Monday, January 7, 2013

A Journey without Maps

The 20th Century theologian Paul Tillich said that the life of faith is a journey without maps. This certainly squares with my experience. If you are signing on to follow Jesus so that your life will be predictable, you are going to be disappointed. In fact, little about life is predictable except its unpredictability. Sure, day in and day out we may face a steady diet of fastball pitches right over the plate; pitches that we can handle with ease. But experience tells us that a day will come when we get a curve ball or a slider or an off-speed pitch or a knuckleball or one that is hard, high, and tight aimed at the chin. We don’t know when it is coming, but we know that it will. All we can do is react in the moment to what is. This, I think, is what Tillich meant when he said that the life of faith is a journey without maps.

Perhaps he had the magi in mind when he made his observation. These stargazers certainly lived faith without a map. They were spiritual, open, scholarly, generous, adventurous, trusting. Following the path of a single, bright star in the western sky is a pretty vivid image of a mapless journey. In the course of making their way they encounter their mirror opposite in Herod. He is practical, exacting, controlling, fearful, ruthless, duplicitous, and totally invested in maintaining the status quo, which benefits him at the expense of others. For Herod, life is a not a journey without maps, but rather a self-serving plan that he controls.

How exotic that caravan must have appeared as the camel-carried-foreigners made their way into Jerusalem proper! The city must have been buzzing with news of its arrival and speculation regarding its mission. Stargazers have a way of unnerving rule-makers just as people who live life without maps have a way of unsettling those who think they can dictate every pitch’s speed and location over the plate. The mapless journey of the magi led them to a house. There they encounter a mother and child. They pay homage to the child and present him with gifts. Herod follows a map of his own making, the one that marks the way to the destiny he desires. His map directs him to destroy the child, and just to make sure he gets the job done, he orders the slaughter of every boy under the age of two in the region.

The faith-filled journey takes many different shapes and patterns, as you might expect. The star to light the way appears at different times and in a myriad of circumstances. For the last week or so I have been meditating on a poem by the Australian writer Judith Wright titled “Grace”. In it she describes how the star most often appears for her and I think to all of us:

Living is a dailiness, a simple bread
That’s worth eating. But I have known a wine,
A drunkenness that can’t be spoken or sung
Without betraying it. Far past Yours or Mine
Even past Ours, it has nothing at all to say;
It slants a sudden laser through a common day.

It seems to have nothing to do with things at all,
Requires another element or dimension.
Not contemplation brings it; it merely happens,
Past expectation and beyond intention;
Takes over the depth of flesh, the inward eye,
Is there, then vanishes. Does not live or die,
Because it occurs beyond the here and now,
Positives, negatives, what we hope and are.
Not even being in love, or making love,
Brings it. It plunges a sword from a dark star.

Maybe there was once a word for it. Call it grace.
I have seen it, once or twice, through a human face.

There are times when a faith-filled journey without maps presents a very ordinary opportunity in the midst what Wright calls “dailiness.” But this moment is anything from ordinary for it “slants a sudden laser through a common day.” We don’t conjure it through contemplation. In fact there is nothing about it we control. She says that this grace comes to us through a human face.

I think I know what she is describing. It is what happens when we lay aside our plans, our work, our chores, our tasks, our duties, even if only for a few moments, and give our attention to the unexpected encounter with another person. Grace is found not by crossing off everything on our to-do list, but by putting aside our daily map at the unexpected appearance of a star in the sky. It might be a co-worker who is carrying a burden, or child who wants to share a newly discovered wonder or friend who wants to relax for a minute or two. When that sudden laser comes slanting through a common day, roll up you map, tuck it away for a while, and let the moment take you where it will.

That is perhaps the best description of what happened here yesterday morning as we gathered to celebrate the life of Madison Mottley’s mother, Michele. The moment took us where it will, slanting a sudden laser through a common day. If you wonder what it means to live a life of faith as a journey without maps, you need look no further than ten-year-old Madison. Her courage, her joy, and her desire to draw us all in to a celebration of life are something those of us at the service will never forget. Think about it: we didn’t sing,

This little map of mine,
I’m going to let it lead the way.

No, we sang:

This little light of mine,
I’m going to let it shine.

And yesterday, no one’s light was shining brighter than Madison’s.

Judith Wright holds that moments like yesterday happen behind our expectation and beyond our control, and I think she is right about that. And yet, there is something important about beginning each day ready for the possibility that a star just might appear in the western sky. A few weeks back I shared with you a piece by Kenneth Phifer from his work A Book of Uncommon Prayers. Here is another, titled “Morning Again,” that highlights a need we all have to be open to the day:

How great you are, O God.
You can draw beauty out of barrenness,
courage out of fear,
and love out of loneliness.
You can make darkness as light
and silence as singing.
You can help me handle my troubles
or learn to live with them
when they cannot be handled.
You can make each day a miracle of grace
and fill each night with music.
You understand even my failures to respond to life
as our Lord Jesus did.
You keep pressing in upon me with your forgiveness
and offering new chances.
Give me the courage
to accept the chances that are mine this day.
Stir in me an eagerness for life
and a new openness to love.
Deepen my ability to appreciate ordinary gifts
and extraordinary evidences of grace.
Sweep me clean of the petty harassments
that so often set the tone for my daily living.

I have been using this prayer each morning for a while now. Each petition is so real, offered from what feels like a place of deep honesty. Nowhere in it is the suggestion, “And God, this is how I envision you addressing my request.” It is a prayer that says, “Take me where I am, as I am, and get me to a place of light and life using the path of your own choosing.” If this is your prayer than you are opening yourself to a journey without maps.

Sometimes this journey helps us to find faith-filled moments in the midst of ordinary dailiness. Other times it leads us on a dangerous yet dazzling quest for wholeness and new life. No matter where we are on this journey there is light and there is grace. We are always being led to that place where we can give homage to One in whom we live and move and have our being.