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For the past 46 years of my ministry, I have been meeting people for whom the light never turns green. As a matter of fact, I have been there several times myself. Life has a way of getting you into a no turn lane where the light never turns green. But, there is seldom a sign hanging out there announcing your predicament. It sort of dawns on you one day, when everybody and everything else seems to be moving past you, that something is wrong. I certainly know what that sort of situation feels like. Perhaps, you do too.
It can happen at almost any point of passage in life. Young people feel that way when the teenage years seem to last forever. Sometimes, it happens around 35 or 40, when everybody and everything seems to be passing you by; when you feel like you have lived half your life and you are not half where you had wanted to go. All of the moving parts seem to be working well, but you cannot get life into gear, and all of a sudden you see a mental sign that says: "This light never turns green," and desperation sets in. That is commonly called "midlife crisis."
Sometimes, it happens when old age hits you, mentally or physically, whether it is in fact chronologically true or not. Too many moving parts will not move, and those that do hurt. There are no spaces between illnesses. You never feel good any more. You are burned out a dozen years before you can retire, and you are sitting in an economic lane that says, this light will never turn green.
There are some styles of life and lanes of living which in and of themselves are dead end streets, and which have disaster written all over them. People who mess with drugs, for instance, are in a lane where the light never turns green. People who live in a constant state of rebellion, whose ear is tied to no tongue but their own, and whose brain doesn't seem to be connected to either, are living in a lane that flashes nothing but red lights. ~ not a sign of green anywhere.
There are some people who are not just sitting in a lane where the light never turns green; they are traveling blindly down it - 90 to nothing on a collision course with realities that will not move over to let a fool fly by. I see them every day, and I cringe as I wait for the sound of twisted steel and broken glass; and the smell of death.
There is an interesting story of two battleships that were on maneuvers in heavy weather for several days. One evening as night fell on the foggy sea the Captain decided to stay on the bridge to keep an eye on things. The lookout on the wing of the bridge reported, "Light, bearing on the starboard bow." The captain asked if it were steady or moving astern. The lookout replied, "Steady, Captain," which meant they were on a collision course with something. The Captain called to the signalman: "Signal that ship that we are on a collision course; 'advise that you change course twenty degrees.'" Back came a signal, "advise you change course twenty degrees." The captain said, "Send. 'I am a captain, change course twenty degrees.'" The reply came back, "I am a Seaman, Second Class. Change your course twenty degrees, immediately." By this time the captain was furious. He spat out, "Send! 'I am a battleship. Change your course twenty degrees!'" Back came the message, "I am a lighthouse. Change your course twenty degrees."
There are some things in life that are not going to move over and let you pass. For some people, it takes a collision to learn this. For instance, one does not literally break any one of the Ten Commandments, but many people are broken by a head-on collision with one of them. Some truths do not change, or even bend. The wise person learns from the experience of others; a fool insists on learning by personal experience. Be careful!
Some people are hounded by one crisis or another all the time. They never finish one emergency before another one is in their face. Every refuge to which they might ordinarily turn becomes another barrier or pitfall instead of a safe place to be.
It puts me in mind of a story of the two cowboys who were working cattle one day. One of them discovered he was in trouble when a wild bull, with his head down and nostrils flaring, came charging toward him. The cowboy saw a deep hole in the ground and quickly jumped in it. As soon as the bull passed over him, he jumped out of the hole. The bull, madder than ever, came charging back again, and the cowboy jumped back down into the hole. When the bull passed, the cowboy jumped out of the hole again. He did this several times. Finally, the other cowboy, who was watching it all from a distance yelled out, "Why don't you just stay in the hole?" The cowboy yelled back, "I would, but there's a bear in the hole!"
Life is difficult. Sometimes troubles come in bunches like bananas. Only those who have stored up reserves of strength survive. It can happen to you. Perhaps, it has already happened to you at some time in your life.
Sometimes, when life brings too many frustrations, something terrible can happen to the human spirit. There are people whose threshold of tolerance is lower than that of others. When there is too much rejection, the spirit grows timid, and you lose that unique ability to determine whether patience is appropriate in a given situation, or just another symptom of the loss of nerve.
In his famous novel, "The Trial," Franz Kafka has the hero, Mr. K. walk into a church where he hears a priest tell a parable. It is a frightening parable for shy and wounded people who have a difficult time knowing when to be patient and when to be pushy.
This is the story. A man was told to enter a kingdom through a certain gate. When he arrived, he found the gate, but he noticed that a sentinel was guarding the entrance. He did not know whether to enter or wait, so he sat down and waited for the sentinel to give him instructions, or to grant him permission to enter. But, the guard did nothing and said nothing. So the man continued to sit there waiting for something to happen, or someone to come. For a whole lifetime he sat there! Then, one day, the guard closed the door. He turned and said to the man: "This door was made for you and for you alone; and because you chose not to enter it, it is being closed forever." Sometimes, the light never turns distinctly green, and those who are timid and shy never know for sure what to do. Have you ever been at such an indecisive place in your life?
There are people whose experiences have been so negative, and so many, that they pass the point of being shy. They shut down altogether. They do not care any more. They become like the man in the country-western song I heard who said: "I've been down so long that getting up never crosses my mind." For most of us there is enough space between discouraging experiences to allow us to recover and move on. There are, however, more people than you might imagine who have been knocked down, or who have fallen, so many times that they decide that it is less painful to stay down than to run the risk of going down again. If you look carefully you may find some of these people on the streets of your home town.
When I go to New York each summer, I am always devastated by the number of homeless people. They are everywhere! The first week I am there, I fill my pockets with change and small bills before I leave the apartment each day. My friends laugh at me for handing out money to the homeless, but I just cannot help it. But, something strange happens about the middle of my second week there. Suddenly, I do not notice the homeless people very much anymore - and that really bothers me.
In a world where most of us encounter, even step over, homeless and helpless people every day, it is easy to become insensitive, if not oblivious, to the obvious pains of people. When Joe Garagiola, baseball's finest, was co-host of NBC's "Today Show," he told of an experience he had at a local drugstore. He said he had filled his little shopping basket with a bottle of extra-strength Tylenol, l2 ounces of Kaopectate, an elastic knee support, a supply of corn plasters, Dristan, a vaporizer, a remedy for sore gums and various "over-thecounter" medications. He said that after the clerk checked him out and took his money, he could not believe his ears when the clerk handed him the sack and said, "Have a nice day." Those are such easy words to say when we can close our eyes to all the obvious reasons why that person is not going to have a nice day.
It is easy for those of us who spend our lives working for the church to keep on saying and doing the same things we have said and done for years, without any regard for the relevance of our words or actions to the situation at hand. The broken lives of people and the ills of society are much more complex than we would like to admit. Our anxiety tends to increase when our "bumper sticker solutions" will not touch the problems we must solve. Someone said recently that we want a Norman Rockwell world, but what we have is a Picasso. Dealing with the broken lives of people and the real problems of society is a more complicated and messy business than most of us would like to admit. It is easy, all too easy, for the clergy and the congregation alike to think that a "Sunday smile" and a glad hand and a proverb from the Old Farmer's Almanac are all that should be required to have people fall all
over each other trying to get to church every Sunday.
Our ideas about how to reach the poor, the oppressed, and the homeless sometimes sound more like a political prescription than a biblical solution. We tend to think that if everybody would take a bath and change clothes each day, work harder, and learn to be more grateful and polite, that circumstances would suddenly change. How strange of us to think that if we can force people to change their outward appearance, they will change. We remember that Jesus said we should be "fishers of men," but he never suggested that we should try to clean them before we catch them. Many of us want to give people a razor, a deodorant and a bar of soap before we give them our acceptance. We give them the bad news that they are not accepted, and then wonder why they never hear the good news that God loves them. Jesus never suggested that we clean people up before we pick them up.
It is increasingly obvious that we live in a society that is so radically ill with people whose social and spiritual problems are so deep that nothing short of a radical commitment on our part to that radical Stranger of Galilee will touch the hurt or change the lives of those who are sitting in the lane where the light never turns green. In most of our churches, we tend to consider ourselves good at ministering to the affluent and the comfortable and those whose lives hold promise; but we choke on our words when some poor soul is hopeless. And this was Jesus' specialty - the hopeless, the people in the lane where the light never turns green. There are some people (and we find this hard to understand) whose situations are beyond the power of personal resolve, who cannot lift themselves by their own bootstraps, for they do not even have boots.
The ordinary, superficial niceties of conventional religion are becoming less and less effective among people who are hungry for love, and who crave a sense of community. If our conventional words and ways do not touch them where they hurt, then we must find new words and new ways. It is really true: "People do not care how much we know until they know how much we care."
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