Letting go into life

In the story of Jesus and his followers, significant things happen on the road.  What road are you taking?

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Letting go into life

May 4, 2014 – Acts 9:1-18

 

            Looking at it from the outside, you would probably judge that my life has followed a fairly straight path.  I was born in Iowa to Midwestern parents.  I was raised there and brought up in the Lutheran church.  I went to college in Iowa – a Lutheran college, no less.  I did go to southern California to a non-Lutheran seminary, but quickly returned after three years to complete my training with an internship in a Lutheran church and a final year at a Lutheran seminary.  Since my ordination in 1980 – over 30 years ago – I have served as a Lutheran pastor in one capacity or another someplace in the Midwest.  Along the way, I also got married and had two kids.

            With the exception of my three-year hiatus in Los Angeles and the fact that my wife was from New York (although she says that she grew up in a Midwestern house on Long Island!) it appears from the outside to be a pretty straight road.

            But from the inside it doesn’t always appear that way.  From the inside I wonder – what would my life had been like if I’d gone to Iowa State University in my hometown, as most of my high school classmates did?  What if I had not been a philosophy major at Luther and so become friends with Richard Lee, who introduced me to his sister, Sylvia, when she came to visit – just after I’d broken up with my girlfriend?  What if I had left parish ministry or campus ministry to go to graduate school?  What if my passion for the spiritual life had had a different focus entirely?

            This leaves out of course the broader questions of – what if I’d had different parents or what if I’d grown up in a different situation – although then I’m not sure how far I could go with that and still be me – the person I call, “Chris.”

            Still, it doesn’t take much to imagine that, with a nudge here or resistance there, my life might have gone down a very different road.

 

            In the books of Luke and Acts – which are really a two-volume set – significant things happen on the road.

            Shortly after Jesus’s resurrection, but before he revealed himself, there were two disciples going down the road away from Jerusalem to a town called, Emmaus.  A stranger begins to walk alongside them and talk with them.  They are sad and disheartened about what has happened to Jesus.  The stranger then gives them a Bible study about the suffering Messiah and, when they invite him in for dinner, he takes bread and blesses and breaks it.  Then they realize that this stranger was actually Jesus.

            In the eighth chapter of Acts, Philip is urged by the Holy Spirit to take the road which runs south of Jerusalem to Gaza – the Wilderness Road.  There he encounters an official from the Ethiopian royal court, who has just been to Jerusalem to worship.  Philip finds that the official is reading in the book of Isaiah.  So, they have a Bible study, in which Philip tells the man about Jesus.  They come upon some water and the man says, “What is there to prevent me from being baptized?”  So, Philip baptizes him.  And then he disappears

            And then in the ninth chapter, there is Saul.  Saul’s is the most dramatic story.  He breathes hatred and murder against the followers of Jesus.  But then, on the road to Damascus, the risen Lord appears to him.  Saul falls to the ground.

            “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

            Saul says, “Who are you, Lord?”

            Jesus replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  But get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

            And because he has been struck blind, what can he do but be led into the city and wait for what is next.

 

            All of these events of change happened on the road.  In fact, in the book of Acts, those who followed Jesus, who considered him Lord and Messiah, were not called, “Christians.”  They were called the people of the Way.  There were defined, not so much by a set of beliefs, but by a way of life.  They were known, not by the rituals they practiced, but by the character they embodied.

            So, also, the conversion of Saul – although we know him better by his Greek name, “Paul” – the one who wrote much of the New Testament – is not so much about belief as it is about action.  Jesus does not say to him, “Get up, go into the city, and I will straighten out your theology.”  He doesn’t say, “Get up, go into the city, and I will give you a great sense of peace and contentment with your life.”  He says, “Get up, go into the city and you will be told what you are to do.”

            Paul will now be taking a much different road.  He was seeking to fulfill what he believed to be God’s will – by trying to stamp out to people of the Way.  Now he will be following God’s will in a much different way by taking that same road himself.

 

            Mitch Albom was on a very clear road.  He was a nationally known working for the Detroit Free Press – a 13-time AP sports writer of the year.  In addition to a regular newspaper column, Mitch also had his own radio show and his own TV show.  Between all of his professional commitments and heavy travel schedule, he was trying to keep his boss and his girlfriend happy.

            Then, one night in a motel room, Mitch caught a glimpse of an old college professor, Morrie Schwarz, on TV.  Schwarz had taught sociology at Brandeis University.  He had been Mitch’s favorite professor, but, despite a promise to stay in touch, Mitch had fallen out of contact with him.  Now Mitch saw him being interviewed on “60 Minutes” because he was dying.

            Motivated by his regret about having been out of contact for 16 years and at the urging of his girlfriend, Mitch called his old professor. Mitch started visiting him regularly.  They would have conversations about life and death and relationships and feelings.  In between, Mitch would repeat Morrie’s aphorisms to himself – “We must love one another or die” (from a poem by W.H. Auden) – and “If you want to learn how to live, you’ve got to learn how to die.”

Out of these conversations, Mitch began to see his life – his work and his relationships – in a new way.  He began to make changes in his life.  He quit writing about sports and he married his girlfriend. 

But the changes in Mitch Albom’s life didn’t stop there.  Although they talked about great issues of life and death, Morrie and Mitch never talked about God. Yet the trajectory of Mitch’s writings have bent more and more in that direction, including his most recent book, “The First Phone Call from Heaven.”  At the end of that book, in his acknowledgements, Mitch writes, “Finally, and firstly, anything created by my heart or hand is from God, by God, through God, and with God.  We may not know the truth about phones and heaven, but we do know this: in time, He answers all calls, and He answered mine.”

 

We don’t all have dramatic conversion experiences.  We don’t all meet the risen Jesus along the road.  We don’t even have a dying professor to visit.  But we all have a life that we have planned.  And we all have a life that God intends for us, a life into which God is calling us.  To discover that life, we need to trust God.  As my old internship supervisor used to say, we need to let go and let God.

If we do that, who knows what roads – by God’s grace – we have yet to travel?