Thursday, February 5, 2009



I think it was in elementary school that I was first introduced to a relief map - the state of California I think. It was fascinating to me to see not only lines and colors that represented roads, lakes and deserts, but to actually see and feel the difference in elevation and texture. I was amazed at how much more you could really see and understand when topography was incorporated into things. Later on I came to appreciate the feel for the landscape that a good topographical map (with the varying distances between the contour lines) can convey (although I must admit that sometimes I am still momentarily fooled by whether or not I am looking at up a steep mountain side or down a sheer cliff - but at least I know it is not flat meadow land). Even though a topographical map requires a bit more effort to read, the extra that it contributes is not only valuable, it is sometimes vital.

(This is not, by the way, to disparage those wonderful AAA road maps that are so helpful in guiding us through streets and freeways as we try to get from point "A" to point "B" and which I keep in the glove box of my car. But if you want any more depth to your journey, they won't be of much help in that regard).

All of which brings me to a passage of scripture that was shared with me by some fellow travelers this past week, and which, in a significant sense, is all about topography.

Luke 6:12-19 (NIV)
One of those days Jesus went out to a mountianside to pray, and spend the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, who he also designated as apostles: Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coast of Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by evil spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.

There is topography here. The journey that Jesus lives moves from level place to mountain side and back to level place again. There is a pattern here -- a movement -- a rhythm that is too often missed, or sometimes even dismissed. One of the most fundamental mistakes, I believe, that the church is prone to, is trying to occupy one place or the other. This sometimes involves giving lip service to one while "digging in" in the other, rather than pursuing and embracing the rhythm. But this passage speaks of rhythm.

First we read not only that Jesus went to the mountain side to pray, but that he invested time and energy in this. On mountain sides you are aware of elevation - that there are things above and things below. It is a place of breathtaking views, and also a place that inspires a sense of humility as you realize you are a part of something much bigger, and in the service of Someone much larger.

Further, this passage speaks of time being invested there. This was not just a devotional and a short prayer at the beginning of getting down to business, nor was it a study session or opportunity for continuing education, but an intentional movement into a stance of giving undivided attention to God. This involved a degree of withdrawing from demands and distractions, letting all the busy voices that surround us grow still, and engaging in a time of prayerful focus - spending intentional, un-distracted time with God.

(And incidentally, a night in prayer is not a night of non-stop talking. Like all real conversation, prayer involves listening as well as speaking, reflecting, sometimes long moments of silence and just being together. It's time for letting things sink in, and simply enjoying an increased awareness of being in each other's presence). It is out of those intentional seasons of time when we are with God for the purpose of listening carefully, getting to know each other well, sharing what's on our hearts and becoming more aware of what is on God's heart - learning to see with God's eyes - that we are best able to re-engage life in the level places. (This is also a prerequsite for addressing the issues of leadership - but more about that in the next post).

Second, we read about Jesus coming back down to a level place. If mountain sides inspire us with a sense of who and what is above us, level places remind us of who and what is along side of us.

It is also interesting to notice that Jesus did not come down alone, nor did he come down isolated in his own protected community, but was in the midst of all kinds of people from all kinds of places (more about this later as well). We see Jesus engaged here in healing service for others who had very tangible, visible needs. His focus seems to be less on running or serving religious institutions, and more on being engaged in the lives of people in the midst of their greatest needs. In fact, as we read on in the gospels, this is central to his ministry and interactions with people.

Too often our church communities seem to be engaged in the task of ironing out the wrinkles in the relief map, to make it more like the AAA maps we carry in the glove compartments of our cars. The basic information is there, and the roads show, but the topography quickly gets lost. But without topography we miss much.

My more fundamentalist-evangelically inclined friends have a tendency to want to climb up to the mountainside and stay there, with occasional forays into the level places, either to establish little compounds of their own in which to live, or to stay just long enough for mission purposes and then return to the mountainside with whoever they can take with them. The theological language that is used here generally involves seeing our primary task as simply rescuing people from the penalty of being lost, or to "get people saved." So salvation is seen mainly as a personal thing between God and I. Things happening in the level places (things like social issues, human rights, justice, poverty, etc.) while worthwhile, are secondary.

Among my more progressive and liberal friends, while appreciative of mountainsides (even taking trips there on occasion) the focus is much more on the level places where we stand shoulder to shoulder with people. For them God's saving activity is best understood by bringing healing to people, their relationships with each other, and the world around them. Salvation is not something that is to be restricted to just a "God and Me" focus, but extends to the community in which we live and the world that they are a part of. So far, so good. But the tendency here, as with the proverbial baby and bathwater scenarios, too often is to see what happens on the mountain side in ways that are somewhat dismissive. They may get a worthwhile nod, but are seen as secondary.

Closer to the reality that this passage reflects is the realization that it is what we encounter in the level places that (should) awakens our need to ascend the mountain side. And that it is on the mountainside that we find the clarifying vision that allows us to move back to the level places having been embraced by a graciousness that not only transforms us personally, but that spills out in the way we interact with people in the level places. Attempts to iron out the map, or by emphasizing one place to the exclusion of the other, undermines the integrity of the journey itself.

This is true even if it simply takes the form
of minimizing one or the other
as ongoing
areas of intentional engagement

Staying genuinely engaged in the lives of people, which is a natural outflow of being on the mountain side in healthy ways, prevents our religious experience from slipping into a disengaging individualism. Making time on the mountain side ongoing and intentional prevents us from slipping into the stance of making those we serve our object of worship rather than allowing our service to flow out of a response to a God whose graciousness motivates and directs our service. Like breathing, we cannot afford to over focus on either inhaling or exhaling. Both are required in rhythm with each other in order for life to flourish. Inhaling clearly is primary and is of first importance, but both are vitally necessary for life to flourish.

I wonder what it might mean for the vitality of the body of Christ for my more socially conscious friends to inhale deeply of the spiritual devotional practices of the church that are designed to saturate blood cells with the oxygen of the awareness of God's personal presence and grace . . . and for my more fundamentalist friends to quit holding their breaths, and exhale, blowing away the toxic by-products that needlessly separate people from each other, and use the vitality that flows from God's grace to energize them in serving those to whom God has already extended his grace - but who may not know it yet?

I wonder what it might mean for the first to discover the importance of grace being something that is personally received and powerfully transforming, and for the second to fully appreciate that is indeed grace that is received, and allow it to flow out into the level places - where no one occupies a place higher than the other?

I wonder what it might mean for us to fully become the kind of people who live out the kinds of lives that Wayne Anderson (a cherished mentor and friend) often described in this way: "As we are saved by grace, so we live, serve, minister and lead by grace."?

Perhaps the Christian life is a life where topography matters.

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