It’s a great metaphor for the spiritual journey, that an airliner is off course more than ninety-eight percent of the time. Countless variables are at work making it drift from its intended flight path. The thing is, the pilots are making constant course corrections, small control adjustments that bring the plane to its intended destination.
St. Paul felt certain about his destination. “I want to know Christ,” he wrote, “and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10-11). The power of resurrection; what Jesus called the “kingdom of God” (Mark 1:15) or “more and better life than [you] ever dreamed of having” (John 10:10 The Message); what Joseph Campbell described as “the rapture of being alive” (The Power of Myth) – there are many ways to describe what Paul wanted and was striving to have.
Remember Thomas Merton’s question: What are you living for, in detail? And what’s keeping you from it? What’s your destination in life, and what pulls you off course?
Things that cause an airliner to stray from its course are mainly external – atmospheric and magnetic variables – coupled with tiny flaws in the internal control systems. Things that pulled St. Paul off course were mainly internal. “I do not understand my own actions,” he wrote. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . . I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Rom. 7:15, 18b-20).
Things that pull me off course, things that cause me to miss my destination, things that cause me to miss the one essential thing in life that I yearn for at the bottom of my heart – these things are internal. I can’t blame my misdirection on external influences. I can’t blame it on my parents or my circumstances in life. I can’t blame others because I miss my essential goal in life.
In fact, that’s the definition of sin, “missing the mark” or “missing the target,” that Paul says is why he can’t do what he knows is right but instead does what he knows is wrong. He misses his mark, he says, he misses his aim. He hasn’t experienced the power of resurrection, he doesn’t experience the rapture of being alive, because his aim is off. He’s trying to get there, but he’s looking for it in the wrong place.
I know about looking in the wrong places for the thing I want to live for. I’ve thought that I’d find what I’m living for by choosing the right major in college, or the right job and career path, or the right spouse. I’ve thought I’d find my one essential thing in life by bowing to the expectations of others. You’ve probably aimed in a similar direction, also. And it’s nothing to blame ourselves for. It simply is the human condition.
Sad to say, it’s also our condition in the church, we who should know better. Jesus began his public ministry by announcing that our time of waiting is over, that the “more and better life than [we] ever dreamed of having” is within our reach (Mark 1:15). It is spread out all around us, and we don’t see it (Gosp. Thomas 113). Why not? How are we missing our mark? No doubt there are many, many small ways in which we fail to live for the one essential thing we want to live for. Here are two of them.
First, we may be looking for the recreation of the best of the past, symbolized by the garden of Eden. It may be that time of your life when everything was just right – job, family, health and energy, your place in the community – and it seemed as if it couldn’t get any better. Maybe it was your involvement in a church with an idealized “golden” pastor who shaped your life and faith. Or the first-generation church when the spirit of Pentecost was fresh and hot. Maybe it was the “Good Old Days” you heard about from your grandparents or read about in history.
But God has something to say about that. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it” (Isa. 43:18-19)? Creation continues. Old things pass away, new things spring up. We can’t masquerade in yesterday’s wardrobe. The sun shines today on a world being made new, and it’s here where we live and now when we live. If we don’t see what we’re living for, it may be because we’re looking for it in the past.
Or we may be looking for the fulfillment of our hopes for life in the future, in some new Jerusalem coming out of heaven (Rev. 21:2) or in some life after death. But the question of our faith is not whether there’s life after death and what it may be like. The question is whether there’s life before death and what it does look like.
Remember, Jesus said the time of waiting is over, and the kingdom of God – the power of resurrection, the “more and better life than [you] ever dreamed of having” – is at hand, spread out before us. This is not a dress rehearsal for some other life. This is the performance of our life. “You know what time it is,” Paul wrote, “how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation” (Rom. 13:11; 2 Cor. 6:2)! If we don’t see it, it may be because we’re looking for it in the future.
“Look to this day,” the ancient Sanskrit wisdom advises, “for it is life, the very life of life. In its brief course like all the verities and realities of your existence: the bliss of growth, the splendor of beauty, the glory of action. For yesterday is already a dream, and tomorrow is only a vision. But today, well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well, therefore, to this day. Such is the salutation of the dawn.”
I’ll close with a parable from Anthony de Mello, the Jesuit educator and retreat leader. It’s about a conversation between two fish. “Excuse me,” said one fish, “You are older than I so can you tell me where to find this thing they call the Ocean?” “The Ocean,” said the older fish, “is what you’re swimming in now.” “Oh, this?” replied the younger fish. “This is only water. What I’m seeking is The Ocean,” and he swam away to search elsewhere.
Those who have ears to hear: Listen!