I’ve been reading a book about maritime maps lately.
You’ve probably seen these maps and not known it. Even some of the oldest ones are ornate and colorful with islands decorated like little red and green jewels and with fanciful, elaborate drawings of people and creatures and buildings on the landforms. (If you can’t quite picture one, think of a map that says “here there be dragons” with relevant illustrations and you’ll be close.)
Many of those that remain are on display in various museums or scholarly collections. But here’s the funny thing: many of those meticulously crafted and elaborate maritime maps never actually went to sea! These gorgeous originals were kept, more often than not, on land: the salt water and humid climate and rough handling of a sea journey would degrade them too quickly for them to be of use. Instead of soiling them, sailors and cartographers produced cheap, bare-bones copies of these maps – without the rich color and the illustration and the fine details – for sea use.
Imagine: elaborate maps not meant for journeying, while chicken-scratch copies went to sea.
But the truth is that useful items often aren’t anything special: they’re worn, bare-bones. The beloved teddy bear loses an eye and a lot of his stuffing and more than a few threads. The favorite chair has a gentle indentation from years of sitting and it squeaks when you settle into it. The book you’ve read every year for a decade has a bend in the cover and dog-eared pages and maybe a stain or two.
Why should people be exempt?
And yet so many Christians are desperate to avoid the dents and dings and scratches of the Christian life. We want to be exempted from humiliation, from hurt, from pain, from grief. We want to paper over any evidence of our imperfections and our faults and our sins. We want everything to look at us and see a masterpiece – not Jesus, no, of course not Jesus, but, you know, close. We know we’re “God’s workmanship” (Eph. 2:10), and we’re not content for Him to take us through the process: we want to be art right now.
But the problem with art – and with those ornate maritime maps that never went to sea – is that it’s on display. It’s behind glass, or on a wall, or in a case. It’s meant to be viewed, to be marveled at, but it serves no other purpose. A map behind glass no longer serves the functional purpose of a map. And a Christian who has attempted to avoid, smooth out, or hide from every imperfection in their life suffers the same fate: they become removed and isolated, divorced from the purpose of their being.
Life is long. Bad things happen to us. And we make mistakes. It all leaves marks. We’re tear-stained and covered in ink smudges and scribbled-out words. We have been crumpled up and discarded and then picked up and smoothed back out again. Nothing about our lives sometimes is artful or worth admiring. As Paul pointed out, we are “jars of clay” (2 Cor. 4:7): fragile, prone, to breaking, largely powerless alone.
But the power of ministry rests in that authenticity that God has allowed us. Christ’s love shines in the broken places. I admire the Christians I know who, grieving, plainly admitted and openly showed their grief to others: those who showed it was possible to suffer soul-shattering loss and still believe. I admire the Christians I know who, having sinned, squarely faced the truth of it, spoke frankly of it, and asked openly for forgiveness: those who reminded me of the truth of redemption. I admire the Christians I know who, having suffered from disillusionment and uncertainty, asked their questions out loud and chased down the answers: those who offered me the wisdom I needed in trying times.
In my book, the pictures of some of the maritime maps are beautiful. The pictures are bright and colorful and interesting to look at. But I can’t help but wonder about those journeyman maps: lost to time now, no doubt long gone. They served their purpose in the hands of a sailor, on a ship, gritted up with salt spray and covered in water stains and scribbled writing. They became part of a greater journey.
They served a purpose. And so will we, if we allow it, and if we abandon our delusions about looking good, or close-to-perfect, or as though we’ve got it all figured out.
We’re not here to be admired.
We’re here to be used.