WHY THE CHRISTIAN JOURNEY IS MORE LIKE THE FILM ‘PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES’ THAN WE IMAGINE
The life of faith is not anywhere near as linear and seamless as we would like. Here’s why.
The metaphors we use in the Christian faith are not always as thought through as they might be. One of the best examples is where the life of faith is described as a journey. We like it because if conjures up images of a restorative walk through a quiet pastoral scene of rolling hills, gentle streams and grazing cattle. But how many of your journeys in life consist of this?
Many people commute to work on a train. Half the year it is dark when they leave home and dark when they get back. There are routine delays but you can never predict what they will look like. The platform is windswept and cold, you’re standing in a crowd but feel strangely alone, for no-one is interested in the other person and will fight them for the remaining seats. Many of your journeys are made standing up.
Sometimes the journey is made on a plane. This takes the art of waiting to a new level. Lots of preparation goes into being ready to fly: the check in, long corridors, capacious lounges, endless waits and security checks. Before you even board the plane, you feel exhausted. Journeying in the Christian life can be similar. We spend copious time sitting around, drinking coffee and talking to one another. Then a short time later we can be whisked away at giddying speeds and heights. It can feel like God is doing nothing in your life one day, then the next there is momentous surge.
Most of our journeys are made in cars and the longer ones are made on motorways. These are monotonous and boring. We start them with some energy, enthusiasm and conversation but eventually these reserves run out. Our brain becomes unproductive and repetitive in its thinking patterns and we get dehydrated in a way we would never allow at home. A stint ministering in a church can deliver this, sadly. Life feels monochrome, vanilla. We stop searching for God’s surprises and soon don’t find them. We become careless over being filled with the Holy Spirit, the spring of living water that wells up to eternal life – rather like the passengers who stop drinking water on their journey.
The former Governor of New York, Mario Cuomo said of politics that ‘you campaign in poetry and you govern in prose’. The vision and rhetorical flourishes used on the stump to get elected is necessarily replaced by the technocratic and incremental process of policy making which must compromise to make progress. There is a risk in our Christian life that, having been called in poetry by God, we then go on to serve him in prose, not sharing the depths of the love of God because we lost the muse along the way and got bogged down in the detail.
Planes, trains and automobiles. Hopefully our experience of the faith as a journey doesn’t quite succumb to the nadir of Steve Martin in the eponymous film where his attempt to get home in time for Thanksgiving is almost intentionally thwarted at every turn by events beyond his control. Of all things, it’s that sense of not being in control that leads to discouragement and, if we’re not careful, despair. Yet look at the journeys made by the faithful in the Bible and you meet with people who are not in control and often suffer for it.
Abraham was called by God to leave his family and his country and go ‘to the land that I will show you’. He was 75 years old, wealthy, settled, loved. And he staked all this on a word from the Lord, like a gambler putting all his money on one spin of the roulette. In our risk averse, cautiously audited culture, this journey would not have been made. I had a train mad friend at school who loved the mystery one day train trips British Rail would lay on for train buffs where you would pay your money but not know your destination, only guessing at it as the stations passed you by. Except you did know your destination, because at the end of the day you would return home. Not like Abraham. As the lyrics of U2’s ‘Walk On’ say:
You’re packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been,
a place that has to be believed to be seen.
They are words that could have been written for Abraham.
Joseph was even less in control of his destiny. He may have dreamed it, but he lived a different reality. Tired of his perceived narcissism, his brothers quarrelled over whether to kill him, only to traffic him opportunistically to the nearest passing caravan of travellers. At two further turns, just as his life was looking up, it came crashing down. First, his status as a minority ethnic domestic worker is abused by the woman he was working for and he is found guilty on a trumped-up rape charge. Then, after languishing hopelessly in nasty prison, he sees a serious opening via the newly released cup bearer to Pharaoh. But he forgets his promise to Joseph and the story tells us Joseph remained despairingly in prison for two more years. What was the point of that extra time inside? We have no idea, except to wait for the day when Pharaoh would dream again. There are times in ministry when we live those two years, and are tempted to think we are uniquely picked on and there is no purpose to our ministry. Joseph is our forerunner. It may not answer our question ‘why’ but it shows us we are not alone. There was hardly any way in which Joseph could have been fruitful for God in that time. Sometimes that may be true of us, hard as it is to admit. We must hold on to those mysterious, hopeful, romantic words of Joseph: ‘God meant it for good’.
David was taken from the shepherd’s field to the King’s palace via a dramatic penalty shoot out with Goliath. His was the most giddying upwardly mobile trajectory. Nearness to power is an incalculably valuable asset if you want to get on, and David had it in spades. But he may have lacked the nous to know it is not a clever career move to outshine the one you work for. Perhaps he couldn’t help himself; he certainly couldn’t vouch for the unstable Saul, whose murderous psychosis drove him from the palace to the cave. A cold, dank, unyielding place that must have felt a harbinger for the tomb Saul wanted to put him in. Dare I say it, but the trajectory of ministry in a church can be like this, and sometimes you don’t know how it started or where it might stop. We retreat to a metaphorical cave and hide there, which can have real implications for how we live.
Jonah’s is perhaps the best known biblical journey. His encounter with the whale is the only known angle on the story for most people, but it is what it says about the character and calling of God and the venality yet the validity of the minister of grace which is more important. Jonah knew God only too well: that he would end up being the vessel of God’s mercy to a nation which had cruelly violated his own. Though Jonah is not an especially likeable character, I have much sympathy for him. I think we all know what it’s like to want to be somewhere else when we sense God wants us in a particular place. We feel constrained, hemmed in. The very things that lead us to praise God: his all-encompassing love, give us no leeway when it comes to sharing it with others. How do you argue and barter with God when you have already surrendered your life to him? It can feel so unfair. We may always have choices, but like Jonah, there seems to be no escape in practice. Jonah suffered indignity and wallowed in self-pity. It wasn’t pretty, yet God was still able to use him powerfully.
Paul’s is the story to finish this tour of the Bible with. Not his interrupted journey to Damascus, which is as close to an extraordinary rendition as you can find in the Bible, though Jonah runs him close. Instead, his encounter with the prophet Agabus. In Acts 21, Paul is staying at the house of Philip in Caesarea. He is planning to visit Jerusalem. Paul and Jerusalem were a toxic mix and there was every chance it would end badly. It can’t have been easy for Paul, waiting for the moment, knowing he would probably suffer badly for it. Then along comes Agabus. Taking Paul’s belt – in the time-honoured graphic of the prophet – he binds his hands and feet and says this is what the Jews of Jerusalem will do to him before handing him over to the Gentiles. So, a nice word of encouragement for Paul from a man whose prediction of the regional famine had saved many lives and given him impeccable credentials.
That phrase: ‘hand him over to the Gentiles’ carried the memory of Jesus’ death on the cross. The prophecy was clear: ‘this is your end, Paul; God has told me it’. Except he hadn’t. Agabus was wrong. Yes, Paul caused a riot in Jerusalem – anyone could have predicted that – but rather than being handed over to the Gentiles, the Gentiles saved Paul’s life from the mob. Sometimes, people are wrong in the things they say to you about God’s work in your life even though they think they are entirely right. This is the cautionary note of this story.
We are all on a journey and it looks different in each case. Some of us will get off this train to make another connection that will take us somewhere else entirely. And the backdrop to the changes we ponder may be suffused with some painful feelings of boredom, inertia, despair or that simple yet pervasive mid-life existential anxiety that the train is stopped for no obvious reason.
Whatever perception we have of our ministry – and especially how fruitful it has been or not been – I am sure of one thing: I don’t think we will have called it quite right. The Kingdom of God is being built up in our ministry even when we don’t know it. Things are happening of lasting value but we don’t see it. Some of the things we think are lasting, won’t be. Mary’s song shows us that the world to come will be inverted and full of surprises. I suspect many of these surprises will make us overjoyed.
This calls for some humility and honesty on our part. The honesty asks us to dispense with our insecurities. We shouldn’t ‘big up’ our work and its outcomes. Let it speak for itself. Let others praise us, if they are going to; what matters is our continuing fidelity to God. This, radical, honesty is vital to our interpretation of the changes God may be bringing us to the point of.
A surprising amount of time in ministry is spent rehearsing the words of the Clash: should I stay or should I go? This is an intuitive process and, ultimately, God is going to reveal it most fully to us rather than to anyone else. It’s not that we shouldn’t listen to others – far from it - but they do not organise our calling, any more than Agabus had control of Paul’s diary.
There are biblical examples of staying: Ruth, perhaps. And examples of going: Abraham, spectacularly. In determining this, the words of Romans 12 are so important. It is as we present ourselves as living sacrifices that we are most able to interpret the good, pleasing and acceptable will of God. It is when we say ‘here I am, Lord’ that he is most likely to send us. But if the biblical examples we have looked at say anything, it is that the journey will not be anywhere near as linear, seamless and predictable as we would like.
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