Lord, we do not know where we are going. How can we know the way?
It has been truly said that while you live life forward, you understand it backwards...and that on the whole we don’t get a map to show us the way our lives will work out. I remember once at vicar school spending an evening discussing with fellow-students whether the - or Bible might be such a map, or whether it was more a guide-book, pointing out the main features that we might expect to run across, without actually prescribing a route from here to there….
Not that I’m great with maps, actually. Before the advent of sat navs, if setting out on a long car journey I had to write out a list of land-mark towns as the pressure of trying to work out where I might be on a map at a motorway service station was simply too much for me. So last week when a small group of us elected to do an independent cross-country journey across Iona, disliking the idea of being herded along in the official pilgrimage that stuck to metalled roads, I was very much NOT in charge. There were five of us that day, 2 younger and fitter, 3 of us substantially less so, and friendships were made or strengthened as we adjusted to one another’s needs, for space, for silence, for time to breathe though the challenges and delights of the day.
I learned a lot.
About myself – how knowing that there ARE people who will help when I’m feeling stuck often means that I don’t need to ask for help at all; and that there is sometimes more kindness in not jumping in to assist than there is in hasty intervention; that actually, given time, I can do things that seemed well beyond me to start with.
I learned that we all tackle challenges in different ways and that for me sometimes it’s easiest to negotiate obstacles (specifically steep descents on boggy ground) on my bottom, or (if going uphill) on my knees.
That might have made a nice little parable, if I hadn’t found myself kneeling in the very bog that I’d been trying to avoid slipping into...because appearances are deceptive, and it’s not just the obvious muddy patches that turn out to be squelchy and unreliable.
We climbed Iona’s one serious hill, Duni, early on...and that path to the summit was the only obvious route of the day. Once we left the hill-top cairn behind us, it was by no means clear which way to go, as the whole hillside was criss-crossed with sheep tracks – and, as we learned early on, just because a sheep can get down somewhere, it doesn’t follow that 5 middle-aged clergywomen can follow them. Lots of paths – but which one was THE WAY?
My US clergy friends were peculiarly fascinated by shaggy Hebridean sheep, so there were a fair few jokes about lost sheep and about good-enough shepherds as the day went on….the latter, of course, referring to the brave soul who undertook to be our pioneer, striding ahead and exploring the territory for we who came after.
For all the joking, actually she reminded me of some important truths.
That a good leader knows where you are actually aiming for, and has a sense of the overall course of the journey….
That she isn’t too proud to admit mistakes – and to use her own experience as a learning point – DONT put your foot on that stone, it’s so wobbly I’ve just landed up to my knees in muddy water.
That she will not only have an eye to immediate hazards, but an overview of the wider terrain (so easy to lose the path when you’re simply intent on taking the next step safely), and will sometimes forge ahead simply to encourage from the hill-top
“The view from here is incredible”.
A good-enough shepherd indeed, as all of her flock made it home safely., but as I wobbled across the slough of despond on the stepping stones of uncertainty, some other words were echoing in my thoughts – words drawn from the reading we have just shared and used, as it happened, in the Iona Community’s own liturgy for Communion.
“Then, just as we think we’ve got it right as to where we should go and what we should do;
Just when we’re ready to take on the world you come, like a beggar to our back door saying “This is the way. I am the way.” and offering us bread and wine….
I am the way – he says.
A way we can rely on, without wobbly stepping stones or unexpected mud baths.
A way that may challenge us, draw more out of us than we had believed possible but will lead us to see unexpected beauty – the view from here is incredible.
A way that stretches out clearly in front of us, unmistakeable...leading each of us safely home to our Father’s house where there are so many many dwelling places….
But what does that mean in practice?
No-one comes to the Father except through me”..seems pretty clear and non-negotiable, so much so that sometimes Christians have behaved as if they thought of Jesus more as a road-block than a route to wholeness and happiness with God.
Of course it is true that the only way that we will get home safely is by taking the route that Jesus forged for us on the cross, the route of self-giving love that is stronger than death.
That is what it means for us to be fully human,
I don’t think, though, that this means that only card-carrying Christians can expect a welcome home.
The Jesus-event – life, death, resurrection – is indeed once for all but it IS truly for all – and in those many dwelling places of our Father’s house there is surely room for everyone who lives according to his law of love.
When it comes down to it, I cannot believe that the God whose love is without limits will intentionally exclude anyone….and nor can I believe that those who seem to be turning their backs on his gracious invitation in this life will do so when they see for themselves that beauty of God that is beyond all words.
I’m pretty certain that those who seem to reject Christianity in the here and now are rejecting not the truth in all its beauty but the broken partial way in which all too often, we, the Church, present it…
But fortunately it doesn’t matter how I see things...what matters is how God sees things, and we can be confident that his perspective is wide and generous beyond our widest and wildest dreams….because, you see, that is how Jesus is….pure, unbounded love….
And he and the Father are one. To see Jesus is to see God. To walk the Jesus way in open-hearted love is to find ourselves on the road safe home, to the place where we all of us belong.
Here is the way. I am the way, Walk in it.