If I sat down with you for a coffee and asked you what the central message of the Church was, what would you say?
Perhaps after we collectively spent a few minutes venting about the hypocritical judgmentalism prevalent in the Church your response might go something like this, ‘well, I guess to leave this place. To make sure I’m going to heaven.”
And then I’d feel my heart break knowing that I had been there too. For many of us, somewhere along the way, someone told us or taught us that the point of the story was to escape.
We’ve grown up with and been exposed to a partial message. The story as it was told and retold to us almost always passed over the delight of the garden and chose instead to start with the curse. When it comes to stories, how you begin really matters. A shift in how you begin changes the arc and the story in its entirety.
As a result of where we’ve started the story we’ve spent less and less time talking about what it means to tend the garden, and more and more time talking about how and when we can leave it all behind.
I am convinced that the sacred and holy work of following Jesus replaces the ‘when question of Heaven’ with the question, ‘what now?’ The invitation of Jesus is far more concerned with what it looks like to participate in making all things new rather than waiting around for an escape. We must ask ourselves if our beliefs are centered on an escapism narrative or a participation narrative. How we as individuals and how the global Church answers that question will determine how the world experiences the message of hope and connection.
Perhaps the following short story will be your invitation into thinking outside the box of (y)our orthodoxy.
For many of us God has become a train conductor screaming ‘all aboard’ on the next train to heaven. The simplified instructions revolve around a prayer that needs to be recited (preferably with eyes closed and heads bowed) sometime before hopping on the train. Once we are on board we are officially on our way to leaving this barren wasteland called Earth.
And so we did. We said the prayer, we boarded the train, and then we just sat there. We literally sat there. And as the train starts moving through life we find ourselves sitting on our free pass to Heaven. At first it’s really great and it even stays that way for a while.
We notice that there are expansive windows on the train, but the shades are drawn closed and we don’t think to ask permission to open them. For the most part we keep to ourselves, ignoring the world we once occupied. This rail car our new home for now.
One day, as a group of us were feeling quite righteous and important, the conductor slowly opened the shades on all the windows. Initially our eyes cringed from the light we seemed to have forgotten, but after a few moments we began to see. We saw mountains and rivers, birds and wild animals, beautiful flowers and beautiful faces. We saw joy as people danced and we saw sorrow as people wept. In the midst of all that we saw our hearts felt drawn into engaging with this beauty, this chaos, this mess. The message had been clear for so long, the main point of the story was to leave, so we stay seated. We ignored the child-like inclination to press our noses to the glass in hopes of catching a glimpse of what lay beyond our train seat.
As time moved forward the curiosity continued rising within us. We silently scolded ourselves for not being content with the blessing of Heaven. We sat still like good little boys and good little girls. We congratulated ourselves for our patient endurance and our ability to smother our deep desire for adventure and participation.
We told ourselves we were really doing it! This is success we thought, this waiting-to-leave-kind-of-life.
But, like all good little girls and good little boys we got restless. The conductor seemed to open the windows of the train for all of these stunning moments that grabbed our attention; moments of great beauty, moments of astounding mystery, and moments of great heartache. There were sunrises and shooting stars, weddings and funerals, births of children and losses of children. We saw beautiful things and we saw heart-wrenching things. We saw things that gave us butterflies deep in our bellies, and things that made us weep and feel alive. But we never spent much time talking about what we saw. And so we stayed seated, stuck between two worlds.
Every so often the conductor stopped the train. Neither myself nor anyone around me really knew why. At first we thought we needed more fuel or perhaps there was something wrong with the train that needed fixing. Every time we stopped new people would get on the train. There was always a buzz in the air when new people boarded. There were stories of hope and redemption pulsing through them. They talked about being invited into a new way of seeing. They felt alive. And so we carried on like this for years. Staying seated, not asking questions, staring out the windows silently dreaming, and stopping occasionally to welcome new friends.
All that changed the day I passed by a gentle old man I hadn’t met before. He had these sparkling blue eyes. They were full of mercy and kindness and they reminded me of Lake Superior, my childhood playground. He seemed to know something I didn’t and as I passed by he grabbed my hand and he simply held it. I stopped, not knowing how to respond. It didn’t feel forceful, but it felt significant. My eyes were still down at this point, and so he squeezed my hand, inviting me to look up. As I turned my gaze upwards his blue eyes were waiting for me. He cracked a sly smile and pulled my ear to his lips where he whispered, ‘there’s more.’ And as I pulled away he pointed to his boots. They were caked with mud. I froze and tried to make sense of what I was seeing.
My internal dialogue went something like this, “Wait, what? Mud? Mud from where? Mud from, well I’ll be damned, mud from out there.”
My mind was racing and my heart overwhelmed as I attempted to reconcile his subtle invitation to participate in the mess and beauty of out there. I immediately found myself protesting the narrative I’d always been told, that the main point of the story was to stay seated and wait for escape. The mud on his boots and the twinkle in his eye opened up in me a reimagining of the story.
The only word I could spit out was “Who?”
“Who?”, he said surprised, “What do you mean who?”
I fumbled with my words and responded, “Who gave you permission to leave the train?”
Sensing how naive and perhaps fragile I was in that moment he held back his laughter at such a preposterous question.
He waited a moment before continuing, “Well the Conductor of course,” he said matter-of-factly. “He waits for a group of us in one of the rail cars we discovered when we could no longer just sit still and wait. The first night we showed up, he was there waiting. Pretty much scared the shit out of us. We apologized profusely because we were worried we had broken some rule, but he told us he had been waiting a long time for us. He said all the things we saw out those windows were for us. The sunsets and the shooting stars were just because he liked watching our eyes light up with wonder. He said that the faces of joy and heartache were meant to make us question if this train was all there was. He wanted to stir up something in our hearts and our souls. He wanted to remind us that we were made for adventure and connection and compassion. And so now we gather at his feet like little children and he tells us stories of beauty and new beginnings. He invites us into seeing differently and reimagining the main point of the story we find ourselves in. He talks about tending the garden, and looking after lost sheep. He reminds us of all the people he desperately loves that are trying to find a place of belonging. And after he’s had his fill of talking he does this crazy thing where he feeds us bread and wine and sends us out. He says we are the brave ones who continue the good work he started. He sends us out to look for the people who have lost their way and he challenges us to really encounter them and their stories. He sends us out to care for people and to be gentle with no expectation or secret agenda. He sends us out to remind the world that love really does win.”
My eyes flooded with tears as I stood before him and listened.
He continued, “Sometimes the people we meet come back with us to the train, and we celebrate. And sometimes people don’t because they need us to sit with them for a long long time before they are ready.”
He paused for a brief second before he left me with this, “I don’t always make it back to the train before it leaves for the next stop. I used to think my spot on this train was the main point of my life and so like you I stayed seated, waiting for escape for far too long. Sitting at the feet of the conductor and listening to his stories has been my reminder that the adventure and the people I am called to be with are not on this train. I never know how long I might be gone, but I know that when I return, weary and tired, boots full of mud, the conductor will be waiting with an embrace and bread and wine to fill me up before I am sent out again. In my forsaking of what once was the main point I have discovered a whole new story to participate in.”
With that he let go of my hand and walked towards the back of the train. As he disappeared through the sea of people I looked down and saw the imprint of his muddy boots still fresh on the floor. And there on his seat was a small piece of paper that simply said, “You know where to find us.”