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.