Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Part 2 What is a Christian? Where do you fit in?

A number of years ago when I was a Scoutmaster in Missouri, reliving some childhood adventures with my sons and their fellow scouts, I planned an outdoor experience in Orienteering. It's a great skill. And it's also a fun experience to gain confidence in navigating in strange or unfamiliar places. With a map and compass, and adequate skills, you can learn to find your way.

So, I picked a 6,000 acre state park with my fellow adult leaders for a week-end experience of orienteering and lessons in how to use a map and compass. I remember setting out that Saturday morning with about a dozen scouts and six adult leaders. We hiked for about an hour, until all familiar landmarks and bearings had been left behind. That was done on purpose!

And then I gathered the scouts and adult leaders in a circle around me and my fellow adult leader, a skilled outdoorsman named Al. Al said to the group, we need to find our way to the camp site about 2 miles away. Here's a map and a compass. What do we do next? One of the younger scouts picked up the compass and said, that way is West. Let's go that way. "Why?" said Al. Your compass is no good unless you have a map to use with it. Or as someone has commented, "when you don't know which way you're going, any direction will do." So right away, we had our first lesson in how to put together map and compass to chart a course. We learned about true North and various symbols on the map legend (symbols to denote features on the map). We taught our scouts how to read a topographical map, to learn about elevations in the terrain. There was a lot to learn in one week-end. But we made progress.

I think about the questions, What is a Christian? And, where do you fit in?, in much the same way I do about that experience in map and compass reading with young scouts. Lots of people do not have the set of skills and practices to begin figuring out which direction to head in becoming a follower of Jesus. Who will teach them?
Does the church know which direction it is taking in this effort? We live in strange and unfamiliar times and places. How will we find our way?

A few years ago I read a wonderful book by Diogenes Allen, a Presbyterian minister and one time professor at Princeton Seminary, titled "Quest". The subtitle of the book is "The Search for Meaning Through Christ". Using that image of map and compass, Diogenes Allen explores how we navigate our way toward an understanding of what it means to be a Christian in today's world. Allen writes, "Jesus becomes our light when we study his life and teachings and let them illumine the world in which we live, allowing them to show us what is worth striving for and what is reliable and trustworthy." Jesus is a living presence and a teacher to us still. He is true North. In the words of Scripture we hear his voice anew to guide us in unfamiliar settings. And the focus of both Jesus and his word is to show the way forward in the world where we are sent to live and serve him. All three of those elements of finding our way are critical: Jesus - his teachings - the world. Strikingly, the early Christians according to the Book of Acts, were known as "people of the way". They learned a way of life, a practice of life that helped them find meaning.
I sometimes think we have failed to grasp that Jesus is leading us out into the world where we have to find our way in serving him. It isn't just our inner world or soul Jesus is affecting; he calls us to be salt and light to others who do not know him or his way.

Diogenes Allen comments in his book "Quest" on how many people do not know they have lost their way. "Even the finest and most remarkable of people need God." For us to learn more about what kind of life Jesus calls us to live we need to study the gospels, where we are likely to find out something essential about ourselves and what it means to be a Christian. Allen comments that the people in the Gospels are what literary critics call "figures". A figure is an individual that reveals something about other people and from whose life we can gain guidance for our own.

And here is my summary thought for today, drawn from Diogenes Allen's book, "Quest":
"To become like Jesus, to realize the divine image in our own lives, we are not to look at him in isolation, but at his interactions with people. We, too, need to interact with him now by seeking his help, as people did during his earthly ministry, and by obeying his teaching."


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