Thursday, May 15, 2008

On the road again

Back in third grade, I received my first Bible as a gift from the church. It was – and is - a strange book, full of stories about long-ago people in faraway places. We heard some of those stories in worship and Sunday School, and their curious details sounded so distant. Then we discovered a few maps in the back of the Bible. They charted places on the other side of the world where God had acted or spoken. It all seemed so far-off and exotic, and heightened the distance between then and now.

A trip to the Holy Land in the year 2000 did blow away some of the ancient dust. My dad and I traveled to Nazareth, Samaria, and Jerusalem. Things haven’t changed that much in that part of the world – new buildings have gone up, the generations have come and gone – but people are still essentially the same. Our hopes and fears are identical to our ancient forebears. On that trip, what impressed me most of all is how local the Bible really is: Jesus walked from town to town on the same road that is now paved. He cast out demons in the synagogue on this spot, and ate tilapia fish from that lake over there. He did eighty percent of his adult work within a four-mile stretch on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, prayed in Gethsemane’s garden, and carried the cross through a narrow city street. We can still visit these places.

Some people take comfort in the vague promise that “God is everywhere.” As for me, I have increasingly found it comforting that the Gospel happens somewhere – in certain locations, among specific people, under particular circumstances. There is no timeless truth for the Christian faith. In Jesus, the Word became flesh – specifically – and we know where it happened. To this day, the grace of God continues to have GPS coordinates. God comes to us, where we are, right here in this lifetime, in the specifics of our need. That is the meaning of the Incarnation.

To put it another way, context matters. It matters to our congregation as we plan our work. Where do our people live? What do they do? What are the challenges and blessings in their lives? How might the good news speak to the concrete realities of our lives? And what do we have to say on behalf of Christ?

As I write this, my suitcase is packed for another holy trip. As part of this year’s study leave, I am retracing one of those maps in the back of my third grade Bible. Biblical storyteller Dennis Dewey is leading a tour that leads us through St. Paul’s itineraries. We will see spots in Greece and Turkey where the Gospel took root, and hear the Bible stories in the places where they happened. My Dad will once again be my roommate, and we’re delighted to share the trip with Donna and Andy Kepler, Pauline Heckman, and my mother-in-law Loraine Laubach. Keep us and all other pilgrims in your prayers, and expect us to return with stories of how the Word of God came alive in our travels.

With every good wish for the Story to come alive in you!