You Can't Get There From Here

There is no there there.

– Gertrude Stein

There’s an old joke about a tourist who gets lost on backcountry roads and stops to ask a farmer for directions. The farmer squints, rubs his chin, then sadly shakes his head. “You can’t get there from here,” he says. This bit of advice might come in handy if you are embarked on a spiritual journey, although you won’t understand why until you arrive at your destination. The path is never clearly marked, but there is no lack of guides to show you the way. The trouble is they can never agree on which way to go. Even if you have been instructed to follow the Yellow Brick Road, you are likely to encounter somebody with a head full of straw who obligingly points in two directions at once.

The destination goes by many different names in different spiritual traditions, but it is always elsewhere, whether in time or place. In Jesus’ day it was referred to as the kingdom of God, and there were two schools of thought on the subject. There were those who believed the kingdom would come when a messiah restored Israel to its former greatness under King David. Then there were those who believed the kingdom would be ushered in by a great cataclysm at the end of history. When Jesus was asked when the kingdom would come, he endorsed neither option. “The kingdom is not coming with signs to be observed,” he said flatly. From the beginning he had told anyone who would listen that the kingdom was at hand, by which he meant right here, right now, always.

But if that is so, where is it? The world is a sorry mess and has been ever since Jesus began telling people God’s kingdom was already at hand. So here it might be useful to take a careful look at what he actually said, chapter and verse. From the Gospel of Mark – the earliest of the four gospels – chapter one, verse 15: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” The operant word here, translated as “repent” from the Greek metanoia, literally means to change the mind. An alternate translation of this passage might read: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom is at hand; open your mind and believe…”

The reason we can’t see God’s kingdom is that we are always looking elsewhere, to another time or place, to somewhere over the rainbow, to a time when the messiah comes or comes again, to a time when we die and go to heaven or even to another lifetime altogether if we happen to be Buddhists. In this, as in all things, we see only what the mind is prepared to believe; hence, the need for metanoia, to open our minds. And then we may discover why the farmer’s comment to the lost tourist in that old joke is so appropriate in this situation. You can’t get there from here because our destination isn’t there; it’s here.

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