Desolate Roads

Of all of the eerie things this pandemic has brought, the images of desolate roads rank high at the top for me. There are still a lot of cars here on the Outer Banks, as apparently everyone has to go to Lowe’s every. single. day. But the stay-at-home order has definitely reduced traffic. Several times early on a Sunday morning I have waited at a red light to turn onto the bypass and not a single car has gone through the intersection. That never happens. But have you seen pictures of London, New York, or Las Vegas? City centers like those are truly desolate. The scenes of empty roads are disturbing.

One of my favorite post-apocalyptic movies is “Omega Man.” It is the story of a vaccine scientist named Dr. Robert Neville, who is the last human survivor of a germ-war pandemic that has wiped out humanity. There are other survivors, no longer human, who have turned into violent anti-technology and anti-science mutant-predators. They hunt Neville at night using primitive weapons. Neville eventually finds a small group of two adults and a few children who somehow have a natural immunity. But in the beginning of the movie, he has lived in his generator-powered apartment for three years without seeing a single human being.

The opening scenes are absolutely haunting. Filmed in 1971, the director took shots of Los Angeles’ empty business district from a helicopter early on a Sunday morning, inserted still shots where people had been erased from the film, and cut to empty back-lot scenes to create a shocking vision of a post-apocalyptic city.

The image of a desolate road caught my attention in today’s reading. I have come to realize after decades of bible study that it is often in these overlooked details that the story takes on life. Take a look:

Acts 8 (The Message)

26-28 Later God’s angel spoke to Philip: “At noon today I want you to walk over to that desolate road that goes from Jerusalem down to Gaza.” He got up and went. He met an Ethiopian eunuch coming down the road. The eunuch had been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and was returning to Ethiopia, where he was minister in charge of all the finances of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. He was riding in a chariot and reading the prophet Isaiah.

Thus the scene is set. A member of the queen’s court, a busy man indeed, has been to the buzzing city of Jerusalem on a pilgrimage. He has been looking for something. He was wealthy enough to be riding in a chariot. He is a man versed in the Hebrew writings, and is reading Isaiah. This wealthy, educated, privileged man is traveling back from the Temple to his palace along a desolate road, and THAT is where he finds what he had been looking for.

29-30 The Spirit told Philip, “Climb into the chariot.” Running up alongside, Philip heard the eunuch reading Isaiah and asked, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”

31-33 He answered, “How can I without some help?” and invited Philip into the chariot with him.

I love the weird friendliness of this exchange. Was it normal to invite some random guy running beside your chariot to jump in and chat? Or do you suppose the Holy Spirit had something to do with it? Surely Philip had been led there by the Holy Spirit, but we get the sense that the eunuch was also being led in this exchange.

The passage he was reading was this:

As a sheep led to slaughter,
    and quiet as a lamb being sheared,
He was silent, saying nothing.
    He was mocked and put down, never got a fair trial.
But who now can count his kin
    since he’s been taken from the earth?

34-35 The eunuch said, “Tell me, who is the prophet talking about: himself or some other?” Philip grabbed his chance. Using this passage as his text, he preached Jesus to him.

And so on this desolate road, we see a beautiful example of something Methodists call “prevenient grace.” Prevenient grace is the grace that goes before us, wooing us to God before we are aware of our need for him, or have any idea how to find him. Prevenient grace led Philip to the desolate road. Prevenient grace opened the eunuch’s mind and heart to receive him there. And as soon as the moment was right, Philip preached Jesus to him.

Such beauty can be born from desolation! And oh, how we needed to hear that this morning as we look down the empty road. Are you finding Jesus on this desolate road we are traveling?

Jesus is already on this road, having come before us. If we can begin to think of this pandemic as a journey to a pilgrimage rather than a terror to endure, how much better our hearts will be in the end! Because this WILL end.

And guess what? We are one day closer. So go and preach Jesus to someone.

Desolate Road by Kathy Schumacher

Coffee Maker Grace

I am always happy when I remember to set up the coffee maker at bedtime. I program it to turn on so that the brew will be complete a few minutes before my wake-up alarm goes off. There is nothing better than waking up to the smell of freshly brewed coffee just a few minutes before the BEEP BEEP BEEP intrudes into the quiet of the morning. It is WONDERFUL to have coffee ready before you are even awake.

This, my friends, is surely what waking up in heaven will include. Coffee angels will be ready with large mugs of fresh brew as we wake up each day, except there will be no alarm clocks in heaven. Obviously, alarm clocks belong in Hell. Of that, I have no doubt.

The smell of fresh brewed coffee reaching into your subconscious as you are climbing up through the depths of sleep to the height of wakefulness is a practical example of a Wesleyan concept known as prevenient grace. Prevenient grace is just one type of grace, joining its well known sister and brother of sanctifying grace and justifying grace.

Prevenient grace describes the activity of God that comes before. It acknowledges that God is active in our situation well before we are aware of his presence. It points to God’s ability to woo us before we even know we need him. God initiates: we respond.

Titus 2 (The Message)

11-14 God’s readiness to give and forgive is now public. Salvation’s available for everyone! We’re being shown how to turn our backs on a godless, indulgent life, and how to take on a God-filled, God-honoring life. This new life is starting right now, and is whetting our appetites for the glorious day when our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, appears. He offered himself as a sacrifice to free us from a dark, rebellious life into this good, pure life, making us a people he can be proud of, energetic in goodness.

God’s readiness is understood as God going before us, to show us the way to salvation. By his prevenient grace, he offers us a way to a God-honoring life that frees us from the darkness. He woos us to a good, pure life that starts right now because he is ready. He draws us to himself while we are still stumbling around getting a shoe stuck in the muck and mire of sin. And there is nothing we can do to earn this: grace is God’s unmerited love and acceptance. Our job is just to respond.

How are you living out prevenient grace in your life? Can you cite examples of times and places where you became aware of God’s presence, and realized that he was there before you knew you needed him? Knowing that grace comes equally as an unwarranted gift to everyone, does this encourage you to be less judgmental of other people’s transgressions?

God woos us to his side every day. He goes before every trial, tribulation, and tragedy, and waits for us to acknowledge him. He is active in our lives at every moment: all we need to do is look for him, and we will find that he is already there.

Maybe it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee.

The Best Part of Waking Up. Photo courtesy of Midway UMC, Cumming, GA