When driving on a long trip, the route I take depends on whether I am driving for pleasure or expediency. If my schedule is tight, needing to travel a long distance in the shortest time possible, I prefer to travel on the interstate. I want to get where I’m going quickly; I print off a map, set the cruise control, zoom past the sights and stop only when absolutely necessary. But when time is not a big factor, and the sun is shining, my priorities change. Then, I avoid the interstates whenever possible – they’re boring. I drive on state routes and even occasionally back roads, enjoy the scenery and occasionally stop in interesting towns even if I don’t need to gas up. I always have several options for getting from one place to another.
When Jenna is with me, a third way to travel sometimes develops. You see, Jenna is kind of averse to going too far without stopping to see something interesting, or to enjoy a moment of peace. Generally, she reminds me that I also need this kind of break in the journey – generally.
Sometimes, we have competing interests – and it almost always goes one way. I want to get there – wherever “there” might happen to be – as quickly as possible, and Jenna wants to appreciate the sights, sounds and smells of where we happen to be at any given moment. Thankfully – and I do mean thankfully – Jenna tends to win in these situations. We stop more often than I want to – we take in what is there whether I might consider it good or bad – and we get to experience a fuller, more enjoyable, journey. And, I am almost always refreshed and enlivened for having done so.
When we study Romans 5, the trip through the verses is much like this last kind of journey with Jenna. I want to go from suffering to hope as quickly as humanly possible. I wanted the words on the page to fly by like scenery on the interstate: “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing-that-suffering-produces-endurance -and-endurance-produces-character-and-character-produces-hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us”.
Jenna reminded me that we need to slow down – to savor each part of this journey from suffering to hope and, then, love – but my mind and spirit resists. The end is what I like about that passage. I, like most, do not like dwelling in the land of suffering, learning to endure so I can have more character, and taking the time to develop a hopeful attitude because of it all – I want hope and love, and I want them NOW. Just like a child on a long trip, I ask, “Are we there yet?” Patience is not a virtue I possess in abundance.
The message of hope and love draws me like a moth to a candle. Hope and love are the messages I would like to deliver to people. But, even if I preach about God’s constant presence and enduring love, about looking for hope in the midst of suffering, people will hear this message differently. How they hear it depends on how quickly they are living through the succession of steps on their way to hope.
Some people could be just starting out on their trip from suffering to hope. They may be experiencing suffering as just that: pure, unadulterated suffering. They may not even consider their life at that point in time to be suffering. For them, the anger, sadness and pain caused by their life circumstances may obscure the sight of any promised endurance their experience might bring.
Paul mapped out a route for this kind of trip, but for some it may not be a trip on a straight road at freeway speed. For some, it may feel more like driving on a windy country road, or on a single lane mountain pass – with the possibility of motion sickness ever looming large. For others, it may even feel like they’re stuck behind a twenty mile traffic jam where the predominant scenery is orange barrels.
If the journey begins with suffering like that winding country road or mountain pass, it can be disorientating and lead many to take the wrong turn. If it is like the traffic jam, the frustration from standing almost still can become spirit-breaking, leaving them looking for the quickest way off the freeway. Even further, no matter where we are in life and how many times we have travelled this road, we all know that we will probably pass this way again.
Those words — suffering, endurance, character, hope, love — are like signs for small towns you drive through on the way. You are now entering Suffering. When you drive into Suffering, it invariably looks small – like you could pass through it in minutes, zip through the next few towns – Endurance, Character, Hope – and get to the city of Love in no time flat.
Sometimes, though, what you thought was a little town begins to look like a metropolis – with traffic light after traffic light, myriad stop signs, dead-ends and detours along the way. You’re chomping at the bit to see the signs for the next towns, and praying they will say “Endurance – 1 mile, Character – 2 miles, Hope – 3 miles, Love – just over the next hill.” But, by the time some people catch a glimpse of a signpost, it might as well say, “Endurance – 10,000 miles”, with no mention of the others.
There have been times in my life like that. I have even stopped to ask for directions to Hope and Love and I was told “you can’t get there from here.”
After leaving Australia at fifteen, I exploded into the states. I say exploded, because I had felt imprisoned most of those 15 years in a hell not of my own making. My young life was an aberration in many ways, lived at the whim of an addicted, abusive, frustrated, angry father intent on making me the man he had never managed to become.
I stepped off the plane in Columbus OH and I was in dire need of reaching Hope. Unfortunately, I tried for many years to drive to Hope the same way my father had – and even in some more “creative” ways he’d never thought of. I self-medicated with anything that would make me feel better at the time. By the time I was 17, I was an absolute mess – a functional mess, but a mess nonetheless. You see, by watching my father I also learned how to manage my addictions.
Or, so I thought. In that year, I overdosed, and had a heart attack in the process.
Now, I am sure that you think that should have been a turning point in my life. And, for one brief moment, so did I. I decided that maybe it was time to get back to my faith roots – to approach God seeking a different kind of hope.
I went to one of the two Presbyterian churches in the rural Ohio town in which I lived – this town in which everyone knew everyone, AND what they were up to. I went this one Sunday morning, dressed as I was normally dressed, unkempt as I was normally unkempt, hair falling down my back, and – for one of the few times in my late teens – sober as a judge. My reputation, however, preceded me.
I walked in and sat down about 3 minutes before the service. Everyone looked at me and whispered to each other – and looked at me and whispered – and looked at me some more. Then, the minister, after finishing whispering with some other folks and before approaching the pulpit, came up to me with the kindest smile on his face. And, with this kind, loving smile said, “We don’t allow people like you in our church. You will have to leave.”
Over the ensuing years, I learned to trade unacceptable addictions to drugs for more socially acceptable ones like promiscuity, power, prestige, position and profit. But, believe me, these were no less self-defeating addictions than drugs. For another twenty years, I roamed around this town called Suffering trying to fill the empty space in my heart. Much of the time, I didn’t even know that I was still in Suffering.
My next road trip in search of Hope and Love ended differently. I learned that what I thought were the distinct places on the way to Love were not really separated by great distances at all – and I found a church filled with people who lived in all these different places and didn’t readily judge people. While I felt like I had been wasting away in Suffering, I found I had actually been to Endurance – not to stay, but at least once in a while to visit. I had also been to Character – again, just once in a while, but often enough that the people of Character kind of rubbed off on me. I found that these places were not just stops along the way, but an integral part of the journey to the city of Love – they were all part of the experience.
And, to some extent, I guess I am boasting about my journey – not because it’s something I’m particularly proud of, but because I am thankful that, through the grace of God, I have been able to take this journey of my life – and LIVE.
We all have neighbors who live in these towns. They move from one town to the next, and perhaps back again, depending on what life throws their way. We may even be doing that ourselves. If I am to boast a message of hope that will be heard and believed, I must make it clear that I have taken the back roads and visited Suffering several times and even stayed longer than I wanted; and that I have even come to know some of the townsfolk in Suffering on a first-name basis; I have stayed a while in Endurance; sometimes enduring there longer than I should have.
I have relatives who live in Character and I have met some wonderful people in Hope. Somehow all these places, and the people who reside there, have been part of my life’s journey. I can boast also about how God lead me to the particular road I needed to take through some very faithful people I met along the way.
But, I also know that I cannot tell people how to get straight from Suffering to Hope without passing through Endurance and Character – I tried that myself and it didn’t work; there is no way there without going through the other towns.
Each of us may boast about our favorite way of getting to the city of Love, but we also have to be willing to let people find their own way. We can accept that our job may be to accompany them on the trip, but we must always remember that the Holy Spirit is their navigator, not us.