My meditations lately have been on themes in the book of Ecclesiastes. It occurred to me this morning that the central idea of Ecclesiastes is a familiar one to the culture in which we live – a journey away from the safe and ordinary in order to find some meaning and purpose for life. I haven’t seen it yet, but I understand that Eat, Pray, Love took up this theme. So did Under the Tuscan Sun, and the idea of running away to an older, more beautiful and transforming culture is central to the novels of Henry James.
I have to wonder what it is that makes travel seem like the cure for a weary spirit. During our small group Bible study last week, the ladies present discussed the places they had always wanted to see – Italy, Paris, England, Australia. Good choices all. The thing is, we weren’t necessarily talking about travel. We were talking about the things we always wanted to do “when we grew up.” It turns out that what we always wanted to do was escape the ordinary, to have adventures and to see something great and lovely.
There is something in us that is convinced, like the psalmist, that green pastures could restore our souls. That a timeless and beautiful landscape could feed our souls. That some indefinable thing long buried inside us might burst into bloom if only we were in an environment where we could nurture it. That we could be creative and brilliant and articulate and satisfied if only we could find the right place to grow into ourselves. Something within us knows that we were made to be pilgrims and sojourners in the land.
Of course, we have a citizenship in heaven. Of course, we wait for the New Jerusalem that God is constructing for us.
But this heavenly citizenship is not just something for a future time. We hold it here on earth, where we are strangers and aliens in a culture that is familiar, but not friendly. We enjoy that citizenship at every church fellowship and communion, when we open a new worship CD, or the latest book by a Christian author. We broaden our experience of it when we reach back in time to the works of great Christians who have lived and ministered and written and composed long before we were born. We hear it in Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah. We sing it in the hymn stanzas of Isaac Watts and Fanny Crosby. We read it in Paradise Lost, Pilgrim’s Progress, Hinds’ Feet on High Places, and The Christian’s Secret to a Happy Life. We experience it in the autobiography of St. Augustine and the celebrations of the life of St. Patrick. We see it in most of the art and architecture that has been produced by Western Civilization for the last two thousand years – much of it sponsored by the Church and inspired by Scripture. We ponder it in the thoughtful writings of apologists like Tertullian, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and Lee Strobel. We marvel at the revelation of God in creation through the work of God-fearing scientists like Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton, and Francis Collins.
If we are longing for some experience of culture, it is at our fingertips. We have only to reach out for it to know that we are citizens of a mighty and beautiful City of God, that we are the inheritors of a long, creative and timeless tradition built over centuries by the people of God. Generation after generation, the Church has been cultivating a landscape for the soul upon which we can feed our minds and hearts from the truth of God’s Word.
So, here is my recommendation for the day. Go find a book by a Christian on a topic that interests you. Like to read about people? Try Augustine’s Confessions or C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy or one of the hundreds of Christian biographies that are available. Interested in science? Read The Fingerprints of God by Francis Collins. Need some new music? Classical can be an acquired taste, and I don’t know of any better way to acquire it than with a CD of The Messiah and a KJV Bible to follow along with the libretto. Like to travel? Try a magazine about archeology and see what they are digging up that confirms God’s Word. There is an exciting debate going on over new discoveries in Jerusalem and other places in the Holy Land that may or may not date to the time of David and Solomon. Go to pbs.org and watch the Secrets of the Dead episode on King Solomon’s mines. Are you into fairy tales? Last time I checked, the Johnson City Public Library had some of George MacDonald’s fairy tales. Like fiction and need encouragement? Try Hinds’ Feet on High Places or In His Steps. Like to goof off online? Look up some images of famous cathedrals and churches and marvel at the architectural monuments that have been built to God’s glory. And, yes, find some pictures of stained glass windows. And you don’t have to buy any of it. If it’s not online, the public library probably has it.
Take your new discovery, get yourself a cappuccino, and open up a new landscape. If you want to feel really cultured, pick up some pasta and olive oil at the grocery store and try a new recipe. You can get that online too.