An odd thing happened on the way to church last Sunday morning.
Usually, on a Sunday morning, I take a stroll around the waterfront. It’s prime time; the service is ready to roll, the music team will shortly arrive and we’ll go into our warm-up, the sermon is sitting in my bible on the pulpit. But nothing’s ready or right until I’ve had that minted moment with the one person it’s all about. I love that time. It puts all my anxieties, my preparations, my hopes into an eternal perspective.
But this Sunday was different. I felt an odd sense of disconnectedness. Like I wasn’t quite there, and nor was God. It took me a couple of minutes to click; could it be because this Sunday I was neither preaching nor leading worship? I was going to be simply another pew-sitter for a morning, and so my morning – and my relationship with God – felt directionless.
I had grown so used to meeting God at this time with such a specific focus, that I had let my expectations rob me of expectancy. Result? I wasn’t listening. I wasn’t open to what God wanted because, in my heart and mind, I was expecting something else. My religious habits, good enough in themselves, are only supports for my relationship with God – they aren’t the substance of that relationship. It reminds me of a time when, after living away from my home turf for several years, I got a job back there one summer. On the first day, I drove over the hill and turned the car up the valley towards the old bridge over the river, when I became aware that I had left the main road when I turned. I stopped, reversed, and discovered that the road now continued straight ahead, over the river on a brand new bridge. I had been driving according to the maps in my head instead of according to the reality I was in. And that’s what religion is all about.
Religion is like a set of road maps for navigating our relationships with the most fundamentally important matters; with God, with the rest of the human race, with nature. Most importantly, with God. Having a road map takes a lot of the anxiety out of the journey; we can be reasonably sure of our direction and the steps we need to take to get to our destination. We can even be reasonably sure of the destination.
But the map is not the journey. It isn’t even the terrain we need to cover; it’s just a model of it. In reality, maps can have errors, become out of date, and they have to leave out a great deal of information. Especially the personal information that is so important to a good journey. Where is the map that includes the vital data that at such and such a point number three child will need a toilet break? Religion is a great support in our relationship with God, but it’s no substitute. Just like a map is a valuable tool but – even with Google maps roadside imaging – it’s no substitute for the reality of the journey.
And what happens when we depend too heavily upon our maps? We take the same old turning, and end up in the wrong place. We get that feeling that somewhere along the way we’ve disconnected from reality. We feel… lost. And the temptation (especially for us blokes) is to just keep on the way we’re going and hope it all turns out ok. We can find it hard to abandon our expectations of what reality should be like (our maps) for reality itself.
Churches are the same. I appreciate the value of good management in churches (having encountered some horribly badly managed ones) and the value of a clear vision for the sake of giving some definition to the business of discipleship. And I also appreciate the limits of that. Management tools like vision and mission statements are useful, but limited; like all maps. But they have become our religion; if you read a lot of our literature, you’ll see that they shape our expectations like little else. I like having good management tools; they help me to simplify the incredibly complex business of pastoral ministry but there will always be that gap between the map and the reality. And that gap is sometimes so significant that the tool just has to be abandoned. I have to let go of my expectations.
And what do I get instead?
Well, in my pre-Christian days, what I would have was anxiety and all the actions that go with fear-based thinking. I would be defensive, arrogant, timid, impulsive, and just generally messy. Now I have something a little better. I have a travelling companion. And while my grasp on reality is still less than ideal, his is perfect. Journeying with Jesus is the most enjoyable way of being alive I know. He can make the walk to the letterbox into an adventure! He is faithful far beyond what I deserve (my wife takes after him on this one); he is fun, perceptive, sympathetic, challenging, and encouraging.
When I’m travelling with Jesus, and discover that my expectations are not being met, I may get that initial moment of disorientation, that confusion and sense of being disconnected that I felt last Sunday, but it is quickly replaced with something far better; with expectancy. I’m no longer travelling according to my expectations. Jesus disrupts the comfortable rhythms of my religion, and invites me to take a new road with him. He has no problem with us using religious maps, whether they be the pattern of our preaching or the clarity of our vision statement, but when we begin to prefer them to the reality of his companionship, then we can expect to find our expectations unmet. When that happens, don’t bother getting angry and upset – look instead for the God who is completely free to go his own way, and follow him. With expectancy.