Friday, January 13, 2012

Necessary Diversions

I've been thinking a lot about how some diversions can be incredibly important, even if we don't know it at the time.

Sometimes on "The Way" we have to go a bit out of our way.
Having got home from work incredibly late last night, I found my way wandering towards the supermarket to pick up something that could vaguely be described as dinner. On the way there I ran into a friend's dad who was returning from the pub. This particular friend has had a few problems and has been off radar for a while, so I decided to enquire as to how he was and chatted to his dad for a few minutes. In the course of the conversation I discovered that my friend was in the aforementioned pub. We went our separate ways and I continued to the supermarket. I was going to text my friend but in my heart I believed the right thing to do was to go and meet him. Having left the shop I made my way to the pub, found my friend and chatted to him for about an hour or so... checking up on him and putting the world to rights.

We don't live to ourselves alone and sometimes we have to accept that on our own personal journeys, situations or opportunities are going to arise that require us to go off on a tangent into unexpected places or circumstances.

If we look at the Bible there are plenty of examples of this. Some come through an act of God, others come through consequence and still others come through a conscious decision. To quote just a few of these examples: Joseph was diverted from life at his father's side by his brothers' choice to sell him into slavery; Moses was diverted away from Egypt and into Midian after he beat an Egyptian oppressor to death; Elijah was diverted to Mount Horeb after pronouncing judgement on the prophets of Baal; Jonah diverted himself when God called on him to preach to the Assyrians in Nineveh... and the apostle Paul was diverted to Macedonia by the Holy Spirit, when he tried to get to Bithynia.

In each of the situations listed above, God uses the traveller's change of direction to bring about a change in their character or their calling... or to directly benefit the lives of the new people he encounters. Joseph ascended to  position of power where he became an instrument of salvation both for Egypt and his own people. Moses was brought to a place where his fugitive self would dwindle as he learned how to become a shepherd... first merely with sheep... but later a shepherd of Israel. many generations later, Elijah found himself at the exact same spot - both geographically and emotionally. Elijah had just witnessed the might and power of God manifested in an awesome public display, he had every reason to feel confident; yet he found himself fleeing in terror at the threat of repercussions to his ministry. How many of us have experienced that very same emotion? How many of us have ridden the crest of a spiritual wave and felt overexposed, naked and vulnerable when the momentum has ebbed away? I would wager it happens to a great many people.

Jonah's notorious disobedience resulted in an arguable enhancement of his prophetic ministry. When God called him to account and caused him to end up inside the belly of a great fish, Jonah found himself stewed in its gastric juices. He repented, was delivered and became the inheritor of a literal "big fish" story. The city he was being sent to (Nineveh), was a centre of Dagon worship at the time. Dagon was to all intents and purposes a manfish god. Imagine how much his gastric bleached appearance coupled with his bizarre account would have amplified his message and ministry.

When Paul tried to travel from Mysia to Bithynia, we are told the Holy Spirit would not allow him to cross the river Rhyndacus (which served as the border). We are not told quite how that worked... but the subsequent vision that Paul received led him in the direction of Macedonia instead... which led to a series of eventful stories from his ministry... not least of which was his miraculous "non-escape" from jail

However, my favourite diversionary story comes from the ministry of Jesus:
That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.”  Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him.  A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.  Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
Jesus Restores a Demon-Possessed Man
They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.
When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!”
Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”
“My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.
 A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.
Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.
As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”
Mark 4:35-5:19
Most people treat these two stories above as separate isolated incidents. I find this strange as the narrative clearly indicates that the stories flow into one another. I have long held the belief that Jesus got in the boat and faced the fierce squall because he was travelling to meet and release the Gerasenes demoniac. Not only that, but it appears this was also the one and only reason he did it... because no sooner had he driven Legion out of his victim, he was back off in the boat again to raise Jairus' daughter on the other side of the Sea of Galilee.

I think this is fantastic because it demonstrates that there are no mathematics, numbers or equations in God's compassion. Everything Jesus does is motivated by love - amor propter caritatem (love for love's sake). Whether the cause is one person... or the entire human race, the cost is never too high. Jesus put himself and his apostles in harm's way, for the benefit of one individual (at least I'm sure that's how the apostles saw it at the time).

The needs of the many...
In Star Trek, there is a wonderful philosophical revolving door that mirrors this concept. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Spock lays down his life to save everybody aboard the Enterprise. As his body begins to fail due to being saturated with radiation poisoning, he presses himself up against the glass partition that separates him from Captain Kirk and points out that he did it because "the needs of the many, outweigh the needs of the few... or the one". It's a touching and very sad scene and the philosophy behind it has caused the line to be quoted frequently ever since.

The needs of the one...
However in the very next film in the series - Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, this very concept is turned completely on its head as Captain Kirk and the rest of the main characters risk their careers, the USS Enterprise and their very lives in a desperate bid to recover Spock's body and reintegrate it with his katra (soul), which is residing inside Doctor McCoy. When the resurrected Spock asks Kirk why he did it, Kirk replies "Because the needs of the one, outweigh the needs of the many".

One of the great traps religions often fall into is a focus on the collective at the expense of the individual; this leads to a bureaucratic form of management that is more suited to machinery. On the other hand, other religions fall into the other pitfall of focusing on personal enlightenment and development which can become a form of isolationism if done out of context.

Neither of these concepts really match the one that the Church was modelled on. As a Christian, I believe the great thing about a relationship with Christ is that value is place on the individual as well as the collective. The model the Church is supposed to follow is that of the body. As Paul so eloquently demonstrated in his first letter to the Corinthians, though we make up one body we equally have our place and have our own value. If one part suffers or has a need, the rest of the body suffers or shares that need. If you injure your leg,you will shift the weight of your entire body to ease the burden on that leg.

We are not machines and we are not amoebas. If we are truly serious about being a body... a family, then we need to accept that we too will sometimes have to "shift weight". We can't always go our own way and do our own thing. Yes, we may have a certain calling or way of doing things... but being a Christian means accepting that we can be diverted from these things for the sake of Christ.

I'd love to hear any thoughts you may have... specifically with regard to (but not restricted to) the following questions:

  • Have you ever been significantly diverted by God in your Christian life?
  • Do you have any personal examples of "The needs of the many are greater than the needs of the few"?
  • Do you have any personal examples of "The needs of the few are greater than the needs of the many"?

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