Highway to Heaven

And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way.    Isa. 35:8

Imagine a multitude of people walking along a raised path in the wilderness.  They are crowded together, having to move carefully as there are ditches on either side of the high way.  Most of the people seem to be walking resolutely towards some destination.  You notice a marked difference though between those at the front of the line and those at the end, who are just beginning to join the throng.  A significant transformation has taken place in the souls of those who have travelled longer on this path.  It becomes evident, in light of this conversion, that the destination of this journey is not necessarily to a place but to an increasing state of freedom—a freedom associated with holiness.

Those at the front of the line seem to shine with a winsome glow that inspires and motivates the people behind them.  Every now and then, those behind catch a glimpse of the virtue that the saints ahead of them are enjoying, causing a noticeable ripple of enthusiasm through the crowd.  But regardless where people are positioned on this path, they seem satisfied and grateful to be there.  The motivation that those ahead of them provide is not so much one of envy but one of anticipation that serves to quicken their step.

You notice, as well, that there are people wandering in the fields and rocky areas on either side of the raised highway, some alone and others in small groups.  These people seem lost and oblivious to the parade that is taking place right beside them.  But you also notice some who are walking among them with much more of a sense of purpose.  They are those who have sacrificed their place in line in order to go search for these lost souls.  You watch as one of them approaches a group of wanderers and begins speaking to them.  You can tell by the way she keeps pointing towards the highway that she is inviting them  to come and join her in the journey.  Some do, but many don’t.  Instead, they keep  wandering in the field, their eyes looking far into the distance for whatever they are searching for.

There is a high hill nearby, off to the side of the road.  You climb it, and you can now see the whole multitude at a glance.  You notice that there is a bulge of people in the middle of the throng while the numbers seem to thin out at both the front and rear of the line.  The ones in the middle are carrying items with them that will serve the whole community on their journey—tents, food, water, as well as musical instruments, books for teaching, liturgical vestments and other articles that express something of their common destination.  Every night they set up their tents and serve the many people who gather for a common meal.  It is an opportune time as well to share stories and to remind one another of the hope that inspires their trek.

At the rear of the line you see some people who are obviously new at this pilgrimage.  Though they seem to begin each day with an inordinate amount of enthusiasm they soon start complaining about tiredness, blisters and the heat of the noon-day sun.  But there are others among them, people with the same glow as those in the front of the line.  They have purposely fallen back in the line, choosing instead to walk among the new pilgrims, encouraging them and reminding them of where they are going.  They are keeping an eye out as well for stragglers who might get left behind.

Curiously, there is something similar happening at the front of the line.  You see people who had previously been glowing with the winsome radiance of purpose who are now sitting down, seemingly dejected on the side of the road.  Their glow has faded as they seem confused about their way, disheartened by the challenges that the process of conversion continues to impose on them.  Others from the front line leave the highway to sit with these people.  They are talking with them, gently bringing both understanding and encouragement to these discouraged souls.  As you notice the glow slowly return to these people, you remember Moses and Elijah’s conversation with Jesus at the transfiguration.  Finally they get up and rejoin the crowd, grateful to those who cared enough to notice them.

As you strain to see how far the front line extends you are startled by what you notice.  The people at the very front seem to be mysteriously disappearing.  Their souls, which were getting brighter and brighter with each step, are now becoming increasingly  transparent so that they blend into the bright light of the sun.  They are becoming one with the light that has been following them their whole journey so that they seem to disappear as they reflect the very holiness they have been seeking.  The brightness of these souls attracts the attention of the pilgrims behind them.  Suddenly, these same people who just a moment ago were dragging their steps, are now throwing themselves forward, making a renewed offering of themselves to whatever lies ahead for them on this journey.  They do this so joyfully that it reminds you of your own deep desires for holiness.  That you too have been called to walk on this highway.

You have been watching long enough.  It is time now for you too to join this pilgrimage.  You step down from the hilltop and run towards the highway.  The people see you approaching and turn to welcome you.  With a song of praise in your heart, you realize how blessed you are to be on this road.  You too will soon reflect the light that now surrounds you.  You thank God for this hope, and for the love you feel for all those who walk with you on this pilgrimage.  And with great joy, you go forth.

Lost & Found

“Suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?  And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Luke 15:8-10

It is not uncommon us, even as Christians, to lose our sense of God.  As the hymn suggests, we are “prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love.”  For countless and often trivial reasons, we choose to no longer remain in His love.  But as Jesus’ teaches in this parable, there is cause for celebration in heaven each time we repent of this.  The woman finds her lost coin, she calls her friends and neighbours, they share her joy, and all ends well.

But let us back the story up a bit.  To the part just before the lost coin is found, when that happy outcome is not yet certain.  It is easy to imagine the concern that precipitates the frantic search for this precious item.  If heaven rejoices when the coin has been found, does it not also suggest that it shares the worry over what, for the moment, appears to be lost?

Is there concern in God’s heart when we stray—that we might not return?  The French poet Charles Péguy (1873-1914) thinks so. He believes there is a genuine, heart-felt fear on God’s part whenever His children have been away for too long.  In his epic poem, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, Péguy surmises that it was the lost sheep who first introduced such fear in the Shepherd’s heart.  He writes,

By his very going away,
and because he was going to miss the evening call
the lost sheep aroused fear from the very heart of God,
and thus he caused hope itself to spring forth.
Because of this lost sheep, Jesus experienced fear in love.

Our “missing the evening call” is surely a cause for concern in heaven.  There is, after all, the real risk that the exercise of our God-given freedom might become a snare for us.  We could succumb to the arrogant words of the Israelites which Jeremiah records, “We are free to roam; we will come to you no more’?”  (Jer. 2:31).  If not for God’s grace, we too could be swallowed up by the very idols we create.  What, for instance, might the fate of the prodigal son have been if, rather than ending up in a pig’s pen, he had instead prospered from his own initiatives?

As we ignore the continued appeals of the Holy Spirit to return to God, there is always a possibility that our faith might be shipwrecked (1Tim. 1:19).  It is not, after all, just for idle speculation that the book of Proverbs warns us that “there is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (Prov. 14:12).

As a wise preacher once noted, there are as many Scriptures that assure us of the security of our salvation as there are that caution us not to take the Lord’s grace for granted.  In other words, God has valid enough reasons to be concerned for us when we wander too far on our own.

The three parables of lostness—the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost son—all speak of the rejoicing that takes place in celebration of the return of that which was lost.  But they also hint at the very real parental concern that remains in God’s heart until the precious item has been recovered.

Trusting God With Our Inadequacies

To the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.

Rom. 4:5

In her biography, Before the Living God, the Carmelite Abbess Ruth Burrows writes about the pilgrimage of trust that she and her fellow sisters have long been on.  She sees the development of our growing trust in God as the principle agenda of the spiritual life, something that we can only enjoy to the degree that we have put to rest the anxious “work” of trying to manage our relationship with God.  She writes,

I want to show people that what really matters is utter trust in God; that this trust cannot be there until we have lost all self-trust and are rooted in poverty; that we must be willing to go to God with empty hands.  The whole meaning of our existence and the one consuming desire of the heart of God is that we should trust God enough to let ourselves be loved.

Trusting God’s love for us means doing so also in the context of our sense of personal inadequacy, especially with regards to the spiritual life.  To fret over our failures, or to presume that these disqualify us in any way, is to usurp God’s prerogative to love us even in our poverty.

As a young nun observing her fellow sisters, Burrows remembers the many so-called spiritual acts that, in her estimation, betrayed more of a lack of trust among those who had otherwise committed their lives so wholly to God.  She writes,

Looking at my dear friends, living for God, I saw in fact that something was yet wanting in them. They had not yet come to perfect trust. They felt they were spiritual failures because this or that had not happened to them.  They felt they had missed out on something because their experience carried none of the features  they assumed a truly authentic spiritual life should yield.

It is the nagging sense that we are never spiritual enough that reveals our lack of trust in God.  As we chase the spiritual life like a carrot at the end of a stick we never get to truly rest in God’s present love for us.  Concerning her friends Burrows adds,

They knew they were loved by God and yet there was an indefinable anxiety which inhibited their total surrender to that love.  I saw these dear people, self-giving, generous, full of love for God and yet still anxious, still hesitant before the last step which would release them from themselves and open them to God’s love.

Far from criticizing the weakness of human faith, Burrows writes with the compassion of a co-captive who is just beginning to feel the bindings of her own fears giving way.  She longs to instill this hope in others as well.  She writes,

I long to convince them that, here and now, in their present ‘unsatisfactory’ state, in their so-called ‘failure’, God desires to give himself to them; that this state of poverty is precisely what he wants and that it represents his way into them. He has laboured with love for a long time to open up this way for them.  Will they now block it?  If they do, they are turning from the straight path of poverty, and choosing instead the winding road of spiritual riches.

Burrows clearly understands the sufficiency of Jesus’ word, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Mt. 5:3).   She is convinced, as we should be, that if God blesses our poverty, His promises are in no way hindered by our failure to deserve them.

Let the one who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the LORD and rely on their God.

Isa. 50:10

No Just Another Old Person

Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an elder desires a noble task.
1Tim. 3:1

The Dene (pronounced Den-nay) are a Northern Canadian aboriginal tribe who govern themselves by a council of wise men.  As is typical in many aboriginal societies, the male elders are chosen by the women.  I once had the occasion to speak with a Dene woman about the process of selecting elders in their communities.  I asked what I assumed was an intelligent question, “On what basis do you decide who’s an elder among you?”  She answered me with a puzzled look,  “You just know.  Some people are elders while others are just old people.”  It struck me as an important distinction to make for my own life, as I too grow older.  Will others see me as an elder in God’s kingdom, or as just another old person?

In a recent publication by Regent College* a number of students and faculty were asked to reflect on the topic of aging well.  In one article, professor Maxine Hancock speaks of the characteristics she has observed in people who age well, especially in debilitating circumstances.  She writes,

I have had the privilege of watching people whose long habits of spiritual discipline and personal devotion taught them to accept infirmity with patience, and care with gratitude.  Even those who experienced dementia retained a core identity grounded in Christ; they met death at peace and unafraid.

Often, when I meet with younger people for spiritual direction, I will ask them what type of old person they want to be.  I try to encourage them to start preparing now for the characteristics they wish to see in their future selves.  As Eugene Peterson notes, it is a “long obedience in the same direction” that ultimately forms the character of old age.

What are the character traits that God is presently investing in you for your old age?  What is it that you are being obedient to today that will bear fruit for the person you will soon enough be? How, in your old age, might all that you have learned from a life of seeking and finding God contribute to the fabric of the Christian community around you?  In other words, what type of elder will you be?  Or will you be just another old person?

In the same publication, Dr. James Houston reflects on the life-long relational qualities that contribute to the making of an elder.  He writes,

An elder is someone who, all his or her life, has been committed to relational values such as friendship and family.  As elders grow old, they continue to foster communal values and strong relationships.  In the Old Testament, the elder is the one who facilitates the maturing of personal relationships within the community

This relational emphasis is also echoed by Regent graduate Linda Seale who sees mentoring as one the chief tasks we should anticipate and equip ourselves for as we age.  She writes,

Mentoring involves wisdom.  In a world overwhelmed with information, we are sadly lacking in wisdom.  Wisdom develops over a lifetime of pondering and integrating the experiences given by our Lord.  We need to pass this on to the next generations to help them mature, to stand there with encouragement, and to provide that fertile soil in which new leaders can develop.

The prophet Hosea counsels us to “sow righteousness for yourselves, reap the fruit of unfailing love, and break up your unplowed ground” (Hos. 10:12).  In other words, the making of an elder is a seasoned work that begins long before we reach old age.  As Linda Seale wisely concludes, “Aging well is a process that begins by doing any stage of life well.”

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith “A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”

Rabbi Ben Ezra, by Robert Browning

*see http://www.regent-college.edu/pdf/regentworld/RegentWorldSummer2011.pdf for a pdf of this publication.

Let Everything In Me Praise the Lord

God has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them we may participate in the divine nature.   2Pet 1:4

Makarios the Great was a Syrian spiritual director who ministered in the fourth century near the border area of Cappadocia (Turkey) and Syria.  He was a disciple of St. Antony, the first of the desert fathers.  In his teachings, Makarios often stressed the importance of a felt experience of God.  He saw this as an indicator of the Holy Spirit, through whom we come to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8).  Such experiences of God cause us to grow in our desire to be united with God as the object of our love.

For most early theologians, the highest expression and purpose of faith was the union of the soul with God.  It is why God became man through Jesus—to unite Himself to our humanity so that our humanity would be united with His divinity.   As Makarios taught, “The infinite God diminished Himself in order to be united with His creatures, so they can be made participators of divine life.”

The apostle Peter, as well, teaches that God’s promises in Christ—in whom the fullness of both humanity and divinity are joined—represent an invitation to “participate in the divine nature” (2Pet 1:4).  And we do so by submitting our lives to the Holy Spirit.  This is why theologians often refer to the third person of the Trinity as “the agent of our participation.”   Spiritual maturity then is the fruit of our ongoing response to the Spirit’s invitation which we participate in through the yielding of our hearts.

One of Makarios’ most memorable metaphors for the passive way we make ourselves available to the Holy Spirit is that of the heart serving as a “resonating chamber.”  In the same way that the body of a guitar or a violin serves to amplify the sound of the plucked or bowed string, so our bodies become a place where the song of the Spirit re-sonates within.  He writes,

As breath sounds when passed through a flute, so does the Holy Spirit make music in the holy and God-bearing saints who, from a pure heart, become hymns and psalms to God.

Echoing the insight of other desert saints, Makarios recognizes the resulting “music” as that of the Holy Spirit lifting us up in the praise of God.  It is the Spirit within us—the “Word” which does not come back empty—who returns praise to Christ through the instrument of our yielded hearts.  As Makarios expreses,

The Spirit, taking possession of the soul, now sings a new song to the Lord with the timbrel of the body and so it sends up praises, through the believer, to the life-giving Christ.

If such be the case, all the more should our desire be to make room for the Holy Spirit’s resonance in our souls.  Let us heed the Psalmist’s call to worship when he says: “Awake my soul!  Sing and make music to your God.”   As we offer our hearts as instruments of His praise, we will discover what it means to truly worship in Spirit and truth (Jn 4:24).

I will sing and make music.

Awake, my soul!
Awake, harp and lyre!
I will awaken the dawn.

Psalm 57:7-8