Here Be Dragons
I played football the first two years of high school. Well, I was on the team…didn’t play much. But for what I lacked in ability on the field I tried to compensate with what I could do well: study. I knew that playbook backward and forward. Every play to the letter.
Scrimmage—second team up. Huddle—end around on three. End—that was me, split end back around behind quarterback to carry the ball for the first time. I knew exactly what to do from my three point stance, ball snapped, explode out two steps, defensive end backing away, plant right foot, spin back behind line, ball floating in my path waiting, slapped against my chest, sharp left toward the line, then…what?
I had no idea what to do next.
There was only me, the ball, and a wall of linebackers who knew exactly what to do. My mind was as blank as the white space on the page below the written play.
Everything it means to be a football player begins where the playbook ends.
The play is only barest beginning, the launch pad from which the game is really played. To look downfield with no further instruction, absorb the scene in an instant, make decisions in real time, find pathways and fully engage—that’s the game, the excitement, what everyone comes to see: the unexpected, the dangerous, what most of us fear to do.
It’s like those old maps of the known world that had dragons drawn in the water beyond where anyone had gone. Uncharted waters that could hold any promise or precipice…some maps actually printing the words here be dragons to really hit the nail on the head.
Everything it means to be an explorer begins where the map ends. To be willing to sail beyond the map, make decisions in real time, find pathways and fully engage is what history comes to see.
It’s the same with our spiritual lives.
Jesus tells us that love is the answer—and the question too. Love is the ground on which we walk, the unity from which everything has come, and also the destination to which we’re going and the way in which we get there. It’s the everything, the quality of life he calls Kingdom, and the proof that we’re already there.
But there’s a catch. The same Book that records all this also tells us that this love is too great for any of us to understand. Of course it is…how could we possibly understand a love unbound by human and physical limitations, that has its roots in heaven, not earth? And there’s a second catch: the more we try to understand, the more caught we become. Like those Chinese finger traps we played with as kids, the harder we pull, the tighter we’re gripped. The very tools of logic, experience, and language chain us more firmly to our limitations, not love.
But we need to understand something so central, don’t we? Maybe not the facts of it, the definition, but certainly the reality. I think Jesus agrees because if you really look at his life and teaching, he is always pointing beyond what is familiar, what is traditional or even lawful. Teaching after teaching, story after story, Jesus is systematically leading beyond the security of all our maps and playbooks into the unchartable waters of an immeasurable love.
When we think we’re safe within our ethics and law, Jesus takes us beyond ethics and law to tell us that even an act like murder is not an isolated violation, but the violent end of an interior process of steadily degrading relationship—that a constant defusion of divisive thoughts and drives before they escalate begins to touch an unfamiliar love.
When he tells us to offer our other cheek, not respond in kind after a personal offense, he’s taking us beyond justice; going a second voluntary mile of servitude takes us beyond obligation; tending to damaged relationships before religious practice takes us beyond religion and obedience; loving the enemy takes us beyond affection, contracts, traditions; when he tells us we must hate our family members and even our own lives, he’s not advocating malicious feelings, but taking us beyond even our most fortified attachments to an undefended spot from which we can begin to see something radically different operating at the heart of life.
The love we find on our maps, love that is earned or reciprocated, is familiar. God’s love is neither earned nor familiar, continues whether reciprocated or not. God’s love is outrageous, unfair, unjust; it falls on the lawful and unlawful like uncomprehending rain. It deliberately unbalances the scales of justice in favor of the beloved. Always in favor of the beloved. We can stand in shade and shelter, deny its existence, but we can’t stop the falling. Yet as long as we cling to the familiar, we can never experience the falling.
If we’re not offended and outraged by all this, we haven’t been paying attention, haven’t sailed to waters where our dragons lie.
Jesus is telling us that nothing happens in the first mile, the familiar mile of obligation, of law and rule, of tradition and obedience. It’s in the second mile, the voluntary mile of undeserved service that we learn something of our Father in heaven and ourselves here on earth. Loving our neighbor brings us to the edge of our maps. Loving the enemy puts us in freefall.
We will never really believe we are loved and accepted until we experience giving love and acceptance to someone equally underserving. If we can’t love the enemy, the undeserving one, we’ll never know how God can love us. If we can’t forgive the enemy, we’ll never know how forgiven we already are.
As long as we’re running the play, following the map, we are only participating in what is familiar. Jesus is leading where there be dragons, because everything it means to love as God loves begins where familiar love ends.