In the world but not of it
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
I love the world. I love the sprouts coming up in my vegetable garden and the fresh green leaves on the cottonwoods set against the blue sky. I love good food and conversation with friends. I love climbing up the volcanoes on the West Mesa and taking in the sweep of desert, bosque, city, and the Sandias. I love my work and people I share it with. I love to love and be loved. I hope you love the world, too.
So what are we to make of Jesus today? In his final words before being arrested and crucified, he prayed I do not belong to the world. My disciples do not belong to the world. Then he prayed it again, in case his friends, who were listening, didn’t get it: We do not belong to the world.
Elsewhere Jesus makes the point more forcefully: Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it. But...I don’t hate my life in this world. I love it.
These kinds of words have given rise to all sorts of problems through history: The Gnostics, who taught that this dark world was created by Satan; medieval penitents who hated their own bodies, whipping and starving them; Puritans, who became obsessive in their reach towards moral purity; and fundamentalists, who withdraw into a tight circle and point their bony little fingers at the sinners who surround them.
I know that many of you long-time Episcopalians were sorely disappointed when the following hymn was not carried over from the 1940 Hymnal to the 1982 one:
The world is very evil; the times are waxing late
be sober and keep vigil; the judge is at the gate.
The world is very evil...
All this depressing dualism misses Jesus’ point entirely. It misses the same point that is made in every religious tradition: that it is a mistake to be too identified with this world’s dramas, its striving, its failures and successes, and its temptations. We are to be in the world but not of it.
It is obvious that we are in the world. We are creatures of the earth, physical beings, interwoven with plants, animals, the seasons and the weather, with people to love and changing conditions that affect us profoundly. There is much about this world to enjoy, and much to grapple with in the effort to to make this world a better world for ourselves, for everyone.
So we are fully “in” this world, engaged with its delights and challenges. But what does it mean to not be “of” it, at the very same time?
I’m fond of the old gospel hymns and songs from the American South of the 19th and early 20th century. They’re strong, direct, and heart-felt. They sing of this earthly vale of tears and the sweet by-and-by, and in that sense, they speak to the dualists among us.
But they also manage to communicate something more subtle, something that has to do with this business of being in the world but not of it. They do it by recognizing, as Jesus did, that while we are human and a part of this earth, we don’t completely belong to it. It can never own us.
I am a poor wayfaring stranger
wandering through this world of woe
This world is not my home, I’m just traveling through
I am a pilgrim, and a stranger
traveling through this wearisome land
Now to understand this point of view, we might think first about what it means to be convinced that we do completely belong here, and what happens when we are.
When this is all there is for us, then this takes on ultimate value and significance. Something has to. Is the world I live in making me healthy, comfortable, and free of problems? No? Then I must fix the world I live in. If and when I do, then I will be happy. But I can’t be happy until then.
So I am a slave to the circumstances of the world in which I live and to which I am thoroughly wedded. The world owns me. When its conditions are good, I am well. When they are bad, I am unwell. And so my purpose is to constantly arrange and maneuver the world to remain the right kind of world, so that I will feel at home in it.
But this never works, of course. We can’t control the people around us to be the way we want them to be. We get sick, we lose things and people we love. Even the best stuff - a vacation, a moment of spiritual communion, a sweet child before they turn into an adolescent - is just about to change into something less preferable to us. The very things that we want to count on are always slipping through our fingers.
All phenomena - feelings, relationships, events, success and failure, even our life itself - is in a constant process of change and evolution. And so if we really believe that this is all there is, we will always be anxious, because this world never stays they way we want. If our preferred version of this world is where we think we belong, if we stake all our hopes upon this possibility - we will always be chasing a mirage. It will never satisfy.
So what is the alternative? It is knowing where we truly belong. I may be a pilgrim and a stranger traveling through this wearisome land, but I’ve got a home in that yonder city. And what is that city? Many say it is heaven, but that won’t help you here. “That yonder city,” if fact, is right here, right under our noses. It can be always found in the midst of all those changing phenomena that we pass through. Our home is our life in God.
I cannot describe what this home is like, or how to realize it in your daily life. If I did, it would be reduced, made into an object. This home, to which you ultimately belong, is to be sought and discovered by every seeker in different ways. It will appear to you in the way that speaks to you, and it will always give you exactly what you need.
You cannot describe or hold on to it, either, because it appears in the seeking, in the stretching towards it, when you are open and vulnerable to something beyond. This mysterious, ungraspable home is always available, always reliable, unlike the world of passing phenomena.
If we are grounded in this deeper reality, if that’s where we place our hope, then our experience of the world we’re traveling through becomes very different. Our circumstances and the other people who surround us are no longer things to desperately manage so that they will freeze into our preferred version of life. They are phenomena that rise and fall, sometimes beautiful, sometimes not, sometimes to be supported, sometimes to be changed for the better.
Though all this, as wayfarers, we are free. We are not only free from the world; we are free to enjoy it. For when the world longer carries the impossible burden of having to satisfy us, it can be what it is intended to be: an amazing, subtle, shimmering drama in which we play a part for awhile. And we become like monks that I once read described as “perched a little more lightly on the globe.”
At the end of his life, Jesus didn’t pray just that his disciples would know that they don’t belong to the world. He also sent them into it, and even promised that in it, they might find their joy. As you have sent me into the world, he prayed, so I send them into the world...so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.
And so we are sent from this place, where we are grounded in the mystery of God, where we are at home; we are sent back into the world. Perch lightly on the globe. Go as pilgrims who aren’t destroyed when things don’t go well. Go as strangers who delight in those fleeting things that come your way, and then, when the time comes, let them go. For when you know where your true home is, then you are free, no matter where you may roam.