Over the summer I watched on DVD a mini-series called “Into the West”. In one of the early episodes, a young Jacob Wheeler has left the safety of hearth and home to follow a group of mountain men led by the famous (and historical figure) Jedediah Smith to exploring the uncharted west.
In one scene, the mountain men are all in the middle of a night of carousing when young Wheeler notices that the devoutly Christian Smith has pulled away from the men and abstained from the debauchery. When Wheeler asks his mentor about why he doesn’t join in with the other men, Smith tells him that “The west is just a place on the map, not a way to live.”
That maxim leads the young Wheeler to a life of conviction and integrity. A life that differentiated him from so many of the mountain men with whom he shared company. A particularly powerful moment comes when a young Lakota woman is being sold like meat for consumption; he duels for her and protects her, marrying her instead of exploiting her.
Throughout the summer as I traveled to many different places I observed that most of us have also confused our places and our lives. I have seen this with beach cultures and mountain towns, in poor villages and wealthy enclaves. We are so easily influenced by the culture around us that the place becomes the way to live.
I found myself wanting to say to the lawyer who left his family in the middle of a “mid-life crisis, breakdown, whatever-you-call-it” to move to Costa Rica, to far-too-young adolescents on the beaches of San Clemente who were obviously growing up too quickly, to the ultra wealthy in resort towns who are living for nothing beyond golf or skiing or the next exotic vacation and even to the triathletes who seemed to have sacrificed everything for lower split times or a coveted spot in Kona…
This is just a place on the map, not a way to live.
(There is a popular t-shirt in Tri circles that, while tongue-in-cheek, cuts close to home: “If you are enjoying a meaningful relationship….you could be training more.)
So many of us confuse where we are with who we are. We are chameleons who take on our environment, our culture, and the world around us and are convinced that it won’t harm our souls. We believe the lie that “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” when the truth is that what we do, wherever we are, shapes who we are.
In many ways, we Christians, fall into the same trap. We often believe that the “Kingdom of heaven” is nothing but a “place” on a spiritual map that we hope to go to when we die and not a “way to live”. We read passages that refer to us as “citizens of heaven” (Phil 3:20) and think that it refers only to the afterlife. But it is actually a calling—a way to live—not an address.
N.T. Wright has pointed out that the imagery of citizens of heaven was a reference to those ex-patriots (most of the retired Roman soldiers) who were rewarded with land grants and asked to populate the conquered territories at a distance from Rome. These “citizens of Rome” knew that while they lived in far off lands like Philippi and Ephesus, they were to be loyal to Rome and by their influence help turn this territory into Roman stronghold. While the “place” they lived in was a foreign land, the “way” to live was as a Roman.
My friends, we Christians must get clear that as Christians, the Kingdom of heaven—life under God’s reign and rule—is the way to live in whatever “place” we are called or find ourselves. And if the church is going to be, again in the words of Bishop Wright, the “place” where “heaven and earth overlap” and then that “place” will only become evident by the "way" we live.