Today I begin a sermon series that will carry us to Christmas morning. It is entitled, "Roads Signs on Life's Journey." Each sermon will focus on one road sign I encountered somewhere on the vast highways of this world - mostly in the Republic of Ireland. Perhaps there is a sign here for you, a message for your life's journey.
If you are not fully awake when driving in Ireland, you will not survive. With narrow roads that weave and wind through mountains, valleys, and central plains, in small vehicles, all driving on the left side of the thoroughfare, one must always be on guard behind the wheel. There are more narrow than wide roads, more roundabouts than left turns, more road signs than street signs. While rainbows with dreams of potted gold are alluring, the potholes are not. The beauty of Ireland defies description while the roads themselves also defy description in many locations.
It was on these roads that I encountered life defining signs. I have written down a few names to share: "Roundabouts," (always with arrows in circles), "Give Way," "Slow, Slower, and Dead Slow," "Get in Lane," "Way Out," "Road Calming," "Sheep Crossing," "Do Not Overtake," "Death Count" (each region had them), "Lay By," and my favorite, "Signs About to Change." I believe "Signs About to Change" should be used in the Americas as well. These are the signs I had the courage (or stupidity) to write down as I drove (Susan was in the other car using both hands on the wheel).
With our massive roads in America, you may never have seen a lay by. A "Lay By" is a place on a narrow, single lane road where the driver can pull off to let a car pass. You lay by when another car is approaching or when a car needs to pass from behind. You may also "Lay by," when you need to rest or view the surroundings. As a foreigner, laying by when pursued from behind was never hard to figure out. The challenge was when to lay by as you were approached by a car heading toward you. There were times when I felt like we were playing chicken. A car would come toward us at unrelenting speeds, only to "lay by" before we met in the middle.
Quickly, I figured out that a driver needs a sixth sense on such roads, driving from lay by to lay by in anticipation of pulling aside, passing, or resting. Like an Irish gig dancing through mountain passes, "lay bys" offered opportunities to be passed, to rest, and to check your pulse and wake-up for the journey ahead. No matter if being passing, resting, or waking-up for the journey ahead - when you encounter another driver at the "lay bys" of life's highways, you always acknowledge their presence and thank them for the moment of grace that has enabled both of you to make it to the next moment on the journey.
Lesson #1 - It is a good to yield and get passed on the highway of life. "Lay Bys" allow for graceful passing. When you yield and then you are passed at the lay by, you acknowledge that you are not as fast as the person behind you, or as determined as the person heading into your headlights. Now, if you are a bus, it is an easy decision to lay by. But, if you are built the same as the others, it takes a willing and humble spirit to lay by.
When I think of yielding and being passed on the highway of life, my mind goes to the Prayer of Relinquishment. The Prayer of Relinquishment is one in which we allow the Holy Spirit to teach us to yield our will entirely to God's will. The Spirit opens your ears to wait in great gentleness and teachableness of the soul for what God has to say. (Paraphrased from Andrew Murray, in Richard Foster's book, Prayer, p. 47). This prayer moves us from struggle to release.
In his journal, Soren Kierkegaard refers to such relinquishment as the crucifixion of the soul or the death of my own will. He writes, "God creates everything out of nothing - and everything which God is to use, He first reduces to nothing" (The Journals of Kierkegaard, ed. By Alexander Dru, Harper and Row, 1959, p. 245).
Yielding is never simple. It is rarely enjoyable. Yielding to God in a prayer of Relinquishment takes us into rugged terrain. The roads are narrow and steep. Some of the turns in the road seem like they could drop us to our death. But, we know that in our falling, we fall into the arms of Jesus. In our yielding, we give way to someone else who needs to move faster and farther on the road than we are able to do that given moment in time. In essence, when we yield at the lay by, we relinquish to another their need to move ahead, while acknowledging to ourselves and to God our need to stay behind.
Lesson #2 - We find rest at the Lay Bys on life's highway. When was the last time you rested on the highway of your life? I have found that with email, instant messages, cell phones, text messages, Internet access, videos, DVD's, and television with sixty-four channels, it is hard to find rest anymore. In fact, with little "down time," we rarely grasp a moment to catch our breath. The world in its restlessness calls us to craziness. With the end of rest, comes the death of patience - another endangered species. Since it takes time to be patient, patience is no longer seen as a virtue, but rather as a lost time opportunity to be doing rather than waiting. Someday, rest and patience may simply be viewed as poor time management issues. Where is Dilbert when we need him?
Nothing is more needed in today's world than rest for body, mind, and soul. Thomas Kelly calls our lives "an intolerable scramble of panting feverishness." How sad. How true. But, along comes Jesus. He offers us words for the "lay bys" of life. He offers us these reassuring words which cut against the culture of speed and restlessness, "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).
At the Lay Bys on life's highway, we take time to catch our breath. To rest in God is our greatest need. Rest is God's greatest gift to us. We need to remember that rest is God's way. After speaking all things into existence - from aardvark to zebra - and having given the breath of life to Adam and Eve - God takes a break. God rests. God creates rest as one seventh of the created order of days. God gives it a name, just like the creatures. God calls it "The Sabbath." It is a day to be still and know that God is God! In our hectic existence, finding rest is seemingly impossible.
Jean Vanier, founder of the L'Arche Communities for mentally disabled people, has found a metaphor for resting in God. He says the way to rest in God is to cup the hands lightly. Cupping the hands lightly is the way of life at L'Arche. He says, "suppose I have a wounded bird in my hands. What would happen if I closed my hands completely? The respond is, `why the bird would be crushed and die.' Vanier then says, `what would happen if I opened my hands completely?' The response comes back, `the bird would try to fly away and fall and die.' Vanier smiles and says, the right place is like my hands, neither totally open nor totally closed. The lightly cupped hands provide the space where growth can take place." (Foster, Prayer, p. 103).
If you and I see ourselves cupped lightly in the hands of God, we will have enough freedom to stretch and grow, but also have enough protection not to be injured. This way, we can be healed. This is rest in God.
Lesson #3 - At Life's Lay-Bys, you check your pulse and wake-up for the journey ahead. More than once at the lay by, I checked my pulse. Narrow roads are harrowing roads. When you pass by someone at 40 MPH+ and come within a few feet of them, you tend to have existential reflections on life. Each of us has had close calls on the highways of life. Just the other night, while driving to church for a meeting, an accident scene opened in front of me, seemingly out of nowhere. Earlier in the day I had reflected on how amazing it was that in five years of commuting, I had never been in an accident. In a flash, cars were sliding every direction. It was time to check my pulse. It was a wake-up call.
Wake-up calls come in different varieties. In the heart of Washington, D.C., an artist named Esther Augsburger has used her welding torch to create a 16', four-ton sculpture constructed out of 3,000 handguns. Esther has welded them together to form the distinctive shape of a plowshare. Based on Isaiah 2:4-5, local residents surrendered all these handguns to the Metro Police Department. The artist prophetically created a vision that cries out about the light of God shining in the darkness!
This sculpture says to our nation's Capitol, to our nation and to God's world - that no matter how long the wait, God will find a way to beat weapons into plowshares and pruning hooks. God will transform gunpowder into seeds to plant for the harvest yet to come! Nations and communities will abide by God's wake-up call to peace. Children and young people caught in the crossfire of street wars and battlefield wars, will war no more! Isaiah shows us we need such a wake up.
In Matthew 25:36-44, Jesus rocks people out of their complacency with pictures of floods, thieves, and intruders. He tries to wake people up about the times that are coming. Get real! Be ready! Check your pulse.
While in the Rosa Parks Civil Rights Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, a display dedicated to Dr. King reminded me of a wake-up call that came to The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. It was 1956. The 27-year-old pastor was serving Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. One night, just before midnight, he answered the phone and the voice on the other end threatened, "N....r, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren't out of this town in three days, we're going to blow your brains out and blow up your house."
Years later, Dr. King recalled his kitchen-table revelation after that wake-up call at midnight. He remembered the weariness of comparing the lovely smile of his newborn daughter with the prospect of someone killing her. He knew he could not call on his parents in this troubling time of need. He bowed his head and prayed to God. King recalled the moment:
I had to know God for myself. I bowed my head over that cup of coffee. I will never forget it. I prayed . . . and I discovered then that religion had become real to me . . . I could hear a voice saying, `Stand up for peace. Stand up for truth (Drawn from The Christian Century, November 16, 2004, p. 21).
Talk about a wake-up call! Isaiah offered prophetic words to wake-up God's people. Esther Augsburger used her welding torch. Jesus used visual images, and like Dr. King, the man of Nazareth used his whole life. You and I need to check our pulse, pay attention to God and get ready for our wake-up call this Advent season. On the narrow roads on life's journey, God sends us Lay Bys. There we learn to yield and let others pass us. We learn to rest on the journey. We learn to check our pulse and wake up to the coming presence of God. Next week, we meet a new sign:" Give Way." Until then, practice the art of Laying By. Amen.