Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Journey

The journey is a story motif going back as far as we have narrative writings. Gilgamesh journeys into the afterlife. Odysseus travels back home from the Trojan war. The knights of the Round Table set off on a quest for the Holy Grail. Frodo takes the ring to Mordor and returns to the shire. Dorothy goes off to see the wizard so she find her way home.

It is also a motif in many stories of the Bible. Abram heeds God's call and leaves his home to go to the land of Canaan. Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt and to the Jordan River, the boundary of the promised land. Jesus spreads the good news all over Galilee and then sets his face toward Jerusalem and the cross.

Joseph Campbell saw these all as examples of the archetypal hero's quest. The hero answers the call to adventure, leaves home, receives supernatural aid, crosses a threshold into an otherworldly realm or even the underworld, faces challenges and temptations, spiritually and possibly physically undergoes death and rebirth, is transformed, achieves a great victory, and returns home triumphantly, with the power to bestow boons upon his fellow human beings.

I was thinking about these themes and tropes as my wife and I traveled to our hometown for family and business and back these last 2 weeks. We too faced challenges and temptations along the way, like the challenge of navigating Miami's highway system. We received nearly supernatural aid in the form of the Waze app on our phones, which plots trips, warns you of hazards, obstacles and traffic and tells you out loud where to turn. Our phones' weather app also warned us of the rain and frigid temperatures we would encounter up north. The temptation was to not venture out, rather than, say, walk to church in 40 degree weather.

There wasn't much of a mythic nature to our journey, though I did return with a boon of sorts. After being installed as Episcopal Dean of the Florida Keys, I represent the Keys and voice the local churches' concerns to the Diocese. I also relay the decisions and policies of the Executive Board and the Bishop to the clergy and parishes of the Keys.

Jesus' life and journey was obviously an influence on Campbell's formulation of the hero's journey or monomyth as he called it. Jesus' life definitely fits the basic structure of Campbell's paradigm. He is called by the Spirit of God to preach the gospel. He met with challenges and temptations. He actually died and was resurrected. And he returned with the power to grant boons to all who come to him, especially the ultimate boon, eternal life. (By the way, the Greek word for gospel is in fact a term for the announcement of a great victory as well as the reward given for good news.)

The Christian life is often spoken of as a journey or pilgrimage. We are called by God to the high adventure of following Jesus. It may or may not mean we have to leave our home but we do have to leave our comfort zone. Following Jesus means leaving behind the comforting illusion of always being right. Jesus challenges our assumptions about the world, our values and ourselves. He challenges the notion that we are in charge of our lives. He challenges the idea that we own anything or that our time is ours to use as we will. The call to follow Jesus is a call to leave behind comfortable conceits and to rough it spiritually, discovering our strengths and weaknesses and the resources that are ours in Christ.

The Christian does receive supernatural aid on his journey, to face the challenges and temptations along the way, in the form of God's Holy Spirit. He guides us, equips us, empowers us, and encourages us. He reminds us of Jesus' teachings, which come in handy when we reach a fork in our path and have to decide which road to take, the broad and well-traveled one or the narrow and difficult one that takes us where we should go. The Spirit is also the presence of God in our lives, providing his companionship on our way.

The Christian undergoes death and rebirth when he or she commits to follow Jesus and receives the sacrament of baptism, in which the believer dies to self and sin and rises to new life in Christ. In Christ we become a new creation; our past is dead and gone. Everything has become new. We are transformed so that one day we will be like him, the image of the God of love, marred by sin in us, seen in Jesus, will be restored completely.

The Christian experiences a great victory, though it is not his doing. We benefit from Jesus' victory over sin and death, over decay and destruction, over pain and suffering. Because of his resurrection we do not have to fear any of these things. They are temporary in the most fundamental sense: they are part of the temporal world. They are limited to time and when time is swallowed up into eternity, they will be no more. In the meantime, we regard them as we would a splinter or gnats; unpleasant but not something we will have to suffer forever. And with the fear of these things gone, we can do great things for God through the triumph of his son. Fear of death can no longer rob us of our enjoyment of life, nor of our momentum to spread the gospel and speak out prophetically for justice and work for peace. As Paul says in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” Fear can render us powerless to act; it can make us too timid to show our love; it can make us lose control of ourselves. But Jesus has overcome all the things of this world that could possibly cause us to fear. Enduring any of them, even death, is a small price to pay for an eternity enjoying his love. As it says in 1 John 4:18, “Perfect love casts out fear.” Jesus is perfect love incarnate. If we trust him and let him in he casts out our fear. So we can do anything for him. After all, people will do almost anything for imperfect love.

Case in point: 30 years of nursing will ruin your back but I know what did mine in for good. I caught a stroke patient when he was falling—2 years in a row. It was while I was in the process of studying for ordination. I took it as a sign that I was making the right career change. While I have returned to nursing from time to time, I cannot even pull an 80 pound woman up in bed without feeling it. I feel it when the weather is changing. I feel it whenever I sit too long. But I would not trade it for the feeling I would carry with me had he hit the ground. I took care of him for 4 years. He was the first person I ever baptized—before I was ordained. I was given permission to do so by my bishop because of his anticipated death after the immanent death of his caretaker: his wife who had, unbeknownst to me, neglected the recurrence of her breast cancer to take care of him and keep a man expected not to make it 6 weeks alive for 6 more years. She did it for love. And after the resurrection, we three will meet and hug and I will talk with him for the first time (I couldn't understand a word he said when he was my patient) and we will laugh over those 2 incidents, all 3 of us free of the injuries and diseases that afflicted us in this temporal world.

A Christian returns from his spiritual death and resurrection bringing boons to his fellow human beings. The chief is the gospel. Remember how it meant not just good news but also the reward given for good news. As Paul said about the gospel in Romans 1:18: “...it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes...” That is the reward for receiving the good news. It is knowledge that saves—if you act on it. If you trust God. And that's all. Simply trust in him, in what he has done for us in Christ, and his grace will do the rest. It's all in the gospel. It is the original viral campaign. It is, as C. S, Lewis put, the good virus. Once you let it in, it changes your life. It saves us from the true disease, sin, the self-destructive thoughts, words and actions that poison our lives. It heals. It restores. It erases fears. It frees us to be what God created us to be.

What is the end of the journey for the Christian? What is his or her destination? As in the hero's journey, it is to go home again. It is to return to paradise. It is to return to God. This is our goal. The end of our journey is the new creation, the new Jerusalem, the kingdom of God. We turn to him and he turns the hell on earth we've made out of this world into heaven on earth.

The journey is open to all who respond to the call to the adventure of following Jesus. But how will they hear the call unless we tell them the gospel? The call to adventure usually comes from someone other than the hero. Gandalf brings news of the ring to Frodo. Glinda tells Dorothy about the wizard. R2-D2 brings Luke Skywalker Leia's message. My mother gave me C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. If we don't tell them about Jesus, who he is, what he has done for us, what he expects in return, how will they know? What are we afraid of? If Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, why do we not share it? The worst outcome is that someone is not interested. But the best outcome is that we have a new companion on our journey, a new follower of Jesus, another person at the table when we feast at the wedding supper of the Lamb in the kingdom of our heavenly Father.

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