Life Below the Surface
We need good pastors who will show us the way to the abundant, non-utilitarian way of life.
Once or twice each year our family makes the eight-hour drive from Chicago to visit grandparents and cousins in west Tennessee. When describing the route to someone who has never driven it, I tell them that it's hundreds of flat, straight miles surrounded by fields of corn, soybeans, and, during the short stretch through Missouri into Tennessee, cotton. I don't quite say it, but my meaning is obvious: it's a predictable drive, boring even. There are no ranges of mountains in the distance, no vistas or overlooks. The two Mississippi River crossings, climbing up unadorned steel bridges before crossing a state line and descending to the other side, might represent the most elevation change of the entire trip.
There's is, though, one stretch of interstate highway that always surprises me. Somewhere along I-57, as we finally approach the watery edge of Illinois, a panorama opens up. Those of you in more mountainous environs would hardly notice but, after so many miles of a static horizon line, the effect never fails to impress. For a few minutes we can finally see farther than the asphalt's edge. In the fall, when we're often making this drive south, distant explosions of red, orange, and yellow are a happy distraction from the endless fields, already harvested and left to the approaching winter. And then, after a few minutes of gradual descent, it's over and we are returned to the flat lands.
We made that drive again last month and the memory of the unexpected view came to mind recently in a conversation about God. My friend is a seminary student who is thinking a lot these days about what exactly a pastor does. After hanging up I started thinking about those long expanses of road with so little to surprise us as we hurry along to our destination. The vista is the exception; it provides a captive audience with a few interesting minutes. I'm tempted to think that it's this moment, the unexpected beauty, which captures something of our life with God. We catch glimpses here and there of glory and transcendence before having to return to diapers and spreadsheets and the other things.
But I'm not sure that's quite right. As my friend and I talked, we noticed how life with God so often runs at cross currents with our normal state of affairs. There is an accepted wisdom about how the world works- a grain or a groove along which we plot our lives. There are winners and losers, those who've worked hard enough and been good enough and those who have not and are not. Few will say it so plainly, but we believe that people are a means to an end. We are resources, like the land, to be exploited and used up. I heard a journalist on the labor beat say recently that the pandemic exposed to many workers just how little their corporate bosses care whether they live or die. And while most of us hope to escape the most brutal bruises of our status quo, we also understand the rules of the game - of retirement accounts enriched by gun manufacturers, of educational resources determined by property taxes, of generational wealth predetermined by race and red lines. If we've not quite set out to win the game we've at least acquiesced to the rules.
Life with God is different, of course. There are no cost-benefit analyses and no ends-justifying means. There are no resources, just living creatures and living places. The good life, along this grain, can't be attained by coercion, manipulation, or violence. There is just the simple invitation to harmonize our lives with God.
Not that it seems simple. The status quo is like those endless mundane miles. We might hope for the occasional divine distraction but we're mostly resigned to the way things are. We either get with the program or get run off the road.
But what if that unexpected vista in southern Illinois is more than an exceptional few minutes? What if it's a reminder of what runs just below the surface: hidden strata and fault lines, remnants of tall-grass prairies and pockets of fertile loam, the shadows of the magnificent glaciers which crept through these parts millions of years ago? For all of its ability to seduce our imaginations, the utilitarian status quo is not the only way available to us. There lies, just below the surface, a more ancient pattern. This life with God will occasionally disrupt the wisdom of our age, shattering its illusion of inevitability. Mostly, though, it remains hidden like a treasure buried in a field. This doesn't mean that life with God is unattainable save for the occasional dazzling encounter. Instead, we follow the the threads of faith beneath the surface and find an experience of life more true and real and good than anything else on offer. We find that while we wait for the fullness of the blessed and abundant life Jesus promised, there is plenty of it for the living right now.
Living this way requires cutting across the grain and breaking the rules. It means listening for the still and small voice, digging into the field for its treasure, and stepping from the security of the boat into the menacing waves surrounding it. And while this way of life is available to everyone, I'm convinced that we need good pastors to show us the way. Surrounded by endless temptations to manipulate and exploit, repress and extract, we need women and men who are bound by oath to live by that other pattern. The good pastor will model - always imperfectly! - a life harmonized with God, even when God and God's ways are hidden. They will invite us to see where we have missed God and to align our full selves with him. They will refuse, no matter the cost, to succumb to the dehumanizing patterns of our world, no matter how efficiently and attractively they come packaged. This, more than anything else I can think of, is what a pastor does.
(Photo credit: Rob Eradus.)