You can’t get there from here

A man, on vacation, flies up into the mountains. At the airport in the big city he rents a car. He looks at maps, programs his destination into his phone, and sets off for his cabin. Although he doesn’t feel lost, the surroundings do not seem to be matching what his phone describes. The man sees another man sitting on a porch and stops the car to talk with him. He describes where he is trying to go. The man on the porch shakes his head and says, “You can’t get there from here.”

In our world made smaller by rapid communication and rapid transportation, it seems unlikely that two places might be inaccessible to each other. Practically speaking, it still happens. The only way for our man to reach his destination is to head back to the city and take a different road. There are no shortcuts up in the mountains. “You can’t get there from here.”

I use those words in the classroom to describe Pure Land Buddhism. Most North Americans are at least slightly familiar with Zen Buddhism, but in Asia the Pure Land version is far more common. To give a simple explanation (for which I apologize, because simple explanations are always misleading), Zen Buddhists believe that under proper discipline and meditation, a person can achieve enlightenment in this world. One can end craving and therefore escape suffering by realizing the illusionary nature of all things—especially of an individual’s sense of self. Pure Land Buddhists are trying to achieve the same enlightenment, but they understand that “you can’t get there from here.” This world is too full of distractions and enticements to make full enlightenment possible. However, by proper living, proper meditation, and devotion to the Amitabha Buddha, a Buddhist can be assured of rebirth in the Pure Land. In the Pure Land are no distractions or enticements. Meditation is easy, and enlightenment is possible. The path is harder, but the destination is finally possible.

Is there any time that a Christian must say, “You can’t get there from here”? Consider one person who joined the church looking for peace of heart, inward joy, and a sense of God’s presence. The Bible promises these gifts to believers, but sometimes “you can’t get there from here.” The problem is not merely one’s own sins or lack of faith; the problem includes attacks from evil and distractions from a sinful world. The best of the saints suffered at times: David, Job, Paul, even Christ. Peace and joy are promised, but sometimes they are achieved only after a journey through the dark night of the soul.

Another wants to be a better man. He knows that his life is not fully pleasing to God, and he does not wish to join the church until he knows that he is worthy of God’s kingdom. To such a man, one can only say, “You can’t get there from here.” It is noble to want to be better, and every Christian should strive for that goal. But none of us can make ourselves good enough to belong in God’s Kingdom. None of us can work our way to holiness for God. Holiness lies in the future for all of God’s people. Even so, “you can’t get there from here.”

Jesus wants us to have joy and peace. He wants us to live holy lives. Because we can’t get there from here, Jesus accomplishes the impossible work for us. He pays the debt for our sins, a price we could never pay. He lives a sinless life and bestows on us his righteousness. He fights and defeats all our enemies—sin, the devil, and death itself. He promises to carry us to the Pure Land, a perfect creation, remade from this present sin-stained creation. We will live there forever with him, with no suffering or pain or death, and he will wipe every tear from our eyes.

Pure Land Buddhists believe that they must please the Amitabha Buddha to earn a place in the Pure Land. Jesus still says, “No, you can’t get there from here.” Instead, he promises to be with us in this world. He promises to give us the gift of faith, to strengthen that faith, and to keep us in that faith. He promises to lead us. Even in the dark valley of the shadow of death we do not fear, for he is with us. By his death and resurrection he has blazed a trail across that valley. He will lead us safely through that valley, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

We want to be there now. We want to be enjoying the fullness of his promised blessings now. “You can’t get there from here.” The only way to get there is to stay close to the Shepherd, for he is leading us on paths today. With his guidance, we will get there. Only our Shepherd knows how to get there from here. J.