Our feet reluctant . . .
Last Sunday the lectionary spoke of the first seven deacons, the first in the list being Stephen. The Acts of the Apostles goes on to tell of Stephen’s long public speech in which he spoke up boldly for Jesus until his enraged audience, as one translation says, “dragged him out of the city” and stoned him to death.
But who was dragging whom? Because Acts also says that a man named Saul was present at this execution only later to be dragged – himself - out of his role of persecutor to become the martyred Stephen’s successor, the Apostle Paul. And from then on what did Paul become? A drag upon the original apostles who at that time had a limited, even timid sense of the scope of the Gospel – until Paul confronted them with the equal inclusion of Gentiles around the table of Christ.
Sometimes (or maybe more often than not) we ourselves have to be dragged toward our Christian destiny – dragging our feet in the process. As I look back over my own life (and you can do the same) there was a time when I had to be dragged out of my reluctance to BE, to engage wholeheartedly with Christ’s call. Oh, I followed – but with baby steps, hesitant, never in full stride! Like Peter, like the first disciples, we are all like that.
And then, having completed seminary training, six long years to say nothing of six prior years in a minor seminary, I was sent on to study Sacred Scripture. Graduate school! After so many years in a classroom! My heart wasn’t in it – or my brain. But I had no choice, being under a vow of obedience. So I went half-heartedly to classes in the Semitics Department at Catholic University until my major professor (a real Prussian) shook me up with a phone call saying, “If you are not into this in earnest why waste my time and yours? Drop out!”
Suddenly to save face or to please I began to concentrate – but once I advanced to studies in Rome, the subject matter of Scripture had become so fascinating, so redeeming, so liberating, so energizing! I who had been dragging my feet (perhaps like Saul before Stephen’s execution) was now being dragged out of my hesitation by the depth, vision, experience of God’s Word. I felt like I had come of age, stopped being a child. No more baby steps. Now it was a matter of strides down an endless passage of ever new transforming vistas.
Often we need a jolt like the one my “Prussian” professor gave me – to get serious about life, about our creed, about why we are here in this world. In that scene where Stephen is dragged out of the city to lay down his life for the Gospel it says the people throwing stones “laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul” (the future Paul). I wonder, when he later thought of that moment in his life, whether he may have had thoughts (as I do) along the line of Emily Dickinson’s – expressed in her lovely poem:
Our journey had advanced / Our feet were almost come / To that odd fork in being’s road / Eternity by term // Our pace took sudden awe. / Our feet reluctant led: / Before were cities, but between, / The forest of the dead. // Retreat was out of hope; / Behind, a sealed route, / Eternity’s white flag before, / And God at every gate.