God.

I sense something of His glory in the wonders of the world He made: the flaming sunrises and sunsets that still the soul; the awesome grandeur of mighty mountain ranges and sweeping plains; the restless roar of ocean waves and winds and tides; the fragrance of forests or the green glory of rich grasslands; the austere stillness and rugged solitude of gaunt deserts; the delicate beauty of flowers, trees, and shrubs; the incredible diversity of insects, birds, and mammals; the beauty of sun and cloud, snow and rain.

All of these contribute something to the total environment which supports and sustains me. Each in its own way contributes to the well-being of my person. They energize and feed my body. They stimulate and quicken my soul. They enrich my spirit. They make me what I am…a man sensitive, receptive, and alive to the world around me— my Father’s world— His provision for my well-being, joy, and abundant life. He has come. He has made it all possible. He has put it at my disposal for full and enriched living.

All that is sublime, beautiful, dignified, noble and grand has this as its source. The finest in our literature,  music, arts, science, and social intercourse has its base in the generous giving of our Lord. All that contributes to our physical health, energy, and acumen as individuals is grounded in the good gifts and undiminished life of God poured out to us upon the planet.

And yet in His magnanimous and magnificent generosity He does not just leave it at that. God has deliberately chosen to articulate Himself in terms I can comprehend. He has spoken. His word has been received, recorded, and reproduced in human writing. He has not withheld His will or wishes from us earthlings in mystical obscurity. It is possible to know precisely what He is like. He has articulated Himself in meticulous terms understandable to man. He has given us clear and concise self-revelations as to His gracious character, impeccable conduct, and friendly conversation. We know who it is with whom we have to do. He does not deal with us according to our foibles and failings, but in amazing mercy and gracious kindness, as our Father.

As though all of this is not enough, He has gone even further in coming to us as God in man. He, the living God in Christ, has come among us, wholly identified with us in our human condition and human dilemma. He has not spared Himself. He was born among us, lived among us, worked among us, served among us, taught among us, died among us, rose among us, and ascended among us to reclaim and repossess His place of prominence.

All of this He did willingly and gladly to deliver us from the plight of our own peril upon the planet. He came to set us free from the folly and foibles of our own perverseness and pride. He gave His life to redeem us from our slavery to sin and selfish self-interests and Satan. He gave Himself to seek and to save us who were lost. He came to call us to Himself. He came to gather us into His family to enfold us in His flock. He gave Himself to make us His own, the recipients of His own abundant, abounding life.

To those few, and they are relatively few, who have responded to His overtures, He still comes, even today, and gives Himself to us by His gracious Spirit. He is with us. He is our counsellor. He is our companion. He is our ‘alongside one.’ He is our comforter. He is our closest friend. He is here in rich and wondrous intimacy.

‘I am come that you might have life, My life, and that you might have it in overflowing abundance.’ These are still His words to us today.

Being Christian is so much more than rules which bring argument and frustration. It is living in the manner we were designed. Living in relationship with God. And we enter it by believing it is possible and openning our minds, emotions, and lives to the God that is there.

Deep Survival…

Last Wednesday evening, I went to a meet-n-greet  at a church I’ve begun to attend.  We gather every Wednesday for three weeks to meet other new people, some regular attenders, and members of the church staff. We met in a coffee shop in the church and sat at round tables seating 6 people per table. I was at a table with a couple in their thirties with kids, who were new to the church. The other couple at the table were older than I, but not much. They had been attending for a year or so, but were fairly new to the Kansas City area. They originally lived in Hayes, Kansas and had for their whole lives, so were suffering suburban culture shock.

 One of the ice-breakers they used was to have each table plan a trip. We had to decide our destination, how we would get there, and what route we would take. The group I was in decided we would go to the mountains of Southern California by way of Washington state. We decided to travel by RV with tents so those who wanted comfort were happy and those liking it a little rougher were also satisfied. We decided to take turns driving, and once we got to Seattle, we would travel down the Pacific coast. We did say our destination was Big Bear, California… I don’t really know where that is, but I figured I could find it with a map. We decided to take our time and not stop for every largest-ball-of-rolled-up-string, yet stop where we could take time photographing the beauty of nature, because there were other photography hobbiests in the group. The fantasy was fun. After a few minutes, the pastor leading the activity introduced the point behind our fantasy trip. He introduced 4 categories within which he suggested people fell into when it came to faith in Christ. Our next task as a table, was to identify which group we each were in……

The people were all nice, the atmosphere light and friendly, the deserts good… a relaxed vibe….. But….

If I were someone with no church background and apprehensive with meeting christians in a foreign environment… I don’t think I would feel comfortable with such immediate forced intimacy, let alone have no life experiences to be able to answer the question, so I would sit there feeling very awkward.

Secondly, I have a distinct problem with trying to divide my spiritual journey into categories. Do we really ever know what category we are in? I much prefer the metaphor of relationship when referring to matters of faith or that of a journey. Yet even those metaphors only give a dim presentation of a life of faith.  So, I understood what they were trying to get us to do: quantify where we were on that day in our journey of faith, and then to define a destination. And that’s a good practice.

During discussion about what category we each fell in, I refused to follow the rules of defining my relationship with God according to a category. I started to talk about a relational journey. The older guy at my table started to interact with me about the journey metaphor and where he was in life. He was now living in an area very foreign to him, and was trying to adapt. I also got the distinct impression that he, too, was going through the re-evaluation that is common at mid-life. I mentioned that sometimes when our destination is Seattle, Washington and we think we are in Helena, Montana, we suddenly find that we are actually in Lincoln, Nebraska. Sometimes we think we are much further down the road in life than we actually are. I said that I believed when we hit our 40’s, one of things that happens is that we actually start to look around to see where we are. Life has begun to slow down a little. The kids are older, and more self-sufficient. We have been in the grinder of work and financial pressure for long enough to become wiser about what is really valuable, and what only appears valuable. So we stop to evaluate where we are…. Are we happy? Are we living according to our giftedness? What have we valued in our lives previously and do the values have long term worth? What about our relationships?

Tim Keel, a wonderful christian communicator and former pastor of Jacob’s Well in KC, introduced me to a book I am going to buy: Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales. The book relates the process of getting lost in the wilderness, and how people respond. The other day, I found it in Border’s and began to thumb through it. A great read.  Although I haven’t  gone into the depth of the book, yet, some things jumped out to me about what happens to a person in the process of getting lost.  One concept which is very basic to life and also to someone going into the wilderness is a mental map. We each make a mental map: “a schematic of an area or a route” which guides us in our daily lives. As we travel a route more frequently, our mental map is laid down  in the hippocampus region of the brain repeatedly and we are able to retrieve the map with greater ease. Actually, if the hippocampus region is injured, in particular a specific region of the hippocampus, our ability to form a mental map is compromised, and we will always lose our way. The problem with a person getting lost is that the mental map they have formed doesn’t fit the actual map. This can happen for a variety of reasons: taking a wrong trail, not sure of the destination, not certain of the route, etc. So they think they are going in the right direction, but aren’t. They begin “map bending,” trying to make the location they are actually in fit their mental map. As they try to make the two fit, they frequently begin travelling more quickly, thinking, “…it’s just over this next hill…” yet it isn’t and anxiety begins to affect their decisions.  The best way to regain congruence between the mental map and real map is to retrace their steps to a location they are sure of.

In explaining the process of getting lost, Gonzales shares the story of a particular hiker: Killip.

“Psychologists who study the behavior of people who get lost report that very few ever back track. (The eyes look forward into real or imagined worlds.) In Killip’s case, there were other factors, too. He’s walked all day, exhausted, dehydrated, cold, and wet, probably now feeling like a fool in York’s (a friend who left him because he was moving too slow) eyes. He’d come a very long way, and his gut told him that it would be a long and painful way back, which would not lead back to water. Rock Lake (and rest and water) had to be close at hand. If he’d been able to reason more clearly, he could have understood that he was not on the route to Rock Lake. But logic was rapidly being pushed into the background by emotion and stress. So, by the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other, he was about to cross over from mild geographical confusion to a state of being genuinely lost.”

My personal story is that, at the age of 45, I believed I was in one place, i.e. Helena, Montana, but was actually in Topeka, Kansas when I was trying to find Seattle, Washington. I was married, with one child about to finish high school and the other about to begin high school. I had a good job and a hope of getting more involved in ministry according to the way God designed me. But that was my mental map… that’s not where I actually was. The landscape of my world completely changed in the space of a couple of months, yet I tried to deal with it according to my mental map. I was in denial and continued to live as if the old reality was still in place. I kept putting one foot in front of the other for 2 years, until it became obvious that I was lost in a place I had no understanding of.  So I have begun the process of going back in order to go forward. I have returned to being single, although we won’t actually file for divorce until the first day of next month, I am single in every way except the legal paperwork. I am one year of high school away from being an empty nester. Thankfully, I have a good relationship with my kids and love being together with them. My major purpose has been to back track to find who God made me to be. I am finding that, although I admit that I still struggle with finding my identity and worth from the opinions of  others, or at least my perceptions of those opinions, my mental map and reality are closer. I am getting healthier. Times of solitude, although forced upon me, are allowing me to talk to God, the map maker.

I have stopped, regained my bearings by back tracking, and am close to going forward.