I’ve told the story before of Eric Elnes, a pastor in Phoenix Arizona. He had this strange idea to walk from one corner of the US (Phoenix) to the other – the nation’s capital in Washington DC. His idea took hold of him and many others gathered around a small group who would make the trip. They were to take a message of love and grace to the nation’s capital. It was a message of God’s love that wasn’t often heard in the public arena as Christianity had become negative, judgemental and harsh. They wanted to tell people that the starting point with God is LOVE and relationship. This relationship is about hope, healing, grace; a place in which to belong and be who we can most deeply be.
In Asphalt Jesus, Elenes speaks of the task of preparing a statement that set forth their vision of a generous, positive and affirming faith grounded in love. The draft statement was a little long and complex at 19 pages and it was suggested he reduce it to only 1 page – but how? What to leave out? His first complex draft contained several principles he considered important but he realised these were too much and too detailed. Ultimately Elnes asked himself what was so important in his first draft that he would sacrifice something in order to preserve it if he was under threat in life.
He began by considering what principles he would be prepared to give a sizable portion of income to protect. Next, he asked what remaining principles would he do something radical and challenging for – such as walk across the USA? What principles would sacrifice his job or vocation over? Each answer condensed the list further. As the level of sacrifice was ratcheted up, the number of principles was reduced until his final question became: What principle would you be willing to die for?
The question seemed a bit over the top in the context until he realised that walking across the nation came with some great risks – one could be killed in an accident; strangers who had their own obsession might seek to harm them… Elnes thought: ‘Are there principles that are so essential to life’s happiness and freedom that I would be willing to die on their behalf?’
It was a tough question and one that wasn’t easily answered. There were people – family and friends – and he thought that he would give himself for them. These were relationships but principles? As he pondered this deep terrain he realised that no-one he knew was really in any mortal danger and even so this walk across the USA would do little that would resolve any imminent danger that may present itself. So why do it? Why walk all that way? For what purpose, reason or principle? His reflection went deeper to seek out the most important elements, understanding and experience in his life. He realised the profound importance to his life of being loved, deeply loved, not just by people but by God. His whole self-being, his vocation, his life was lived in the awareness that he was loved by God. He had found freedom and life in this essential reality – that God loved him unconditionally. Every other love grows out of this and is more deeply fed and realised within this fundamental ‘belovedness’ in God. Eric Elnes suddenly realised what was worth dying for: ‘Yes, I’d give my life if necessary to help just one or two people truly understand that they are loved, not hated by God. It would be worth it if just one or two people came to know that they are not alone and that they are loved beyond one’s wildest imagination. There are millions out there. I’ll walk for them!’
This is quite a statement from Eric Elnes. What is it you would die for? What is so important in your life, so precious, so fundamentally important and essential that you would consider dying for it? It’s a tough question but an interesting exercise as it helps us peel back the layers of demands and distractions in our lives to discover what is truly important. We live in a society that is increasingly materialistic. Greed and the endless cycle of accumulation, consumes the lives of most in the developed world. If we stand back for a moment and observe our own lives and those of our society we recognise the power of the addictive pull of material possessions. Everywhere around us we are told what we need in order to be a complete human being. We are led to believe that more and more possessions, gadgets, devices, or products will make us feel better, be happy and fulfilled. Everywhere is a message of what we must have and own in order to be someone and to find true happiness. Without the latest gadget or gizmo we will simply not be whole. We are also told that we must be in absolute control over our lives, independent and strong before the world, self-secure. We are given the tools and techniques (for a price) and industries have grown up around helping people to find financial and other self-security and self-power.
The fallacy in all this is that more stuff, more money, beyond that which provides us with food, shelter, clothing, education (the basic needs), doesn’t make us happier. All those people clawing their way to the top and accumulating more stuff aren’t necessarily happier people. Most of them are more stressed, tensed, anxious and afraid – they have more to lose and are under more threat from others. The fear that we don’t have enough because others seem to have so much more can be debilitating, just as it is completely false and irrational. Is all this worth dying for?
In this week’s Gospel reading (Luke 12: 13-21) Jesus tells a story of a man who became rich because of his good harvests. He builds barns to store his grain and then plans to sit back take it easy and enjoy his wealth. Life is about him and him alone. Jesus asked the question of what it all meant if he died that very day? Was giving himself totally to his own pleasure and storing up everything for himself worth it? Did it mean anything in the grand picture? Was he even happy (is happiness even the ultimate goal?)?
Jesus told his listeners that there is true value in building up wealth in God – it is about the relationship that Eric Elnes recognised as so important he would be willing to die for it. So many of us have become obsessed with the things of the world around us, living with stress and fear of what might be. So many of us have been pushed further toward material prosperity and have lost our sense of what is truly, deeply vital and meaningful.
God loves us and invites us into a relationship of hope, healing and grace. This is a really good (and free!!) place to begin our search for life, meaning, contentment and well-being. It cuts across so much of our society’s hype, propaganda and false promises. It reduces the levels of stress, fear and anxiety in favour of joy, love and peace – in God!