I work for a missions organization. I try to spend time with the poor. I rail against apathy. But the fact is that I’m a pretty lazy person. I’m comfortable. I’m a consumer. I’m addicted to America.
The other day, I went into Target to return a phone charger that my wife ended up not needing. After getting my $16 credited back to my Visa card, I walked around the store for no particular reason. I perused the books and considered buying Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, a favorite book of mine that I for some reason still don’t own. I walked past the DVD sets and thought about picking up The Bourne Trilogy. Why? Because I could, and, well, let’s face it: those movies are awesome.
Finally, I realized the pointlessness of my parade through the store, and I headed toward the exit. On my way out, I window-shopped the deli sandwiches that sat in the cooler beside the Starbucks corner store. I threw out a quick prayer to God: “Lord, what am I doing?” A voice in my head seemed to reply, “You’re looking for something to fill you.” My stomach churned with the pang of guilt as I braved the day’s uncharacteristically cold weather, and I climbed into my car for the lonely drive home.
Sometimes, I thought, I can be just plain ridiculous.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? That despite our best efforts to save the world, we’re still hopelessly depraved and broken. That, at every turn, we still need Jesus, even amidst all of our good deeds and altruistic activism. That even when we think we’ve got it together with our programs and letters to the “affluent American church,” we are still earthen vessels needing to be filled.
Every once in awhile, I go through these seasons where everything turns to routine and I get a longing in my soul for something new, something challenging. As Tamara Park says in travelogue Sacred Encounters, “When the world feels all jittery, like it just quit smoking … I find I must travel.” I resonate with Park. I guess I’ve always sensed it, but it wasn’t until recently that I started answering this beckoning to go in search of God in the most unlikely places.
It started with a study abroad program in Spain, where I struck up random conversations with anyone I could find, asking them about their diurnal lives that were so fascinating to me. Then, I spent a year traveling around the U.S. in a conversion van, living off of the hospitality of others with a group of musicians. Most recently, I have been regularly visiting places in downtown Nashville where the homeless hang out.
I wish I could say that I do these things out of the goodness of my heart, but I refuse to be disingenuous here: I do these things because I get bored. I get bored with church. I get bored with reading that the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, and then … just talking about it (1 Corinthians 4:20). Mostly, I get bored with myself—with my pointless routines of self-improvement, self-medication and attempted self-fulfillment. I eventually see the futility of it all, and that’s when I start over. I go back to the basics.
I look at the life of Jesus.
I read things that He said about how He didn’t come for the healthy and righteous, but for the sick and sinful (Luke 5:31-31). The losers. The outcasts. The rejects. And I go to those people. I take Christ at His word when He calls the poor “blessed,” and I figure maybe they’re in on something I’ve yet to discover. I find they are. Have you ever met someone who lived on the streets who wasn’t spiritual? I haven’t. Their theology may be a little unorthodox, but faith can present itself in a variety of forms, and I don’t want to miss Jesus in one of His “clever disguises” (as Mother Teresa would say).
I used to think that Jesus was speaking in hyperbole when He said that doing good deeds for the poor was the same as doing it to Him. But then I met Him—on the corner of a street in Palenque, Chiapas (a state in southern Mexico), drunk off his butt. With hesitation, I struck up a conversation with him, and he began talking about his family, children, and … God. He talked about the Creator as if he were talking about an old friend. After reciting an impromptu song about the Holy Spirit, he told me his name: “Jesus de Nazaret de la Cruz” (translated: “Jesus of Nazareth of the Cross”). After feeding him and giving him a Spanish New Testament, I walked away, unsure of what had just transpired. As I glanced over my shoulder to see him eagerly flipping through the pages of his new Bible, I thought about how I didn’t want to stop and talk to him all but felt like I should. I thought about how his eyes sparkled with a strange familiarity that unsettled me. I thought about a verse I had once read in my Bible that said: “As you have done it to one of the least of these, you have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).
I’m not a very mystical guy, but I’ve learned to move beyond my cynicism regarding this mystery that Jesus hides Himself in the least and the left-out in hopes that we might come and find him.
Lately, I feel like I’ve lost Jesus. Now, I know that He’s living inside of me (so, please put your rocks down), but so often, He seems to get crowded out by the anxieties of adulthood and the pressures of society. I’ve got to go find Him again. I need to make space in my life for Him, and the only way I know how to do that is to travel. Next month, I’m headed to Latin America again. I don’t have many motives, except to serve the local church and fall back in love with an old friend in a new place.
If you’re feeling similarly, maybe you should consider a trip—a mini-pilgrimage, if you will. I have a friend who went to Uganda a few summers ago with her only intention being to “learn how to love.” It changed her life. Another friend spends extended periods of his time fasting and praying at a monastery in the woods. He’s one of the most spiritually connected guys I know. Traveling is how I reconnect with God; it’s how I move beyond apathy and get back in tune with a Creator whose heart bleeds for a broken creation.