A slippery slope has replaced the broad road to heaven on which
I used to ramble.
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by Stephen Bransford
painting by David Goatley
I Came for the Grape Juice

by Stephen Bransford

Of times, I would take my Precious Lord by the hand and go where angels feared to tread. Not for me, the safe and sane middle-of-the-road. No, I became acquainted with the ditches that ran to either side. My moral triumphs were ever in the realm of the lesser of two evils. How I gloried in pushing the envelope. I knew the reassurance of sonship, being rescued often from the consequences of my adventuring. And I'm here to confess that if I had it to do again, I wouldn't change a thing. I found it all much to my liking. There were adrenaline rushes, natural highs, ecstasies. I wore an invisible shield of what I mistakenly took to be divine tolerance. How could I have known, in the blush of my youthful romp, that the Lord was a fisherman, allowing me to take line so that He could more effectively set the hook?

The years passed. Pain, injustice and suffering came knocking, as they do for all. Yet, in my exuberance, I expected God to magically keep these things at a distance. Had I not been dashingly faithful to Him? Earning more than the average reward? Apparently not.

And being of such a mind, inevitably, there came the day I decided not be faithful. If doing good earned no special favor, why not do bad, if for no other reason than to make sense of my misfortune? I decided to sin. Not just to go adventuring in His name, but to go adventuring against His clear law.

In prayer, I boldly confessed the sin that I intended to commit. Then I argued that I had chosen the very best sin I could imagine, under the circumstances. It was a sin of pleasure. I tried to help God understand that this was not so much an act of rebellion as an antidote to the searing pain He had allowed into my life. "What if I had chosen one of those really cynical sins," I argued, "like murder, or stealing, or lying, or plunder, rather than this wonderful sin?" I stated my case and plunged into the pleasure of it for a season. And behold, my soul (read here, "ego") was marvelously restored.

Who then would be surprised to learn that the price of restoring my soul grew exceedingly high? The day came when the terrible consequences for my sin became obvious to even me. Pleasure steadily diminished as suffering replicated itself exponentially, growing from the root of my indulgence. I began to heartily declare that God's law was indeed the very best way to live. I could see that it provided a shelter for those who wisely heeded its boundaries.

But my wisdom had come too late. By now, the sin of pleasure I had chosen had chosen me. I was hooked. (Not only is God a fisherman, so also is the father of lies.) Rather than fight losing battles with the weakness of my flesh, I negotiated some noble concessions. I became a sinner with scruples, limiting my behavior. I could look down on others who had no handle on themselves whatsoever. I could say with the Pharisee of Scripture, "Thank God I'm not as other men." It was the best I could do, and it soon left me empty.

I began to ask God to deliver me. A series of people and circumstances entered my life that seemed divinely arranged to answer that prayer. I embraced them as gifts from God, and found myself being transformed. I didn't change, but inside a part of me began to desire His way more than my way. This was something strange and new.

In an unexpected moment, my heart broke. I received a penetrating insight into how the Lamb of God suffered for my rebellion. (Yes, it was merely rebellion, after all.) My choice to sin after receiving His atonement was, in some mysterious way, laid on the innocent Lamb of God a second time. How could that be? I asked my Lord to use this insight as a hot iron to cauterize my conscience so that I would be bent in the right direction thereafter. And it happened exactly as I prayed. I remember the day that it actually became easy to say "no" to the sin that had once held me in its grip. I was the same, but a new heart had started beating in me, inexplicably.

I'm no role model of faith, you see. At no time in that process did I behold the law of God, like an Old Testament hero, and do the right thing. Nor can I even claim the New Testament law of love for my Savior. Jesus said, "If you love me you'll keep my commandments."

"Lovest thou me?" He asked. The record shows that I don't love Him. I love myself. And I obey Him when I find it clearly in my best interest to do so.

I did not stop sinning for good and moral reasons. I'm not even basically moral. I stopped sinning because it became more spiritually painful to sin than not to sin. And sometimes I feel the spiritual reality of that, and sometimes I don't. But, like Pavlov's dog, I've been reprogrammed about the pleasures of sin. When I am tempted, I see my indulgence as if I took a cat-of-nine-tails and ripped the flesh from the back of my innocent Savior, again, closing my ears to his cries of pain, again. I spit in His face, again. I pluck His beard, again. I strike him and mock him, again. I scream, "let Him be crucified", again.

When I see myself like that, it sucks all the air out of sin. How could I keep sinning and go on breathing?

So there you have it. Without my getting a handle on it, a lot of that freewheeling adventuring has gone away. And God seems to have graduated me from a kindergarten of living in His permissive will, to a more demanding classroom of knowing His "tough love." Nowadays, one wrong step and down the slippery slope I go, headlong into the abyss of my worst self like a bumbling addict. The rescues have stopped and I'm being allowed to fall, and fall hard. I feel forced by pain to walk the razor's edge of discretion, where only a fine contemplation of God's purposes-- rather than my own-- can keep me from a bruised ego and a sorely dashed hope.

I'm Samson, awakening to the loss of my hair-- and all of the invincible charm that went with it. I am beginning to see that the end of this road is going to involve chains and blindness and a child who will lead me to the pillars of my temple of doom. Will I finally gain the courage to bring it all down like the house of cards that it truly is? Will I be given one last moment in which to exert the strength of youth again, but this time in total obedience? There will be a struggle of my will until I realize that the child who leads me to the pillars of myself is the child who was born to die. A child in swaddling clothes. The child with whom I have already been crucified. I see that final moment through a darkened glass, but still, I see that it is the moment of full liberation into the new creature that I truly am in Christ. Death, where is thy sting?

How did I get here? Here I stand confessing my sin, and my Savior. I can do no less.

Without really wanting to, I have been made to stand in the shoes of Peter after denying the Lord three times. John records that Jesus said to him after his resurrection; "when you were young you girded yourself and went wherever you wanted to go." (This certainly sounds familiar to me.) The Lord continued remorselessly, "… but when you are old another will gird you and carry you to the place you would not go."

Am I getting that kind of old? Lately, I recognize that I am following Him against my natural inclinations. I am being carried down a narrow road by forces greater than myself. I'm being girded by another. I am being dragged to a place of sacrifice, kicking and bawling like a desperate calf, panicked by the smell of blood and burning, closing my ears to the cries of others better than myself who have gone before.

I hope the process is not finished because I really don't like the present state of it. I have become one of those believers I always despised in my youth; a believer whose inarticulate life repels those who might otherwise be attracted to a fine example of promise-keeper discipline. Who would want to be a ninety-pound weakling-of-the-faith like me? How would anyone who really knows me ever be inspired to "follow me as I follow Christ"? I wouldn't dare suggest it.

What I would suggest is that any earnest seeker make a study of another breed of Christian than me; the kind who seems to take to the narrow road right off. They come to Jesus for the right reasons, knowing that self sacrifice, servanthood and a cross of suffering lie straight ahead.

Who are these guys? I don't know any of them personally, but I'm sure they're out there. They must be the guys with the radio and TV shows, or the bestsellers, the featured speakers at conferences and such. I'm sure God's got real champions we can look up to. So, find them, and follow them, and hear this confession as a warning to yourself.

As I sort it out, an appropriate truism comes to mind; "As the twig is bent, so grows the tree." I did not suddenly become a lukewarm Christian. That has been my trajectory from the start. It is clear to me now that I didn't come to Jesus for the fellowship of suffering. More exactly, suffering has lately come for me. I did not begin following the Lord to lose my life. More exactly, my life has been taken from me. I'm no disciple. I'm a self-serving servant. I've always wanted the perks. I'm a Christian because it seemed to me the wisest and best way to live and get to heaven. In fact, as I recall, I originally came to Jesus for the grape juice.

I can still see my father's steady hand pouring the dark liquid into the tiny thimble-like cups. It was 1956, I was five-going-on-six, my Dad was pastoring his first church in Bay City, on the coast of Oregon, and I had simply never smelled Welch's grape juice before. My mouth watered like an artesian spring.

"Can I have some, Daddy?"

"No," he replied, "this is for communion."

"What's that?"

"From time to time, we believers use this grape juice to remember the Lord's death for our sins. We celebrate his broken body with the pieces of unleavened bread and we celebrate his blood with grape juice."

"Blood?"

"Yes, Jesus shed his blood for our sins, and if we confess our sins he will forgive us and come into our hearts and take us to heaven."

I was greatly relieved to learn that the blood in question would not be mine. And all we had to do was remember His blood by drinking Welch's Grape Juice and He would take us to Heaven. It was, no doubt, necessary bait on the Divine Fisherman's hook. I repeated the sinner's prayer and enjoyed my first communion that fine morning.

I suppose the thing that surprises me the longer I live, is that Jesus actually accepted me like that. He didn't demand that I take giant steps to His throne. In my case, he was forced to make a sort of wheelchair ramp on which to push my crippled soul all the way to heaven.

I was just a kid whose Dad was big as God and whose mouth was watering for Welch's and who would forever get it wrong thereafter. I was five-going-on-six when I inadvertently started the religion of "what's-in-it-for-me-Christianity". It was a call to die. A challenge to take up my cross. But I came for the grape juice. Is it any wonder I've been such a bad disciple?

STEPHEN E. BRANSFORD
c. 2004

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