Sunday, April 3, 2011

Jesus Didn't Drive

Jesus didn’t drive. Jesus didn’t tweet or text. Jesus didn’t multitask. Jesus walked, was both silent and talked. Jesus remembered to rest.

Years ago, deep in the chill of December, I really wanted to get to a particular party—I think it was for the Winter Solstice or perhaps for New Year’s Eve. Problem was, the destination lay on the north side of Short Mountain in rural Cannon County, Tennessee, and the already winding, gravel roads were made more treacherous by a recent dressing of snow.

Serious partiers many of us, we did the only logical thing: parked the car several miles out, threw some provisions into a backpack—and then we hiked in. Of course, the walk itself was worth it. There are few things more peaceful than the crunch of boots in fresh snow, few things more peaceful than walking deep in the woods on a winter’s day.

In “The Practice of Walking on the Earth,” Barbara Brown Taylor teaches us about an annoying and obvious truth that when walking as a spiritual practice, “All it takes is the decision to walk with some awareness, both of who you are and what you are doing. Where you are going is not as important, however counterintuitive that may seem.” (itals mine)

This kind of “go with the flow” might work alright for Taoists, but is it the best approach for Christians? “Where you are going is not important”? Doesn’t this undermine the entire purpose of my personhood, my career, family, and faith? What does aimless wandering have to do with achieving my goals? Instead of a “purpose driven life,” we get to dally about with no apparent purpose?

Of course, that day in the snow, we were profoundly present to the beauty and the cold, deeply aware of our humanity and humility and place in the universe. But we had a clear goal, a defined purpose. If it weren’t for the promise of the party—at least in my case, the possibility of getting good and drunk—we might not have embarked on the pedestrian journey in the first place. (Sober now more than 700 days, I can tell these stories; back then, I did deep denial about the drunk as destination part.)

In fact, the spiritual narrative of trekking along without a specific goal plays out when Taylor attempts the practice of walking a labyrinth, balancing the requisite need for a spiritual feeling with the frustrating pointlessness of the whole endeavor. Walking the labyrinth, like life, is fraught with “switchbacks and detours” and the disturbing revelation “that the path goes nowhere.”

The truisms that the journey precedes the destination, that the process trumps the product, that the doing is better than the done—these maxims have meant so much in my life, from my writing career to my practice of exercise and prayer to my arduous recovery from various addictions.

But at the same time I parrot these sacred truths in an appropriately priestly manner, I am prodded by the nagging notion that it all might be a rather large, illogical, and fragrant heap of cow dung. Here’s the rub: as much as these circular and cyclical and zen-like ideals sound, I cannot help but question whether or not they are all a lie. I wonder if they are effectively used to keep the late-capitalist and technologically-savvy slaves happy on the postmodern plantation

Life as we’ve learned it may at once be cyclical and recursive, but it’s also finite, goal-oriented, and linear. Sadly, the latter leanings dominate our American reality, and really living in the present for the sake of moment seems like the elusive meme for an elite caste of enlightened sages. For me, when learning to love the moment and the process for the sake of the moment, the process can then feel like just another goal. At the end of the day, it seems like I am never really there, never really doing it right, so distracted by the sinking premonition that my stinking thinking will never really slow down enough, so we can just be, just breathe.

Authentic spirituality as made relevant by adopting real disciplines utterly contradicts the logic of everyday life that we’ve learned. Deep spirituality subverts the goal-oriented aspects of fundamentalist Christianity. If we are serious about spiritual discipline and spiritual practice for their own sake, we are faced with the dilemma of unlearning the less nuanced aspects of the altar-call narrative: finding Jesus, getting saved, and reserving our ticket to heaven.

But, so imprisoned by a linear logic of life and its trajectory of time are we, that getting off the hamster-wheels and treadmills of predictability in favor of a differently ordered routine of just plain paying attention might actually feel like a taste of heaven.

So outside our often too-limited worldview waits the wonder of God. So strange this is: it takes the teachings of a preacher or philosopher to crack the nut of our limits, to touch spirituality’s limitless nature. In this alternate narrative, we still find Jesus and get saved, but sometimes heaven shows up here and now.

For me, Taylor touches the present and presence in a mellow passion that percolates well with Paul Tillich’s teachings about “The Eternal Now,” where we accept “we come from the eternal ground of time and return to the eternal ground of time and have received a limited span of time as our time. Tillich continues: “If we want to speak in truth without foolish, wishful thinking, we should speak about the eternal that is neither timelessness nor endless time. There is no time after time, but there is eternity above time.”

This week, I haven’t been able to walk much, nursing a nagging knee injury. Paying attention to my pain has replaced paying attention to my steps and stride and has taken a chunk out of my pride. This week, I’ve had to drive my car.

But I still follow a Jesus who didn’t drive. According to Taylor, “This gave him time to see things, like the milky eyes of the beggar sitting by the side of the road, or the round black eyes of sparrows sitting in their cages at the market.” Jesus didn’t drive, and because of this, “Food tasted better at the pace he set. Stories lasted longer. Talk went deeper. While many of his present-day admirers pay close attention to what he said and did, they pay less attention to the pace at which he did it. Jesus was a walker, not a rider.” Jesus didn’t drive. No, “He took his sweet home.”

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