I remember clear as day the thought in my mind as we swung out on the blind bend to pass the car in front of us, high up in the Alps: “I hope they’re right!”
Quite what the French car we were overtaking thought, as our Rover 218 with 6 kayaks on the roof screamed (OK, struggled) past, I’m not sure. ‘Les idiots’ is a mild guess.
But thanks to our trusty two-way radios, we felt confident, ish. We were travelling in convey, a sort of default Brits-abroad move that has been bred into our DNA across generations of international explorers. The lead car would radio back to tell us that the road was clear and we can overtake. This way we spent less time in the mountains and more time on the rivers. Made perfect sense at the time.
Thinking back to that part of my youth I am reminded that an act of following is always a step of faith.
Now following might be one of the most natural things to us in the world. As children we learn by following examples of those around us. We grow up following behind leaders: teachers, sports captains, parents etc. It’s a very naturally assumed relationship.
But as we get a little older we often begin to question these relationships. ‘Why am I following this person?’ we might muse – which is the polite expression of an inward belief that we can surely do better ourselves. Questions like this one also come, rather quickly I suppose, after we have been let down. As children, grown-ups can do no wrong. But that doesn’t last for long. A let down by a leader rocks our faith in the assumed understanding that the leader has our best in heart, that they know and care for us and are competent to take us to where we need to go.
Sooner or later we all realise that our leaders – other people – are as flawed and limited as we are. People we look up to can wound us deeply when they fail to live up to our standards for them. A toppled hero can be devastating. A quick look at public reaction when much-loved celebrities become embroiled in scandal is proof enough of this.
This is true everywhere. Work, sports, and yes, sadly, even within the church.
Some will cease following others, and follow their own desire. They’ll set their own path and appoint themselves captain of their one-man ship. And of course, we don’t all look for meaning by following people. We follow teams, brands, entertainment, fashions, the recycling code …
In John’s gospel Jesus makes a series of ‘I am’ claims. He uses these to communicate who he was to his hearers. In one scene Jesus is standing in the treasury – part of the temple in Jerusalem – between two great lamp stands that held many lamps as a representation of the pillar of fire that led the Israelites through the desert at night time.
The pillar of fire was the presence of God, and in following it, the Israelites moved from captivity to their own Promised Land.
In a similar way, we I think seek to follow people, things, desires, dreams … in the hope that they will lead us from where we are – what might feel like captivity to us – to our own Promised Lands.
Jesus, using the two great lamp stands as his illustration, points to himself and says,
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12, ESV)
Jesus’ invitation is to follow him, and in him find meaning in this life. Jesus doesn’t make this statement without support however. He doesn’t say to people to follow him without looking at who he is, without investigating his life, his death, and ultimately his resurrection.
Vulnerability and Passion
The tragic thing about a let down is that the real hurt comes not in the sting of the moment, but in the shutting down of that part of us so that we don’t get let down again. People, dreams, hopes: it sucks when they let us down. So we say to ourselves it won’t happen again.
We might sing about all those years of hurt experienced since England last won a major football competition and say we still dream, but we dream with our armour on. We hope against hope that something good will happen, but we also limit our excitement.
When a person lets us down we can vow to never trust to that level again. A failed marriage, or bad boss really can change us. But as Brene Brown rightly points out, “Our capacity for whole heartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be broken hearted.”
Passion, whole-hearted commitment, when we have it drives us to great things. It brings life to our world. But realism says that we should be careful; we should watch out. Jesus asks us to watch him, to see who he is. He asks us to learn that he will never let you down, that he will “never leave you or forsake you.”
The power of Jesus’ perfect life and perfect love to us is that it allows us – and requires us – to take our armour off of our hearts and become wholehearted again. Wholehearted, passionate people, who yes can be hurt and let down by others, but who know that they are following one who will never, ever wound us. By following Christ supremely, we can follow others lightly, allowing their talents and gifts to bring out the best in us, and absorbing their mistakes through the love we have been given by God in Jesus.
Lighting Up The World
The nature of light is that is exposes and reveals what is around us. It identifies what is truly there.
We are told that followers of Jesus “will not walk in darkness” but as people in the light we will see the world truly. Jesus lights up the reality of the world, the good, the bad, the ugly, and shows us how things really are. He doesn’t sugar-coat it, or provide a fluffy cocoon to shield us from this brokenness, but he instils in us bona fide hope for the future and strength for today.
The theme of light has been explored by many minds over many years, perhaps because its qualities and properties are fascinating.
C. S. Lewis in 1944 delivered an essay to the Socratic Club at Oxford University (a university whose motto was and is Dominus illuminatio mea ‘The Lord is my light’) entitled Is Theology Poetry? His concluding words, now surrounding the plaque laid for him at Poets Corner, Westminster Abbey:
“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”