The World Behind Me

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

-Mark Twain

 

Self-admittedly, I have always been a little self-righteous. It began innocently enough – as most sins do – something good rooted in a sinful nature that eventually turns into something not so good.

I grew up in a home that taught me to love knowledge, love truth, love the practice of it. And because of that, a very large part of my identity is founded on a pride in knowing and following the truth. I build up a castle of facts around myself so that when I am faced with conflict or adversity, I have ground to stand on.

Truth is my fortress.

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Several years at college, in the workforce and then on the other side of the world have done a lot to change my view of the world. Issues I used to take for granted, used to stubbornly defend as the absolute truth, I am seeing are more complex than my 16-year old mind could have understood at the time. The details aren’t important beyond mentioning that only what I believe about my faith has remained completely unaltered.

Since coming home, I have begun to see much more vividly how far I have branched away from the views of my family and friends (and now I understand why they say never to discuss religion and politics at the dinner table).

It has felt isolating, to be honest. No one prepared me for that. I certainly still align myself more with the views of the community I grew up in than say, the far liberal left. The unfortunate result is feeling like I don’t really fit in either group.

Maybe other millennials are feeling the same way. This is what our parents wanted, right? They wanted us to grow up and become our own thinkers.

But I’m afraid I have played the part of the bitter idealist for too long. I have been the tortured, enlightened martyr in the fight for perspective and balance that every secretly hates talking to for more than four minutes lest I begin another rant. And it was yet another journey that has begun to cure me of my own self-importance (which, though much less self-righteous in nature, has manifested itself similarly).

Athens is quite a place to experience. What a city of paradoxes. Greeks are a people divided by a courageous compassion for those washing up on their shores and a fearful self-focus, making them apathetic to the needs of humans in the throes of great tragedy. It’s a ruined city built around a city of ruins – both of which are celebrated in their own way. And it’s a city with ancient people and modern people; tourists, foreigners and refugees.

It’s an amazing place to build a church.

I visited three churches while I was there, all of which were freckled with different nationalities, different worship backgrounds, different theologies. It was uncomfortable for me and my frigid protestant background.

My self-righteous spirit was much more awake during those services than my humility ever was, as it critiqued and criticized every aspect of the worship. There is a Biblical way to have a church service, there is order and method for a reason. The liturgy, the depth of our hymns, the fencing of the table, the preaching of the word all has ordained structure! I’d be screaming on the inside as I sat through a messy fifth chorus of “Good, Good Father.”

Following one of the services, the congregation of Greeks, Americans, Sri Lankans, Iranians and North Africans piled into cars and drove to the seaside. It was time for a baptism.

Now, I was raised as a paedobaptist, which means we baptize our infants as a sign that they are born into the covenant family of God, whether or not they are elect believers. I have seen several adult baptisms, one in a backyard pool in the Czech mountains and another in a church baptismal in the South.

This one was different. Perhaps because I was already feeling so rigidly defensive of my own beliefs and practices.

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We spilled onto mushy white sand, which was littered with trash and seaweed. A huge storm had rolled over the night before. The debris seemed to suggest that the sea had gotten sick and thrown up whatever was in its belly onto the beach.

We picked our way to the water’s edge where four Iranians stood, ready to give us their testimonies. They were all refugees. Some had left their homes seeking God, others had found him along the way. Some had been rejected by their families and spouses because of their faith in Christ. Some had left good jobs and good lives to come to Greece. Each one had made a dangerous journey. Each one had had to leave the community they were born into to join the family of God. Each one gave up their world for the next.

The sun was still low in the late-morning sky and it turned the water into a silver sheet of ripples. So bright were its rays, so clear was the sky, that all we could see were the silhouettes of our new brothers and sisters as they were lowered into the water and brought back up, new creations in Christ Jesus.

An African woman to my left began to sing a song I have known since childhood. It’s one of those songs I have written off as shallow and repetitive, but in the context of this baptism it took on new life.

I have decided to follow Jesus
No turning back, no turning back.

The cross before me, the world behind me
No turning back, no turning back.

It was a long way down for me that morning. You don’t realize how high your horse is until someone clubs you in the stomach and knocks you off.

I am so narrow-minded.

The impatience I once had for people who grew up with different values than I did, I now have toward those who don’t apply these values the same way I do. My stubborn insistence that I am right has made me unkind and uncaring. Some child of God I am.

We should seek the truth, but we must speak it in love. Our castles of fact will not serve us well if we cannot learn how to invite others in with winsomeness and charity.

God’s people come from all over the world – in it, not of it. We are born into different cultures and traditions. We will disagree on how to be good stewards of this earth or godly citizens beneath the authority of men which God has placed us under. We will even disagree on what it looks like to be a child of the Risen King. Our churches will have different flavors and our Christian walks will be the varying tunes of a mighty orchestra that rises in harmony to the ears of God, the Great Composer.

And if the beauty of a broken people united and made perfect in Christ were not enough to strip away self-importance, the reminder that we are all refugees in the eyes of God, washing onto the world’s shores with nothing to give brought me back down to my knees.

In the damp sand of an ancient shore on a very clear day, I remembered the second greatest commandment. It is not, love the truth. It is love your neighbor.

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