Holding On by Letting Go

Will we know it when we see it? We’ve all heard of El Dorado, the lost city of gold. The Spanish Conquistadors arrived on the shores of the “New World” bringing their visions of conquering this “savage” land for their God and their crown. And as soon as they did, stories began drifting back to Europe of a place called “El Dorado.” The descriptions were fantastic: a city that rivaled any in Europe, made entirely out of gold. The legend grew over time, and expedition after expedition went in search of El Dorado, but it was never found.

Over time, the consensus was that El Dorado never existed. Either the Conquistadors built up the legend in order to justify their own excess and thirst for wealth, or the Indians they captured and tortured would tell the story out of some hope that their lives would be spared. But ultimately, the search for El Dorado went the way of Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth: a myth, and nothing more.

The early twentieth century saw a renewed interest in exploration. I recently came across the story of Percy Fawcett, an Englishman who became obsessed with El Dorado – not the literal lost city of gold, but the possibility of an ancient settlement of pre-Columbian civilization. Fawcett studied the documents of the Conquistadors and became convinced that there was enough of a grain of truth – not of extravagant wealth, perhaps, but of massive ancient monuments – that is was worth studying further.

Fawcett had made several forays into the Amazon, bringing back incredible tales of meetings with Indian tribes who only bolstered his belief in a place he began to call “Z.” His exploits had become so famous that by the time he made his last trip in 1925, his reports back from the field were breathlessly reported in newspapers throughout the world. Eventually, however, the correspondence stopped, and Fawcett was never heard from again.

Many thrill seekers tried to find him, lost in the jungle, only to meet a similar fate. Fawcett’s story, like that of El Dorado, faded into the wilderness, further cementing the belief that the Amazon could never have been a place of impressive civilization. It was, instead, a “counterfeit paradise.” It teemed with the abundance of plant and animal diversity, but was marked by unrelenting natural consumption that prevented meaningful human settlement from surviving. What Fawcett ultimately saw with his own eyes will never be known; but it was certainly no El Dorado.

What is it like to search for paradise? We may not have the drive of a Percy Fawcett or the zeal of a Spanish Conquistador. But we do have our own hopes and dreams and yes, even fantasies, of what makes for perfection here on earth. It may be as global as visions of a nuclear-free world, or a national victory in the clash of civilizations. It may be as personal as having financial stability or the healing of old wounds. We may have these hopes for ourselves, our children, our church, our city. What do these visions of paradise look like? And if they arrived, would we even know them if we saw them?

As we read our Old Testament lesson today, I can’t help but wonder what went through Moses’ mind as he stood there on Mount Nebo, on the Eastern side of the Jordan River, looking across at the land of the Canaanites. For forty years, he had led the people through the wilderness. And now, he gazes at the place of promise, the paradise that has awaited the people beyond captivity and wandering, but one in which he will never set foot. Scripture doesn’t record his thoughts, but I can’t help but wonder if, as he took it in, he muttered, “Is that it?!?”

Anticipation has a way of getting the better of us. Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, put it this way: “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” The reverse can also be true: there is no joy in the bang, only in what we expect it to be. What did the forty years of wilderness wandering do to the anticipation of the Israelites? Were they so bored of sand that anything would’ve seen like a paradise? Or had their anticipation built to the point that nothing short of El Dorado itself would have been enough?

We can paint ourselves into a corner with our visions and dreams. We become so focused on imagining an idealized future that we end up neglecting the actual present. Anticipation has a way of taking over our lives – When we’re children, we can’t wait until we get to go to school. Then we can’t wait to graduate. Then we can’t wait until we get a job, a house, a family, a better job, a bigger house (a nicer family?). Then we can’t wait for retirement, and so on and so on. But each stage of life brings both its joys and pitfalls, and we begin to lose the forest for the trees. We become like the man who stands at the observation deck of the Sears Tower, but can’t take in the view because of all the smudges on the glass.

Is it possible that we are already in the middle paradise? Would we know it when we see it? Or do we have to let go of our visions in order to hold onto their essence?

I think the Pharisees have much to teach us about missing the point. There is much to be learned from their fanatical zeal for correctness. They were constantly doing battle with Jesus, defending faithful observance of the law and worship of God as they saw it. It led to encounters like that in our New Testament lesson today, with Jesus being put on the spot by one question after another. “What is the greatest commandment?” To choose just one from the 613 listed in the Hebrew Bible would have been a fool’s errand, but Jesus knew his Scripture well enough to hearken back to Moses and the words recorded in Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

And as the Pharisees seem to be pondering his answer, Jesus comes down to their level, demonstrating the ultimate absurdity of their legalistic obsessions. Is the Messiah the son of David, or not? If yes, then how can he say “The Lord said to my Lord”? If no, then who is he? The archaic argument gets us tied up in linguistic knots. But in essence, the point Jesus was making was that no superior would call an inferior “my Lord”. No father would address his son as above him. And so the Messiah, though promised to be from the “household and lineage of David”, could not, therefore, be David’s descendant. Clear now?

Maybe not, but that’s not the point, ultimately. The real point is that the Pharisees were so caught up in the details of what God was supposed to be like that they completely missed it when God was embodied right under their noses! They were holding on so tightly to their vision of paradise that they couldn’t let go.

But had they released their assumptions, they would have been able to hold onto the essence of what they desired: the unfolding of God’s heavenly reign right here on earth…

…which ultimately takes us back to the story of Percy Fawcett. It’s an incredible tale of twentieth century bravado and grandiosity. But in the past ten years, our understanding of the Amazon has changed dramatically. There was, it turns out, an extremely advanced civilization present. And their history stretches so far back that it is now changing long-held assumptions about how and when humanity first reached the Americas.

In the 1200s, there were intricate cities and civilizations throughout the Amazon. Communities whose populations rivaled those of contemporary Europe were connected by an intricate system of roads and bridges whose mathematical precision boggles the mind.

By the time the Conquistadors arrived to these sites, however, their Western diseases had gotten their first and had so ravaged the Amazonians that they were a mere fragment of their former glory. The monuments they had built were of wood and mud, and not stone, and the jungle had consumed them so quickly and thoroughly that no medieval European would have been able to recognize the traces that had been left behind.

Neither, apparently, could a twentieth century Englishman. Percy Fawcett’s final route was right through the heart of these ancient ruins. In all likelihood, he walked through the true El Dorados. But he didn’t know it when he saw it. He was looking for one thing, holding on so tightly to his own vision of paradise, that he missed it right under his nose.

Are we any different? Could it be that we are so consumed by what we expect paradise to be like that we fail to see it all around us? Are we so blinded by our own assumptions that we cannot see God at work in ways we never would have imagined? And like the Pharisees, like the Israelites, like Percy Fawcett, are those images so wrapped up in nostalgia for what we are used to that we can’t recognize the reality of where we are? Are our visions of what our lives, or families, our church, our nation, our world could be, are those visions missing the point, keeping us from seeing what is already?

This doesn’t mean that we have reached the promised land already, or that we will ever achieve anything approximating perfection in this lifetime. And yet, there is much to be gained by letting go – letting go of our anxieties, our anticipations, our presumptions and our obsessions – because in doing so, we might just get a foothold on God’s desires, God’s hopes and dreams already at work right under our nose.