I’m going to begin by reading you a familiar poem, so please close your eyes or stare off into some blank space… and imagine this scene:
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same, |
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Human psychology, it seems, holds a deeply rooted collection of ideas and images that we pretty much all share. Carl Jung called these mental images “archetypes”. The poem by Robert Frost is both widely popular, memorable and highly compelling because it so skillfully employs just such familiar images. To the vast majority of us, this poem rings true because our life really is like a road that we travel along; life often is like finding our way in the midst of the woods.
Or is it? Your circumstances and your road of life may be very different from mine. Right now, your road may seem as wide open as a trans-Pacific cruise or as dry as a long desert highway; your journey may wind like a lakeside footpath, or confront you with a dead-end alley.
Whatever type of road you see yourself on, what I’m about to say today is not so much a sermon as a collection of reflections about finding our way along life’s path. Yet what I’m really hoping is that this talk of mine does not bring to mind another biblical pathway image: Matthew 15: verse 14’s parable of one blind person leading another one into a pit!
Anyway, that said, let’s hope for the best and start this trip together.
Travel With Faith
Who can remember their infancy? Not me. Life’s road seems to start somewhere and go to somewhere else. But where? And why? I’ll begin by confessing three assumptions and one belief about the road we travel. I hope these assumptions are all true, because frankly, I’m betting my life that they are.
One: Life’s road has both Mystery and Meaning;
Two: Life’s road really is a progression toward some ultimate Destination;
Three: Life’s road is seldom easy.
And finally: I believe that Jesus is uniquely qualified to help us deal with the three points I just mentioned.
Now, religious beliefs differ widely, yet most people who profess their belief in a Higher Power also assume that the God they pray to knows more than they do about the right way to go through life. Most sane people clearly understand that they need some guidance in life. By adulthood, experience has already taught them that life’s way is often obstructed with hazards …and maybe even some enemies. Indeed, sometimes the enemy we meet on the road is us.
Seen in their entirety, the Scriptures express a very clear opinion about how to best proceed on life’s path; and that is not with undue fear or worry, but with thanksgiving, trust and commitment; we are to proceed with faith.
And you just heard all about it in the Psalm. “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.”
Now, as I read it, that seems to say that somehow, our commitment, our trust is the key ingredient that God needs to have from us. It seems to say that by offering our trust to God, we actually receive an amazing super-power: the power to free God; the power to actually enable God’s goodness to act in the world!
If you re-read Hebrews’ chapter 11, you’ll find that it describes faith with a depth that is similarly striking. (It deserves a full day of preaching, but I promise not do that to you!) But did you really hear verse 8? “Abraham… set out, not knowing where he was going.” This verse describes the essence of faith. It turns out that faith is only faith…if you don’t exactly know where it is leading you!
And actually, this description is just as true and relevant today as ever. According to the Bible, though faith means some uncertainty, it is still the best possible way to be on our way. And yet- here’s the twist- faith is simply our reply to God’s Grace…and Grace always finds us before we know we have it. Grace is a completely unearned gift from God. But Grace is a slightly different topic. So, let’s get back to our previous path…
Use Some Discernment
Maybe once in a while or maybe even several times in a single day we need to make choices. What does faith have to do with our need to correctly choose between the many ‘divergent roads’ that are available to us? Things would be much so much easier if ‘the road less traveled’ were always the right path to choose. But we know that’s not always true either. Sometimes it is right to avoid the path of the majority – but sometimes it’s wrong. Mr. Frost fails to provide much guidance at this point, so we’ll have to look elsewhere.
Here at Forest Hill Church, we frequently talk about “discernment”- which is a single word for the often-complex process of sorting out which road God wants us to go down next. As Presbyterians, we have organizational structures, practices, resources and groups which, when they work well, are designed to keep us on the right road.
Now, I want to make it clear that Jesus was not a Presbyterian
Nevertheless, even as our very best example of true faithfulness, he didn’t always know exactly which way to go next. But it is clear that he relied on prayer to guide him. Jesus sometimes prayed by himself, yet he also sometimes invited others –even into His Gethsemane prayer. So don’t be afraid to invite others into your prayer; even into your Gethsemane.
Spiritual discernment is a far bigger subject than I can do justice to this morning, but that won’t stop me from talking about it anyway. My first advice is this: get help! One of my former pastors used to say “You can’t go it alone in New York!” And as true as that is, it’s also true that you can’t go it alone in Cleveland, Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights, South Euclid, wherever. You get the idea. The prayer that Jesus gave us, the Lord’s Prayer, is full of plural pronouns. Our Father; Give us this day our daily bread; Forgive us our debts… etc. Jesus taught us to pray in a way that’s more about “us” than “I.”
Christ is your/our way
And so it is with finding your way. It’s something best done with fellow travelers. Because even at the times when you may feel that you are all alone, facing a tough decision in a quiet yellow wood – your choices do have a very real effect on the lives of others. Despite appearances, others may be closer than you think.
I recently realized that except for the letter “Y”, the words “your” and “our” are really the same. To ruminate further on the highly obvious, I’ll also now observe that the word “your” actually contains the word “our”. I mention this because it can remind us that there really is a close relationship between “your” path (individually) and “our” path (together, as a community.) Likewise, it also turns out that as you, individually, progress on your way by faith, you automatically help others to find our way, too. The epic story of Abraham is a great example of this… and we are still blessed by individual choices that he made, so very long ago.
I’m a late bloomer. In my early thirties, I realized that I felt confounded by the unreliability of finding my way by solely trusting either my thoughts or my feelings. Neither seemed fully reliable, and even together they seemed not fully sufficient to help me find my way through life. I called this the four-way conundrum, and it goes like this:
Some things that make you feel good are good for you;
Some things that make you feel good are bad for you;
Some things that make you feel bad are good for you;
Some things that make you feel bad are bad for you.
Through worship and study, through discussions with my pastors and spiritual directors, through my years on various church boards and even a couple of years training as a spiritual director, I have learned that finding my right way has a lot to do with paying attention. That sounds simpler than it is. Yet while a personal habit of prayer, techniques of attentiveness and reflection are all highly helpful as the practical means for receiving God’s grace, they all fall far short of being fully sufficient. For Christ alone is our ultimate sufficiency. Christ is not merely a teacher, a companion or a destination. Because more than all this, Christ himself simply says: “I am the way”. And that is an extraordinary claim, indeed!
The earthly ministry of Jesus was largely devoted to freeing people from the religious legalisms of their day. To do this, (as Hebrews also says) he opened up “a new and living way.” His approach gained a very respectable following for a good long while, but then, at the cross, it seemed to strike a hopeless dead-end.
Yet, three days later, the Resurrection of Jesus created a tsunami of new interest in the Way of Jesus! And soon after, yet well before anyone called them “Christians”, the earliest believers were simply known as “People of the Way.” And that’s who we still are today, I hope.
The day may come when our logic, feelings, intuition and our best discernment practices all fail us. Our courage or faith may falter. Like the Prodigal Son, we may seem hopelessly lost. But if Christ is the Way, then sticking with him (whatever that might look like) is the indispensable basic necessity for those of us who still see ourselves as “People of the Way.”
And sticking with Him, my friends, is more than enough.