What a fascinating story. The disciples, having met the risen Christ in person, are so excited they can’t contain themselves. Where once they were fearful and dejected, now they are bursting with confidence. Where once they cowered in an upper room, now they are willing to suffer any sacrifice for the privilege of spreading the good news. They even “rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer.” We honor these early disciples for the sacrifices they made, and interpret their actions as a true dedication to a true vision of Christ.
Of course, not everyone saw it that way. To the Temple Authorities, these people were nothing more than religious fanatics. Certainly, the council didn’t believe Jesus had risen from the grave, but the number of people who did was growing by the day. They had a real situation on their hands. What had once been a candle in the wind was fast becoming a forest fire. Their solution was to haul the disciples up before the court and try to put a stop to their preaching. The members of the council were furious but, considering what was at stake, it isn’t hard to sense the desperation underneath their anger.
Then, right in the middle of this very hostile confrontation, we hear a voice of reason. Gamaliel, a man who can keep his head in a crisis, asks for the disciples to be sent out of the room. He then proceeds to draw the council back from the edge of disaster. “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men.” Can’t you just hear the calming influence of his voice? Remember Theudas, he says. Remember Judas the Galilean. Both of them claimed to be the Messiah, and even managed to convince some gullible people. But now they’re gone, and the people have scattered. If this Jesus movement is not of God, you don’t have to do a thing. It will fail all by itself. But if it isof God, you surely don’t want to be caught standing in the way. It isn’t clear, he says, where all this is headed, but whatever happens, our job is to align ourselves with God. Following his speech, the council decides to let the disciples go their way, after subjecting them to a good flogging. We’re given to understand that since Christianity is still here, God must have wanted it that way.
Now, this story is interesting historically, but more importantly, Gamaliel’s advice is just as good for us as it was for the Sanhedrin. In our own times of crisis, whatever they may be, our need is the same as the council’s. “Divine Alignment.” No matter what we find going on in our lives, our job is to align ourselves with God, in as much as we are able, and leave the future in God’s hands. Our job is to be the kind of people we know God wants us to be, and to trust that, as Paul said, all things do indeed work together for good for those who love God.
The problem with the council was that they had already decided what the future was supposed to look like. It was supposed to look just like the past. They believed their job was to make sure that everything just continued on the way it always had. They already knew what God wanted, or at least they thought they did. And part of what they thought God wanted was that this new movement be crushed. They were so convinced that Jesus’ disciples were wrong, that they were ready to break their own commandments to stop them. “Thou shalt not kill,” was just about to go right out the window, until Gamaliel rose to speak.
All he did was ask an important question at exactly the right moment. Have you considered the possibility that youmight actually be the ones opposing God? I’m sure this would have been a hard message for the council to hear at that moment, but Gamaliel was right. Alignment with the divine is not always about getting the results we might have in mind. The council’s calling was to be as faithful to God as they were able to be, and not to assume they already had God’s future mapped out. They were to trust the future, whatever shape it might take, into God’s hands. Isn’t that our calling as well?
When I hear the word “alignment” usually, the first thing I think of is my car. If you’ve ever driven a car that is out of alignment, you know how hard it can be fighting the wheel constantly just to keep the thing going in the right direction. When a car is out of alignment it burns more gas and wears out breaks and tires faster. It creates energy loss through heat and friction. It’s not much fun to drive and can even be dangerous.
When our lives get out of alignment we can have many of the same problems: heat, friction, and the wearing down of our health and vitality. We all know a lot of ways this can happen: too much drinking or smoking, an unhealthy diet, not enough exercise and so on. I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotten to dreading the AARP magazine when it comes every month. It always has these wonderfully vital-looking older adults on the cover who supposedly follow all the rules of healthy living; and you can too!It’s very irritating. It always makes me want to break out another box of Girl Scout cookies. We all know plenty about what we should be doing, but that sense of “should” usually turns into a guilt trip that most of us would rather not take.
However, this idea of alignment isn’t really about “should.” It isn’t about following the rules for the sake of not feeling guilty. Living in alignment with God is about living in healthy ways for the love of life and the love of God. When a car is out of alignment, it isn’t bad, it doesn’t deserve punishment, it doesn’t need to feel guilty. It just needs to be adjusted so that it will stop pulling sideways. When we get out of alignment, much the same things apply. We waste energy, we pull off in unhealthy directions, we create friction for ourselves and everyone around us. We’re not bad, so much as not operating efficiently. There are times, of course, when our behavior becomes destructive and needs to be stopped. But for most of us most of the time, alignment with God is more about cutting down on the friction in our lives, not fighting the wheel, so we can actually enjoy this gift of life we’ve all been given.
Now cars provide one image of alignment, but I came across another one that I also like. In Italy, I understand that there is a harbor which lies at the end of a narrow and dangerous channel. The channel has rocks and shoals on both sides that have wrecked a good many ships over the years. Finally, someone came up with a plan to make the passage less hazardous. To guide the ships safely into port, they placed three lights on top of three huge poles in the harbor. Ships can safely proceed up the narrow channel only when all three lights are perfectly aligned. If the pilot sees only one light, he knows he is in safe water. If he sees two or three lights, he knows he’s off course and in danger.
Not only is that a brilliant solution for the harbor, it is also a beautiful image for our lives in God. When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandments, his answer, as you well know, was that we should love God, with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. Those are the three lights of our spiritual lives: love of God, love of neighbor and love of self. We can and do talk about them separately, but, like the lights in the harbor, they provide the greatest benefit to us when they are all lined up.
I imagine that sounds pretty obvious, but what we know in theory isn’t always what we practice in reality. I remember talking with a woman out in Illinois one time who was very passionate about her faith. She said she loved God very much. While we were talking, she pulled a cigarette out of her purse and lit it up. It was a different time back then. I wasn’t especially bothered by her smoking, but she obviously was because she kept apologizing to me, between puffs. Well, naturally, I asked if she had ever tried to quit. Yes, she said, many times, but she had never been successful. Then she made a comment that, to this day I still find amazing. She said, and I quote, “I guess I just don’t hate myself enough to quit.”
Now, think about that for a minute. In the course of a very short conversation, this woman professed to love God, then went on to say that she hated herself, but not enough to quit smoking. This is a perfect example of someone whose lights were out of line. We cannot love God and hate ourselves. We cannot hate God and love ourselves. We cannot love God and hate our neighbors. This is right out of the first letter of John. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
To align ourselves with the divine is to live in love. It is gradually to clear away everything from our lives that serves to diminish love. Whether we’re talking about getting our spiritual lights in a row or making adjustments so we don’t have to fight the wheel all the time, the point is the same. There are things we can do to bring our lives into greater harmony with God’s love, and we should do these things. Not for the sake of being good people, or getting a gold stars, or earning our way into heaven, but simply to reduce the friction that gets in the way of our taking greater satisfaction in this abundant life that God has given us.
What are these things we can do? Oh, there are lots of things. Making a commitment to prayer is a great idea. Going out of your way to be kind and helpful is another. But if you’re looking for a place to begin, why not try Gamaliel’s sage advice: consider carefully what you propose to do. Consider carefully whether the plans and goals you have for your life are actually in line with what God wants of you. Consider carefully whether you are living faithfully in the present, and trusting God to take care of the future. Consider whether the ways you are living lend themselves to a life of joy and abundance, or whether they pull you off in unhealthy directions. And while you’re considering, consider keeping the tone of your considering light and positive, rather than heavy and critical. Most of us are terribly good at seeing all the things we’re not doing well, and ignoring the things which might just bring us a little more joy.
John Gardner, founding chairman of an organization called Common Cause, tells a story of a cheerful old man he once met. The man made a practice of asking a question of just about everyone he met: “What have you done that you believe in and you are proud of?” Over years he got some wonderful answers from people. One woman said, “I’m doing a good job raising three children.” A cabinetmaker told him, “I believe in good workmanship and practice it.” Another woman said, “I started a bookstore and it’s the best bookstore for miles around.” “I don’t really care how they answer,” the old man told him. “I just want to put the thought into their minds. They should live their lives in such a way that they can have a good answer; not a good answer for me, but for themselves. That’s what’s important.”
The old man wasn’t wrong. There are things we can do to bring our lives into greater harmony with God. We can start by taking a good look in the mirror and asking the right questions. Am I living as fully and joyfully in the present as I can? Am I trusting God to take care of the future? Am I doing things that I believe in and can be proud of? Am I practicing my love of God, neighbor and self in ways that line up with God’s purposes for me? Abundant life begins with asking the right questions, and then gradually making the adjustments we need in order to line ourselves up with the right answers. It isn’t about guilt. It’s about harmony. We can never be healthier, happier, or more joyful than when we are aligned with the divine.