The day I graduated from college plan A was in place. The plan was to continue doing what I was doing and not doing, all of this doing and not doing a thing to which I’ll leave to your imagination with the caveat that what I was or wasn’t doing was neither lazy nor unproductive.
In order to continue doing what I was doing (and not doing what I wasn’t) I’d need a “grace period” from my parents. Just a few months. Six, tops. I had worked out what seemed to me to be a reasonable explanation for why I should be allowed to continue doing what I was doing and not doing what I wasn’t and although I’ll admit that I had considered the possibility that plan A might be rejected the fact that plan B didn’t exist seemed to weigh heavily in favor of, at the very least, a compromise. I even rehearsed.
After the graduation ceremony I had agreed to meet my parents at the front entrance to the school, the point from which we’d go to a celebratory lunch. After a wistful walk through the hallways of the Art Academy and a final check of my locker to be sure it was empty (all the while rehearsing my proposal) I walked out the main entrance of that place for the last time. My parents were there, standing and smiling at the end of a stretch of sidewalk that was about 25 yards long. When I was about ten feet from them my father reached out his hand. Within about three seconds our hands had met in a firm shake and looking directly and lovingly into my eyes my father said seven words that would change everything: “Congratulations pal, you’re off the gravy train.” My negotiations were over before they even started.
Lot’s of things in my life recently have led me to think about my spiritual life – the life that leads to real life. They are legion, to be honest. Among them, however, is the paradigm that we utilized for a recent outreach retreat at St. Alban’s: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it (Matthew 7.13-14).” For the purposes of our reflections we paraphrased the words of our savior Jesus like this: We are on the road that leads to life; this road will be hard; and there are few who find it…
In a way we were confronting the questions about what we are doing and what we are not doing as a church, whether we might continue doing what we are doing and not doing what we aren’t and at the end of our time together nobody congratulated us and nobody told us that we were off the gravy train. But we were, I dare say, informed by the Holy Spirit and the saints that have gone before us in regard to the fact that should we agree to do so, we could be on the road to life and if we were we’d know so because this road will be hard, and more so that despite our best efforts we might get lost. Hmm. We were also reminded that what was most important was not where we’d arrive but the journey we’d take in finding the road that leads to life – that it might be enough to be on our way.
In The Gospel According to John after The Feeding the Five Thousand Jesus was a hot commodity. After telling those who came looking for him that they were only looking for him because they had eaten their fill of the loaves Jesus gave a challenging lecture about a life led by the spirit versus a life led by one’s appetite. Because that teaching was hard to hear many of his followers “turned back and no longer went about with him.” My guess is that these were folks who, having experienced God’s grace in Jesus, liked it that way. They dreamed of a gravy train kind of life – a gravy train spirituality, a gravy train church, a gravy train God. They wanted to continue believing what they did and not believing what they didn’t. They wanted things to stay the same – to have God with benefits. But the divine life doesn’t work like that.
Oddly, I find great comfort knowing that those of us in the church – like it or not – have been chosen; we’ve been picked to play the game that leads to real life and we’ve been loved by God enough to be told that we’re off the gravy train. I also find it comforting that this is going to be hard work. As a close friend said to me recently, “Who wants to get to the end of their days and say, ‘That was easy.'” And it doesn’t bother me that Jesus said that there are few who find this real life, either. In fact I think he might have been using a little reverse psychology for those of us for who find a world ruled by appetites a little hard to swallow.
I have said to many people lately that I cannot imagine a better time to be a member of the church. While many churches whirl with anxiety about the future, blah blah blah, I hear God saying, “Congratulations pal, you’re off the gravy train. Welcome to real life.”