As I travelled from Munich to Friedrichschaffen on the train yesterday, I felt a little out of place because the truth of the matter is that I wear my outdoor recreation clothes for everything, including traveling on trains in Europe. But Europeans don’t do this. I don’t think I saw any clothing on any of my fellow train travelers labelled “North Face”, or “Patagonia”, or “Mountain Hardwear”, other than the American (who, it turns out, was at Cal Poly the same year as me, but I digress). It’s not that the people of Bavaria don’t do sport, they do – at least as much as Seattlelites and probably more. They do, however, save their recreational gear for, well, recreation.
As a result, it’s a pretty safe bet to say that if you see someone wearing a ski jacket, or sweats, or some sort of wicking 1/4 zip mock turtleneck micro-fiber thing, they are probably just starting or finishing some outing whereby they’ll be sweating and need this clothing for actual protection. The clothes speak of the person’s identity as athlete much more here than at home, where some people who wear Patagonia never venture any farther than their refrigerator for adventure, and where the walk to the car is the longest hike they’ve had in months, years maybe.
In Seattle, you see, we like to look the part. I sometimes wonder if we even begin to believe that wearing the clothing will somehow make us more athletic, simply by virtue of the wearing. I know I’ve been guilty of inhaling an extra piece of cake simply because I own climbing gear and am sitting on the sofa reading about people who do high caloric sports. It’s silly, of course, but I’ll bet I’m not along. What’s worse, I’m convinced that’s what some of us are doing with our faith. Let me explain:
For an increasing number of Christians, in our polarized Evangelical community(s), it seems that certain issues have become the spiritual equivalent of wearing brand name outdoor gear. Wear your Calvinism (or your non-Calvinism) by making sure that you can articulate it, defend it, and beat up relentlessly on those who view it differently. Do the same thing with your soteriology, and your pneumatology, and your ecclesiology, and all your other “ologies” so that you have the right Bible, know the right verses, and believe the right things. There, now you look like Jesus.
Except, uh, pardon me but… you don’t; at least not necessarily. You might look like Jesus, but I promise you that it won’t be because you have the right clothing, which means having all those ologies refined and articulated to the point of being ‘doubt proof’, and ‘bomb-proof’. In fact, the real proof of your faith won’t reside in your ability (or mine) to defend whatever it is that we say we believe, but rather to actually live it.
This is where things get really tricky, because the reality (and this is why I like this word picture), is that there are people Patogonia Pentecostals, North Face Free Church types, and Mountain Hardwear High Church Anglicans all seeking the summit. The last time I climbed Rainier I watched a couple of guys make it to the summit and back carrying flannel sleeping bags and wearing Levi’s. Not advised, surely, but they got there, while the buff, cross-fit hardened, tanned and trained guy from Sweden throw up on his down parka and 12,000′ and needed to get down to thicker air.
You just never know do you. I think Jesus hinted at that right here. I think this is why I’m more interested in whether someone wearing a label is actually loving their neighbor, or ignoring them; if they’re confessing their sins to someone or hiding them from everyone, even themselves; if they’re serving those on the margins with compassion, or hiding in a Christian subculture. The truth of the matter, of course, is that there’s people with good gear summiting, and people with good gear never getting off their butts and doing a blessed thing, other than arguing about whether Patagonia is better than North Face.
I offer these words of challenge to myself as well as the readers because I have my own outdoor gear that often convinces me I’m a Christ follower, when I’m really just wearing the uniform. Next week, in the ski town where I’m teaching, my “Mountain Hardwear” prima-loft jacket might lead people to think I’m just about to hit the slopes, until they know I’m an American. Then they’ll know that all my jacket means is that, like reciting the Apostle’s creed, I’ve got the label. The proof however, will be in the skiing, or the living – and maybe if we were doing more of that, there’d be fewer arguments about who’s label will get them higher, faster.