One night I kept dreaming about a big ship out on the deep blue waters of the ocean. I’ve learned that when a dream repeats several times it is worthy of attention, so I prayed, asking about the significance of the image of the ship. Then I remembered that before I fell asleep I asked the Lord what “in the world, but not of the world” meant.
This was a loaded expression for me. In the culture I grew up in “worldliness” was the biggest enemy. “In the world, but not of the world” meant I had to go to public school, but I couldn’t look good doing so. Dressing fashionably, wearing make-up or having an up-to-date hairstyle was considered worldly -as was just about every other fun thing my friends did. The list of worldly activities seemed to grow with every request to do anything. I couldn’t play the same games, go to the same places, watch the same TV shows, or listen to the same music -at least not with permission. My grandmother gave me a transistor radio to listen to her favourite evangelists, but I may have tuned to a pop rock station after I figured out how the ear bud worked. I realize her intent was to protect me, but I often felt isolated and well, just weird. It didn’t help that my school mates re-inforced the weird label.
One of the sad results of having fences around fences was that I became very good at spotting worldliness breaches in others. If I couldn’t get away with it, why should they? I learned to be pretty judgmental.
Another consequence was not learning self-control or moderation when I was young. Since the rules often made no sense to me I depended on others to determine what was right or wrong. Choices were based on fear of punishment more than on caring and loving myself or others. I had a fear-based relationship with a God who specialized in saying no with a “shame-on-you” scowl behind that great white beard in the sky since he was mostly evoked to make me more compliant.
The end result of striving to obey all the rules, ironically enough, was that I never realized I had the right to say no. No to religious authority figures who abused power, no to bullies in the workplace, no to those who wished to make me their personal servant, no to people with ulterior motives — not even no to salespeople I felt sorry for. I bore a lot of scars for a long time. The hardest part of breaking free was constantly living with a sense that God, when and if he showed up, was on somebody else’s side -because they had already gone and tattled about me.
It’s been a long journey to learn that God is love and relentlessly kind and is not very much like the god I grew up with. So when I asked, “What does in the world, but not of the world mean?” the question carried a lot of baggage.
“Like a ship,” I heard.
I thought about it. A ship sails on the water; it depends on the water, but it remains separate in substance. Even a submarine avoids becoming one with the sea. When a reed raft, like the one used on the Kontiki expedition absorbs too much sea water, it sinks. When an iron ship has a hole under the waterline like the Titanic, it takes on water and is dragged down to the bottom. But a ship in dry dock, safely away from dangers of sinking, is a boat going nowhere. It serves no one and has no influence no matter how modest its paint job or how clean its decks.
Then, much to my surprise, I found the expression held over my head for so many years, was not actually in the Bible. The closest passage I could find is Jesus’ prayer in John 17:
13 “Now I am coming to you. I told them many things while I was with them in this world so they would be filled with my joy. 14 I have given them your word. And the world hates them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to this world any more than I do. 17 Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth. 18 Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world. 19 And I give myself as a holy sacrifice for them so they can be made holy by your truth. (John 17:13-19)
He asked for protection from the evil one for his followers and that they would be set apart by the word, which is truth. I may come to the same decision about choices I make now, but a lot of times I don’t – especially if pressured to make decisions based on negativity (God’ll get you for that) or fear (What if there is not enough?) or impatience with God (I guess I’ll just have to fix this myself) or a need to control others to remove the temptation to worry (You really should…). Boxing God into the limits of human reasoning no matter how impressive the brain (and I have met some incredibly intelligent people) feels like absorbing soggy ideas laden with questionable presuppositions sometimes, and when I neglect to dump the bilge water of too many scornful talk shows or scary shark movies my thinking is affected. I start going down.
The Greek word used for Spirit in the New Testament is pneuma, meaning air. I can live on the ocean and appreciate its beauty and its dangers, but I am not called to be one with the ocean. I need air. I need to be in a boat that floats so I can enjoy the ride. The Holy Spirit is the one who fills our sails and leads us into the truth that brings about real change. Repentance doesn’t mean doing penance. It means cooperating with Holy Spirit to change my way of thinking and choosing to go in a better direction in a boat that can be as colourful as I like.
God’s language is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, and when decisions are based on these things, there is no need for rules.