It is July 4th, 11:22pm. I am riding through a war zone on a light blue, three-speed city bike. I un-dock the city bike on the south side of Chicago, at the corner of Halsted and 18th, and fasten my white-shell helmet. There is glass on the street, and a group stands around nearby. 40s are scattered across the street, and the people look at one another, confused. I think there may have been a fight. I put my bike in 2nd gear so I can accelerate quickly and speed down Halsted. Flashes of light bounce off of the haze that is covering Chicago. Fireworks explode behind me. I pretend I am in a battle and shift into 1st.
A group of young men are on the street to my left. They are shooting off fireworks and drinking. I pray for the emergency room workers, sipping their energy drinks and guzzling their coffee late into the night. I slow down for a light, but fly through it when I see no traffic.
An enormous clap startles me. I hear the blasts, but I can’t see the fireworks. There is a young man on a bike ahead of me in the bike lane. I am coming up on him quickly, but he is in no hurry. He looks like he has nowhere to be at 11:30pm on a Tuesday night.
A woman in an American flag tank top looks at her phone and then down the road. She shrugs to a man standing beside her on the corner and then rolls her eyes. It is the eye roll you make when your Uber has just turned down the wrong road, when it is supposed to follow the grey line to you.
A green Nissan Leaf makes a right turn onto Jackson, and I follow it. I try to keep up, but it whirs ahead. Chicago keep its homeless on Jackson: some young, some white, but they are mainly elderly black men. I catch a few greens and then hit a red and stop. Some of the people who will live on Jackson tonight are already asleep, looking almost peaceful. Some are still sorting out how they’re going to get through the night.
It’s July 4th, and we are all celebrating our independence. But on this bike ride through the south side, what stands out so clearly to me is not independence, but dependence. Me on my light blue bike, dependent on the sobriety of the people zipping by in cars. The lady in the tank top, dependent on her Uber finally making it to her. The Jackson Street sleepers, upon their bodies making it through the night—dependent upon a society that has let them down and refused to give them another chance.
I preached on Paul a couple weeks ago. I try to avoid Paul; I leave him for the real theologians. But that Romans 7 tongue twister—about doing what you do though you don’t want to do it—was calling my name. Paul says that there is a war, and that it’s raging. It isn’t a war between Jews and Gentiles. It isn’t between us and them, or between right and wrong, or left and right. It is between law and grace. It is an internal war between I-can-do-it-on-my-own (independence) and come-to-me all-who-are-weary (dependence). It is between you-get-what-you-deserve and find-rest for-your-souls.
It is a war between sin on the one hand, which leaves people to fend for themselves, and glory on the other.
The law was the only side that people took in Jesus’ day. The letter of the law made up the only language they spoke. So, it might have been confusing when he explained his law to them: “My law? My yoke? Oh, my yoke is as easy as strawberry pie. My burden? Light. Well, maybe not for the brilliant and #blessed among you. But for the child-like… my burden is light as a croissant. If you are weary, tired, and heavy-laden, then come to me. I will give you rest.”
Jesus lifts up the lowly and humbles the haughty. Those loyal only to the law stumble on his words. Those who know their need for grace, who know their failings, find it in over-supply. Jesus walks through streets of law and introduces people to grace. Law leads to sin and knowledge of sin. Grace leads to glory.
It is law and grace through which I ride on July 4th.
Law and Grace. Sin and Glory.
It is sin that leaves the man with white hair and an aging back living on the street tonight. In the morning, people who slept in warm soft beds will pass him by with stern, cold eyes. Yet, he will return their glazed indifference with a kind smile and say, “God bless.” And that is glory.
It is sin that brings the woman hit by a drunk driver into the emergency room early on the morning of the 5th, but it is glory that a nurse running on the fumes of a Red Bull has enough kindness to sit patiently with her, to hold her hand.
It is sin that lashes open the skin of Christ, and it is sin that he carries to the cross, but there is glory in that he comforts those mourning and forgives those who hate. Sin takes away his life, but glory startles him awake on the third day.
It is sin and glory that I ride through on the dark Chicago streets of July 4th. Over this weekend, 100 people will be shot and 15 will be killed on these streets. What glory is there? I do not know.
It is sin and glory that all of us are riding through. Law and Grace, locked into a war raging all around us. Sin and the law pinning people to the ground, grace and glory grabbing them by the arms to lift them up, to offer them some rest for their souls.
Something about the bombs bursting in air on this bike ride has me acutely aware of the war on these streets. Tonight, I am Paul Revere, riding like my life depends on it, shouting into darkness the words of Paul: “Who can deliver us from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
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in his book Trouble, author Gary Schmidt says, “The world is trouble…and grace. That’s all there is.” Thanks for sharing these thoughts with us.