Another Sidewalk

                                                                                                                                                    Romans 7: 15-25a

                                                                                                                                                    Elaine Nocks

 

In recent years I have become fascinated with an American singer and songwriter, born in the 1920’s, by the name of Portia Nelson.  From what I have learned about her, she was first and foremost a popular cabaret singer in the 1950’s. She was also a noted actress, having played roles in “The Sound of Music” and “Doctor Doolittle,” and the TV show “All My Children.”  She died in 2001.

 

Obviously I didn’t know her personally!  I’m not that old! And I knew none of this about Portia Nelson until a few years ago.  I discovered her quite by accident when someone shared one of her poems with me, written around the middle of her life.  The poem hit so close to home that I have shared it with many others and finally obtained the equally intriguing out-of- print book in which it first appeared—a real treasure.

 

On the cover of the book, one reader said this about Portia Nelson: She “knows about life and all of us who live it…” Another reader said: Her poems “make me feel I am not alone…”  In a personal foreword to the book, Portia Nelson wrote this about herself: “….here in the middle of my life, I have finally gained a small pinpoint of self-awareness…false images stripped away…’through a glass darkly, but now… face to face.’”  When someone is able to face themselves, they help us to face ourselves as well, I think.

 

When I first read her poem, given me by a friend, I too wanted to say that Portia Nelson knows what it means to be a real human being.  I would like to share that poem with you today. I suspect you will find that it speaks TO you, and ABOUT you, as well.  I think it will provide us with a humbling laugh and yet it is as serious as the Gospel lesson coming up. 

 

 

The poem is called:

 

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

 

1

 

I walk down the street,

          There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

          I fall in.

          I am lost…I am helpless.

                             It isn’t my fault.

It takes me forever to find a way out.

 

2

 

I walk down the same street.

          There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

          I pretend I don’t see it.

          I fall in, again.

I can’t believe I am in this same place.

                             But it isn’t my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.

 

 

3

 

I walk down the same street.

          There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

          I see it is there.

          I still fall in…it’s a habit…but,

                             my eyes are open.

                             I know where I am.

          It is my fault.

          I get out immediately.

 

4

 

I walk down the same street.

          There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

          I walk around it.

 

5

          I walk down another street.

 

 

Now I don’t know about you, but verses 1 through 4 of that poem feel very familiar to me! And sometimes the map to that other street is not at all clear!

 

In a similar vein, the Apostle Paul seems to join Portia Nelson and many of us in frustrated admission of our repeated failures to walk in the path of righteousness. Our epistle lesson for today comes from the letter he wrote to the Christian church in Rome.  It is very personal, yet very encompassing.  See if it sounds to you anything like Portia Nelson’s poem… or your life.

                  

 

Romans 7:15-25 (NRSV)

 

15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

 

 

 

The line that sums it all for me up is this one (Verse 7: 21):

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 

Now that is meant to be a wake-up call for us well-meaning people!

Paul’s words, you recall, were to devoted church-goers, and not to people who are setting out to do evil.  These words are clearly intended for those then and now who truly WANT to do what is good.  I think that is most of us.  And yet because we WANT to do good, we may begin to believe that we ARE especially good people, and lo and behold, it is exactly there that we may too easily fall asleep to the closeness of sin in its many attractive disguises.

Before we know it, we have once again dropped into another hole in the sidewalk. Sometimes we see it, and sometimes it sneaks up on us.  Because we know better—once we are down in the hole--we may feel pretty guilty--wretched—as Paul puts it—at least for a moment or two.  

We mean to do the right thing, surely we do--to worship God first and faithfully, and to love and serve our every neighbor; but it takes very little input from the world or our own minds to throw us off balance, and once again, we have fallen into the very hole we meant to avoid. I mean, do you, like me, ever find yourself leaving this sanctuary, having heard the Scripture and a convincing sermon, praying, vowing to live a more Christ-like life, only to veer off that path of good intentions before lunch? 

Face to face with our well-meaning but floundering selves.  Like Portia Nelson and the Apostle Paul, we are human.  We WILL make mistakes in our pursuit of righteousness. 

Paul, acknowledging this frustration, asks: Who can save us from this?  How can we find our way to another sidewalk?

I think Portia Nelson, the poet, gets an assist from Paul the Apostle at this point, for Paul is quick to point out that we human beings are not able to make that move alone.  We cannot rescue ourselves.  The myth of self-redemption is a well-hidden hole in the sidewalk.   Instead, Paul declares, with heartfelt thanks, that our rescuer will be:  “God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Well, of course!  We know that, we people of faith, don’t we?  But do we really believe it, what does it mean, and how do we get there? 

Can God magically turn us into people who never make another mistake?  Even the saints have their bad days.  What then can God in Christ do for us then in this realm of our desire to walk in righteousness?

For Paul, it is what God has already done in giving the laws of righteousness to the Hebrew people and providing the fulfillment of the law in Christ.   Thankfully then, as people of faith, we know enough to know when we have fallen—if we are awake. It is the knowing that can generate our rescue. 

I’m not sure I like the idea, but Paul indicates that the first step in our rescue is our wretchedness!  We have to feel bad about where we are before we are inclined to seek another way.  Some guilt and anxiety are actually needed before we are likely to embrace a different way of life.  But clearly the good news of the Gospels is that we are not doomed to a life of guilt and anxiety.  Grace and guidance are just a step away when we seek them with honesty and humility.  

But if we are convinced that we are already good enough people, well, we just might not be seeking any further redemption.  Our minds may be over-filled with self-satisfied perceptions of our own effectiveness, our own goodness.  That doesn’t leave much room to be invaded, graced and guided by the ever-inviting, ever-surprising Holy Spirit. 

Thus Paul urges the good Roman church-goers and us to “to set our minds on the things of the Spirit…”  Those who do, Paul says, will have “life and peace.”  Sounds good, but how do we get there?

 

I was recently encouraged to purchase a book of prayers by Tosha Silver.  I didn’t have a clue about the author of these prayers, but I was attracted by the title of her book.  It is called Change Me Prayers.  Every prayer in the book is an invitation for the Holy Spirit to take the lead in our lives.  “Change me,” she says, to the Divine Beloved—her name for God’s Holy Spirit. Change me  to one who can surrender my will to Yours, my mind to Yours, with complete trust that You alone have the perfect way, the perfect plan.

The title of the book alone whisks away all pride in our own goodness.  It is we who need to change and we cannot do it alone.  I have repeated many of these prayers over the last few weeks, and it has changed my mindset in ways I cannot explain.  These are prayers of role-reversal.  Not me, but God in me, can find the more excellent way.  There is life and peace to be found in that. 

In closing, I would like to share one of Tosha Silver’s most moving, life-giving prayers with you.

Will you pray with me:

“Divine Beloved (Holy Spirit), may I feel safe and guided by your Love.  Take over my body and mind, show me the way.  Guide me always to the right actions at the right time.  May I always feel immersed in Your Love, protected from fear and negativity.

Divine Beloved (Holy Spirit), let me only wish what You wish for me.  May I see myself as you see me…

May the Highest that is meant to happen, happen in me and through me.

May I be a vehicle for all you wish to occur.

Change me into One who can breathe, relax, and rest in your arms.”

 

Amen

 

 

 

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