Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Right Roads and Wrong Roads

I discovered one of my favorite poems in the seventh grade. Most of you probably know it—The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost. I thought of it as I was out hiking in the hills above Woodside yesterday. 

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both . . .

I kept the first for another day

And that has made all the difference

Literary scholars have debated about the ending for scores of years. Is the author happy with the road that he chose? Or is it a nostalgic telling, a wish for a second chance, a second life? That ambiguity is precisely what I love about the poem.

There are two lessons to take away; First, we must make choices. We can’t avoid them, and we have to choose between several options – mostly without exploring each one fully. Second, there is no right road or wrong road. There is no road in the entirety of the world where God cannot meet us.

We all have threads – words – that mark our roads and make them uniquely ours. Part of my road, one of my threads, is anxiety.

I started college in the fall of 2003 at Westmont College, a tiny and lovely school 2,000 miles from where I had lived the last long chunk of my life. My parents had just moved from that place to Northern California, so my last vestiges of ‘home’ were gone. In the midst of one of the most anxious times of my life, I took a risk, trusting God in a moment-by-moment way. It was profoundly rewarding, an experience of clinging and abiding in fear.

I graduated college in the spring of 2007, and I was terrified. Terrified of the unknown, of the end of something familiar and cocoonish, and on a road that required very little work of me. I avoided pain with finesse those few months, and wasn’t willing to trust or be still.

God was no less present with me at the end of college than he was at the beginning. But that’s not how I felt. I’ve come to learn slowly something that Dallas Willard says well – that emotions are terrible masters but excellent servants. You don’t get to know at the beginning, most of the time, whether a road is a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ one. It is a mostly false distinction anyhow. My road is my road, and when I waste my time wanting someone else’s journey, I lose any ability to be faithful to God and to the present moment.

At that time, I had (many) long conversations with my good friend Michele. She asked me a bunch of questions, as is her wont, and I didn’t have good answers so I tried to fabricate what I thought were the ‘right’ ones.

“What do you want from God now?” she asked me.

“I guess . . . more of him, and less of me?”

“Okay. Why?”

Why? What does she mean, why? It’s in the Bible! It sounds great! I don’t know why.

“Try again,” she would say.

“Maybe I just want to find God,” I finally told her.

“You want to find God? Why can’t you let God find you?”

For someone who couldn’t sit still, couldn’t trust, these words were like an arrow to my heart. Immediately, I thought of Robert Frost and that poem. I thought of a million reasons why God couldn’t find me: I was on the wrong road. I was running away from him. I was terrified of encountering him, so I hid.

But what Michele said struck me as incredibly characteristic of the one who would go out to find his one lost sheep, the one who would come to dwell among the people he loved on earth. God is in the business of finding people.

Lest that sound passive, it is not. This endeavor requires no less than our very souls offered daily to God – it is a pursuit to which we are called body, heart, strength, and mind.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

We don’t get to come back, most of the time. Our lives are fairly linear, which means there can be growth, and what a good thing that is! And we can live in nostalgia, or in joy, or in some bittersweet comingling of the two. And that, too, is our gift – the coming of the God who finds us.

Monday, December 5, 2011

How could I know?

there is a scene in the movie 'soylent green' that kills me every time i see it. (maybe not the most appropriate turn of phrase, considering the ingredients of the titular stuff.) Edward G. Robinson plays Sol, a former federal agent who is trying to find the truth behind the propaganda related to the Soylent Corporation, a company whose rations are the most commonly consumed sources of energy in a world so overpopulated that trees and greenery have been bulldozed for row upon row of concrete tract housing. Charlton Heston plays Robert Thorn, the young up-and-comer to Robinson's aging Sol, and a winsome and important friendship develops.

a lot of stuff happens, and it isn't as sci-fi as it sounds, and you really should watch the whole thing. But the scene that gets me -- i think of it often.

toward the very end of the film, Sol is about to die. it is a choice he has made, and for doing so, he is rewarded. he is taken into a round room, surrounded by screens showing images of the world he once know -- a field of tulips being battered around by the wind, a troop of deer posing skittishly, wave upon wave lapping up on cliff, rock, beach. Music is piped in -- Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven -- and Thorn strong-arms his way into a viewing area. He sees a world totally foreign to him projected all around Sol. He sees the goodness of it, the beauty and diversity of it, the colors that have been wholly subsumed by wan, monochromatic gray.

"Isn't it beautiful?" asks Sol.

"How could I know?" replies Thorn. "How could I ever imagine?"

. . .

I can't think of a better scene to bring to mind, a better thing to talk about, when we talk about God. I was out of town when Dallas Willard came to Menlo Park Pres a few weeks ago, and tonight, finally got around to watching the video of his discussion of God and the problem of pain.

Everyone ought to have a Sol in their life. I am blessed (and I don't use that word lightly) enough to have a handful of people who point me to truth and beauty, who surprise me time and again with their wisdom. I do not know Dallas well, personally, but a bit. And more than that, I have read and heard and seen him whenever possible, soaking up the opportunity to hear what his mind is thinking. Not because he is a perfect person, but because when I hear him, I think, "How could I know?"

How could I ever imagine a God who is this good?

"We are living beyond death now as we identify with Jesus," he said.

Or this: "Could God have made a world where pain and suffering don't exist?"
"He could have, I suppose, made a world with only minerals. Or perhaps minerals and vegetables. But a world with persons such as us? No, he couldn't have. This is not a limitation of his power. The idea of a world with persons such as us that is free from suffering is contradictory, and a contradiction is not something you can fail to do."

there are some people who get it. they get God's goodness and power so fundamentally, and live out of that conviction so readily, and they are people I want to learn from. But lest I turn that into another form of Christian celebrity worship, it is all because (and only because) we worship a God who is unfailingly good.

and the people around us help us to see. help us to say, "How could I know? How could I ever imagine?"