The Subway Voice

Every time we go to New York City, I am struck by the subway voice. Now, it’s a little more down-home, country-sounding than I would have expected for a major East Coast urban center, but it still works. Basically, the voice has four jobs. It announces the doors are closing. It broadcasts the next stop. It alerts everyone that the train is arriving. And, most importantly, it warns people getting off the train to mind the gap.  See, the NY Transit Authority hates it when its passengers, upon exiting the train, misstep, stumble over the lip of the platform and then face-plant on the tile floor. It’s bad for tourism (although it’s great for dentists).  And so, every time the door opens, the voice calls out for us, please, to remember to “mind the gap.”

There’s an awful verse in Philippians 3. After Paul argues that all of our accomplishments and pedigrees and triumphs are meaningless in light of the all-surpassing worth of knowing Jesus, he urges us all to press on to be the people Jesus called us to be. He makes it simple. Forget what is in the past, and strain towards being found in Christ (we will have to strain because it is going to involve a lot of hard work). And then, he says the awful verse (16): “Only let us live up to what we have already attained.” In other words, Paul is saying, “Mind the gap.” And if your gap is as big as mine, you will understand why I call that an awful verse. See, I already know there is a gap between what I know (what I have already attained) and how I live. But more times than not, even when warned (by Paul and others), I still misstep and fall flat on my face.  But I fear I am not alone. Many of us don’t mind the gap.

I came upon this prayer from Henri Nouwen. It resonated with me (unfortunately, it resonates way too much). Maybe it will also resonate with you. Nouwen prayed:

“O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner. I am impressed by my own spiritual insights. I probably know more about prayer, meditation, and contemplation than most Christians do. I have read many books about the Christian life and have even written a few myself. Still, as impressed as I am, I am more impressed by the enormous abyss between my insights and my life.”

Nouwen then adds this comment: “Sometimes I even have the painful feeling that the clearer the vision, the more aware I am of the depth of the canyon.” (By the way, the prayer is from Henri Nouwen’s book, A Cry for Mercy: Prayers from the Genesee, and is published by Random House). In other words, for Nouwen (and for me) the gap is huge.

This was made really evident to me one day when I was reading Michael Frost’s book, Exiles. Throughout the book, Frost talks about our need to live missionally in our world and to hear God’s call to live out our faith. In one chapter, Frost tells the story of an evangelist from India who was talking to a recent convert. The convert had asked what he should do next. The evangelist replied: “You have a Bible? You can read? Then, you can start a church.”  Even now, all my warning bells go off reading that! I want to say you need more than a Bible to plant a church. You need seminary, you need training, you need a special skill set, and you need a launch team (trust me, I’ve planted two churches; you need all these things and more). And here is an Indian pastor saying all you need is a Bible and an authentic spirituality.  Let me just say it this way: I would never, ever start a church with only a Bible and a dollop of spirituality. Even with all my training and experience, I just don’t have that much faith.  And suddenly, my gap is showing. See, even with all my training and all my experiences, I still don’t have enough faith to do something risky. Now, one would think with all that training and all those experiences and all that time, that by now I would have a great faith. But that’s just the thing. I know a lot, but my faith has lagged seriously behind my knowledge. I’m not even close to living up to what I have already attained. But before you get all high and mighty about my gap issue, please realize that you probably own more Bibles and have more biblical training than most pastors in the developing world (some pastors even have to share a Bible with a neighboring church).  So maybe, you have a gap problem, too. And yes, I see the irony here. I am talking about the gap between true spirituality and my image when, suddenly, I find the need attack your lack of faith to defend my image which is probably not a very spiritual thing to do. The gap in my life is always growing deeper.

But the truth is, hardly any one of us lives up to what we know to be true. We fret. We worry. We complain. We doubt. We retaliate. We get angry. We don’t live by faith or hope, and we don’t love like we know we should. Let’s face it, we are people of the gap.

So, what do we do to bridge this gap? I wish there were three easy answers and a strategic plan for removing the knowing and doing gaps in our lives, but there isn’t. But maybe the best thing we can do is simply listen to the subway voice as we go about our day, “Please mind the gap.” Just knowing, just being reminded that there is a gap helps me. When I feel frustrated, hearing that voice encourages me to strive to respond with kindness and understanding. When I feel anxious, hearing that voice urges me not to worry, but to pray. When I sense my faith is weakening, hearing that voice stirs me to seek God and to trust in him. And when I fail at love and am overcome with selfishness and pride, hearing that voice moves me to forget my own interests and to give myself away. Somehow being reminded of where I could trip up helps me to take the right steps in my life.

The subway voice says, “Please mind the gap.” I now recognize that voice. It’s the voice of a very good friend. And I hope I hear him speak to me a lot in the future.