The Transfiguration of the Commonplace – chapter one

Skopje Dam Over the last 47 years I’ve seen some glorious things, walked in some heavenly places. There are a bunch of lists of “WONDERS OF THE WORLD” and I’ve witnessed many of them. They each deserve their own page of wondrous description. I’ve seen Kilimanjaro peeking above the clouds from Kenya and seen Mount Ranier peeking above the clouds from Seattle. I’ve raced along at 275 mph on a bullet train from Shanghai to Nanjing and bounced along the foothills of the Himalayas from a 3rd class sleeper birth in Northern India. I’ve walked along the Great Wall of China, through the Wagah Border gate from Pakistan into India and climbed on my hands and knees into the belly of the Great Pyramid at Giza. I’ve stood awe-stunned by the beauty of the Hagia Sophia, the Taj Mahal, the Porcelain Tower, and the Sydney Opera House. I’ve run my hands along the rough stone ruins of Ephesus in Turkey, Philippi in Greece, the Old City of Jerusalem, and Monte Álban in Oaxaca. I’ve been drenched in the spray of Victoria Falls and came way too close to drowning in the rapids of the Nile river. In all, I’ve visited 26 countries so far and like the old Indiana Jones films, I’m always eager to follow a little red line across a weathered map to the next exotic destination. All the while I wasn’t searching for adventure. I’ve been chasing glimpses of glory.

TealyLioncubMy brother William is working on a new book and I’ve been inspired by his title: “The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere.” It’s a quote from Thomas Merton in his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. The way I’ve come to understand the Merton quote is that the entrance to heaven or even to an experience of God’s presence is less of an external place we must visit and more of an internal way of being – always open to us. The experience of God’s glory comes at the end of ourselves when we cease all of our striving and relax confidently into grace. What a beautiful and needful truth. In the beatitudes Jesus referred to “the poor in Spirit” and the Benedictine monks echoed that thought by calling followers of Jesus to experience the glorious riches of spiritual poverty. Merton calls it a place “untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth.” It is a place in the center of our being that is nothingness and everything all at once.

Walking among the wonders of the world has definitely taught me some important lessons:

1) God’s glory is Everywhere Always – learn to behold it. There is a vast difference between seeing and beholding. Seeing is a dash of salt. Beholding is marinating. In her poem “Aurora Leigh”, Elizabeth Barrett Browning says “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes, the rest sit round it and pluck blackberries, and daub their natural faces unaware.” Earth is crammed with heaven. I love that! I’ve wandered the world in search of God’s glory and found it as clearly displayed on the face of a five year-old at the Houston Zoo this weekend as I did in the setting of the sun behind the Hagia Sophia in the City of the Seven Hills. I have seen God’s glory as clearly in a whispered conversation at a strip-mall coffeeshop as I ever did from atop the Great Wall at Badaling. God’s glory becomes most evident when we become most aware. To immerse yourself in the glory of God requires no passport. Instead it requires a stillness, a beholding, a quiet seeking. Every common bush is afire with God because His glory is everywhere always. Take a moment to read 2 Corinthians 3:18 and Psalm 16:8 and feel the transformative power of Beholding.

2) God’s love is an Unstoppable Force – surrender to it. Most of my travels have involved some expression of Christian missions. A key principle in all of those missional adventures has been the search for a “Person of Peace.” The goal when entering a new area is to find someone who can serve as bridge for gospel conversations. The idea is founded in the sending instructions of Jesus recorded in both Matthew 10 and Luke 10. It can be seen in the interaction between Rahab and the Israelites at Jericho in Joshua 2. There is not a single place I’ve visited on this whole planet where God was not at work before I arrived. The principle behind a “person of peace” is that God is always at work preparing the way for love to spread, for grace to expand its reach. I have seen and felt the unstoppable force of God’s love on the remote island of Siumpu in Indonesia, in the remote Tibetan villages of western China, and in a sleepless midnight conversation with Hindu strangers as our electric train rattled across the great Indian darkness. On a recent trip to Uganda I took some students white water rafting on the headwaters of the Nile river. It was a harrowing adventure and I was ill-prepared for the class 5 rapids we faced. I fell out of our raft at the start of a dangerous technical section of the river and I was quickly instructed by our guide to point my feet downstream and just ride it out. There was no point in swimming against such an aggressive current. It would have been futile to do anything but fold my arms across my chest and surrender. Likewise, I have quit trying to control or even direct the unstoppable force of God’s love. TealyNileRapidsI have learned to feel the current of God’s love as it moves with equal force through the suburbs of Houston and the slums of Mumbai. God’s love pours with furious urgency into every corner of our planet and I am learning to search for new opportunities to surrender to it. God’s love might take you to unexpected places. It might ask you to take a few uncomfortable risks but you are at the very gate of heaven. Just point your toes downstream and surrender to the current.

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