Saturday, August 21, 2010

Terra Incognita

I recall once reading an article about a team of explorers who set out to travel on foot through the interior of Africa. Beginning deep in the continent, they trekked 2,000 miles through some of the most untamed wilderness on the planet. They called the 15 month project “The Megatransect” - which I guess is just explorer lingo for a really long walk across something. (Of course, you don’t get to be a celebrated explorer if you use man-on-the-street descriptors like “big walk across Africa.”)

The great vision of the team was to experience Africa in all its rich vastness and keep careful field notes along the way. Of course, no man can take in an entire continent, so they would do the next best thing; If they just kept going - through dense jungles, across raging rivers, over jagged peaks - they would see a cross-section of the whole. Along the way and amidst the struggles, they would witness some of the most fantastic sights on earth and, hopefully, live to tell the tale.

In many respects, what we've set about doing here can be thought of in these terms. As soon as we dare begin asking questions about God and life and what all of this means, we find ourselves hemmed in on all sides by mystery. And I’m not just talking about the big questions like, “What was I made for?” Some of the most vexing questions are the everyday riddles like, “Why do I keep doing this thing that I hate?” or “When I finally get what I think I want, why does it seem so hollow and empty, like a mouth full of ashes?”

Puzzles beget puzzles, and soon enough we find ourselves in a situation not unlike that of the intrepid band cutting their way through the bush in the Congo Basin. Outstretched before us lies a landscape full of marvels, but it’s vast and daunting, and the forest about us is thick. It’s hard to know how to start, much less make headway.

Stepping back from the analogy for a moment, let me say that the beautiful thing about a forum like this is that it has the potential to bring together people who are in very different places, spiritually speaking. For some of you the spiritual life is a great undiscovered continent you’ve never set foot on. Maybe you’ve heard second-hand stories, but don’t know what to make of it. It is like those borderlands on old maps labeled “Terra Incognita,” wholly unknown territory. Like people in former times, perhaps you’re convinced that this unknown place, so foreign and remote, is peopled with strange things and inhabitants. And you would sooner stay at home and leave those curiosities unseen.

On the other hand, some of you set out on this way long ago. You’re familiar with both the trials and piercing joys of a life lived in pursuit of what is ultimately, lastingly real. But, if you’re anything like me, sometimes you lose your way. Ever read the opening lines of Dante’s
Divine Comedy? - “In the middle of this life’s journey I found myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” In addition to being a really fantastic way to begin a book, it’s an apt description of where many of us find ourselves. Its a great way to say, “I’ve been walking for a while, but it’s dark and I don’t know where I am, much less where I am headed.”

It could be that every story worth telling passes through the “Dark Wood.” At one point the
Megatransect explorers had to traverse a region they came to call the Green Abyss. A tangled mass of life, it took them two and a half months to make their way through. Maybe you’re in your own personal Green Abyss now.

I suppose my word to you, wherever you are, is this: Stick around. Join us for a while on this
Megatransect of the spiritual life. Why not? If there’s even the remotest chance that there really is something to all of this, shouldn’t you find out? So, stick around. And grab a machete, while your at it.

By way of encouragement, let me say this: One of the most incredible things I have discovered about the life of faith is that, as you move forward, it shows itself to be true. This is something you can bank on. Dare to believe and you will find in due course that all things will conspire to show you just how very real it is. You are, happily, no match for this Truth.

I think Jesus had this self-authenticating power of his message in mind when he says in John 7:17, “If anyone wants to do God’s will, he will see whether my teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own.” In other words, if you dare take his message and embrace it as true, you will soon find that it is genuinely from God and not something he just whipped up out of thin air. The Old Testament puts it more simply, but no less powerfully, “Taste, and see that the Lord is good.”

But, let us speak plainly. This is a dangerous game. If you decide to go down this road, you’re just asking for trouble. So, be forewarned; You may well find that the great
backstory of the world is so compelling that it swallows you whole. You may just discover that the story of redemption, running like a golden thread through history, is so beautiful that it eclipses everything else you’ve ever lived for. So now’s your chance! Get out while the gettin’s good. It would be easier if you just minded your own business and went about your merry way, no?

At the end of the
Megatransect, after 456 days beneath the jungle canopy, the team of explorers reached their goal. Emerging from the wilds of the Congo and spilling out on the shore, they raced across the platinum sands of the African coast and sprang into the shining surf. So doing, the leader of the band reportedly quipped, “I would gladly do it all again.”

So stick around.


  1. The beautiful (yet painful) thing about the Megatransect is that it really never ends. They may have crossed the abyss in 456 days, but just imagine the challenges that now lay ahead in crossing the deep blue ocean. Rather than go into the jungle again, we (I) must move forward as the challenges and situations adapt and change. It is acceptable for me to look back at what once was, and relive the emotions of victory and defeat, but ultimately I must look forward and "press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus" (Phil 3:14). I must accept all that was, is, and will be and come face to face with the Light.

  2. Good thoughts. There is a sense in which you are quite right, the Megatransect never ends. The only spiritual life worthy of the name is everlasting. At the same time, there is, as you know, a new world and age beyond the horizon of this fallen world. There we will see face to face the great pioneer, the author and perfecter of our faith. And then the story continues, pure and strong, and without all of the brokenness that so often seems to choke out our life in God. Thanks for the comment.

  3. I believe it may be Terra incognita. I had to say something related to language somehow...

  4. I think you're right. There goes my reputation as both a Latin scholar and a cartographer. Ah, well.


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