Life in the Postmodern Shift

Disorientation and reorientation

September 28, 2011 | Viewpoints | Number 19
By Troy Watson |

One Saturday afternoon I was deep in thought driving home on mental “autopilot.” When I returned to awareness of my surroundings, I was disoriented, as I had inadvertently driven to work instead of home.

I have driven up the street I work on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times. To say it is familiar would be an understatement. Yet during the few seconds it took to reorient myself, I felt like I was in a foreign country or an episode of The Twilight Zone. I noticed little things I had never noticed before. In a sense I saw a familiar street for the first time again.

I believe disorientation on our spiritual journeys impacts us similarly. It forces us to wake up, pay attention and notice things we’ve previously overlooked or taken for granted. It moves us to experience the God we’ve become too familiar with for the first time again.

The gospels tell us that “Jesus always used parables when speaking to the crowds. In fact, he never spoke to them without using such parables.” When his disciples finally confronted him about his confusing teaching style, he responded, “I teach the crowds using parables so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.”

Picture Costello’s response to Abbot saying “Who’s on first?” for the seventh time and you get a pretty good idea of how the disciples probably felt at this point.

    People didn’t understand Jesus most of the time, including his own family and the 12 disciples closest to him. The educated religious leaders who understood—or at least thought they understood—what Jesus was saying, wanted to kill him.

Why was Jesus intentionally nebulous and provocative much of the time?

I believe Jesus was purposefully disorienting people to break them out of old patterns of thinking. We need flexible minds to think in new ways. As Jesus said, “You can’t put new wine into old wineskins.” Jesus wasn’t trying to teach people new ideas and beliefs as much as he was trying to shock people into seeing old ideas and beliefs in a new way. Without this constant expansion of perspective, we get tunnel vision or “stuck in our ways,” instead of following the way of Jesus.

Jesus’ obscure stories and Zen-like sayings were designed to reignite a childlike faith. By childlike I don’t mean naïve and blind; I mean imaginative and inquisitive. Early 20th century theologian G.K. Chesterton said, “The function of the imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange.” Imagination and disorientation open our eyes to the wonder of reality.

This ongoing cycle of disorientation and reorientation is an essential part of the spiritual development process. As we open ourselves up to different ideas, new experiences, other perspectives and the mystery of life, our old ways of thinking are challenged and stretched. We become disoriented. Familiar things become strange. Then we have the beautiful opportunity of becoming reoriented with the familiar, allowing us to appreciate and understand it on an entirely different level.

As communities of faith, we live in the constant tension of collective disorientation and reorientation. Some of us are in a stage of disorientation while others are in a stage of reorientation. At times, some of us are reorienting to the very ideas, beliefs and practices that others have become disoriented with. For example, some Mennonite churches have recently turned to a more contemporary form of praise and worship music, whereas many of the people attending the Anabaptist church plant I am a part of have become disoriented with contemporary praise songs after a decade or more of only worshipping with this music. The soft pop praise band has become the new proverbial church organ for a large segment of the most recent generation of worshippers.

This disorientation and reorientation process can cause all kinds of frustration and judgment in communities. But as a community that follows the way of Jesus, we have chosen to live with this tension. This will require patience, humility and gentleness. We have to bear with one another. A significant aspect of being in community and relationships well is a simple willingness to put up with each other! As St. Paul says, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

Troy Watson is spiritual leader of Quest, a Mennonite Church Eastern Canada church plant in St. Catharines, Ont.

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