Stories of the Overlanders who journeyed west are the center of the experience at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper, WY. You hear their voices from their journals and see their figures in scenes from the trail. They packed up a few treasures, filled their 4 foot wide and 10 foot long wagons with food and essential equipment, and took to the Oregon Trail. Zebulon Fulton’s diary told of the months they prepared for the trip – building the wagon bed, bending hickory bows to hold the canvas top, the girls spinning, weaving, and stitching extra clothes.
“Ma brought her good dishes, packed them fancy plates in a barrel of cornmeal. The Sunday clothes, the family Bible, the parlor mirror wrapped in quilts, and some flower seeds are stored in the wooden trunk. My carpenter tools are safe in a box. My rifle’s loaded…Each of our wagons holds 2,000 pounds. And we’re going more than 2,000 miles.”
They packed what they thought they’d need and want – and then re-evaluated on the journey. Rolling across the crucible of the plains of Wyoming, the overlanders had to make decisions. Oxen were sold for flour. Cherished possessions were littered the wind-swept plain when the oxen died and travelers ended up pulling their carts or they needed more room for food. Susan Fulton left her barrel of good dishes along the way, “Too fancy for where we’re going,” she said with a sigh.
We re-evaluate from time to time. We take a new look and decide what might work better. Some of us are at such a point right now. They’re times when how we used to do things doesn’t make sense anymore and we need to determine what is the most important thing. It might be that we have wandered away from God and want to get back on track. It might be that circumstances on which we based our dreams have shifted. However we come to them, they are points when we are eager to make a change of direction – a direction correction.
10 Commandments: Our first scripture reading for today is a good portion of The Ten Commandments. They have been considered a precious gift from God for millennia. They offer a large and demanding vision of what relationship with God looks like. Taken together, they provide a template for ordering a relationship with God and for relationships within the people of God. They provide safeguards against the tyranny of the strong, and systemic protections for those who might otherwise be vulnerable -- people being what we are. Sometimes we resist their authority or guidance – because we are not sure in certain moments that we WANT to cede this much authority to God. The commandments offer a step towards a more serious relationship with God. Even the commandments that focus on how we treat our neighbors are rooted “in the character of this particular God.”
Sometimes our desire to change direction is rooted in an awareness that we have moved away from this God who would order our lives. And even an awareness that we haven’t done very well ordering our lives on our own. Theologian Emil Brunner talks about this problem.
God has been removed from the centre, and we are in the centre of the picture. Our live has become ec-centric. The lie that we are the centre is characteristic of our present life. We “revolve around ourselves.” …The broken relationship with God means the perversion and poisoning of all the functions of life…By sin, the nature of man (humanity), not merely something in our nature, is changed and perverted.”
We remove God from the center and devolve into a self-centeredness that eventually leaves us empty. The center of a wheel, the hub, does two important things: it provides the power that moves the wheel and it provides the direction. Imagine for a moment a spare tire rolling down a hill. Without the hub, or center, to provide direction, the tire would be out of control. It might roll through yards knocking down flowers, bouncing up when it hit obstacles, knocking down pots and garden gnomes, scaring neighborhood pets and landing who knows where – but probably someplace annoying or inconvenient. This journey would happen because there was no direction given. Having God as our center provides us with direction. Without that direction we are operating like the tire, out of control, getting into trouble, and causing damage.
Having God in the center of our lives prevents us getting off track as easily based on our own desires or exaggerated sense of self-importance. There’s a coast guard story of a ship caught in a thick fog. The ship blew its horn, signaling its presence. After a bit, the radio crackled to life and a voice gave a broken message, part of which said, “Turn 5 degrees north.” The ship self-importantly replied, “I am a US Destroyer, you need to change position. Give way.” And the radio crackled again, “I am a lighthouse. You need to change your position to 5 degrees north to come into the harbor and avoid the sandbars.” We sometimes need to re-evaluate, and more than just our position of the moment. We need to change direction based on what is fixed and eternal.
A U-Turn, is one of the more challenging moves we make in a car, or in life. The U-Turn is a symbol of repentance, of reversing our position entirely. We make U-Turns when we realize that we have gone the wrong way and we have to completely turn around in order to head the way we should go.
We have some good biblical examples of U-Turns. Think about Paul on the road to Damascus – determined to arrest the leaders of the followers of Jesus and see them exterminated – and then he experiences the risen Lord, the scales fall from his eyes, and he devotes his life to sharing the message of the risen Lord. That’s a serious U-Turn.
Or Zaccheaus, who as a tax collector, had become wealthy by collecting all the taxes he was allowed – even if it wasn’t exactly right or just. Tax collection under the Romans was legalized extortion. But after dinner with Jesus, Zaccheaus pledges to repay four times what he took fraudulently.
We might have that kind of experience a time or two in our lives – a “Come to Jesus Meeting,” when what we thought we knew was proven false and we become passionate advocates for a position we had previously scorned. It takes humility to admit that we were wrong – especially hard to do in our divided society. You might end up losing friends and even family. We associate this kind of repentance with professional sinners who turn their lives around – scoundrels who confess their sin and seek to make amends. But it can also happen over disillusionment with public figures and a realization that we have been hoodwinked by a con artist, or taken in by a scam.
BAPTISM. In the early church, baptism by immersion symbolized dying and being reborn to new life in Christ. Baptism still symbolizes this kind of repentance. It’s intentionally making a God-choice, where a new name is given (in some traditions) and the convert makes promises “in which they choose this liberating-covenantal faith against any other shape of life.” When parents make these promises on behalf of children, the understanding is that they will grow in faith to claim those promises for themselves. “In the Christian tradition, appropriating and living out baptism means living by a single loyalty among a mass of options.”
As hard as it is to 1. Admit that we don’t have all the answers or 2. That we have gotten off track in our journey with Jesus – to do so is the beginning of putting things right, to getting back on track. Turning around so that we turn TOWARDS Jesus, the life-giver, the salvager, the light of the world – means that we are turning towards real life. Life-changing life. Of course, there are things we have to let go in order to do this. Petty idolatries creep up on us unawares.
Charles Colson told a story about Jack Eckerd, of Eckerd Drugs. Mr. Eckerd called Colson after he had been on television talking about restitution and criminal justice. They teamed up to travel through Florida talking about criminal justice reform. In between stops, Colson talked with Eckerd about Jesus, and gave him some books. Eckerd read, and called one day to say that he did believe in Jesus’ resurrection. They prayed together over the phone – and the next thing Eckerd did was to take all Playboy and Penthouse magazines out of his stores. The company president thought that wasn’t smart – they were big sellers – but in 1,700 stores across American they were removed from the shelves. The cost was three million dollars – but Mr. Eckerd had turned towards Jesus and couldn’t let profit pull him off center. He said, “The Lord wouldn’t let me off the hook.” He did a U-Turn, no matter the cost – because his eyes were on Jesus.
A change of direction can lead to a shift in our claimed identity. Remember when we graduated from high school and had to let people know that we were someone else: working, or in college or trade school. It became VERY important to identify ourselves differently, EAGER to identify ourselves with the new shift in our lives.
St. Paul, in his letter to the church at Philippi, identifies himself as a follower of Christ. His previous identity as a zealous legal persecutor of Christians became problematic for him. He was EAGER to leave that behind. His previous identity, once held dear, is now dung, excrement, (Greek: skybala= ordure, filth, dung, excrement ) in comparison with his new identity as a follower of Jesus Christ. He realizes now that what he had done before, who he had BEEN before, was evil. He was utterly mistaken in the things that got him out of bed in the morning. The gain of being “in Christ” far out-weighs everything he once valued. His identity has changed.
Bethel. There was a small church that had a sign out front: 13 families have worshipped here for 150 years. Their identity was rooted in being an historic church where those families had worshipped. They were proud of that identity. And then a brave pastor suggested that their sign might actually be harmful – people might see it and feel that they wouldn’t be welcome because they weren’t a part of the 13 founding families. They weren’t happy with him – but they took down the sign. And after a while, new families began to come to the church. It was hard to see that their identity needed to shift in order to fulfill their mission, but when they did the change was remarkable.
John Wesley urged Christians to press on towards perfection. To do this, being a follower of Christ must become the most important thing. Our 1 thing must become to keep our eyes on the goal of life in Christ. It is definitely not an easy thing to do. It takes persistence. It takes focus. And it takes a passionate longing, even regarding other things as worthless.
Who are you? There is an exercise where two people face each other and one continually asks the question, “Who are you?” The person opposite must answer each time with something of who they are. The answers often go from the external to internal identification. Perhaps beginning with a name, age, gender identity…and ending with more personal identifications: the only son of a single mother, a cancer survivor, a refugee who left their home country in wartime when everything was in rubble, a rape survivor, an unwanted child. Both persons feel vulnerable, but also grow close. If we were to do this exercise, would we reach down deeply enough to get to “I am a child of God who has wandered away – a lot. I feel like a failure as a Christian. I would like to walk more closely with God – I long for that.” Perhaps.
Runner. Paul’s image is a runner. A runner mentally sets up a race in stages, with each stage in the race also being a goal. And then the next stage…all the while keeping the focus on the ultimate goal ahead. Runners have to persevere. You can’t worry about what is behind you. “The past is in the past,” as Rafiki would say. Forgetting what is behind, the course that has already been run, and stretching out to what lies ahead, we race towards the goal…Paul’s 1 thing was pursuing Christ. His identity focuses on knowing Christ Jesus, of being formed by his faith in Christ.
An identity focused on following Jesus will lead us to a different goal. The question is, “Is this the 1 thing that we want as our focus in life?”
Being formed in faith isn’t automatic. It needs to become a priority. We need, all of us, to correct our direction. We all forget who is the lighthouse and who is the ship from time to time. A U-Turn is needed if we are heading in the wrong direction and need to turn back towards Jesus, the life-giver. Who we are, at the core, is people of God – prone to wander, but people of God. Let us correct our direction, and press on to the goal as we strive towards perfection.