March 18, 2012

Companions on the Way

Our lives are like a road. Lent is an esp. good time to look at our journeys. Back on Ash Wednesday I mentioned the “Road of the Loving Heart’, a story within a story found in The Little Colonel’s House Party by Annie Fellows Johnston. This first in a series of girls’ books was published around the turn of the past century, but was one of my favorite books growing up. You can read “The Road of the Loving Heart” here
The chiefs on Samoa found the friendship of Robert Lewis Stephenson so amazing and inspiring that they built him a road and monument.This photo of his funeral in Samoa in 1894 shows some of the chiefs in attendance. 
Friends on the journey are very important. Remember the “Fellowship of the Ring”-the 9 companions who start out from Rivendale to get rid of the Ring in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Gradually it dwindles down to just Frodo and Sam, but you only need one good friend to help you through the really hard times.
In Mark 3:13 Jesus appoints “twelve to be with him, and to be sent out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.” He chooses Simon Peter, James and John, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James bar Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon (the Canaanite) and Judas Iscariot. These men were some of his followers from early in his ministry.
Dorothy finds friends along the road to the Emerald City. There is the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, and her first friend the Scarecrow. Dorothy discovers she needs the companionship and gifts of these companions, just like Frodo needs the support and weapons of his companions to get to his destination.
Naomi thinks that she will be returning to Bethlehem completely alone and bereft. However, in the lovely scene nearly everyone knows, Ruth refuses to leave her: “she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab...but Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back each of you to your mother’s house...’ Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’ But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’ When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem.”
In the steadfastness of their companions, Dorothy, Naomi, and Frodo drew strength and courage to go forward. Jesus depends on his disciples to help him preach, teach, and heal, even though, like us, they were not always sure what they were doing and were not always steadfast. Like Frodo’s ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ some of the members want things to go their own way rather than seeking what is best for the group (and looking for God’s plan).
Dorothy’s companions embody some of our most common failings, which paradoxically are really their (and our) strengths. The Lion is a self-proclaimed coward, who ultimately does more to protect Dorothy than he thought possible. The Tin Man thinks he is heartless, but in reality is the most sensitive and caring of the team. And the Scarecrow, who insists he would be so much better ‘if I only had a brain,’ has the ability to think out solutions while the others are dithering. Together they help Dorothy gain her ‘hearts desire’ of going home. Their actions, like those of the Samoan chiefs build a Road of the Loving Heart, so that she really doesn’t want to leave them, even though she must.
The things we think are the worst of weaknesses can in reality be our greatest strengths. Paul explains to the Corinthians that all our parts-the good, the bad, the ugly are important, both individually or corporately. “The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member...” (1 Corinthians 12:22-24)
It is in the things we consider weaknesses that we find the greatest strengths when they are transformed by the Love of God. The hurts and scars of our lives become the building blocks of ministry. The doubts and fears are reborn as joy and service when we turn them over to God. The surviving members of the ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ come together and divert attention from Frodo’s final quest to take the Ring into Mt. Doom and destroy it. After the Resurrection, Jesus’ disciples become strong leaders of the newly forming movement that becomes the Church. Their failings are transformed into ministry for the good of all.
Naomi was angry and bitter when she returned to Bethlehem. Her life had not gone as she planned it. She tells her neighbors “Do not call me Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty.” Naomi means Pleasant and Mara means Bitter. By changing her name, Naomi was naming her pain and grief. When she did that she could start to heal and be open to new beginnings.
When Ruth and Boaz were married, Ruth has a son. “Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.” (Ruth 4:16-17)
The Samoan chiefs built a road for their patron, Dorothy’s friends walk with her on the road to the Emerald City, Frodo’s companions help him get started on his way to Mordor, and Jesus needed his disciples to spread the Gospel. None of them were perfect, yet each played their part in the story they were part of. Naomi found new hope in Ruth’s child because she was open to accepting her weakness and failings and being made whole.
Each of us has failings, fears, doubts, and often we would rather have things go ‘our way’. Just like Dorothy accepted the friendship of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion, God accepts us right where we are on our journey. God walks beside us and through that companionship we are transformed so that we can be made more whole and build a ‘Road of the Loving Heart’.
Is God showing you some places in your life where you need to change and grow? Are there places of anger and bitterness that get in the way of moving forward? What doubts and fears keep you from building a ‘road of the loving heart’ for your friends, neighbors, and even strangers?
Next time, we'll look more deeply at the Journey itself and what it teaches us. 

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