We've all been there. It's the big yearly mission trip to (fill in the blank), and you have been driving the 15 passenger van for about 10 hours, and you have the annoying kid (God love him) in the back yelling "are we there yet"? Your rear end is stuck to the seat in a pool of sweat. You have listened to the same Christian CD five times in a row. And this kid keeps asking "are we there yet"? You tell him to shut up and chill out over and over (in the kindest way you can), but every half hour or so, he asks "are we there yet"?
I learned from a youth ministry friend of mine the perfect response (which she, in turn, learned from her youth minister). Just say "Five minutes… we only have five more minutes" every time they ask, no matter how long or how short the time is. Pretty soon they get frustrated, and then give up, and learn to enjoy the ride. You know, upon further reflection, I think that is what God has been saying to me lately too: "Five minutes Nate, we only have five more minutes". He keeps saying it until I shut up, chill out, and learn to enjoy the ride.
There is always debate over why the Apostles talked about the immediate return of Christ, when it has been 2000 years and He hasn't shown up yet. Were they mistaken? Did they think He would come back soon, but didn't? Has Jesus already come back? I think the simple explanation is that the Church has this bad habit of being the annoying kid in the van asking over and over "Are we there yet?" And Jesus, the Apostles, and the Prophets keep yelling back to us "Five more minutes... just five more minutes", in hopes that we will shut up, chill out, and enjoy the ride.
You see, I like thinking about God and talking about God. If you are into big labels, you could call it "theology". Lots of people use big labels to talk about simple subjects because it makes them feel smarter, but when you get down to it, theology simply means logia (Greek for reasoned talk) about Theos (Greek for God). Some of the Church fathers tell me that there are two basic ways of doing theology. There's pilgrim theology and then there's what I like to call stagnant theology. And so, what does this mean and why should you care?
Well, Pilgrim theology is done by people who are pilgrims, aliens, and strangers in the world. It is theology done "en route" by people who know they are on the way to meet God, but have not arrived yet. It is a radically hope-based theology, in which we live by faith in God's promises and confess His faithfulness, even though we do not know how it will all work out (see Hebrews 11:13). Pilgrim theology admits that right now we see only a pale, tarnished reflection of who God is, as if looking in a bronze mirror… but one day, we will arrive at our destination and see Jesus face to face. Pilgrims do not put God in a box, but allow Him to be "I AM what I AM".
Stagnant theology is done by people who are committed to absolute certainty. Faith is all but removed from the equation. It is done as if we are already in Christ's presence and we can describe in complete, monolithic, accurate detail every aspect of the journey of faith: From exactly how the world was formed to exactly how it will end; From exactly who and what God is, to exactly how He will act in any given circumstance; From exactly who is predestined to exactly how we receive salvation. There is no danger or wonder at walking with the God-of-the-universe-who-is-blazing-fire-yet-became-a-human. He is reduced to a pet on a leash.
You see, no one would really admit to putting God in a box like that. We don't mean to. I have about a hundred systematic theologies on my shelves right now (yes, I am a geek and I really do like reading that stuff). Many, perhaps the majority, are guilty of doing stagnant theology. They love Jesus and don't mean to… but they do. The human drive for precision, certainty, and systematization does it. And even if we do not put God in a box, don't we all tend to put life-with-God in a box? Don't we treat the process of salvation as a finished product somehow?
What I mean is this: We distill down the life of salvation to five purposes to be mastered. We make check lists and graphs and charts of how to do life with God. We exalt certain "crisis points" as the pinnacle of our life with God. For some, the pinnacle is a certain type of emotional salvation experience, that is done almost mechanically by a carefully engineered psychological device usually called the altar call. For others, it is a "Baptism in the Spirit" that is accompanied by some type of external evidence, depending on your Church tradition. For others it is a "strangely warmed heart", or an experience of entire sanctification, or pure love, true joy, or some other turning point of "conversion". For others, it is the "call to ministry". And yet, for others, it may be a sacrament of baptism, first communion, or confirmation. All of these are valid experiences in the journey with Christ. You might even say that some are essential.
But when they become rote, mechanical, predictable methods to clone new disciples, aren't we guilty of doing "stagnant theology" and putting God in a box? Conservative Christians of all stripes like to talk about our "walk with the Lord". I whole heartedly agree with this metaphor. But do we really mean it? Because, the last time I checked, a walk was not predictable. You can fall. You can get lost. Or, even better, you can find a path you weren't even aware of and follow it to a place of beauty you didn't imagine. Is "our walk" an unpredictable journey with God, a revolution to transform the world by being the Body of Christ. Or, is it a checklist of quick and easy, clearly-delineated, common-sensical, do-it-yourself steps? Is "our walk" so edited and predigested and clichéd that it is no longer the "sword of the Spirit" that severs spirit and soul (Hebrews 4:12), but rather a self-help butter knife to serve yourself a more manageable life.
Just wondering... how IS your WALK with the Lord?
Now, some may protest that I am some mamby pamby "liberal" that wants to take away all boundaries and limits and say "anything goes", and "all paths lead to God". Puh-leeze. I am a Jesus follower, not a Unitarian. But, did Jesus say that we would be a pool of stagnant water, or a river of living water, when He spoke of His Spirit flowing from within us (John 7:38)? A river, not a pool. You see, both a river and a pool have boundaries and limits. It's just that one is full of water that is traveling somewhere on a pilgrimage, and the other is full of water that is very content in where it is and doesn't want to leave.
If you will indulge me, I believe that Jesus is the riverbed, the only way that the water flows to get to the Father (John 14:6). I believe that the water is the Holy Spirit, and that He carries us, along the path of Christ, to the unfathomable ocean that is the Father. Along the journey, if we allow Him to take us, we will wind through strange lands, over unpredictable rapids, and sometime dangerous terrain. It certainly won't be as safe as wading in a stagnant pool, but then it won't be dead and stinking either.
You see, this idea of journey, of pilgrimage, is why I choose Wondervoyage for my "missions trips". I don't want to call them that. I want to call them pilgrimages. But, I still call them missions trips because the idea of faith-based journey, instead of a cut-and-dry-go-here-do-this-mission, is hard to get people to wrap their minds around in our efficiency oriented society. But Wondervoyage "gets it", and they know their place in the journey, the walk, the pilgrimage of my students as they voyage from a childlike trust to a revolutionary faith in Christ. They don't try and pre-package us and force us to fit a "missions mold" that works on everyone, every time, or double your money back. They create Jesus-following opportunities that are tailor made to fit the needs of my kids on their journey. They know we are not "there yet", and will still be "getting there" until the day we go to be with our Lord. Until that day, we are all on a voyage of wonder, of awe, of beauty, and sometimes of terror, with our Lord and Savior. Amen+