I can’t find my way home: Acts 22

Acts 22.  It wasn’t until I had finished half of my latte that I realized the songs playing in the coffee shop had a similar sound.  They were mostly female vocalists, slightly folksy, heavy on the guitar, but with a modern rock flavor.  How, I wondered, had someone come up with such a perfect acoustic rock playlist for a morning drinking coffee in the morning in a coffee shop?

Then I heard a soothing voice say: “Sirius XM Coffee House.”

No wonder the music fit.  They were playing the coffee house station in a – wait for it – coffee house.

We like it when things fit.  We like our belongings to fit neatly on their shelves.  We like our clothes to hang nicely in our closets.  We like our food to sit just so on our plates.  We like our books to fit our worldviews.  We like our friends to laugh at just the right places in our jokes.  We like family members to get along.  We want people to react in a way that makes sense.  We want people places and things to belong.  We want to belong.

But things don’t always work out that way.  Sometimes people don’t make sense.  Sometimes we don’t make sense to ourselves.  We find ourselves feeling more Fox News than Lite FM.  We can feel a little more acid rock while everyone else is NPR.  We laugh in the wrong places.  We make what we intend as a joke and realize we’ve just hurled a spear.  We walk into a room full of people we know and feel like we don’t belong at all.  People we once loved sometimes seem like perfect strangers.

Saint Paul here in Acts 22 tells a story of how God melted his heart out of bigotry and made him realize God loves everyone – only to find his listeners react not with joy but with hate.  Human reactions don’t always make sense.  Paul explained how God taught him that God loves ALL people, not just his chosen people, and his listeners reacted by screaming: “This man is not fit to live.”

It’s a strange turn of phrase.  This man is not fit to live.  Really?  Who IS fit to live?  And why do we humans think we can pass judgment on this issue?  We shouldn’t, but we do.  We pass this kind of judgment quickly  without even thinking.  We’re especially prone to do it if we lose our temper – and I personally think anger is just a manifestation of hurt.  Someone hurts us – and we want to hurt them back.  It’s “natural.”  As I overheard a man say into his cellphone this morning on Broadway: “never send an email when you’re angry.”  It’s good advice.  But it made me smile, ruefully.  You can guess why.

There is a very real sense in which we are all strangers in a strange land.  We search and long for home.  “I can’t find my way home,” Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood were whining on my ipod this morning.  Three homeless people meet and argue every day in a heap of rags outside the entrance to the Writer’s Room.  “They have nowhere to go,” a man who worked in the building told me yesterday.

“Yes, they do,” I said.  “They go here.”  Everyone needs a place to go.  Everyone wants a home where they feel they always belong.  But most of us spend our days with a vague sense of uneasiness, feeling like we somehow haven’t quite arrived home.  We feel like we’re missing something but we’re not sure what.

That’s why there’s all this talk of Roman citizenship in this chapter of Acts.  If you want to unpack any verse of the Bible ask a simple question: how does this relate to the cross?   This talk of citizenship is evocative of how God came down to offer us all citizenship.  But instead of having to buy our citizenship at a great price like the Roman commander, God offers us His own citizenship.  It’s like those friends of mine who give each other their place in the New York City marathon – you can run in my stead, they say, because they know how hard it is to get a spot.  Every one of us is excluded from citizenship in heaven because the law condemns us.  There is not one of us who keeps the law perfectly.  Try not coveting.  Try putting God before all else.  Try loving your neighbor as yourself.  If heaven were only for people who followed the law, heaven would be empty of all save God.  For only God is good.

So God bought our citizenship for us.  He knew we “lived in this world without God and without hope” and He loved us too much to leave us in that state, excluded from the thing our hearts most longed for.  Eph. 2.  God bought our citizenship “by ending the law.”  He satisfied the requirements of the law so that we can go to heaven through his free gift of grace.  No one earns their way to heaven.  Instead the only way is to have our “sins washed away by calling on the Lord.”  Acts 22.  God’s gift of salvation falls down on us like “a very bright light from heaven.”  The intense light blinds us.  It opens our eyes to a whole new Way.  It melts us from the inside out, showing us God paved the Way home for us.  God was the one true citizen of heaven who was persecuted, hounded and killed to satisfy the requirements of the law, so that we can go to heaven without having to earn our way.  We don’t have to try to “be good.”  God did it for us.

And when that truth sinks in, we discover that wherever we are is home, after all.  It’s coffee house music in every coffee house.  We belong to our one true home no matter who excludes us.  We are accepted even when our jokes are unacceptable.  We run the race set before us even when we’re too tired to get out of bed.  We may not be fit to live, but that’s not the standard.  We are citizens now.  No one can take that away from us.  We are members of God’s family.  It’s not based on anything we do.  It’s irrevocable because it was bought with God’s own body and blood.

So what?  What’s the point of all this?  It sounds good to say that Jesus is the door to our home, but what does it mean?

It means that the whole world is upheld by what we mistake for weakness.  It is upheld by the one who turned the other cheek.  Sacrificial love – as opposed to selfish entitlement – lives at the heart of who we are, why we’re here, and how we can become the people we’ve always wanted to be.  The point is to dive down deep into the gospel and search with our breath held until we find the love at the heart of it all and come up gasping for air but triumphant.  We clasp onto the truth.  We press in close.  Jesus died to give us a helping hand.  Heb 2:16.  Is it no wonder we are surprised by joy when we do the same for others?  When we offer a helping hand to others, we find our hands are reaching in the direction of the cross.  It’s a seemingly left handed Way, but when we try it we discover it’s the only right Way, the true Way, the Way to the home we’ve always wanted but could never find on our own.

by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on January 11, 2013

on being alone: Luke 9

read Luke 9.   After church on Sunday I wandered into Jimmy Choo Shoes.  A pretty, diminutive woman tried on a pair of peep-toe silver sparkly shoes with three inch heels. “They’re beautiful on you,” I told her.  They were.  They looked like something Dorothy would have worn.  “Magical.”

“All I need to do is click my heels together three times,” she said, picking up on my reference immediately.

“Do you want to try the four inch heels,” the assistant asked her.

In answer, the woman in the silver shoes turned and wrapped her arms around her handsome diminutive boyfriend.  In the three inch heels, she came up to his nose.  She kissed him.  “Perfect,” her boyfriend said, with a huge smile.

She bought the three inch heels.

It was a wonderful moment.  Like her shoes, it was magical.  And it affirmed the joys of being with someone.  Dominique Browning wrote movingly in an article called “Alone Again, Naturally” this weekend about why she thinks single women love their lives, but men can’t be alone more than three months.  She claims that men walk around alert for danger, and so feel vulnerable unless they have someone to watch their backs.  She says that men are “on guard” because that’s their job, and so they “don’t nest.”  She says that women, in contrast, love to nest in their homes:

“Most single women I know really love their lives.  Sometimes we suffer pangs of loneliness, sometimes we ache for the companionship of the mythic soul mate, but mostly we cherish our independence…. We love not being judged, not being criticized, not being hemmed in…. A marriage is a lot of work.  Strike that.  A man is a lot of work.  Anyone who has been in a bad marriage knows that its defining characteristic is the unspeakable loneliness in which one feels shrouded, a sense of isolation amplified by not being alone… Home is where I am supposed to feel safe…. I have observe that women who have escaped loudly troubled marriages often feel safer when they are alone.  To a woman, being home feels safe.”  NY Times January 8, 2012 p. 2 Styles.

What strikes me is not the gender divide, but that Browning is talking about what happens to anyone who has been wounded – both male and female. It makes you want to be alone.  It makes you lose trust.  It makes you prefer loneliness to criticism.  If you’re wounded enough, you just want to hide.  Women call that instinct nesting.  Men call it hiding out in their man caves.  No matter what you call it, it’s the same thing for both sexes.  Anyone who has escaped “loudly” troubled relationships often feel “safer” when they are alone.  But safe isn’t the kind of life we’re called to.  So is there a better way?

What sparked the article was that Browning fell while walking alone in a forest.  She lay alone on her back, and she heard a “voice in her head” which told her two things:  “‘This is what happens when you live alone,’ it said.  ‘You fall, and there is no one to help you up…. It is not good to live alone.'”

Whether Browning knew it or not, this advice came straight from the Bible. The first thing Browning heard was penned by King Solomon 3,000 years ago: “Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble.” Ecclesiastes 4:10-12.  The second thing the voice told Browning when she fell were the words God said right after He created Adam.  He said: “It is not good for the man to be alone,” and so God made Eve.

I have no idea if Browning is familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, if she was speaking to herself, or if God was speaking to her.  All I know is that when she fell, she heard Truth: it is not good for man to be alone, and if you fall, you have no one to help you.

In an ideal world, we would all have the perfect mate that even Browning admits we pine for.  We would all have the man that towers over us even in three inch heels.  But we don’t live in an ideal world.  We live in a fallen world – one where relationships break down, people abandon us, and we abandon people.  My skin crawls when married people tell me that “maybe it’s good for you to be alone.”  Yeah, right.  Why don’t you try it during your forties and THEN tell me that.  It’s not what my Bible says.  My Bible says what Ms. Browning heard when she fell: it’s NOT good for man to be alone.  While God allows suffering into our lives, He never rejoices in it.  He never calls bad good.  Don’t get me started.

One of the big reasons that so many of us are alone is the problem of selfishness – both our own and others.  One male blogger honed in on this like a lightning bolt in response to  Browning’s essay; he said her article is “a perfect mental x-ray of the kind of divorced woman who talks about her ‘bad marriage’ without considering – based on all the evidence she provides – it was she who made it so.”  The Macho Response.  Clearly, Browning’s jab that “men are work” touched a nerve.  The Macho blogger is suggesting that maybe women are work, too (something with which my ex-boyfriend would readily agree).  Given that we are all “work,” it’s no wonder that so many of us alone.  So what’s the solution?

What I wonder is whether it’s being alone that is really the problem.  Elizabeth Bishop has written a lovely essay called “On Being Alone,” in which she asks that why is it, that when there’s “nothing to fear … so many of us seem to dread being alone”?  She points out that there can be something quite lovely about being alone:  “There is a peculiar quality about being alone, an atmosphere that no sounds or persons can ever give.  It is as if being with people were the Earth of the mind, the land with its hills and valleys, scent and music: but in being alone, the mind finds its Sea, the wide, quiet plane with different lights in the sky and different, more secret sounds…. Being alone can be fun; alone the mind can do what it wants to without even the velvet leash of sleep.  But we can never understand this while we stand on the shore with our backs to the water and cry after our companions.  Perhaps we shall never know the companion in ourselves who is with us all our lives, the nearness of our minds at all times to the rare person, whose heart quickens when a bird climbs high and alone in the clear air.”

Elizabeth Bishop is right.  Being alone can be fun.  If we think back to our most intense vivid moments, many of them occurred alone.  And yet being alone rests uneasily on us.  Why?

Perhaps the problem is that being alone strips from us the usual ways with which we block our hurts.  Just as an alcoholic who stops drinking finds himself confronting emotions he hasn’t dealt with in years, so when we find ourselves alone we confront wounded places inside ourselves we’ve been avoiding for a lifetime.  We find griefs.  We discover regrets.  We encounter guilt.  We recall betrayals.  We hear the constant refrain of our enemy (a/k/a the devil) that we haven’t done enough; we haven’t loved enough; we’ve failed because we are failures; we haven’t achieved enough; no one loves us and why should they – we’re unlovable.

No wonder we fear being alone.

And so when Jesus walked onto the scene 2,000 years ago and spoke of being alone, our first reaction can be to shy away from Him.  “Take nothing for the journey,” he tells the disciples in Luke 9:3.  He “left the crowds to pray alone.”  Luke 9:18.  He told the crowds that if “you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.”  Luke 9:24. When a man tells Jesus he will follow him wherever he goes, Jesus responds: “the Son of man has no place even to lay his head.” Luke 9:58.  Jesus tells another man not to even bury his father if he wants to follow Jesus.

What would motivate us to “give up” our lives, to travel without any extra clothes, to have no place to lay our heads, and to not bury our fathers?  Is Jesus calling us to live in a world with no peep-toe silver Jimmy Choo shoes with three inch heels?  And more to the point, is He calling us to live in a world without boyfriends, husbands, wives, parents and siblings?  That sounds awful.

The curious thing is that at the very same time as Jesus talked about being alone, the life He lived promoted and enabled community.  In this chapter, He calls his disciples “together”.  He tells them to stay “in the same house” in a town.  He feeds a meal to 5,000 people when the disciples asked him to “send the crowds away.”  Jesus has community even with prophets who died long ago; he talks to Moses and Elijah.  Jesus is asked to heal a boy so possessed by a demon that the boy was constantly screaming and foaming at the mouth: Jesus heals the boy “and gave him back to his father.”  Jesus tells the disciples to welcome children.  He rebukes the disciples for turning away someone not in their group: “Anyone who is not against you is for you.”

How do we reconcile this talk of sacrifice and solitude with the reality of the gospel community?  As always, the answer lies with the cross.  On the cross, Jesus was truly alone.  Not only was He abandoned by everyone He knew and loved, but God abandoned Him: “My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me,” Christ cried.  God abandoned Jesus as punishment for our sins; if God is all that is good, then the absence of God is, by definition, hell.  Jesus was truly alone – separate from God – on the cross.

Jesus was alone, so we would never have to be.  Jesus’ death means that He can come and live with us, even though He is holy and we are not.  His sacrificial death enables us to have community – with Him, and with each other.  He heals us, even from the fear of being in relationships after we’ve been hurt.  He heals other people; he can turn screamers into listeners.  All who believe in Him become brothers and sisters through His blood.

We need never fear being alone. We can walk into our loneliness.  We can walk around in it.  We can bump up against our wounded hurt places – and expose them to God’s healing light.  If, in the course of being alone, we realize that we are lonely, we can do something about it.  We can seek friends.  We can try new things.  We can take risks.  We can reach out to other people, who are perhaps just as lonely as we.  We can allow our hearts to be broken, all over again, because we know the One who will keep on healing us.

And sometimes we will still fall alone in a forest with no one to help us.  But even then, God is always with us.  Emmanuel comes closest when we need Him most.  Instead of fearing solitude, we can embrace it – because in doing so, we will be embraced by the One who loves us most of all.

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on January 11, 2012