We have an ongoing debate in our house over terminology around traffic lights. Apparently there is a huge linguistic difference between the vernacular of rural Wisconsin and suburban Illinois. My wife refers to them as “stop and go” lights. I only call them “stop” lights. The phrasing is only slightly different but the subtly changes the meaning completely.
The term, “stop and go” lights indicate a certain order of things: some people stop, some people go, and nobody gets hurt. Often in her community (and communities like hers) stop and go lights replace stop signs, yield signs or no signs at all. Sadly, they are usually only installed after an accident has taken place at a particular intersection or crossing. A stop and go light can be a good thing. It means – this area is now a lot safer than it used to be. They also serve as land marks, “drive through three sets of stop and go lights before turning onto the highway,” for example.
I have a much different relationship with traffic lights. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs where little roads feed into bigger, multilane roads. The goal of these bigger highways is to keep the flow of traffic moving, but often they cross one another and stop lights are needed. When a freeway is unavailable a driver can get stuck at stop lights (“freeway” is another Chicago term I am told – a freeway is a raised highway without a toll, as compared to the Tollway where the driver has to pay to use it) expending time, effort, and more terms offered in the vernacular. The goal of a stop light is to STOP traffic – so that the flow of another multilane highway gets a turn, and prevents a backup. As the city and suburbs have expanded, often the infrastructure can’t handle the load and there are traffic jams, like the arteries of many Chicagoans after enjoying a few too many sausages. Often in Chicago – Green means “Go,” Red means “Stop,” and Yellow means “Floor it, so you don’t get stuck at the light.” Many an accident has occurred trying to beat the stop light.
Notice the difference?
Both stop and go lights and stop lights create a certain order of things to prevent chaos – but a stop and go light is received as a much more positive thing. Sometimes small towns have a change of status because they have a new one. Stop lights, on the other hand, are seen as a hindrance, they prevent the driver from continuing – yes it might be safer, but… GET OUT OF MY WAY ALREADY!
We can read scripture this way. Sometimes it is instructive for our own good, to stop and go. Sometimes it is meant to restrict, and show us where we are lacking, where we need to stop. The reformers referred to this as “uses of the Law.” Sounds heady right? Not really. We can hear the command of Jesus to “love you neighbor” as a reminder that this is his purpose for us; that we are to look beyond ourselves, as Jesus looked beyond himself to see a world in need. Sometimes that means I need to stop what I’m doing, sometimes it means to go – “love your neighbor.” That is the first use of the Law. The other use, the second, is a little more in your face – STOP NOW OR RUN INTO THE CAR IN FRONT OF YOU! “Love your neighbor” means stop being such a selfish idiot and pay attention to other drivers you are endangering by your impulse toward recklessness. This is not what God wants – STOP!
See the difference now?
However, as you know (or at least I hope you do), the Bible is more than a rule book – even of rules are given for our own good. It is also a promise book – people don’t call it (whatever state they are from) the “good book” for no apparent reason. That is where the Law is contrasted to the Gospel, or to say it another way – where God’s instructions meet God’s promises. The Gospel is an uninterrupted freeway, with more lanes and open road than we can possible imagine. The promise of the Bible is that even with God’s instructions given for our own good, and even when we are called to stop because we are headed for trouble – we can’t manage it on our own. When we take matters into our own hands we make a real mess of things. If you’ve ever been on the Illinois Tollroad or any bridge headed into Manhattan, you know what I mean. (I-Passes and EZ-Passes don’t seem to help all that much either.) Yet the Gospel, or simply put – the Good News – is that in spite our constant mess of things, our toll is paid, the highway is free, the road is open, and we are invited to drive on an open road. There are other drivers, but they too drive freely, openly, and there are plenty of lanes for all, moving in the same direction in the City of God. This road is built upon the Risen Christ, and we are fueled up by the Holy Spirit. Our driving becomes not about my way, so get out of it, or unexpected stops and gos, but about being part of the way, truth and life that is our life in Christ. Ok, enough theology. On as nice a day as this, it is time for a drive.
“Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:4-6)