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Choke Points

December 2, 2001

Romans 13: 11-14


Tony Grant

Choke Points

Let us say that it is two days before Christmas, and you are in Boston. A drizzle slickens the street. Falling temperatures threaten freezing road conditions. But you have airline tickets and you are going home. You and your family are on your way to York South Carolina, via Charlotte-Douglas airport. So, you load the family into the rental car for the slow, stressful drive through bumper-to-bumper holiday traffic. You know that you have to be at the airport at least two hours early because of all the security precautions that have been implemented since September 11. That compounds your stress. All that "love" stuff you heard in church from Paul's letter to the Romans about "love does no wrong to a neighbor" (13:10) is nearly chucked out the window in this pre-Christmas traffic jam because you "know the time" (v. 11) and you are late to the gate.

Ted Williams Tunnel, the dreaded access to Logan Airport, is packed. Assertive drivers are determined on getting to Logan before you. You weave around taxi cabs and cops, construction and travelers. You unload the family, take the car back to the rental company, take the shuttle back to the airport, get everyone in line to check baggage, quarrel with the airline representative, and get your seat assignments. By the time you make the gate, passengers are boarding the plane. You push through to find your seat, but a couple of half-wits ahead of you can't find their own seats.

Gene Collier wrote an article entitled, "The problem with airlines is passengers," [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,] He said, "The No. 1 problem ... and the No. 1 impediment to what's called on-time performance is, was, and ever shall be ... passengers. As every airline knows but won't say publicly…you can't even roll a plane away from the gate on time, let alone get to Phoenix from Pittsburgh through Charlotte, if you are going to have to deal with passengers. ...

I think we can agree that not every passenger should be restricted to ground transportation, just the 80 percent who fall into the following three categories:

Passengers who strive to stow the unstowable bag. Some people have such a lack of spatial aptitude that they really believe that most anything, say, a camel, will fit in the overhead storage compartment of an airplane. ...

Passengers who think that four shopping bags and three purses do not take them over the limit for carry-on items.

Passengers who cannot, ever, on the first attempt, find the correct seat. All airline passengers should complete a three-hour course on how to find your seat. Hour 1: Row Numbers Are Your Friends. Hour 2: The ABCs of Seat ID. Hour 3: C'mon moron; it's not the Superdome!

Anyway, say you are finally seated. You look around to see if there are any Arab types on board because you do not want to be hijacked. You notice a portly gentleman across the aisle with happy hands and happy feet, apparently fresh from an office party, who definitely does not need the mixed drink he's slurping.

Bad weather delays the departure. Warmly dressed men appear outside spraying chemicals from hoses to de-ice the wings. The children tussle jealously about who has the better seat.

On the prerecorded video, a flight attendant describes seat belts, air masks and emergency procedures. You don't pay attention. Neither does anyone else. Tucked in the seat in front of you is a tattered article. You pull it out, glancing at the name and date: The Washington Post National Weekly Edition, March 2001. Idly, you glance at the headline, and then stop and read it again. The title is "The coming threat to air traffic"--not the kind of thing you want to read on an airplane. Fear awakens in your stomach. Maybe you should have watched the pre-flight video.

"Bing!" goes the seat belt sign. The real-life attendant announces, "Please bring your seats forward and return your tray tables in the upright and locked position, put away and secure all materials in the overhead bin, and be careful when you open them as contents may shift during flight..." He talks on, but you don't hear anything because you are still thinking about that headline, "The coming threat to air traffic." What could it mean?

The plane backs out, joining a long line of creeping jets which lengthens departure and strengthens your stress. There will be more delays, and connections missed.

At 34,000 feet, the pilot announces in a calm voice, "We've reached cruising altitude, welcome aboard Flight 666, unless we encounter unforeseen trouble we should arrive in Chicago, fashionably late, so enjoy some holiday cheer! Flight attendants will begin serving now." After a long pause, the pilot adds, "Due to massively increased air traffic in this sector, we've reached what we call a 'choke point.' A choke point is a traffic jam, a congested area, a place to keep alert. Choke points aren't really a problem if we know where every other plane is."

Jet engines drone, seats vibrate, books close, conversation stops, no one is talking. Everyone is silent, concerned, listening to the pilot explain that "We don't know, because nowadays there just aren't enough radio frequencies for every airliner to stay in contact with Air Traffic Control on the ground, which does know. Once it was just a threat that there might not be enough radio frequency space for every plane. Now it's our reality. Our particular plane's reality. Please remain calm."

"It happens to be our turn to be out of touch with Air Traffic Control for the entire duration of this flight. Not to worry. Our airline policy, in such situations, is to request that all passengers who have window seats keep your window shades open and your eyes alert, looking out the window, scanning the horizon, watching for aircraft in this particularly crowded sector. If, in the likely event, an aircraft is spotted, please alert a flight attendant immediately, who will in turn alert the cockpit. Evasive action will be taken.

"Given the probability of jarring, unannounced turns, sudden steep descents or sharp twisting ascents, we request every passenger remain seated for the duration of this flight. The seat belt light will remain illuminated. Small children who currently are assigned window seats, are asked to please switch seats with an adult. If we work together, we have a good chance of reaching our destination safely. Thank you and happy holidays."

You think, "What was Paul saying about, 'For now is our salvation nearer than when we believed' (v. 11)"? It seems near now. With your heart racing, you reach for the Post article and read: "The radio airwaves that pilots and air traffic controllers use to communicate are nearly filled to capacity threatening the aviation system." You scan down. You read again, "There's a brick wall somewhere in our future. ... It's hard to predict where. But it is near." "Near?" you think. "Near! Not near! It's here!"

You understand a little better Paul's words, "It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep (v. 11)." You are very awake, every sense, every organ, even your soul is wide awake! Everything is clear. Fear of death can do that to a person. You can smell fright surging from the pores of every passenger aboard. Meanwhile your white-knuckled wife dutifully watches the unfriendly skies out her window. Suddenly, she stiffens. Quickly she strikes the call button, over and over and over. ...

So, with that prelude, have you thought about flying this holiday season? Would you get on a plane if you knew that the pilot was going to reach cruising altitude and then lose radio contact? Would you board a jet that could not maintain constant communication with other planes or the control tower? You might say that is impossible. Unfortunately not. The Washington Post article I quoted is authentic. It predicts that choke points without radio communication will be a reality by 2005, perhaps sooner or perhaps later, if solutions are not put into place.

Time, Night, and Day

The apostle Paul also recognized the problem of choke points. In air traffic, traffic jams minus communications mean disaster. In our spiritual life, choke points mean serious trouble, too. When we encounter life's tangles and mazes, if our spiritual radio frequencies are occupied, leaving none open for God, that is also a formula for disaster..

And perhaps never is this more real than at Christmas. Our frazzled lives are full of choke points that separate us not only from others, from meaningful interaction with neighbors, but from God on whom we should be focused. Instead of keeping one prayer channel free and open to the Ground Control of our Being, we allow the secular holiday to choke the life out of the sacred hour.

Perhaps it is time for the book of Romans. Romans is Paul's quintessential statement of God's saving purposes in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Romans proclaims Paul's understanding of the vital connection between what God has done in Christ, and what it means to live in the Holy Spirit within the church. In other words, Romans grounds the life of the church firmly in the saving action of God in Jesus Christ.

Romans 13:11 opens with a reference to time. Paul is building the case for right behavior in the community. Having established in vs 8-10 that they know the law (love God and neighbor), he points out that the Roman Christians are also aware of the time. The "time" Paul refers to is not the ordinary time of our clocks. Paul is not saying look at your digital watch and tell me what time it is. Paul speaks of a special sense of time, namely God's time and God's activity in history.

In addition to the notion of time, Paul uses a metaphor of sleeping and waking with regard to the time. The Roman Christians know the time, and they know that it is not time to sleep, but time to wake. The life prior to being born in Christ was known as "sleep," "darkness," and "night," and the life in Christ in the Spirit was understood as being "awake," "living in the light," and "walking in the day."

The metaphor of night and day captures the power of transformation that believers experience in God and in being bound together in the Spirit of Christ. Paul extends the metaphor to contrast sleep and wakefulness. Paul both reminds the Roman Christians who they are (as opposed to who they were), and encourages them to be steadfast in the commitment to the life that God is calling them to in Christ. God has achieved this transformation within them. They have been awakened, and it is now upon them to keep in the light.

In addition to Paul's exhortation to ethical responsibility, he also draws a portrait of God's imminent activity in the second coming of Christ. In v 11b Paul claims "salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers." In other words, the salvation of the Roman Christians is not completely achieved. It is emerging. God is working in Jesus Christ; God's saving purposes continue to emerge. Such an announcement serves both to encourage the Roman Christians in their hope for God's future, and exhort them to conduct themselves as people of light and day.


In the remaining verses of ch13, Paul continues to engage the metaphor of light and to exhort the Roman Christians to right behavior. In 13:12 they are commanded to put on the armor of light.

Today, when our children ride bicycles, we insist that they wear a bicycle helmet. Why? For Protection! They could be badly injured if they have an accident without a helmet. But armoring our children will not necessarily keep them safe on a bicycle. They also need to be awake and alert and careful when riding. The same is true for living the Christian life. The apostle Paul says that it is important to have protection, which he calls "the armor of light," and also to be awake and alert and careful--that is, to "live honorably" (vv. 12-13).

In v13 the enemies of this battle image are listed: reveling, drunkenness, illicit sex, argument, and jealousy. These "enemies" threaten the life of the community. They produce broken relationships. These are the activities of those that sleep. These activities are as dangerous as riding too fast on a bike or not paying attention to car traffic.

But Paul reminds the Romans that they can triumph over these "enemies," that in Christ they have been awakened to a new life in the Spirit. This life denies the flesh its desires (13:14) insofar as they threaten to break down the bonds of unity and love that God has made available in Christ.

Living the Will

Like Paul and the Romans, we want the new life. We want to have constant contact with the salvation that is "nearer to us now than when we became believers" and avoid such choke points as, debauchery, licentiousness, and quarreling. If we stay in touch with God, and live in the will of God, it is easier to see the choke points, get through them or around them, before they become problems.

This leads us then to a new understanding of God's will. Meister Eckhart says, "There can be no good man who does not will what is the particular will of God, for it is impossible for God to will anything but good, and precisely because it is God's will, it becomes and necessarily is good, and, what is more, it is the best." [Eckhart 215] God wills only what is good. Therefore, if we are good, we love to do the will of God. We sometimes say that a person should be surrendered to the will of God. That is probably a poor choice of words. It is not a question of surrender; it is a question of choosing what is best. The will of God is what is best. Who then would choose what is less?

Rita Bass Coors paid $7,000 for a porcelain mask hand-painted by John Denver. It was purchased at the 1997 Charity Celebrity Ball for Hospice of Metropolitan Denver. As the auctioneer handed it to her, it slipped through her fingers and shattered on the floor. The new owner of an expensive pile of broken pieces decided to keep them anyway. Rather than attempting to fix the mask, she placed the pieces in a montage of John Denver photographs. God is on a mission to find and pick up the shattered, jagged lives of broken people and transform them into something beautiful. So when we cooperate with God and seek his will, we do not lose anything. We do not surrender anything. We gain all.

Seneca, a Roman philosopher, asks: "What is the best consolation in sorrow and in misfortune?" He replies: "It is for a man to accept everything as if he had wished for it and had asked for it; for you would have wished for it, if you had known that everything happens by God's will, with his will and in his will" [Natural Questions 3.12]. Again to quote Seneca: "Leader and commander, Father and Lord of high heaven, I am ready for everything which is your will; give me the will to will according to your will." [Seneca. Letter to Lucilius]. [both quotes by Seneca from Eckhart 215-216]

Seneca can so heartily accept the will of God because he knows that what God wills is good whether he understands it or not. It does not matter what happens. Even if God were to condemn him to hell, He would still pray, " give me the will to will according to your will." Seneca was a pagan philosopher, but we Christians might learn a few lessons from him.

Christ calls us to be dead to ourselves, and transformed in God. Most human beings spend most of their time on me or of things related to me. That is why we are always running into spiritual choke points. Transformed Christian avoid such spiritual congestion by spending the time on God and the things of God. They live to do the will of God. We do God's will not as a grim duty, but as a wonderful privilege and the best possible thing we could do. Amen.

Source: Phillips, Don. "The coming threat to air traffic." The Washington Post National Weekly Edition, March 2001, 18-19.

Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense, translation and introduction by Edmund Colledge, O.S.A. and Bernard McGinn, (Paulist Press, New York, Ramsey, Toronto, 1981).


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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