Finding the Way
If you’ve been to a funeral, especially an Episcopal funeral, you know the Gospel text today, perhaps by heart. This is a favorite reading for funerals: Do not let your hearts be troubled. I will come and take you to myself so that where I am, you may be also. I am the way, the truth, and the life. Abide in me. These are words of comfort to us when we are grieving.
And so many of us are grieving. Even if we are not suffering from the loss of one of our own family members or friends from COVID-19, we are acutely aware of the suffering of others, near and far. A terrible thing is happening in the world which will leave scars on individual people and on the way we live together as a people for a long time. We will need to make room in ourselves and in our society to grieve the many losses that we are experiencing - not just loss of life but loss of way of life - and will continue to experience because the world as we know it is already irrevocably changed. The world is suffering from a great trauma. We will get through it, I know, but not without pain.
So I am glad to read again Jesus’s words of comfort, that he abides in us and invites us to abide in him, that he can and will be with us even though he no longer walks the earth, that there is a place for us in eternity with God, a place with so much room.
Jesus said these things to his disciples in what is called his “farewell discourse,” the conversation he had with them after the supper and the foot washing, when he knew what was coming, his death, knew that he would be leaving his disciples and wanted to leave them with something they could hold on to when he was gone. Amazingly, he said it just after he told Peter that he would deny him three times before morning and after Judas had gone out to gather together the mob that would come for Jesus in the garden that night. Imagine that, on such a night when suffering and death are lurking just outside his door, that his concern was to show love and give comfort to his friends.
Everyone must have been confused, though. Jesus had already upended all their ideas. He had washed their feet, he had predicted that he would die, and that they would deny and desert him, and he knew that their world was about to be further thrown into chaos by his impending arrest and death, yet now he tells them to not let their hearts be troubled?
Thomas, dear Thomas, the one we call the Doubter (as if the others were not doubters, NOT, but I digress), heard Jesus say that the disciples knew the way to where Jesus was going and his heartfelt response to Jesus was “But Jesus, actually, we do not know where you are going so how can we know the way?” Thomas’s honest and desperate question is our honest and desperate question, too.
Jesus of course isn’t talking about geography. This is where Thomas (and no doubt the others) went astray. They were being literal. But the way, which soon became the name of the early movement of Jesus followers, The Way, is about relationship. It’s about living our lives in a particular way. It’s about how we live together as people of God who promise to love our neighbor as ourself and respect the dignity of every human being and understand that our neighbor is not just the person who lives next door. It’s about love, not the feeling but the way, the acting out, of love. The way of living out the abundant love of God in the world, whatever our circumstances.
But I will tell you that my heart is troubled. I do not know the way, not in this time, not yet. There is too much noise even though our streets are quiet and our lives are slowed down. Most of us are trying to make sense of things, trying to be informed citizens, and so we tune in to the news and follow along on social media where there is a constant buzz of certainty coming from every direction. This is the way! someone shouts from one direction, while another shouts from a completely different direction, No, THIS is the way! I am right! No, I am right and you are wrong. And my heart speeds up and my fists clench as I feel anxiety rising in me and I think, I need to stop, but I don’t stop. I want to know the way.
In other contexts, like the many funerals I have preached, I have relied on Jesus to provide the way. I have rested easy in knowing that when my time has come, Jesus will show me the way. I don’t have to find it myself as the sight fades from my eyes. We don’t have to make our own way. It’s not up to us.
But now, I struggle, and maybe you do, too. I’m still among the living, the sentient, the cognizant. Where is the way for me now, in this place? How do I find it in this atmosphere of This way, no that way! How do we discern where Jesus is calling us to live, to act, to inhabit amid the noise of this world that includes the cries of the dying and those who mourn amid the accusations and put downs and fears and suspicions clamoring to be heard? I hear Thomas’s words - Lord, how can we know the way? And I strain to hear the answer amid the din that surrounds me.
And so I am called, then, to faith. To belief. Belief that God will show me the way that is not about making the best of this situation, or just hunkering down and surviving, but the way that is the way of love, the way of following God through the maze and haze of unknowing, this place of confusion and anxiety. I just have to pay attention (ha ha, as if “just” is such an easy simple thing) and God will show me the way.
Here is a story about paying attention: I recently read of a young boy who was sent by his mother out into a snowstorm to make sure the animals in the adjacent barn were doing ok. The boy was only gone a minute before he came back in and told his mother, I can’t see where I am going and I am afraid. And she said, that’s ok, just walk to the end of the light of your flashlight. And then you will see where you are to go next.
So this is my prayer during this time of pandemic, when my world is rocked and I don’t know the way forward: Lord, I do not know where I am going, and I want you to lead me through the raucous din of human certainty to a place of peace in divine ambiguity, where I can discern how to love my neighbor while sheltering in place; I want you to rouse me from my complacency in my place of comfort and my hunkering down in fear and need for concrete answers; I want you to be at the end of the light of my flashlight because I know we are in this together, you and I and all those whom you love, to bring forth abundant life and a holy fearlessness to all of us, in pandemic and in peace.