A Long and Winding Road

"Life is a journey not a railway station" wrote my Dad in my first autograph book nearly fifty years ago, and I have never forgotten his message. The notion that human experience is a trek through an ever-changing terrain requiring frequent course-adjustment is a helpful paradigm to have in mind when facing the ups and downs, blind corners, and dead-ends of daily life. I thought of that quote last weekend, as I led a group of young women through the first section of another Believers' Baptism class. It is my usual pattern to begin this "Next Step" programme with a rapport building exercise where we each draw a picture of our spiritual journey thus far. Most people can produce some sort of "road map" showing significant events, some draw a symbol such as a tree, and a few prefer to just use words. All of us on Sunday found we could represent our life on paper.

The process of reflecting on one's spiritual journey is a helpful one for individuals - but it is even more interesting to do in a small group. I have found every cluster of baptism/confirmation candidates is different, but over the years I have observed some clear patterns emerge. i have even put together a graphic of jigsaw pieces to identify the components that go to make up the initiation of a disciple of Jesus Christ. The value of an image of puzzle pieces rather than, say, the paving stones of a road, is that it is clear that the order in which they come together is not fixed. It is probably a slightly different pattern for everyone. Some receive the Biblical "water sign" as infant children of believing parents, long before they come to own their faith, while others receive water baptism as a followup to making a personal faith commitment. For some that personal commitment comes in childhood, at a simple level of "asking Jesus in" to their life, while others make a carefully thought-through adult decision; both can lead to robust faith. Some experience a sense of guilt and shame for their innate sinfulness and specific sins, as a precursor to faith in Christ; for a few that I know, repentance was subsequent, and more of a response to the reality and purity of Christ in their life. For some believers, knowledge and experience of the Holy Spirit is an integral part of their decision to follow Christ, while in others there is a definite later discovery of the Spirit's presence and power. For some traditions, the taking up of membership of a local church is concurrent with their baptism; in other polities, the two are quite separate and the order variable.

I've had the privilege of seeing the drawings of many people's faith journey over the years. This time round I noted again some themes that have become familiar:
  1. The hugely positive impact of a Christian upbringing and/or church school. In a world where many do not know any of the Christian story, and for whom the name of Jesus is merely an obscenity, it is a great advantage to have been gifted a knowledge of the stories of faith, to trust the love of God, and to be confident of his presence in daily life. Even when people's drawings indicate a time "away from God" the practices and presuppositions of a Christian upbringing seem to have deep value for faith formation.
  2. Another common theme in forming a resilient faith seems to be leaving home and travelling far away, geographically, from the security of friends and family. All of my group this week shared how an experience of travel - an international scholarship, an overseas trip, a gap year or even emigration - had shaken their foundations and led to a reassessment of values, priorities and spirituality.
  3. A third factor - and surely not one to be actively sought - was an experience of tragedy. Two of the young women in the current Next Step group have been deeply affected by a tragedy experienced in their school and church community last year. Each has dealt with it in their own way, but both felt their pain and sadness has been a factor in coming to the point of asking for baptism. Somehow the heartache and confusion of loss had drawn them into a surer confidence of their desire to follow Christ and be part of his church.
I didn't share the whole of my 58 year faith saga with the group, but I can see these factors at work in my journey too. The sadnesses that drew me closer to Christ could be described more as "friendly fire" than human tragedy, but like my Christian home and my leaving of it, still helped crystallise my sense of "who I am" in God. Yesterday I read Frederick Buechner's little book Telling Secrets - it's tiny so it only took me an hour or so - which is part of a series of autobiographies by this award-winning author and preacher. Buechner (pronounced Beekner if you haven't met his work before) records endearingly the pain and sadness in his family life and points to the importance of telling our stories to one another:

"My story is not important because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are that you will recognise that it is also yours. Maybe nothing is more important but that we keep track, you and I, of these stories of who we are and where we have come from, and the people we have met along the way, because it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity .... that God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished, not only humanly but also spiritually.... God is present in these stories not as their cause, but as one who, in the hardest and most hair-raising of them, offers us the possibility of that new life and healing that is salvation." (Telling Secrets 1991, p 30 - 31)

I am glad that "life is a journey;" I can't imagine anything more boring than sitting in a railway station. And I'm glad that journey has ups and downs and twists and turns and deeply challenging profundities, for it is in these that I have found my faith is stretched to a broader and deeper experience of God.

To Chew Over: As you look back over the past few years in your faith journey, what stands out in your life with God? How might you draw those events/discoveries/questions so that they may bring insights and encouragement for the future?

God who sets us on a journey
To discover, dream and grow,
Lead us as you led your people
In the desert long ago;
Journey inward, journey outward,
Stir the spirit, stretch the mind;
Love for God and self and neighbour
Marks the way that Christ defined.

Exploration brings new insights,
Changes, choices we must face;
Give us wisdom in deciding,
Mindful always of your grace;
Should we stumble, lose our bearings,
Find it hard to know what’s right,
We regain our true direction
Focused on the Jesus-light.

When we set up camp and settle
To avoid life’s risk and pain,
You disturb complacent comfort,
Pull the tent pegs up again;
Keep us travelling in the knowledge
You are always at our side,
Give us courage for the journey,
Christ our goal and Christ our guide.
© Joy Dine