Preached FCCW, October 8, 2017
Are we there yet?
Anyone who has traveled with children has heard those words, right?
They remind us how anticipation of something good that awaits us down the road can affect the way we feel about the present moment. And, while we may outgrow the impulse to say the words out loud as we get older, that doesn’t mean we don’t still struggle with the question.
Are we there, yet?
Our starting points and destinations say something about who we are when we travel. Think of the questions that fellow travelers typically ask of one another on the road.
“Where are you from?”
People are curious about where we call home, because our roots can say a lot about who we are.
Sometimes, clues to our origins are pretty obvious. The way we dress, the way we talk, or the way we drive, have a lot to do with where we come from.
The other common question asked of travelers is, “Where are you headed?” because where we are going reveals something about where we want to be.
We often speak of life in terms of a journey, with its starting point at birth, and the destination set somewhere in our future. In life, as in traveling, we carry our roots with us; in the ways we’ve been shaped by our past family histories and life experiences. For better or worse, we are greatly influenced by where we have come from in life. For many of us, the past sets the pattern for how we live our lives. We take on the values and expectations of our parents, or the culture that we grew up in. We judge our personal success or failure by the degree to which our achievements measure up to the pattern that we learn early in life.
If our past was unhappy, we might intentionally go to the opposite extreme. Everything we do might be a reaction to what has wounded us in the past, so that happiness is sought by avoiding as much as possible the old patterns that created pain or disappointment for us.
On the surface, both these ways of life are very different from one another. One is achievement oriented while the other is avoidance oriented. Yet, they are both essentially the same because either way, the present is shaped by the past.
Along the journey of life, we occasionally look back to the past and ask ourselves, “Are we there yet?”
In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul talks about the way his past defined him. Paul had quite an impressive portfolio of achievements. And he wasn’t shy about letting you know it.
“If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh,” he wrote, “I have more.”
He was the model Israelite, circumcised on the eighth day of his life according to the Law of Moses.
A Hebrew of Hebrews, born into the prestigious tribe of Benjamin.
He kept the Ten Commandments without breaking a sweat.
He was a Pharisee. The Pharisees were the strictest religious observers. They believed that every Jew should adhere to the regulations that were laid down for the Priesthood to follow. Even under that super-strict religious standard, Paul batted a thousand.
Paul had long before stopped asking himself the question, “Am I there, yet?” because according to all the important ways of measuring a life, he had already arrived.
But somewhere along the way, something happened.
All those credentials which had been so important to Paul, which had defined his identity, he came to consider worthless. He calls them “rubbish.” In fact, “rubbish” is too polite of a translation for the word he really used. A more accurate translation would be a synonym for “excrement.”
So, what moved Paul to downgrade his opinion about the life he built on his own righteousness — from a palace to a porta-potty?
In his own words: Christ had taken hold of his life.
Paul says that “Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
The other day I was getting directions on GoogleMaps, when I accidentally clicked on the little up and down arrows beside the starting and ending addresses I had entered. Which instantly reversed the directions I was given; so that the starting point became the destination and the destination became the starting point.
That’s what conversion is like.
It turns us around, gives us a new goal, and different ways of measuring progress.
That was like the effect of Paul’s conversion upon his spiritual journey.
He had put his confidence in his past to get him where he wanted to go. His personal righteousness had given him status in the eyes of man, and, what was more important, favor in the eyes of God. Or so he had been taught.
Then he came to understand that all the trust he had invested in his own past accomplishments to be the road to salvation had only wasted precious time he could have invested in the true source of righteousness, which could only found in the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
From that time on, instead of living life with an eye on the rear view mirror, Paul became a forward-looker.
“This one thing I do:” he said, “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Paul had seen himself as faultless, having arrived at a sort of perfection as defined by his beliefs at that time. But now he considered himself to still be on the way to attaining a goal that he had not yet reached. Instead of making the objective of his life arriving at a point of moral perfection, the destination had become progress in his relationship to Jesus, who had “made him his own.”
Not because of his impeccable resume, but in spite of it.
I don’t know about you, but I can relate to Paul.
There came a time in my own life when Christ took hold of me and reversed the polarities on the compass of my life. Both the achievements and the failures that I thought defined who I was, suddenly seemed way less important. Former ambitions were replaced by new goals and priorities. A sense of identity, based on who God was calling me to be was taking the place of the self-understanding that was the product of my past.
And, like Paul, I do not claim to have arrived, or to have mastered this stuff.
Which is as it ought to be.
The Christian life is not about perfection, but progress. It is about the journey.
At the heart of the word journey is the French word “jour”, which means day. Originally, the word journey described the distance that you could cover in a day. It was a measure of progress, not the attainment of a goal.
I remember a Family Circus cartoon I saw once. Little Billy stood in his front doorway, schoolbooks in hand. His mother gazed down on him with a stern expression. “Honest Mom” he was saying, “I came straight home from school!” Meanwhile, a dotted line behind Billy indicated the “straight” route he had taken – a rambling circuit of loops and twists, zigzags and meanderings, as he tested every swing, picked up every errant ball, petted every dog, and waded through every mud puddle.
And yet, for all of that, he was always making progress towards his destination – home.
Maybe that cartoon describes your spiritual journey, too.
I know it describes mine.
Orienting ourselves toward Christ as our destination will mean letting go of believing life is predetermined by our past and discovering what our life really is as we make our way on our journey.
Most of us are conditioned to live by gazing towards the past and only glancing at the future. Paul suggests that it should be the other way around. We should glance at the past, and gaze into the future.
To be in relationship with Christ in the present moment, so we can follow him where he leads us into the future.
We are more than where we came from. We are most truly who Christ calls us to be.
God’s grace always and inexorably invites us forward into a future that God has prepared for us.
Oftentimes, responding to that invitation means letting go of past attitudes.
Some of the qualities Jesus calls us strive for are being humble, which means accepting of our need for God’s grace instead of trusting in our own deservedness; it means being compassionate and just, which are ways of applying what we have received from God to our relationships with other people; and last not least, being generous with what we have been given, rather than seeking prestige and security in material things.
And so, in this week leading up to the presentation of our pledges on next Sunday, let us strive to be open to how Christ is calling each of us to support this church as we strain forward together to what lies ahead; pressing on toward the goal to which we have been called.
Are we there, yet?
Any of us?
Hopefully, though, we are moving ever onward towards the prize that awaits us.
With the assurance that even if we’re not, it’s never too late to reverse directions.
Copyright 2017 Raymond Medeiros