the happiest place on earth

I used to hate following the news. It was so depressing, so endlessly troubled and gloomy, that I would be filled with an ambiguous sadness at every new report; suicide, homicide, war, famine, rape, disaster, greed, ignorance… all of it overwhelming to my sheltered self – shadowy threats to my naive understanding of how things should be, at least for me.

So I adapted, developing a nearly manic imagination capable of wild flights of fantasy. I daydreamed my way through school, consumed so many fantasy novels and video games that the immersive worlds they depicted began to poison my perception of existence, and tried to distance myself from the pain and anxiety that comes with awareness. I wasn’t always successful, of course, and I didn’t really know what on earth I was doing, but nonetheless I had somehow become a self-described escapist. So much so, in fact, that a mentor once told me during freshman year that my connection to reality frequently seemed tenuous, at best. Please, don’t all line up to marry me at once.

I was recently reminded of this part of myself while running around Disney World on vacation with the family. You guys, I love Disney World. I could probably wander around Epcot’s World Showcase for, oh I don’t know, forever and ever.

But, was it just me or did the stone walls look a bit more like painted plaster this time around? Did the water always have such a garish blue tint? And were the security cameras always so obvious, and the costumes so lifeless? And I wondered, Is my increasing exposure to poverty and brokenness corroding my imagination…

…or are my experiences bringing it more to life?

While I was in Africa, one of the recovering drug addicts and I were walking by the beach talking about his newly emerging hopes and passions for a life of sobriety and Christian discipleship. As we walked, we passed an unassuming man wearing sunglasses, a loose jacket, and boring jeans. My friend (who has a fascinating history of gangsterism, murder, theft, and meth) leaned over and whispered, “He’s an undercover cop, I promise you.” I tried to remain as nonchalant as his tone of voice. “And that man over there, he’s a meth addict. So is that guy, most likely. There’s a drug den just around the corner; it’s a nice house. And make sure you never leave your keys or valuables unattended – syndicates have lookouts on that mountain right there and will send nearby runners to grab your stuff. Just, you know, don’t be stupid. So anyway….”

Welcome to reality, Jordan. Population: You and a bunch of scary people you probably didn’t want to know were absolutely everywhere. But that conversation got me thinking. How blind am I to the dark and unmentioned world that exists just beneath the surface of “normal”? You know how people talk about spiritual warfare, and say that we are constantly surrounded by angelic and demonic hosts? And how, if we could see that realm clearly, we’d likely explode from incomprehension? Well, my friend gave me a glimpse of something similar. How insular and near-sighted has my life been! How adeptly have I shielded myself from the grotesque underbelly of the communities in which I’ve lived! Why have I been so content to live with such a stunted understanding of reality?

I decided in that moment that, wherever I live, I want to be aware. I want to know where the drug deals go down, I want to know that crazy homeless man’s story, I want to know the names of the prostitutes that hang around Main St. for some tragic reason or another. And not just to know so that I appear socially conscious and “moral,” but so that my life, and maybe theirs, is challenged and changed and conformed more closely to Jesus’. I want my roots to go deeper than the anemic suburban strata.

My imagination used to be my escape from bitter reality. But I’ve learned, slowly, that we have been given the incredible gift of imagination not to transcend reality, but to inhabit it more profoundly. It is not for the abolition of reality, but so that we may see it in some small way as Christ does. Extricating myself, actively or passively, from reality, in all its ugliness, was actually denying myself the blessings of a Spirit-filled imagination. It was anti-incarnational.

I’ve realized that, without becoming aware of and rooting myself in that “hidden” world around me (which isn’t so hidden for countless others), with its abuse, addiction, violence, injustice, and insanity, I could never understand the true significance of redemption or hope, and my encounters with the brokenness within myself and others would continue to overwhelm me. This is why, I think, the book of Revelation is so powerful: John is calling his flock to see, not past, but more deeply into their circumstances, to the cosmic battle of good and evil and the insurmountable supremacy of the crucified lamb who reigns in love. (I read Revelation as poetic theological commentary on the nature of the way things are, a la Richard Hays and Greg Beale…and the original audience.) Such a vision empowers the Church to live boldly and with grace, embodying the Gospel with passion.

So maybe Disney World isn’t quite so captivating as it once was. But that’s ok, because life, in all its maddening complexity, has become so much more profound and engrossing. We who claim to follow the risen Christ have the unbelievable privilege of living, wherever that may be, amidst the darkness of the earth and proclaiming light, of encountering addict and dealer, pimp and prostitute, abused and abuser, poor and rich, and imagining them as the people they could become through the miracle of redemption and then walking with them on that difficult and trying road.

Is it simple? No. Is it easy? No. Is it painless? Not even close. Do I have any idea what I’m really getting myself into? Nope. But am I more excited about life and ministry than I ever have been? By the grace of God, yes. (Mostly) Gone are the days of wanting to cling to privilege and ease, to seek happiness in the absence of difficulty rather than in the midst of it. In their place is a renewed desire to be, as Barth repeatedly demanded, for the world, in it, living relentlessly and selflessly for the freedom of others in a way only Christians can. If the Church does not model such an existence it will find itself lost in an inward-turning labyrinth of isolation and comfortable folly – unaware and unconcerned with the brokenness across the ocean, around the corner, and in its sanctuaries. And, consequently, it will have ceased to fully be the Church, the body of Christ which has always embraced the downtrodden and marginalized.

But wherever the Church is living into this Spirit-filled imagination, wherever that consuming love of God is breaking into and transforming the desperate brokenness of the world, that is, really, the happiest place on earth.


(Though The World Showcase is totally a close second.)