Setting Out / Coming Home

Image by Tevaprapas Makklay. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons on 10/14/2012

In the first pages of his classic book, Orthodoxy, the twentieth century British journalist G.K. Chesterton outlines the plot of a novel he would like to write:

I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas. I always find, however, that I am either too busy or too lazy to write this fine work, so I may as well give it away for the purposes of philosophical illustration. There will probably be a general impression that the man who landed (armed to the teeth and talking by signs) to plant the British flag on that barbaric temple which turned out to be the Pavilion at Brighton, felt rather a fool. I am not here concerned to deny that he looked a fool. But if you imagine that he felt a fool, or at any rate that the sense of folly was his sole or his dominant emotion, then you have not studied with sufficient delicacy the rich romantic nature of the hero of this tale. His mistake was really a most enviable mistake; and he knew it, if he was the man I take him for. What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again? What could be better than to have all the fun of discovering South Africa without the disgusting necessity of landing there? What could be more glorious than to brace one’s self up to discover New South Wales and then realize, with a gush of happy tears, that it was really old South Wales. This at least seems to me the main problem for philosophers, and is in a manner the main problem of this book. How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it? How can this queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens, with its monstrous and ancient lamps, how can this world give us at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honour of being our own town?

I love this passage.  For me, it really captures what my own spiritual journey has been like: simultaneously setting out to explore places where I’ve never been before and returning home to the place where I’ve been all along.

This is one of the great paradoxes of spirituality.  Authentic spirituality is often characterized by paradox (i.e. truth in apparent contradiction).  Christian spirituality in particular is no stranger to paradox: we believe that Christ is both fully divine and fully human, God (as conceived in the Holy Trinity) is both three and one, the elements of Communion are both bread & wine and flesh & blood.  Paradox is the air in which we live and breathe.  Therefore, it should come as no surprise that we are able to conceive of the spiritual journey as both a setting out and a coming home.

We Christians have often made use of journey imagery as well, especially when it comes to our spirituality.  Just think about some of the classics of Christian religious literature: Dante’s Divine Comedy is a fantastical journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven.  John Bunyan’s allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress, is the story of a journey.  Even in the Bible itself, the Christian life is described as “following Jesus” and those who walk this path are referred to as “followers of the Way”.  Keep that in mind when you hear the opening words of today’s gospel reading, which sets the scene for Christ’s encounter with the rich man as Jesus is “setting out on a journey”.  The setting for this story is the open road, where people are traveling together toward some other destination.

Where are they going?  The text doesn’t say explicitly.  The important fact seems to be that they are traveling.  However, I think we can understand this journey metaphorically as a symbol of the great spiritual journey.  If such is true, then the journey’s destination is implied no less than three times during this passage.  It’s described as: eternal life, the kingdom of God, and salvation.

At the beginning, the rich man asks Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Later on Jesus comments, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”  Finally, the disciples ask in desperation, “Then who can be saved?”

Eternal life, kingdom of God, and salvation: these three ideas are pretty common to discussions of Christianity.  Most of the time, people talk about them in reference to the ideas of immortality and life after death.  They would say that we receive salvation so that we can have eternal life in the kingdom of God (a.k.a. the kingdom of heaven).

The afterlife discussion is certainly an important one, but I’m not going to have it here.  I think these ideas have a much broader definition and a much deeper application than simply as speculative statements about what happens after human beings physically die.  I think the ideas of eternal life, the kingdom of God, and salvation have much more to do with the quality of life we have here and now in this world.

Eternal life, for instance, has less to do with length of days (i.e. life that lasts forever and ever) and more to do with the kind of life one is living.  In John’s gospel, Jesus talks about abundant life, which is a similar idea.  He’s talking about the life that’s really living and not just surviving or existing.  One can see why the rich man might have been interested in discussing this subject with Jesus.  After all, he was wealthy, successful, and religious.  By anyone’s account, this guy had it all and had it all together.  By all accounts, he was an icon of the ideal life for first century Jews.  However, this same successful guy knew deep down that he had not managed to silence that inner voice of uneasiness or fill the void of emptiness.  He knew that, in spite of his relative comfort and devout observance of tradition, he wasn’t yet living, he was still simply surviving and “getting by” (even though he seemed to be doing a better job at that than most of his peers).  The question he brings to Jesus was born out of intense existential anxiety and a hunger for real life.

We can also look at the deeper meaning of the kingdom of God.  God’s kingdom is not a place in heaven or on earth, but a way of being in the world.  In the words of biblical scholar Marcus Borg, the kingdom of God is God’s vision of what this world would be like if God were allowed to be in charge instead of the powers that be who currently run things.  According to Jesus, the kingdom of God is a state of affairs where “the last will be first and the first will be last.”  When God’s dream comes true, when God’s vision becomes a reality on this earth, relationships characterized by domination and exploitation are redefined and turned upside down.  Anyone who enters into this reality (this way of being in the world) no longer recognizes the artificial and hierarchical distinctions we humans construct along the lines of gender, race, and social class.  As the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  As the old social pecking order is dismantled in the kingdom of God, people begin to recognize one another as family, co-equal brothers and sisters: children of God.  With this end-result in mind, it makes sense then that Jesus would advise the rich man, “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  Jesus was inviting the rich man to let go of these old status symbols and enter into this new way of being in the world that recognizes the drunken bum sleeping under a park bench as his brother.

Finally, let’s look at the other word that appears in this passage: salvation.  This word, more than any other, is most often used to describe one’s religious affiliation and presumed status in the afterlife.  Many folks say, “Hallelujah, I’ve been saved!”  Some ask, “Have you been saved?  Do you want to be saved?”  When we use this word in such a limited and narrow sense, we miss the deep nuance implied by its use elsewhere in the Bible.  Most often, the word saved refers to deliverance or liberation.  For Jewish people (including the apostle Paul and Jesus himself), the central story of salvation is the ancient legend of God, through Moses, liberating the Hebrew people from slavery and genocide in the land of Egypt.  In the New Testament, the Greek word Sozo (i.e. save) can also be translated as heal or make well.  So, when Jesus goes around healing people, the text literally says that he is saving them from their illnesses.  So, when Jesus challenges the rich man to let go of possessions, he is trying to set this man free for a life of real wholeness and well-being.  This is what it means to be saved or experience salvation.

So then, let me sum up our new and deeper definition of these three ideas: eternal life, kingdom of God, and salvation.  You and I are being set free so that we can experience a new way of being in the world that empowers us to really come alive instead of just surviving.

Eternal life, kingdom of God, salvation: that’s the destination, the end point, of the spiritual journey.  But as we said back at the beginning, the setting out is also a coming home.  We are only reconnecting with that which is deepest within each of us and has been all along.

This is why, I think, Jesus was able to look at this rich man and “love him”, as the text says.  I don’t think Jesus was all that intimidated by the rich man’s reticence to give up his earthly possessions.  Jesus didn’t fear for this man because he (Jesus) knew that the answers this man was searching for already existed inside him.  The text says that this man “went away” from Jesus, but it never says that Jesus stopped loving him.  It says that the rich man was “grieved” at Jesus’ words, but it never says that Jesus did likewise.  I like to imagine Jesus quietly smiling as the man walks away, trusting that “for God all things are possible” and slyly knowing that this man’s journey would one day lead him back to the place where he started: with himself.

The rich man in this story, with his life of material success and religious observance, knew an awful lot about having and doing, but very little about being.  He came to Jesus with the question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He felt like he was “lacking” something, but he didn’t know what.  Jesus’ advice to this rich man involved a letting go of both having and doing in favor of just being.

It was obviously a letting go of having because Jesus advised him to give away what he owned.  Less obviously, it was also a letting go of doing because Jesus asked this person to complete an impossible task.  “For mortals it is impossible,” Jesus said, “but not for God; for God all things are possible.”  In order for the rich man to let go of having, he will also have to let go of doing.  He will have to just “let go and let God,” as they say.

You and I are no different.  Like the rich man in this story, we live in a society that trains us to identify ourselves by the things we have and the things we do.  We hold on to having and doing and so we forget all about being.  As a result, we are slaves to survival.  We need to be set free so that we can experience a new way of being in the world that empowers us to really come alive instead of just surviving.  We need to experience eternal life, the kingdom of God, and salvation.  We need to set aside time to just be, to adopt a regular posture of non-doing and non-having.  We need to allow our souls to embark on this incredible journey of simultaneously setting out and returning home.

Personally, I have found that the best way for me to adopt a posture of being and non-doing is by setting aside time for regular meditation practice.  I can’t say that I’ve fully entered into this peace of being as  of yet, but I do feel like this practice has been helpful to me in my journey.  Maybe it will be helpful to you as well.  There are no special chants or postures in meditation as I practice it.  I simply sit upright in a straight-back chair with my hands in my lap and my feet flat on the floor.  I let myself become still and quiet to the point where I begin to notice my own unconscious breathing.  I focus my attention on the rhythm of my abdomen as it expands and contracts with each breath.  Whenever my mind begins to wander, I calmly remind myself to focus on the breath.  If I have to do this a hundred times, so be it.  I just keep gently redirecting my attention back to my breathing.  I try to do this for about twenty minutes or so a day.  If you don’t think you have that kind of time or patience, try it for a shorter period.  As Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Any practice is better than no practice.”  If five minutes a day is all you can manage, then go for it.  Given time, you just might find yourself longing and ready for more.

Just be.  Let go of having and doing.  Herein lies eternal life, the kingdom of God, and salvation.  This is the whole agenda.  It is the beginning and the end of your spiritual journey.  That which you seek is already within you.

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