Have you ever felt like there was something more to the life you’re living? If so, a new book by Matt Litton, Holy Nomad: The Rugged Road to Joy, might be just the invitation you need to break free. Litton, an English teacher and author, wrote Holy Nomad based out of his own experience – and what he noticed around him – as a sort of meditation on being stuck … and getting free.
We caught up with Matt this week to ask him some questions about his new book, and the nomadic journey he’s inviting us to take with him.
There’s a line on the back cover of your book that reads: “This book is an invitation from your life sentence.” You make it sound as if we are in prison! What do you mean by that?
Well, I think a life without joy and meaning is more of a “life sentence” – it is a far cry from the way we were meant to live. We believe in a God who is constantly inviting us to “come forth” into a journey of meaning, who commands us to follow him into a way of living he calls “real life” or “life to the fullest.” But we are too often imprisoned and immobilized by our fixation on the most meaningless trappings of life from our religiosity to our materialism to our own sense of self-importance…
I looked at my own life and the lives of the people I know and realized we are obsessed with our desires for the latest purchase, consumed with protecting our proverbial “place in line,” even with defending our little brand of the truth. We are preoccupied with our images and our reputations—the way we look and who we know. And many of us are constrained in darker prisons like grief, addiction, jealousy, greed and prejudice.
I suppose I mean that we bury ourselves alive with these joyless pursuits and lock ourselves in these “cells”. Cells full of the eternally irrelevant, far removed from the substantive journey that God intended for us to live. Many religious folks live captive to the idea that eternal life means simply punching a train ticket to heaven – like Jesus is talking about some type of bond you cash in when you die. But, I think God means for our lives to be routinely transcendental and that when Jesus talks about eternity, he also means it begins right now, in this very moment. His call to follow is a call to “come alive.” I think the story of Jesus calling Lazarus from the grave is a great metaphor for the way we are constantly being summoned forth. We are too bound by all of these dead ends to experience the joy found in taking steps toward a nomadic life – toward joy.
This book seems to be quite personal … what was it about your life that inspired you to write this book?
I found myself hearing this cultural idea that we do not have a choice in our lives: as if our condition is completely dictated by our community, the way our brains our wired, the things that have been done to us, the conditions we are born into… but I just couldn’t buy that. I believe God calls us into a choice… a spiritual choice. God doesn’t promise wealth or success or even your next day of life, but he does promise “life to the fullest” if we will journey toward him and tie ourselves to a spiritually nomadic way of living. I think joy is discovered when we place our hopes in things that are everlasting. I found myself writing this book in the basement surrounded by trappings of the material things I, at one point, thought would bring meaning to my life. I began to look around at all the little “banners” of success that I mistakenly felt would bring significance to my day to day, and the reminders of some pretty significant loss in our family… then I realized that many of the people I admire were also weighed down in their own unfinished basements, trapped far from a life of meaning. It became clear to me that joy (or what Jesus calls “life to the fullest”) is only experienced in the nomadic journey, away from the safety of our captivity of our “cells”.
Why do you think we’re so resistant to leaving our “cells,” and moving towards freedom?
Life in the cell is utterly joyless, but it can be very comfortable. I think the story of God’s people in the Exodus illuminates this truth. God performs extraordinary miracles and frees Israel from Egyptian slavery. We are talking summer-blockbuster-big-screen type of events like: pillars of fire, plagues, seas parting and destroying armies. And just weeks after all of this, God’s people are ready to stone their leader named Moses. They want to go back to Egyptian slavery where, even though they were in bondage, they were at least guaranteed a meal or two a day and a place to rest. I think that is our story. We can’t deal with the unknown. We will choose the security of our dingy little cells over the adventure of this nomadic journey toward joy over and over, because it feels safe and predictable. God is many things, but he is certainly not safe.
You talk about the “crash” moments in our life that knock us down, wake us up, and propel us forward in new directions. What was that crash moment in your own life? And does there always have to be a crash for a spiritual journey to begin?
The CRASH is a natural result of the human condition. The things we value and strive for are not eternal. They eventually will come down on us or around us. For some people it might be losing the job they love, it might be the death of a loved one, it might be the end of a relationship, and it could be financial ruin… God doesn’t cause these moments in our lives. I have experienced several different types of crash moments, times when I knew clearly that my “kung-fu” was not good, from the grief of losing family members to the implosion of some dream or pursuit that I placed too much value on at the expense of the eternal, I think the crash moments come in different forms but they come for everyone without prejudice. The crash is Adam and Eve being thrown out of the garden, the Tower of Babel falling back to earth, Israel conquered and sent into exile, the disciples fleeing, St Francis as the leper approached him, Mother Teresa’s first encounter with the poverty of Calcutta… even Jesus experiences the crash when he asks from the cross, “Dad, where are you?” There is an eerie silence in these moments of life where we can see, and hear, and feel the true condition of our souls. I think these are also the moments where we can most clearly hear the nomadic call to come forth from captivity.
You’ve said this book is not a self-help book to more joy, but rather a meditation on what is it to be a spiritual nomad. What is a spiritual nomad?
I write that I am not the pastor of a Godzilla size mega-church or a theologian. It’s funny, but I didn’t set out to write about spirituality and am certainly no expert on joy. I genuinely was wrestling with Jesus call to meaning and joy and how it impacted the way I live my life. This book is an invitation to journey alongside me and “see what we can find” toward what it means to live life the fullest.
A spiritual nomad is someone who is focused on continually making the choice to be tied only to God. It is much different than the pop-culture idea of nomads. To be spiritually nomadic means that we derive our sustenance, our self-image, our identity, our direction from the eternal… it is a life of sacrifice and responsibility. While cultural nomads may travel from place to place… a spiritual nomad can live in the same zip-code, at the same address for their entire life. Jesus is talking about this way of living in his conversation with Nicodemus. He says to be born from above is to be moved “this way and that” by the spirit of God or the “wind” of God. He says in this type of life you do not know where God is taking you next. One of my favorite writers, Walter Brueggemann, describes God in the Old Testament as nomadic – a God on the move. The nomadic life is a reflection of the God we believe in. I am still working to discover what these truths mean in my own life.
You talk about the journey of the nomad being one primarily towards ‘joy.’ What do you mean by that?
C.S. Lewis wrote that joy is the serious business of heaven and that once you have experienced it you will want it again and again. Jesus says that he came to bring us joy. I think joy is the essence of what Jesus is talking about when he says life to the fullest. Real joy is much deeper than temporal happiness – in fact, I don’t think the two are related. I believe joy is the knowledge that you are experiencing something that is everlasting. Maybe it is sitting before the ocean on a clear night, maybe it is your daughter’s smile, it could be the moment you walk away from a conflict, maybe a really long work day to help a neighbor… it may even be that thin line of sanity that keeps you going through severe grief. It is different for everyone.
What tools do we need for the nomadic journey? How do we sustain ourselves on this difficult journey towards joy and freedom?
There are really four tools for the nomadic journey. It begins with trust. In a culture where our materialism so often outweighs our devotion to God, it is crucial to understand the difference between wants and needs. The first tool is the complicated matter of actually trusting God to meet our real needs. The second tool involves learning to recognize our identity and value as being reflections of God. In a world where advertisers spend billions to convince us we are incomplete without what they have to sell – that can be a tall order. We also can’t begin the nomadic journey without the use of our imagination. We must first imagine ourselves outside of our cells before we ever take the first step. I believe that our God-given imaginations are provided to bridge the great divide between the righteous world of God’s kingdom and the realities of the here and now. The last tool we carry into the nomadic journey is our curiosity. Questions are the lifeblood of our relationships and the same is true with our faith. In many ways, the depth of our journey with the Holy Nomad (Jesus) can be measured by the intensity of the questions we are willing to ask.
What was the hardest thing about writing this book? And the easiest thing?
The book is an exploration of the nomadic themes of the Bible and the places where we find joy. It was difficult because it made me (and continues to make me) to take an honest look at my own life and ask tough questions about what I value, what I am pursuing and where I am finding my identity.
The easiest part of the book was writing about our cultural nomads. I love the pop culture and literary characters like Caine from “Kung-Fu,” who moves from episode to episode with great purpose but no direction, or the characters from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road who tear up and down the big American highways leaving poetry and disaster in their wake. It was fun to explore those characters as metaphors and hold them up to the meaning of a spiritually nomadic way of life.
What ultimately, do you hope people take away from your book?
I hope people will open up their lives and take some time to explore what they value and whether or not they are experiencing the eternal. I think it is easy to spend days, months, and years in the cells of our lives, occupied with the dead and soulless areas of the world, believing that the talk of eternal life (life to the fullest) is about the “sweet by and by” and missing out on the joy of the nomadic journey that Jesus offers right here – right now – in this moment. I hope the Holy Nomad is an enjoyable conversation that invites people to consider life outside of the cell and on the journey.