Lela and Raymond Howard were a couple in their 80s from Salado, Texas, a small town halfway between Austin and Waco. On Sunday, June 29th, they decided that were going to a fiddling festival in Temple, Texas, a 15-mile drive from their home. Now, Lela was starting to show signs of Alzheimer’s disease, and Raymond had had a recent brain surgery combat a stroke and head injury. Lela’s son heard of their plans and told them he didn’t think they should go on their own. Lela told him, “No, we know where to go. We go every year.” So off they went that morning, not even alerting their other adult son, who lived next door. The Howards did not return home that afternoon, but a greeter at the Temple, Texas, Walmart saw them come in for a cup of coffee that afternoon. By that evening no one had heard from or reported seeing the Howards, so their children posted a missing persons bulletin. Three days later, on July 2nd, the Austin American-Statesman newspaper published an article about their disappearance. That same day a deputy in rural Arkansas pulled Lela over for driving with her headlights off at night. Lela told the deputy they were trying to get back home to Texas, and the deputy told them they were going the wrong way. He gave them directions and asked where they lived. Lela could not remember. About an hour later they were pulled over again for driving with their high beams on. They were let off once again, neither deputy knowing that there was a missing persons bulletin issued for them. The next day there was another article about their disappearance, and allegedly someone spotted them at an Arkansas’ farmer’s market. By the following day, July 4th, authorities had narrowed their search to three counties in Arkansas. Five more days passed with no sign from them. CBS Morning News began covering the disappearance, and a local Austin reporter stopped by the Howards’ home, where she encountered many signs of the couples’ mental decay. Folded clothes were on their bed, a sign they were packing for a long trip. The TV was unplugged. Their hearing aids were in the bathroom. Their calendar was turned to February, several months behind the current month. Worst of all, they left their cat named “Happy” behind. Finally, on July 12th, two weeks after they had left for the festival that was 15 miles from their home, hikers found the bodies of Lela and Raymond Howard outside of Hot Springs, Arkansas, over 400 miles from their home. Lela had driven straight into a ravine. She was so confused that there weren’t even signs of braking. No one knows how long their bodies had been there – a truly tragic ending to a sad story. In the midst of this unfolding drama, an Austin-based songwriter named Tony Scalzo read the newspaper article and wrote a song about the disappearance for his band called Fastball. You’ve probably heard it before because it made it into the Top 40, peaking at number 4 in 1998. The song is called “The Way,” and it’s romanticized version of the couple going on an adventure as though they were younger and carefree. To jog your memories, here’s the chorus.
Anyone can see the road that they walk on is paved in gold And it’s always summer, they’ll never get cold They’ll never get hungry They’ll never get old and grey You can see their shadows wandering off somewhere They won’t make it home but they really don’t care They wanted the highway, they’re happier there today, today.
Now, obviously the story of the Howards is tragic. How terrible that they wandered off, that they lost the way to the festival. It’s one of the challenges of being human. We get lost along the way. We lose our footing. We think we have life figured out and then things change, and we no longer know where we are going. This was an issue even for those closest to Jesus. Our text in John brings us back in time to the day before Jesus was crucified. He’s at the Passover meal with his disciples, and he’s giving them loads of instructions about what they are to do and who they are to be after Jesus is no longer in their midst. While Jesus is teaching, his disciple Thomas interrupts, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” It’s a great question. It’s one that Jesus answers directly and without any kind of mystery. “I am the way,” Jesus says, and then he adds, “and the truth, and the life.” We picture the way as a map or a path. How do I know the way to Trader Joe’s in Grand Rapids? I ask Google Maps, and it gives me the way, and the traffic, and even alternative routes. Yet, Jesus has a different way in mind The way is a person, not a path. Jesus is the way. How do we know the way? We take the time to build a relationship with Jesus through prayer, disciplines, and shared life with others seeking to be Jesus’ disciples. Knowing Jesus isn’t a twelve-step process where we graduate into higher levels of spirituality. It isn’t a specific “say this particular prayer, do these particular acts of charity” and you’re on the right path sort of thing. No, the way is a person we come to know through a lifetime of an unfolding relationship. The way is a person, not a path. Jesus is the way. The pandemic we are currently living through has driven us to seek many paths. What is the path to reopening the economy? What is the path to having school in-person this fall? What is the path to having worship or study in person again with the church? We’ve seen governments, both federal and state, lay out their paths with signposts along the way so that we can know where we are, where we are going, and how we’re doing along the way. Those are good paths, but for those of us who are seeking to follow Jesus, they are only one piece of the puzzle. “I am the way,” Jesus tells all of us. He speaks these words at a challenging time. He’s not on his way to nirvana or enlightenment. He’s less than a day from his crucifixion. When Jesus says that he is the way, he’s not saying that being with me is a fast-track to no troubles because, frankly, his way of love has put him on the very path to trouble. The way of Jesus does not mean all of our problems go away, that everything in our lives gets fixed, or that we can just do whatever we want because we’re with Jesus. No, the way of Jesus has all the joys and pains of life, but it’s a way that is worth it because we journey it with each other. We carry each other through these hard times. We bind up broken hearts. We support each other. So, take comfort even in this season that Jesus is with us in our pain. He doesn’t promise to take it away – although we can certainly ask for that! – but he does promise to be with us. Jesus is the way. He’s a person, not a path. When we’re with him, there’s nowhere we can go that is too far from his love and care. That’s the way this whole thing works, so trust Jesus even now. Seek to deepen your relationship with him. Perhaps you don’t have the words right now to lay before Jesus what’s really on your heart. We all have fears, don’t we? We fear that this virus will spread rapidly once these restrictions loosen. We fear that if we don’t get back to normal life our livelihoods and our community will not recover. There’s a lot of fear going on right now, and so we either bury it or channel it into expressing those fears on social media. Psalm 31 is a prayer for rescue. The psalms are filled with words that you can use as prayers, particularly when you feel like you have no words. I’d encourage you to use the psalms as your prayer book in this time. Find a Bible. Put your finger right in the middle of the pages, and open it. The psalms are right in the heart of the Bible – all 150 of them – waiting for you to pray them. I find it particularly helpful to read them out loud. These words beg to be spoken, so if words are falling short right now, pray them out loud. “In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me. Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.” There’s something in praying those words that brings a sense of peace and trust. Our text in John closes with some pretty stunning words about how God responds to our prayers. Jesus tells his followers, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” Now, Jesus is not our genie who grants our wishes. If that’s the way things operated, then wouldn’t Jesus’ plea to God to “take this cup” (away from him) have been answered? But our pleas are heard by God, and in God’s timing he is making this all into something beautiful. Prayer is a way that God shapes us into the people God needs us to be in this time. In these troubling times, I hear two things quite clearly from the very lips of Jesus. First, don’t let your hearts be troubled. Second, believe in God and believe also in Jesus. This is a season where are hearts are easily troubled. Yet, we follow this Jesus who surely knows about troubled hearts. John’s gospel reports three times that Jesus’ own heart was troubled – at the death of his friend Lazarus, as Jesus’ own death drew near, and when he thought about the betrayal of his own disciple, Judas Iscariot. “Now, when he exhorts them to believe in God as an antidote for their troubled hearts, he does so as a wounded healer who knows the effect of the medicine he prescribes.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who defined the stages of grief, once wrote, “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of those depths.” Why is this true? Because it’s the way of Jesus. Jesus knows troubled hearts. Jesus is the way. And the truth. And the life. Trusting Jesus to be with us through this troubling season orients our lives around what is best for us and for the world. Life can be disorienting. Many of us may feel like all the signposts on the path have been taken away, and we may fear where we will end up. Fix your eyes on Jesus. Trust him. He is the way.