Driving In Circles
“Jesus said I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.”
Those were some of the first sentences I learned in Wolof, a language spoken in a fair few places in West Africa. Though it’s been more than 10 years since I spent time working there, I have yet to hear or read that verse without it being replayed back to me in my head in Wolof.
I expected this to happen when I heard the topic of Jim’s most recent sermon in the I Am series. However, Jim going as far as to even mention West Africa sent my mind wandering down the path that led to the heaviness of that phrase made all the more real during my time there.
I was taught the phrase mostly to help me learn sentence structure in the foreign language, not really with much intent of ever saying it to anyone while I was there. Unlike many places in Africa I’d been before or since, local-born converts to Christianity were treated with a fair degree of hostility in this corner of the continent. Meaning there wasn’t exactly a line forming to talk with me about Jesus.
However, one day I was invited into a conversation with a man who I had gotten to know there. He wanted to tell me a story. It wasn’t a long story, though my still developing language skills in a world of almost no English extended it significantly. But when it was all said and done, he had wanted to tell me about a dream he’d had— a dream about Jesus. He had been shown a glimpse of Jesus’ power and glory while learning of who he was and what the Bible says he did. And even better still, this man believed everything he’d seen in the dream!
I was shocked. This was stuff people like me only ever read about. Was I really going to get to talk to the first Christ-follower in the entire village? I was excited and intimidated at the same time. I was wracking my brain for something inspirational to say to him while simultaneously missing what he said next. I asked him to repeat himself once because I hadn’t understood what he’d said and then a second time because I couldn't believe it.
He knew it was all true—Jesus was in fact God and had died for him, but this man had decided not to follow him. I asked why, dumbfounded. He told me about his family and explained the ensuing consequences if he chose to follow Jesus. He described the uncertainty, the fear, the violence, and isolation that awaited all of them.
I stared at him. What was I, an American middle-class college freshman to say to that? What did I know of choices and suffering? I had had to give up so little when I decided to follow Jesus, how could I possibly understand what he was going through?
I don’t remember most of the words I ended up saying to him. I do remember using those two sentences for the first and last time in that country.
“Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.’”
There was sorrow in his eyes as he nodded and said, “I know.” We prayed together and he left.
The weight of the implications of those words sat on me as heavily that day as they did that Sunday morning listening to Jim talk about them. I agreed with Jim— they are not exclusionary words. The truth of them is as much for me as they are for my friend in West Africa. My friend who was carefully knit together by a loving God before he was born, just like I was.
I don’t know if he ever changed his mind. I don’t know if he’s following Jesus today or if he ever will. But I know that my God loved him enough to reveal that truth to him all the while knowing that this man would, at least initially and maybe forever, reject it.
They are not elitist words either. Never more than in that moment have I known that I am no better than the rest of these people trying to figure out this life alongside me. Never have I been better able to hold up my life next to another's and come away seeing none of the comparisons the world places on us, and only the brokenness of humanity that the truth of Jesus allows us to escape.
I admit that these words had become stagnant in my life, ceasing to invoke the challenge or deep gratitude in me that they should. But since that day, I have often found myself involuntarily translating those words in my head while fighting back tears. Never have they been and never will they be easy. As simple as it sometimes feels it would be if they weren’t true, the fact remains that we all need a way— we all need the way. I wish that my friend’s path was more like mine. I wish that he didn’t have to make the choices laid before him. But regardless of how hard or painful the choice is for each of us, without it, we really all are just driving in circles.