Only One Road: Galations 1

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read Galations 1.   “He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river; its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary.”  THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

I love the idea that from the moment we wake up we have embarked on a journey.  I love the idea that there’s “only one Road” that every one of us is on.  It makes us feel our own life is part of one great adventure.  It lifts our spirits to think that we are all in some profound sense sharing a journey.  But to where?  And with whom?

Frodo tells us that Bilbo also told him:   ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,’ he used to say.  ‘You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.  Do you realize that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, it might take you to the Lonely Mountain or even further and to worse places?'”

There is something so evocative about the imagery of a road.  It has a sense of possibility, of there being a path to the lonely mountain but also a path to joy.  Are they the same path?  Does one sometimes lead to the other?  We know a lot of people go from loneliness to bitterness and don’t seem to move on. How can we get on the road that leads us through loneliness and suffering…  and on to joy and feasting?

We often think of our lives as journeys, even when we’re confined to sick beds.  We know that sometimes we walk alone on the road.  Sometimes, and for a time, people join us.  But there is in this world an inexorable sense of time marching on, and of a beginning, middle and end to things.  So how do we find this one road – or does it find us?

Many people have a sense of hearing a voice telling us to stay on the road.  We all need the voice because so often we stray.  We take short cuts.  We creep off the road.  Sometimes we bound off.  Then we feel miserable.  We have to creep back on, our tail between our legs.  So where does this voice of wisdom come from?

The voice telling us to stay on the Road happens to be biblical:  “Right behind you a voice will say, ‘This is the way you should go,’ whether to the right or to the left.'”  Isaiah 30:21.

The Bible is full of road metaphors.  But is it a road of rules?  Or is instead something profoundly different?  Tolkien was a Christian.  So what is this One Road that Tolkien alludes to?  What is the Way that the Lord is telling us to go in Isiah?  Is it really the same Road for all of us?  Is it a road of suffering?  Is it the road paved with good intentions?  Is it a paved road or dirt?  Is it wide, white and easy, or rocky and steep?

Yes.

The good news is that according to the Bible the One Road is Jesus.  He said He is the Way.  He also said He is also the Gate. He is the way in, and he is the way through, and he is the destination.  He is the road. He is everything we need, and He even takes us where we need to go. He is available to everyone and anyone who is willing to admit they can’t get to heaven by themselves.

That’s why Jesus also said he is the stairway to heaven.  We “get” to heaven by “climbing” up the rungs of his body.  That is another way of saying that we climb to heaven by being flown there by God himself.  We don’t climb through our own effort, as every other religion claims.  Christianity is the only religion that tells us that we can do nothing to get to heaven except accept that .. we can do nothing to get to heaven.  We don’t have to prove ourselves.  We can “lay our deadly doing down,” as a hymn puts it.  Instead, we can accept that Jesus died to make us whole.  His loving way of lifting us to heaven by His sacrifice rather than our works, makes us like little children who think we’re swimming for the first time, not realizing our fathers are lifting us up in the water because we can’t even float.

The road we walk to heaven is one of grace.  The way to heaven is grace.  The way to stay on that road is grace.  Grace is the gate, the door, the ladder, the road.  Grace is God’s undeserved favor to us.  Gal. 1:15.   Grace is a revelation.  It doesn’t even make sense to us.  It’s divinely revealed.  That’s why Paul says here that there is only one Good News, and that the Good News “is not based on mere human reasoning.”  Gal. 1:11.  Who among us would think that a perfect God would die for us imperfect humans? It doesn’t make sense…. until it makes perfect sense because God awakens in us an understanding of the depth of His love.

To understand the cross is to accept that we are imperfect.  And to admit our imperfection is also to accept that there is divine standard of right and wrong.  We all know there is right and wrong, even though sometimes we would like to confuse the two.  God wrote His rules on our hearts.  It’s what we call a conscience.  We rejoice when right prevails.  We are sad when bad people win.  We know in our hearts that badness must be punished.  Anyone who claims “truth is relative” starts to squeal like a stuck pig when their own personal pet peeves are jeopardized – whether its the rights of indigenous people in oil rich countries, the spoiling of the environment, or the escape of a convicted rapist.  And God effectively says to us through Christ: leave the judging to me.  You can lay down your pretense of being perfect and go join the party instead.

Grace is Jesus.  Grace is God.  Grace is restful.  Grace is exciting.  God took the lonely path of suffering so that we could have community and joy.  Grace excludes judging others.  Grace excludes self-righteousness.  Grace excludes boasting.  As Paul elsewhere says, the only thing a Christian can “boast” about is Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.

Jesus took the long road.  Our road is short.

It’s as short as a prayer.

As long as forever.

Amen.

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on November 18, 2014.  With thanks to my model (and husband) for throwing out his arms as we were taking the One Road past Point Reyes, California…

 

on impatience and gentleness: 1 Cor. 8

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read 1 Cor. 8.  For some reason, it’s easy to be harsh with other people’s mistakes.  We lose our tempers.  We scold them.  We can be impatient.  Why?

The quick answer is that we forget our own faults.  We have our own personal Alzheimers when it comes to our own mistakes.  But there’s another reason, that causes our personal blindness in the first place.  It’s that we’re deeply impatient not just with other people but with ourselves.  We want perfection, and we want it now.  As we’re not perfect, our stopgap solution is to deny our faults.  We go blank.  We block them out.  We think this will solve the problem, but of course all it does it create a case of mass projection.  We become divided selves, because we have a lie at our core.  It causes us to be harsh, hard, sharp and angry with other people, because deep down we’re feeling harsh, hard, sharp and angry with ourselves.

Tolstoy in his CONFESSIONS describes how when he was a teenager someone announced in school the “discovery” that there was no God.  He and his brothers  embraced this new “progressive” idea.  He said that looking back at that time, he realizes that his god became perfection.  He had a sense of perfect – he didn’t then wonder where that sense came from – and he tried to achieve it in every area of his life.  He studied hard.  He tried all sorts of athletics, trying to get as fit as he could.  He worked at being ethical, although he didn’t stop to wonder where his ethical laws came from.

He’s not alone.  We all have a standard of perfect that we secretly – or overtly – aspire to.  The standard comes from our perfect God.  The disconnect comes when we think WE can achieve perfection.  We have it backwards.  We can find the perfection we seek only in God.  He is holy.  We are not.  Recognizing that, and taking in that the perfect God loves us in the midst of our imperfection; that the cross fills in the gap between who we want to be, and who we are; and that if we accept the truth God Himself will dwell within us; enables us to be real.  We can be honest, finally, about our flaws, because we feel safe.  We know it’s okay we mess up.  We know we’re loved.  We start to experience the loving way God corrects us.  God doesn’t mock, shame or belittle us, the way humans so often do.  He speaks the truth in love.

It is in this spirit that the following letter FATHER FORGETS, by W. Livingston Larned, reprinted in Dale Carnegie’s HOW TO WIN FRIENDS & INFLUENCE PEOPLE, melts our hearts.  If you’ve never read this letter, beware.  You’ll need a box of tissues handy:

“Listen, son: I am saying this as you lie asleep, one little paw crumpled under your cheek and the blond curls stickily wet on your damp forehead. I have stolen into your room alone. Just a few minutes ago, as I sat reading my paper in the library, a stifling wave of remorse swept over me. Guiltily I came to your bedside.

There are things I was thinking, son: I had been cross to you. I scolded you as you were dressing for school because you gave your face merely a dab with a towel. I took you to task for not cleaning your shoes. I called out angrily when you threw some of your things on the floor.

At breakfast I found fault, too. You spilled things. You gulped down your food. You put your elbows on the table. You spread butter too thick on your bread. And as you started off to play and I made for my train, you turned and waved a hand and called, “Goodbye, Daddy!” and I frowned, and said in reply, “Hold your shoulders back!”

Then it began all over again in the late afternoon. As I came up the road, I spied you, down on your knees, playing marbles. There were holes in your stockings. I humiliated you before you boyfriends by marching you ahead of me to the house. Stockings were expensive – and if you had to buy them you would be more careful! Imagine that, son, from a father!

Do you remember, later, when I was reading in the library, how you came in timidly, with a sort of hurt look in your eyes? When I glanced up over my paper, impatient at the interruption, you hesitated at the door. “What is it you want?” I snapped.

You said nothing, but ran across in one tempestuous plunge, and threw your arms around my neck and kissed me, and your small arms tightened with an affection that God had set blooming in your heart and which even neglect could not wither. And then you were gone, pattering up the stairs.

Well, son, it was shortly afterwards that my paper slipped from my hands and a terrible sickening fear came over me. What has habit been doing to me? The habit of finding fault, of reprimanding – this was my reward to you for being a boy. It was not that I did not love you; it was that I expected too much of youth. I was measuring you by the yardstick of my own years.

And there was so much that was good and fine and true in your character. The little heart of you was as big as the dawn itself over the wide hills. This was shown by your spontaneous impulse to rush in and kiss me good night. Nothing else matters tonight, son. I have come to your bedside in the darkness, and I have knelt there, ashamed!

It is a feeble atonement; I know you would not understand these things if I told them to you during your waking hours. But tomorrow I will be a real daddy! I will chum with you, and suffer when you suffer, and laugh when you laugh. I will bite my tongue when impatient words come. I will keep saying as if it were a ritual: “He is nothing but a boy – a little boy!”

I am afraid I have visualized you as a man. Yet as I see you now, son, crumpled and weary in your cot, I see that you are still a baby. Yesterday you were in your mother’s arms, your head on her shoulder. I have asked too much, too much.”

Why does this poem move us so?  First, because we’ve all been guilty of the same impatience with others.  Second, because we are all, in a sense, that little boy.  We measure ourselves by the wrong yardstick.  God doesn’t do that, and neither should we.  As Jesus said, only God is good. God celebrates our victories.  He doesn’t pile on about our mistakes.  We’re the ones who do that.

Pauls sums it up like this:  “mere knowledge causes people to be puffed up (to bear themselves loftily and be proud), but love (affection and goodwill and benevolence) edifies and builds up and encourages one to grow [to his full stature]. If anyone imagines that he has come to know and understand much [of divine things, without love], he does not yet perceive and recognize and understand as strongly and clearly, nor has he become as intimately acquainted with anything as he ought, or as is necessary.  1 Cor. 8:1-2 (Amplified Bible).  We all fall prey to becoming puffed up with knowledge.  But love builds up and encourages.

Paul’s example in this chapter is that even if someone is wrong about something, we shouldn’t do anything that will lead them to betray their own weak conscience.  For instance, since idols aren’t real, a believing Christian can eat food that has been sacrificed to an idol.  But if someone with a “weak conscience” doesn’t understand this, and thinks that food in a temple is somehow tainted, Paul says the person who understands should NOT eat the temple food.  Otherwise, the “weak” believer might be emboldened to violate their own scruples, and perhaps eventually be “ruined”.  1 Cor. 8.

So how DO we grow in having this kind of patience with others?  How do we become gentle with others — even when they’re wrong?  How do we become kind to ourselves, even when we’re wrong?  How do we reach the place where we can be truthful and kind about all faults?

Look again at that letter from the father to the son.  What melted the father’s heart?  He grew remorseful after his son ran across the room to hug him, even when the father was in the middle of scolding the son, and asking WHAT DO YOU WANT?  Why?  It’s the prodigal son story in reverse.  While the prodigal son was still a long way off, the father came running out to meet and embrace him.

It’s love that melts our hearts.  It’s the open arms that greet us in the midst of our imperfection that makes us weep.  It’s the love that we never have to earn that makes our faces shine.  It’s God’s sacrificial incredible love for each of us that fills our hearts to overflowing and makes us start to become gentle with others.

And even when we’re not, even when we mess up and get impatient with the tiniest flaws of others, God still loves us.  He’s like that little boy that comes running across the room and leaps into our arms.

Is it hard to see God like that?   Of course.  But think about it.  God really was a little boy once.  He really did come leaping into our world from heaven —  just so that He can embrace us all even when we’re in the midst of scolding and saying WHAT DO YOU WANT?

He wants us just as we are.  He loves us just as we are.  He sees us the way a parent sees a sleeping child – innocent, sweet, lovable and to be cherished.  Because here’s the secret miracle we forget: Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross means God DOES see us as perfect.  Our sins are covered by the cross.

Hallelujah.

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on September 23, 2013