Mount Hollywood United Church of Christ, Los Angeles, Calif.
When a piece of exercise equipment called the Stairmaster was first marketed, I was incredulous. Here was this advertisement for a machine that simulated stair climbing, and the ad featured a beautiful young woman with perfect hair, who appeared to be having more fun than seemed to be called for while climbing stairs in place. I know about stairs. Stairs are something I know — I lived at the top of a five-story brownstone. There were 76 stairs to my door, and on my door I taped the advertisement for the Stairmaster. I did this for the edification of my visitors as they struggled to control their breathing before knocking. My own situation wasn’t unique, as a housing shortage in NYC seemed to produce an epidemic of 5th floor walk-ups as the only available vacancies, and I was forced to ascend and descend all over town with the best of them.
A few years ago, after many years of living on the first floor and driving a car instead of walking, I found myself at the gym staring down a Stairmaster. Aware of the irony, I stepped up and started climbing stairs to nowhere in a long line of fellow travelers. Looking up, I noticed four video screens, tuned to four different stations. New technology has given us the closed caption television, which makes the dialogue run under the picture in a subtitle, allowing all 4 televisions to play at once without volume. I glanced up at them, and saw the dialogue captions crawling under the news on the 1st one, under a talk show on the 2nd, under a re-run of a sitcom on the 3rd, and on the one directly in front of me, there was a single caption which did not move, underneath a soap opera. The characters on the soap were involved in a dramatic interchange, which is never very surprising. The closed caption simply read “The Book of Luke Talks about That.” I waited for it to change, but it didn’t. I finished my 15 minutes on the Stairmaster and moved on to the row of treadmills in front of me. I ran on paths that led to nowhere for 20 minutes. The show had changed, but the subtitle remained the same. “The Book of Luke Talks about That.”
The mystery caption was still there when I arrived three days later, and continued for over six months. The subtitle remained on the screen, no matter what show was playing. I found myself drawn to the same Stairclimbers and the same treadmills so that I could watch this cryptic, simple sentence juxtapose itself against the human dramas that unfolded day after day. I was in the presence of a living metaphor, and I was drawn to it. Apart from a technical transmission failure of some kind, what did it mean?
I started to watch the dramas on this particular set differently now. With “The Book of Luke Talks about That” proclaimed under the action, the shows became less about unique individuals with distinctive one of a kind problems, and more about the human condition as cut off and separated from God. The characters on the screen disagreed, fought, made up, loved, and then fought again. They couldn’t or wouldn’t see the Word proclaimed firmly beneath them, “The Book of Luke Talks about That”. Without feeling God’s presence in their lives, they ran on the same endless confusing paths and never understood why. Without a foundation to stand on, they tried to climb up and away from their problematic relationships and inner difficulties, but they seemed to be climbing in place without ever moving forward. The metaphor became a living one to me as I watched myself and others climbing our own stairs to no-where, and running paths that led to no destination as we watched the scenes unfold before us on that screen, and read “The Book of Luke Talks About That”. We were sharing an all too common experience- that feeling of running in place, of expending effort without knowing if the fruits of our labors would ever come to bear. We would be building our lives, our hopes and dreams for the future, but without recognizing and fully understanding our participation with God in this ever-unfolding process; when we think we are alone, the paths we walk and the climb we undertake can and do take a toll on us. When we forget our spirituality, our great tie into God’s process, we try to act independently and are consequently cut off from the source of our refuge and strength. Without recognizing our need to know that we are grounded and saved in our faith in the very presence of God, our lives, we can and do feel times of great meaningless-ness; a sense that no purpose exists in all our climbing, pursuing, striving — it seems like so much running in place.
Some of us hide behind our pride, others get lost in insecurities, hopelessness, or despair, which all equate to fear — fear that it is all just some nihilistic nightmare, that no purpose exists, that we are all just running a treadmill that ends with no destination but our own end. And once in a while we choose to be reminded. For an hour on Sunday, from our desire to do some good reading, from volunteer work, from seeking the advice of a friend…from a caption under a TV screen at the gym that reads “The Book of Luke Talks About That.”
And the volume on our noisy fears and insecurities gets turned down as we receive the Word. The problem is, the volume goes back up as soon as we re-enter our daily sphere and ask our spiritual nature to step aside so that our modern, busy lives may resume. One day, to turn down the volume on my own hectic life, I drove out to the Lake Shrine off Sunset where Ghandi’s ashes are interred. While there I read several quotes of his which reflected on my train of thought. I read: “I have no special revelation of God’s will. My firm belief is that God reveals God’s self daily to every human being but we shut our ears to the ‘still, small voice.’ We shut our eyes to the ‘pillar of fire’ in front of us. I realize God’s Omnipresence.”
In the months I spent running and climbing in place at the gym with the volume turned down on those TV screens and the Word running underneath, I thought of all the places where scripture might apply to some of the silent scenes I witnessed; and I also thought about a favorite Psalm, 46:
God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in time of trouble. Therefore, we will not fear though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; though the waters be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. The Lord of Hosts is with us, God is our refuge. God makes wars to cease unto the ends of the earth. Be Still, and know I am God. The Lord of Hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.
That for me, is the key phrase in the psalm. “Be still, and know that I am God.” The paths that we are on may have no recognizable destination; they may move us further away from where we thought we were going. At times, it does seem that we are climbing in place. And when we are at that place of doubt on the road, we can do one of two things; cave in to our doubts and fears about our purpose in life, or hear “Be Still and know that I am God”, and we can feel that the ground is firm under our feet, and we can know that we are not alone on our respective journeys.
A group of spiritually and psychically wounded individuals who have lost a parent, a spouse, a friend, or a child cannot yet return to a time when feelings, conversations, memories, and sometimes even the colors around them seem too vivid in their hurt and anguish. Will these feelings ever stop or at least abate, and how long will they be so wounded? I can look into their eyes and see the discontent and hurt that demands purpose.
“Be still, and know that I am God; your path has a purpose, even when it shifts, even if the earth should change and the mountains fall into the sea, let go and follow and trust in God.” Again I hear Ghandi, “When every hope is gone, ‘when helpers fail and comforts flee,’ I experience that help arrives somehow, from I know not where. Being still in worship and prayer is no superstition; they are acts more real than the acts of eating, drinking, sitting, or walking. It is no exaggeration to say that they, the thoughts of God, alone are real, all else is unreal.”
An older woman has lost her way and struggles to keep a job and stay off the streets while maintaining her pride, trying not to ask for charity. Where is God in her life that she should suffer while others have so much? Always cool, she does what she can to survive; yet she cries and is depressed, wondering how her life could ever have reached this level. Where are safe places to sleep and bathe when you cannot find an affordable room? And she finds the means every day, but still she cries and says why me? Why do I have to go through this? She would be building a life far different from the path now laid out for her, and she resists; she is understandably, wrapped up in the pain of her life.
But paths all run to destinations, the climb is part of the journey, and we are never alone. “Be still, and know that I am God.”
In 1982 a 26-year-old actor stood at the bottom of the stairs and looked up at them all. A doctor had just told him he had all the symptoms of a new disease for which there was yet no name and no cure. He wondered how many times he would be able to climb those stairs, and why bother anyway. He had bottle of gin in a paper bag under one arm with which to celebrate all by himself, his giving up on life. Was this really his path? In the three years before testing was developed which could prove the doctor’s prognosis to be wrong, he learned care and compassion, mercy and grace, from being on the receiving end. He worked in his field, was supported by friends, found help through AA, and made his way back to the church and to life, but not without questions.
Why had his life taken this terrifying new path? Why did his struggle have to be, and why was he exempted from death in the end when so many people had fallen to AIDS around him? Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote: “Not until a person has become so unhappy, or has grasped the woefulness of life so deeply that he or she is moved to say, and mean it: `Life for me has no value.’ Not until then are they able to make a bid for Christianity.”
For this young man, this was true. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Be still, and know that I am God.” Watching that television screen at the gym while climbing and running made me go home and open the book of Luke, and look for an instance where others seemed lost and questioning along the path, and I came upon the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. It happened the same day that Christ rose.
These two disciples walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and were joined by Christ, but didn’t know Him to be who He was. Christ asked them what they were talking about which made them sad. Well, they had lost their dear master, and in their own apprehensions were disappointed in their expectations from him. They had given up the cause, and didn’t know which way to turn. Though He had risen from the dead, either they didn’t know it, or didn’t believe it, and they were in deep sorrow. There is intimation of their disappointment in Him, “We hoped that He was the one to redeem Israel”. If hope deferred makes the heart sick, then hope disappointed, especially such a hope, kills the heart. They heard He was risen, but didn’t see it for themselves, and therefore had no great reason to believe it. For them, their hopes had been nailed to His cross and buried in His grave. And Jesus spoke to them and called them fools, (fools like us), for being slow to believe. He opened to them the scriptures and showed how they were fulfilled in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
We are on the road. We can question, but we can’t give up our faith, or our sense of purpose. Sometimes the volume gets turned up, and we become confused. “Why did this happen? What really went on? This isn’t where I thought I was headed. This is not where my life is supposed to be.” What Jesus seems to be telling us in this passage is that were we but more conversant with the scriptures, and the divine counsels as far as they are made known, we would recognize that we are in the quite omni-presence of God, and we would not be subject to such perplexities as we often entangle ourselves in. We are foolish as to be so slow to believe…in anything.
Jesus reveals to us in this passage where our path leads. He opens our eyes with joy to scripture and to living just as the disciples did — they hadn’t recognized the Word, just as we don’t see it moving through and around and over us in every action we take. The fact that most people don’t operate on even the simplest philosophy, or that they don’t examine their spiritual life and beliefs must make their lives seem random and without reason. It removes the meaning and leaves a shell — climbing stairs that lead to no-where, running paths with no destination. Well, the Book of Luke talks about that.
In our collective life of the church, we would be building, bringing, helping, greeting, climbing towards God’s purpose for a continued, important ministry in this city in which all of us together are greater than any of us singly in attaining that goal. “I know this path”, said Ghandi, “The foundation is strong and firm, it is straight and narrow. I rejoice to walk on it, I weep when I slip. God’s word is, ‘He who strives never perishes;’ I have implicit faith in that promise.” We place the first foot forward. “Be still, and know that I am God.”
Senior pastor of Irvine United Congregational Church UCC in Irvine, Calif., since 2006, Rev. Dr. Paul Tellström also served as pastor of Mt. Hollywood United Church of Christ in Los Angeles. He graduated from Syracuse University and earned an M.Div. from Claremont School of Theology, where he was given the Distinguished Preaching Award, and a doctor of ministry degree from Chicago Theological Seminary.