Thursday, May 29, 2014

Finding The Way Home

Walks into the forest have mostly been a comfort to me.  I like to think of myself as adventuresome, not like Indiana Jones or something, but one who is usually drawn to the road less traveled.

Not all forests of my life have been filled with trees, some were built of concrete and steel, others were winding paths in my heart that darkened my mind with questions.

What comes after that bend in the path?  What happens if I take that alleyway?  Can I cut through the trees and bushes to my right and get home quicker?  

Recently however, I have discovered that although I am a person who enjoys the challenge of walking into the unknown, what I have seen in my heart is that I generally want to pick the time and location of the journey.  When it comes before I feel prepared or in a place not of my choosing, then, walks in the forest are not my favorite thing, and I have  some deep and unsettled feelings about them.  I believe the anxiety stems from this thought,  If I go down this path, will I be able to find my way home?

To some degree, I think that this was what was on Thomas' mind when he asked this question in John 14...

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

The disciples and Jesus had gone many places together.  Sometimes the journey was affirming, exciting and inspiring, but sometimes it was also hard, cold, dark, hurried and fearful.  The one preserving thought had always been this:  As long as Jesus is with us, He will always lead us home.  

But now the shadow comes.  In the verses before those quoted above, Jesus has just revealed that he is going to leave them.   He will be going ahead of them to his father's house to prepare a place for them.  He says that He will come back to get them and that they actually already know the way to where He is going.  Still, Jesus gives no directions on how to get there.  At least nothing that refers to geography.  His only directional help comes in verse 6, "I am the way..."  And it is enfolded by just one additional phrase....Trust in me.

What is the route?  "I am the way...Trust in me."
What are the landmarks?  "I am the way...Trust in me."
Is that to the North, South, East or West?  "I am the way...Trust in me."
Can I get that on mapquest or GPS?  "I am the way...Trust in me."
How long should it take to get there?  "I am the way...Trust in me."

Phew.  Even for someone who mostly likes forest wanderings, this seems very little instruction to go on.  It's one thing to deal with the journey and have faith when the silhouette of Jesus is walking the trail before you.  It's something completely different when He says I will go on ahead of you and prepare for your arrival, but you will walk the rest on your own.  

As "edgy" as I wish to think my life has been up until now, the truth is I have never strayed far enough away from home that I didn't think I could retrace my steps and return.  That has been my safety net; my memory of the journey past, and how I could follow it's trail of bread crumbs back to where things began.

Poor Thomas....Doubting Thomas...(the guy who has had to live through history with an adjective instead of a proper title before his name)...I think this was his major point of struggle also.  He kept up with the rest of group as long as he could see the way home, if only in his mind, and now Jesus had removed that reference point as well.   Now the whole thing was tied to nothing but two ideas, held together by someone who just told them He would be leaving.

"I am the way....Trust in me."

That's all we get?  That's all there is?  Is it enough to walk on?  Enough for us to find life in?  Enough to have peace?  There is a forest walk up ahead for all of us....somewhere, sometime down the road.  We might have advance knowledge of its coming, but maybe not.   I guess I am hearing Him say to me that the answers to these questions have to do with the depth of my relationship to the one giving the instruction and my belief that He will be as faithful in my future as He has been in my past.  Even in the moments that I was deeper into the forest than I realized at the time.  

Uncertainty is an empty well, waiting to be filled with something; hope, fear, perseverance, anger, faith....That empty well is me, and what it is filled with rests a lot on my own choosing.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Beethoven And Other Classics

     The room was very dark. Away from the bar, the music blared over the sound system. People were dancing in another corner of the room. Guys were dancing with girls, guys were dancing with guys, girls were dancing with girls. I looked to the hardwood finish on the counter, closed my eyes and whispered a simple prayer.
     “Jesus, I hope you know what you’re doing, ...please make something worthwhile come out of this time I have here.” I had joined a group of Portland area pastors on a Friday night attempting to minister in the downtown bar scene.
     I took a sip of my soda and began to try and engage the man seated next to me in conversation. It went slowly at first, but eventually he began to share about his life.
      He was a Jewish man. He had moved to the northwest from New Jersey when things had come to a head with his parents while living at home. A college-degree in biology, now hundreds of miles from home working as a custodian in a large office building. He spoke of loneliness. He had lived with a woman for the better part of three years but things just hadn’t worked out. With her gone there had been no one. His words were directed to me but his eyes looked downward in despair at the glass of beer in front of him. Then there was a flicker of happiness that surprised me when I in a desperate attempt to stimulate conversation, asked him if he had any pets.
      “Yes, I do” he said excitedly, “ I have two guinea-pigs.”
       I chuckled at seeing how excited he was.
      “Really, guinea-pigs!?”
     “Yes, they are such wonderful pets. I’ve had them for almost a year now. My apartment complex won’t allow dogs or cats, so this was the best I could do. They’re not like people, they don’t care how successful you are, or how much money you have, they just know who takes care of them and are thankful.”
     “I see ...” I said, trying to feign interest in the details of this man’s relationship to his rodents.
   “Their names are Beethoven and Bach,” he said and droned on for about 15 minutes on how interesting their sleeping habits were. I was mostly frustrated that we were getting a long way off from what I wanted to talk to him about, but all the while, I just nodded and listened, learning quite a bit more about guinea-pig care than I will ever put to a good use. Finally, he took a breath and then asked me what I was doing in Portland.
     “Well...” I began, and over the next couple minutes explained to him that I was a Christian and that I was a part of this ministry team roaming through the city on a Friday night, out to help lost souls like him and as I began to drone on, I could see him shrinking back into his drink. I stopped talking.
He had turned completely away from me.
     “Did I say something wrong?...I didn’t mean to offend you...I’m sorry...”
     Nothing. No response.

     I sat silent in my chair for a couple minutes. I prayed again, asking the Lord to help me build a bridge back to this man. My mind was spinning but I couldn’t think of anything to say, finally I almost blurted out, “So what do you feed those guinea-pigs anyway?”
      He turned and looked me straight in the face for the first time, as if to see if I really cared to hear his response.
     “Mostly they eat a ground meal I get at the pet store, but I like to give them carrots and celery sometimes, they really like that,” and off he went again telling me when and how to feed them. I wondered if he noticed my sigh of relief when he started talking again. I listened for a long time. But it was alright. For some reason I felt like there was going to be an opportunity still to share Jesus with this man. While he spoke I began to pray that God would give me a more comfortable transition, so I wouldn’t crash and burn like the first time. I was still praying for that opportunity when he suddenly stopped talking about his pets and said, 
     “You know, it’s hard for me to understand you Christians. Why do you worship someone who was killed almost 2000 years ago?”
     His question was so straight forward I thought at first that maybe he was just being sarcastic.
    “Um...well...that’s not the end of the story,” I said.
     He looked at me with sincere interest. 
    “I mean,....he rose from the dead.” Those words sounded so strange against the backdrop of cigarette smoke, dance music and the smell of beer. He just continued to look at me, waiting for me to continue.
     “Have you ever read the new testament?”
     He shook his head. I told him about the gospel story, my personal spiritual journey with Jesus and ended with why I was there sitting next to him. I watched carefully this time to see if my words were too many or too hard for him to hear. He drank in every syllable. And then I knew it was time to stop.
     He quietly nodded his head and then turned to his drink and emptied the glass. In very reverent tones he began to talk about the separation he felt from his parents and his sense of shame in not making them proud of him. He spoke of his dissatisfaction with his job and the hopelessness of his life.  Finally he said, 
      “If Jesus is really all that you’ve told me, I guess I’d sure like to meet him sometime too.”
     “All you have to do is say his name and He’s there,” I said.
     “I will remember that,” he answered.
    I glanced down to my watch. It was time for me to meet up with the other pastors. In fact I was already ten minutes late and not being familiar with the city wasn’t completely sure I knew how to get back to our meeting place.
     “I have to go now,” I said, still not wanting to leave.
    “It was really nice to talk with you.” I shook his hand and hesitantly began to move past him toward the door. He caught my coatsleave and I turned to look at him. His eyes were wet with tears.
    “Thanks for talking with me, “ he said, “And if you ever think about it, every once in awhile will you stop and say a prayer for a Jewish boy who never made his parents proud?”
     “I will,” I said.
     And I have... many times.

    I suppose that my experience in sharing with this man was a terrific learning opportunity in many ways. Of course sharing about our faith in a tavern or bar is quite a challenge. Yet there was a greater lesson that I learned through this conversation. I was so eager to share Jesus with someone that night, but not really interested in listening. Beethoven and Bach are names that I will probably never forget. Truth is, I can’t even remember the man’s name any more...just his pets’, but it took listening about those names to be able to share about, “the name above all names.”

    Everyone has a story. Most of the time if we will listen to theirs, I think we will have a better chance to tell His.