Reality - Escape or Transform?

Have you ever thought about how many of our activities ultimately amount to an escape of reality?

I did it a lot as a kid.  Most days, after school, I would make a retreat into my room where I would immerse myself in video games or my world of pretend aided by my tape player.  If I wasn't beating up the bad guys on my Nintendo, I was a super-hero, a pop-singer, etc.  Anything other than what I was would do.  A half-invisible, nerdy kid who couldn't swim or ride a bike was the self-image I had, and I had little interest in that person.  Like every kid and teenager, I experimented with several identities.  The one that has worked for me since I was 16 is "the confident, able leader."  To this day I get uneasy when I don't feel like I'm fulfilling that role.

There's something about escaping reality that's very healthy.  They actually say that children need to do it occasionally in order to develop properly...but only to a point.  Children who do nothing but live in the fantasy world are often socially inept.  Adults need to do it too.  Reality can suck.  Kids and bosses drive you crazy, families are messed up, suffering is all around us, and the realization of how much we have no control over can be paralyzing.  We cope with this by retreating into constructed realities with clear parameters.  Novels, games, movies, etc.  Sometimes these things are a healthy tool for our psychological survival.  But do we sometimes go beyond their occasional, healthy function?

Take a quick self-assessment of your free time (yes, we all have some, we just like to say we don't).  How much of it amounts to an escape from reality?  Take a quick self-assessment of the rest of your time - when you're at work, school, with family and friends.  How much of your thought processes and/or conversations amount to an escape from reality?

What some of us might find is that we spend an inordinate amount of time in some sort of escape from reality, or at least that our lives feature little if any contact with the lives of people outside our close circles.  But as a Christian, how am I called to relate to the real world?  Escape it, or transform it?

Another way we do this is in our relationships.  Think about it:  how often are your relationships based on intimate knowledge of and conversation about the other?  This is very rare.  Usually, conversations are centered away from the people engaged in them and focus on other things like hobbies, events, or other people.  This triangled focus in relationships is very common:  guys talk about sports, women talk about clothes, families sit with each other while watching the TV, etc.  These triangles create the illusion of closeness in a relationship but actually maintain distance and shield us from the realities of our life and others' lives.  As a Christian, how am I called to relate to the lives of others?

In scripture, Jesus and 3 of his disciples enjoyed a brief escape from reality in the story of the Transfiguration (Matt 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36).  They had what you could call a "mountaintop experience."  Aren't those great?  I remember having them growing up, and some were literally on top of a mountain at camps like Eagle Eyrie and Ridgecrest.  But I remember the let-down when I came back home and was surprised to find that I was my old self and returned to my old habits.  In all 3 synoptic gospels, this "mountaintop story" is followed by Jesus being met at the bottom of the mountain by a man begging for Jesus to free his son of demon possession (the only time a majority of the gospels put two stories in the same sequence).  How do you like that?  A marvelous, heavenly experience, and then WHAM - back to the grind.

Scripture is less "heavenly-minded" than we might think.  It abounds with narratives and images of God transforming reality rather than calling people out of or away from it.  I think of the creation narrative of Genesis 1 in which God takes formless matter and reorders it into something majestic.  I think of Ezekiel's image of dry bones coming to life (Ezek 37:4-6). I think of Isaiah's visions of peace and prosperity even among the animal kingdom (Isa 65:17-25) and Revelation's promise of a "new heaven and a new earth," God making "everything new" and dwelling "among the people" (Rev 21:1-4).  In fact, it seems that whenever God does do something "other-worldly," it always has a very grounded, earthly purpose.  Isaiah had a wild vision that culminated in God "touching his lips" and giving him a message to preach (Isaiah 6:1-8).  The angelic visits to Mary served to prepare her for what was to come; a very real birth in a very real (and dirty) place.  The "tongues of fire" at Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit served to make it possible for everyone to hear the word of God in their own language (Acts 2:1-12).  One of my favorite moments comes a chapter before that, right after Jesus has ascended and disappeared from the disciples' sight.  "Two men" appear and deliver a great line: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky?" (Acts 1:11)

Indeed.  Why do we stand here looking into the sky?  Why do we always focus on everything but the other person in relationships?  It seems to me that while God has a way of providing those important escapes from reality when we need them, our primary calling is to transform reality.  We are to be in the thick of it all, bringing the hope, love and grace that we have freely received and must now freely give (Matt 10:8).  Outside of our novels, games, movies and puzzles - as good and fun as they are - we can't forget about the much greater, messier, and spectacular narrative unfolding all around us.

I dare say that some versions of Christianity are little more than a different kind of escape from reality, draped in the language of piety and faithfulness.  From the fascination with rapture and end times (including a best-selling 12-book series) to hymns of the "roll being called up yonder," many people seek only to see heaven through human eyes rather than to see earth through God's eyes.  These dreams and escapes are only valuable insofar as they provide us with an encouraging vision of what could be; what God is trying to remake the world into.  We are to be the "salt of the earth" and the "light of the world" (Matt 5:13-16).  This requires a faith that "spurs us on toward love and good deeds" (Heb 10:24), a faith that takes us into the dark corners where light is most needed - realities we would otherwise just seek to escape, left to ourselves.

This post is an entry in the "Missional Church" section of this blog.