Last Sunday we welcomed Advent with the first of six sermons, "Lay By." This week, I have changed the road sign (no I am not Wiley Coyote). The sign this week is "Road Calming." A "road calming" is a change in the configuration of a roadway the intention of which is to slow or redirect traffic. Let us take a closer look at this sign for our pathway . . .
"Road Calming" signs often create panic in Ireland. The driver will be moving along a stretch of road that is wide and open. Suddenly the sign, "Road Calming" appears. The road narrows, curbs rise from flattened pavements, and speed bumps spring up on the suddenly restricting roadway. The road pinches the driver into a contained space. Everything and everyone slows to a crawl. The road is calm. The driver is not.
The purpose of road calming is simple: change the design of the road and the driver will change with it. From fast to slow, the altered road creates an altered reality. We learn several lessons from "Road Calming" on the journey of life. First, Road Calming sets up artificial means to slow us down in real ways. Second, Road Calming makes us anxious enough to change our strategy for getting through the pinches of life. Third, Road Calming helps us focus on that which really matters.
Lesson #1: Artificial means to slow us down serve real purposes. With curbs rising, speed bumps appearing and the road narrowing by half, you know when a road calming section has arrived. The same thing happens in life. Piles of bills and mounds of clutter rising where once stood a clear table, toys appearing under feet like living room versions of speed bumps, and pathways through your garage narrowing from car width to bike width to footpath width all serves as artificial means of reminding you to slow down. These are household signs of the need to calm your road and your life.
The prophet Isaiah presents it differently. He writes, "Jesse was stumped" (the prophecy according to Ahrens). When was the last time you were stumped? When was the last time you felt cut off? Severed? Or Stymied? When you have felt stumped, undoubtedly resignation and despair accompanied the stumping. It never feels good to be stumped.
The prophet continues, "out of the stump comes a budding branch." It is no less than the life-giving spirit of God that hovers over the stump of Jesse. This Spirit brings blossoms from the stump. The Spirit of God creates new life! God's life-giving, future-creating, world-forming, despair-ending power and wind create utter newness. The wind of God is inscrutable, irresistible, and beyond human control, management or predictability. God's Wind blows over the stump. Rather than letting the future focus on stumps, the wind of God breathes hope into the wooden blob (Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV - Year A, Westminister John Knox, 1995, p.11).
Although the road calming slows us, they have not stopped us. Pay attention to the objects and obstacles standing before you. While you may feel stumped, God feels otherwise. A stump is the vestige of the old simply waiting for the new to be born by the life-giving Spirit of God. What may seem to be the obstacle is merely the means to a new beginning.
Lesson #2: Road Calming makes us anxious enough to change our strategy for getting through the pinches of life. When was the last time you were pinched? If you are pinched by a person, you say, "Ouch!" because it hurt. If it happens financially, you feel the loss of revenue and you change your approach to money. If it happens on a roadway you are forced out of your lane and onto the berm. Being pinched changes the way you approach your current reality.
John the Baptist was a prophetic pincher. He preached a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He confronted everyone. He told people, "change your lives because God's kingdom was here" (Mt. 3:3). He called good people of faith and hate-filled terrorists; child molesters and purveyors of racism and sexism; the moral majority and the immoral minority all to do the same thing - REPENT! John WAS the wind of God's spirit of righteousness and justice about which Isaiah spoke!
He made people uncomfortable. No one likes to be uncomfortable. Everyone likes to hear pleasant messages - that is why we love Hallmark cards! We love comfort foods and comfort books. We love the comforts of home and a comfortable neighborhood. Things that make us uncomfortable often cause us to fear and flee, to close our eyes and minds and block out bad feelings.
However, being uncomfortable is part of being alive. It is also part of facing another person's reality. If you are uncomfortable, imagine how hard it is for someone who has no apparent hope, no future, no way out.
Friday, while on a college visit with Luke, the professor of anatomy pulled out a cadaver. I wanted to be supportive of my medically minded son. I acted enthusiastic when the man of science pulled out the dead, naked body. Nevertheless, as this professor of human anatomy delightedly pealed back layers of skin and pulling out organs for me to see, my comfort zone evaporated. Looking at a clear, clean plastic skeleton from Mattel is much different from beholding the remains of a 70-year-old man who died of lung cancer. I was being pinched. It was clear to me that I forsook anatomy because, at least in part, it made me uncomfortable.
When we become uncomfortable, we need a strategy for changing our ways. John the Baptist wasn't interested in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked should turn from their ways. He was interested in strategies for spiritual growth and economic justice. John knew that getting uncomfortable is a major step to get ready for change in your life. The old way does not work. The old strategy of faking it until you make it doesn't hold water anymore. You are getting pinched so much that you become ready to grow.
So what are you going to do about the pinches in your life? I recommend a new strategy for growth. Here is simple strategy: Face the pain. Go into the pain. Go through the pain. You will make it. The pain will not kill you. However, being pinched to death might wear you out. When you come to the Road Calming, use your anxiety to formulate new strategies for moving through the pain.
Lesson #3: Road Calming helps us focus on that which really matters. Road Calming is an exercise in focusing. The signs focus. The road narrows. The driver slows and deals with what really matters immediately in front of him or her. Life in the balance has a way of focusing a person. This lesson came home to me this past week while reflecting upon the World AIDS crisis. Life in the balance continues to grow more precarious for more people across more of the globe each day. Throughout Africa and here among African-Americans, this crisis has reached overwhelming epidemic proportions. In the midst of a devolving AIDS pandemic, the voice of Encose Johnson of South Africa calls to us. Encose died last year at the age of ten. His story is told in the book, We Are All the Same. When eight, Encose spoke to the World AIDS Congress. He stood before them calling for every nation to see the likeness and similarities in the human family. In his speech two years ago, he said:
"Do all you can, with what you have,
in the time you have, in the place where you are."
What really matters? Living life under the guiding wisdom of eight-year-old Encose Johnson.
Encose is joined in his wisdom about life by other young people from earlier times speaking just a clearly to the world about battling the epidemic of racism in America and fascism in Germany. Six year old, Ruby Bridges, while standing almost alone as she integrating the schools in Alabama said:
Each day, I try to get to school. I figure, if I do, then other kids might say they are willing to go, too. Pretty soon, it could be better for us here.
Ruby was also seen day in and day speaking to herself as she passed through a raging sea of racist hatred. Psychologist Robert Coles asked her one night what she was saying. She answered, "I say a prayer for them." "What is that prayer," Dr. Coles pressed? "I say, `Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing." Road Calming teaches us what really matters.
While in her hiding place during World War II, 13-year-old Anne Frank wrote these words in her diary:
I can feel the suffering of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens,
I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end,
and that peace and tranquility will return again.
In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals,
for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.
Anne's time never came. She died in Auschwitz within a year of writing these words and after having been taken from her hiding place. Encose's time never came, either. Ruby survived and continues to this day the be a witness in struggle for justice.
What about you? As you come to the "road calming" signs in your life, do you focus on what really matters? Do you do all you can, with what you have, in the time you have, in the place where you are?
At the road calming, we have a chance to change: to Slow Down, to Turn our anxiety into a change strategy and to Focus on what really matters. In the words of the prophetic pincher, John the Baptist: "The time is at hand. Turn Around" The Messiah, even Jesus Christ our Lord - is coming. When you turn around, your eyes will meet the Messiah. His presence will calm you on the rod of life. Amen.