Through the Pass
The date is 3rd September . . . any year! John and Mary are five. They live next door to each other, when they don’t actually share the same house. One mum is almost as good as the other mum. When it’s warm they play in the garden. In the summer they splash in the pool. In the winter they dig in the snow. But whatever the temperature, their world is always warm, cosy and safe. Tomorrow, all that will change, as they leave that warm cosy world for one that is totally alien.
'God' is no longer there, at least, not in the familiar ways. No mum to hug Mary when she falls down and bangs her head. No mum to say ‘do’ or ‘don’t’ in moments of uncertainty.
Instead, they will have not one god, but lots of gods. They’ll be everywhere, and they’re massive, with a wealth of experience: some to poke their ribs or trip them up, some to sell them something they don’t want and will never need, some to amuse them with the latest bit of gossip, and some to frighten them with the latest rumour. It’s really quite frightening. Their very face menaces, the eye, the mouth, the shake of the head or the twisting of the arm all tell John and Mary, ‘you’d better . . . or else’.
And that’s only the children. The really frightening ones are the teachers, because they really do have the power, and the sanctions. And John and Mary don’t mind. They would do anything for a quiet life, peace and security. The trouble is they don’t know what is wanted. They’ve never read the school rule book. That first day is like walking through a minefield. By 4 o’clock they will be a couple of nervous wrecks, though not in a fit state to know it.
Either dad could have told them. They might not remember their first day at school, but they are unlikely to forget their first day at work. Even better, they can remember their last day at school. That was a great day. Everybody made a fuss of them. Even the worst of the teachers seemed to recognise that they had got something after all. The first day at work they felt like something the dog brought in. Nobody knew who they were or where they had come from. If they did nothing, they were dim and lacking initiative. If they tried, they got it wrong. Everybody seemed to be waiting for them to fall flat on their face, and they had to spend all their time trying to prove themselves — to themselves, never mind the rest.
For grandma it was different again. She had gone through this so many times you would have thought she had all the confidence in the world. But she didn’t. Every move, she went through the same experience. And when she retired with her husband to their favourite little cottage by the sea one sign of her anxiety was that she was always having to tell people what a good job she used to have, and what a big house she used to live in.
So imagine the world of Jacob when, having tricked his brother and bought the birthright, having deceived his father over the blessing, and having plotted with his mother to get himself off to foreign parts, he suddenly finds himself on the verge of a new world. It is 3rd September. What has he left behind? What awaits?
We don’t know too much about religion in Jacob’s time and what we do know is not very clear. But we do know it was a world where there were gods many and lords many. We know it was a world where God was always likely to appear in most unexpected places, like a tree, a rock, a spring, a burning bush or the top of a mountain. And we know that once he had appeared there the site was sacred; you must treat it with due respect. And in his own country Jacob was familiar with it all. He could move with relative safety.
But tomorrow, when he steps over into this new world he has no idea where anything is. Different streams and different gods — and when he went to sleep that night the one thing he needed more than anything else was a massive dose of re-assurance. And that dream, with a ladder to heaven, the angels going up and down, and waking up with the realisation, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place and I didn’t know it’ was exactly what he needed.
God was still there in that new world. Jacob to find him in a new way.
Many people have a similar experience at the thought of travelling in a foreign country. That’s why they never go abroad. Or sharing life with another culture. So they never do.
Some people experience it when they worship in another tradition. That’s why they are none too keen on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Or saying the Mass in the vernacular rather than the Latin, reciting the liturgy in modern English rather than 16th century English, receiving the sacrament from a woman rather than a man, from a gay rather than a straight, or allowing their sacred premises to be used by Muslims or Buddhists. So they never do. And if for any reason they ever have to, they are terrified. It’s the loss of God in the form in which they know him.
And the key is the realisation that the difference between Jacob and us is the difference between John and Mary and their grandmother. Their fear, like Jacob’s, was perfectly understandable. Her’s, like our’s, is not. 4,000 years down the road there is plenty of evidence that God is not like that. He is not capricious. He doesn’t confine himself to this place but not that place. He doesn’t have favourites. He doesn’t spring surprises and traps. And for people who are prepared to go to sleep and dream, in totally unfamiliar situations, he will always reveal himself.
Keen evangelicals may scoff at the idea that a person may be nearer to God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth. Theological liberalism gone soft. You were supposed to be nearer to God . . . in church, I suppose, or somewhere. Well, gardens may not work for everyone, but they do for some. You can tell by their priorities. You can tell when they show you round. You can tell when they talk about the plants, or even to the plants, and certainly by how they hold one. And you can tell by the way they will use the flowers of the field and the fruit of the earth to speak their messages to others. For them flowers have the capacity to say something deep and profound about the meaning and purpose of life, which they could say in no other way. Surely, the Lord . . . ?
Others may prefer to climb the hills and walk the countryside. You only have to pass the time of day with one of those to sense their respect for the mountains and the elements, because they know they can’t control them. As they place their feet on the ground you can sense their feeling for the sod, and though you will rarely see them walking barefoot in northern climes you may occasionally meet one who seems to have taken off their shoes. They know what they are treading on is holy ground. And in their way they worship.
For others it’s music. Donald Coggan cites an occasion in one of his books when he heard Vladimir Ashkenazy playing Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with the Royal Philharmonic. He says he watched Ashkenazy ‘almost with awe’. He was in communion with Beethoven. No doubt he had studied the score and practised the notes, but there was more to this performance than turning notes on paper into notes in music. The spirit of the master had entered into and got hold of the disciple. Ashkenazy and Beethoven had become one.
Most of us who have had experiences like that at some time or other. They are the rivers, the streams and the rocks. But we don’t easily associate them with God. We prefer to stay back on the old familiar territory where we know our way around. Those experiences lie out there in a world we have often been told to fear, lest we lose touch with God. And we need that reassurance — ‘Surely the Lord is in this place . . ’. Like Jacob, it’s that unknown territory over the hill, where ghosts and giants vie with trolls and fairies to distress us, and we are afraid to go through the pass.
But Jacob does, and the truth only hits him on his return. How is he to face his own people? How is he to keep alive his new understanding of God?
All night he wrestles with the problem. Truth dawns at daybreak. He can do both, but only if he is prepared to make it clear he is a different person. Only if he is prepared to acknowledge that he has been broken and re-made, by God. Truth is discovering that. And the limp, the brokenness, is the sign that it has happened.
In Steinbeck’s novel, To an Unknown God, when Joseph Wayne reached the ripe old age of 35 and realised there was not enough land in the family to support him and his three brothers he left his home in Vermont, with a father’s blessing similar to that given by Isaac to Jacob, and after a little wandering settled in the Valley of Our Lady in California. There he acquired a natural instinct for the land, which he respected, and especially for a tree and a rock, which he visited frequently. He found peace and purpose there. It seemed to him to sum up the whole meaning of life.
After a short while he fell in love with Elizabeth from Monterey and after the wedding brought her home in his little buggy to his ranch. As they approach the ranch they have to go up the hill and through the pass and suddenly Elizabeth is gripped with fear. Even the horses seem to sense it. Only it isn’t the pass — the high mountains, the limestone rock, the steep drop or the water in the bottom. Difficult to know what it was, but her heart keeps missing a beat with anxiety.
So Joseph explains to her that what she is feeling (and fearing) is going ‘through the pass’ to a new life. The marriage service was over. The familiar had gone. Now they both had to leave the old world for a new one, and the marriage was each of them ‘dying’, and going through the pass together was just like the union of sperm and egg going through the birth canal to achieve a new life.
Whereupon Elizabeth is even more afraid. ‘I’ll go’, she says; 'I’ll have to, but I’ll be leaving myself behind. I’ll think of myself standing there looking through at the new one who will be on the other side'.
Was this perhaps the sort of experience Paul had been going through when he wrote to the the Galatians, (2:19), ‘I died . . . so that I might live’? And once the Rubicon is crossed life can never be the same again.
The Other Me
Recall a moment when you said, ‘Life has never been the same since . . .’. It may have led to something better. It may have led to something worse. But it’s certainly been different. Some will recall their conversion. Others may focus on their wedding day, a bereavement, a tragedy, landing a big job, being sacked, parents splitting up or children getting into trouble.
Younger people may find it more difficult because they have not had so much time to have such experiences, but if they haven’t they soon will, and if it doesn’t happen to them it will happen to their friends. It might be starting school, changing school or moving house; starting delivering papers or getting a Saturday job; losing s close relative or even a pet, and coming to terms with a death that mattered; or an older sibling leaving home and a big gap in the family.
These are the times when life suddenly goes off in a new direction and we become different people. A bit of us dies, and a new bit is born.
Through the Pass finished with Elizabeth in Steinbeck’s novel, To an Unknown God, being taken by her husband on their wedding night to her new home over the hills in the far West and to a new world. As she goes through the pass, not without a little trepidation, she says, 'I’ll have to go, but I’ll be leaving myself behind. I’ll think of myself standing here looking through at the new one who will be on the other side’. And I’ve often wondered how many times she went back to that pass to look through at ‘the new me’, and what she saw when she did.
Paul went through that pass on the road to Damascus. Did he ever re-visit the site? Based on what we know of his pilgrimage let us try an imaginary reconstruction of those moments in which we suggest he may well have done so several times, twice when he was on trial for his life.
Paul, towards the end of his life, in prison and looking back.
‘I have just been re-living that moment on the Damascus Road. Life has never been the same since and I couldn’t tell you how many times I have gone back to that pass. Not literally, of course. But in my mind. At nearly every crisis in my life, I suppose, I have climbed the hill, all the way to the pass, and the old me looking through at the new me that I’ve become.
‘I never wanted to go through the pass in the first place, I might say. God knows I didn’t. I fought it tooth and nail. I knew who I was. I knew where I had come from. I knew where I was going. I was a rugger star in a super league. I knew where the ball was coming down. I knew exactly what to do with it. Nine times out of ten it worked. And the crowd roared.
‘Then that day, the roof fell in. I still don’t know what really happened. Can’t remember anything. I only know what other people have told me, and none of it seems to make much sense. But something did. All I remember is that I suddenly felt as if i had to play soccer in a minor country club, and getting a hell-of-a-press to boot.
‘Let me give you two or three snapshots of my visit to this pass, only don’t think of me, Paul. See whether you find yourself, or maybe somebody else.
‘The first thing I did after coming through the pass was to run away. I just had to. I didn’t know who I was, or where I was, and neither did anybody else. It was like a bereavement, or a coming-out, being made redundant, leaving prison or a mental hospital. Everybody was shocked. Whispers at first, then openly. Have you heard . . .? Whatever happened? I can’t believe it. Saw him only last week — he looked terrible. Pale shadow of the Paul I knew. And those were my friends. The rest made it so hot I just had to get out and for the next three years I lived like a hermit.
‘But I couldn’t stay there for ever. Life had to go on. Clearly there was no future for me in Judaism, and even if there were I didn’t want it. So after three years I decided to brave it out and head for Jerusalem, make myself known to the leaders of the church (as if they didn’t know already!) and see what I could do. I thought (or hoped) that after three years the dust would have settled. The church might even want me. After all, you don’t pick up leaders with my skills and convictions every day of the week.
‘But the church leaders saw it all very differently. People who cross the floor of the House today may cross the floor of the House again tomorrow. A rebel is always a rebel. Jews hated me as a traitor. Christians viewed me with suspicion. I was politely told to clear off. And this time it was for ten years.
‘I came to the pass that day to have a look at the new me, and I didn’t like what I saw. No longer a man of some eminence and experience, revered and looked up to. Not even a man respected for his convictions. Just a leader with nobody to lead, a rebel with nothing to rebel against, an odd ball who had rather lost his way and not to be trusted. A career finished. I left the pass that day knowing I had to do something to re-establish myself.
'Ten years later I turned up in Antioch. Persecution had broken out in Jerusalem and Antioch was becoming the great Christian centre. Nearly everybody there was ‘suspect’ because of the large numbers of Gentile converts. So if you can’t beat them, join them, I thought. Perhaps they are looking for a leader — like me! — and if they are not, well at least it’s the sort of city where I can get lost.
‘That worked better, thanks to a kindly man called Barnabas who was a sort of honest broker between Jews and Gentiles and who tried to re-introduce me to the church leaders as a Christian convert. But they were still far too committed to Judaism for that. At heart, they were still nearly all Jews first and Christians second. They wanted to take over Christianity and sanitise it within Judaism, and that wasn’t my idea at all. And it wasn’t what the Gentiles wanted either, but for the most part they just hadn’t enough clout. They were like turkeys trying to change Christmas.
‘In the end we hit on a compromise. The leaders in Jerusalem would stick with the Jews. Barnabas and I would have the Gentiles. It looked all right on paper, but I knew it was a cop-out. They had all the cards and all the resources, and they were just gambling on the fact that we would go away and fizzle out.
‘That was the second time I came to the pass. Now I began to see a man with a job. One foot on the ladder. Only it isn’t the man who came through this pass fifteen years ago. That man would never have settled for compromise. This one has settled for halves. He may be glad he has a ladder. But it isn’t the ladder he wanted. That man never went anywhere for half-a-loaf — always all or nothing. This one is making the best of a bad job.
‘Anyway, Barnabas and I set off on that first missionary journey, and we went to the synagogues because that is where most of the churches met, and up to a point it worked, but when it was clear that we were getting support Jewish hostility grew, and once the Gentiles began to respond positively there was no doubt the Jews wanted to get rid of us altogether.
‘They did it nicely, of course, as you would expect, but for them it was always Judaism or nothing. Christianity was OK as long as you were a Jew. Gentiles could become Christians as long as they became Jews first. Whereas for me it was different. That old Judaism didn’t matter any more. I started with Christ. I didn’t see a Christian sect inside Judaism. I saw an empire for Christ outside Judaism.
‘I remember coming back to the pass at the end of that missionary journey but only for a fleeting visit — just long enough to take a quick look at ‘the new me’ once more.’ And I saw that it was the hostility of the Jews, and the way it was directed at me personally, that drove me into the arms of the Gentiles and gave birth to the Empire for Christ idea. I had begun to identify with them. I had become one of them. I really felt their pain. There was a new ‘me’ struggling to be born. A rebel coming to life. Time to stop muddling on and re-assert myself.
‘And re-assert myself I did. A second missionary journey. A better one this time. Bigger. Commensurate with a man of my ability. But then, not even that seemed to work.
‘First, Barnabas got difficult — he wouldn’t take Mark. So I found Timothy. I ran into trouble with him because he wasn’t circumcised and that limited where we could go and what we could do. Still nobody wanted to know and by the time I got to Troas I was back at rock-bottom once more. So with a chance to down tools and go on a wild goose chase to Macedonia I went — and it proved to be the most wonderful gateway to Europe and a new life. From now on there was no stopping me.
‘When I got back from that trip I made a beeline for the pass. Couldn’t wait to see ’the new me’. Relaxed, confident, successful. A man with a mission. But then something strange happened. A cold sweat came over me. I couldn’t do it. It was almost as if it was all happening again.
‘For 20 years I had been flogging a dead horse — trying to be the old Paul in the new situation, but always popping back to see how the old Paul saw it. This time I realised it was time to let the old Paul go. It was almost like dying again — dying to my inheritance and early training, abandoning my plans and programmes, personal wishes, desires and ambitions, and learning to grasp every new situation as it came. I had to kick the ball that landed in front of me instead of trying to evaluate myself and my contribution and organise everybody else to play it the way I wanted. And when I did things began to come together.
‘I left the pass that day with a lighter tread and life was never the same again. I still had no idea what was in front of me but I felt different. No longer the scientific medical man with a range of cures for illnesses nobody seemed to be suffering from. No longer a conviction politician with a range of principles nobody wanted to vote for. No longer a marketing manager with a range of goods in a flat economy. More like a struggling pastor, counsellor or social worker just trying to find out what might be wrong and how, if it couldn’t be put right, something might be done to ease the pain.
‘And of pain there was no shortage. I went first to Corinth and felt the pain of that pagan city. No shortage of gods there. Even one ‘To an Unknown God’ in case they had overlooked one. And then I discovered even the Christians setting up “gods” in the churches, one lot going for Apollos, another for Peter and a third, if you please, for me. I told them what I thought about it.
‘I went to Ephesus where it was worse. The pagan cult of Diana ruled supreme. At least here there’s only one, I thought. But I soon learned how in Ephesus religion was all tied up with the economy. Touch idolatry in Ephesus and the whole commercial world and economy collapse would go with it. So not much joy there either.
‘I went to Galatia and there they were still slogging it out between Jews and Gentiles, circumcision and uncircumcision. “Heavens above”, I wanted to say, “didn’t we settle all that at least 20 years ago?” But it wouldn’t have helped. They still had slaves, andtheir masters treated them abominably, and the way they treated women was even worse. When I left and wrote my thank-you letter I reminded them that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female, but I doubt if they read it.
‘I’ve never been back to the pass again, except in reflection. Getting alongside people like that might have knocked the stuffing out of me but I suppose it made me what I am. Today, in prison, I have been recalling some of those snapshots and trying to discover ‘the new me’. I think (and hope) I am
— a man whose fire is quenched but not extinguished.
— a man whose certainties have been turned into doubts, but not in despair.
— a man able to appreciate the pain of those at the bottom because I have been there myself.
— a man who only found himself and his friends because he was there.
— a man who has come to see that in this life you don’t just die once — if you really want to live you have to die many times. And if you don’t die, do you ever really live? (Acts 26: 12-23; Gal 2: 19).
‘Sometimes I wonder if having tried to live for others I’ll finish up on the scrap heap. But then in a way, perhaps that’s what it’s all about.
‘The other day I had a visit from Timothy. Told me some story about Peter — I don’t know whether it’s true — but he said Peter had been running away from persecution in Rome when he had a vision. A bit like mine, I suppose, but it was Jesus going in the opposite direction. “Where are you going?” said Peter. “To Rome” came the reply, “to die with my people”. And Peter turned and went back with him.
‘“That’s something I don’t think I could ever do”, I said.
‘“Oh, come on”, said Timothy. “I’m sure you could”.
‘“But I don’t”, I argued. “I always live with the fear that having helped others I might finish up a castaway”.
‘“Well, that’s you”, he said. “But look at it like this. You don’t have to. It happened to you years ago on the road to Damascus, and many times since”.’