Direction

The other day a woman stopped me on the street and asked for directions. Not wanting to be rude, I did my best to guide her and then went on my way. But after walking two blocks, I could tell I’d given her bad advice. I realized too late that she was trying to find the intersection of two streets that run parallel to each other. I’d pointed her in a direction that would never lead her to her desired destination because her desired location didn’t exist. For some reason, it never occurred to me to check the map on my phone.

I’ve found that this is often the case when people give directions. Those who tell you what direction to take mean well. Some even know where you’re trying to go. But often their guidance is less than helpful. Sometimes, as in my case the other day, the fault lies with the one providing guidance. They think they know the landscape better than they really do. At other times the problem is with the one who receives the directions. Maybe they don’t understand them. Or perhaps they don’t trust them. Sometimes they just decide to go another way.

When I was a pastor I found that the majority of people who came to me seeking direction in their lives were really looking for permission. They already knew what they were going to do. They just wanted a spiritual authority to tell them it was o.k. If I was unable to do so, they went in search of another counselor. Sometimes they just ignored my advice and did it anyway.

There were also times when I gave bad advice or at least inadequate counsel. I thought I knew the landscape. I tried to provide direction. But sometime later I realized that what I said was too simplistic. This usually happened when I found myself in the same situation and my advice came back to haunt me. What seemed clear and straightforward before now looked like unfamiliar territory.

I suppose at this point I should compare the Bible to the GPS system on your phone. Just take it out and ask it where you’re supposed to be and you’ll never go wrong. But it never seems quite that easy. At least, not when it comes to the finer points of guidance. The big things are simple. At least, they are easy to know. They aren’t always so easy to do. All the big things we are supposed to do (or not do) are pretty much boiled down to ten things. Jesus narrowed them down to two: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

But honestly, it’s the street by street navigation that gives us trouble. Many times when we are trying to make decisions, we are looking for an intersection when the choices before us lie on parallel tracks. The decision is not binary. It’s not a matter of either or. When faced with a choice between option A and option B, we could choose either and still remain within the boundaries Jesus sets for us. Neither one violates our love for God or our obligation to love others. Yet we would still like to have a sense of God in our decision.

There are some who say that in such cases God doesn’t have a preference. If both your options fall within the broad boundaries God has set for your life, choose the one that pleases you most. It seems like sound advice, as long as your options remain binary and you have a clear preference. But what if you have more than two options? What if you like them all? What if every one of them is something you hate? What if you don’t have a strong feeling about any of them?

There have been times when I wished God would just come out tell me the way He wanted me to go and relieve me of the responsibility of making any decision. An angel visitation might be nice or maybe a cloudy pillar by day and one of fire by night. It seems like a good idea until I realize how often that kind of direct guidance from God didn’t really seem to help God’s people stay on the right path in the Old Testament.

Knowing the direction we should take is no guarantee that it will be the direction we want to take. It is also no guarantee that we will actually choose to walk the path marked out for us. We might just bolt like the prophet Jonah and run in the opposite direction.

Lately, friends have been questioning me about a major decision I’ve made. “How do you know God wants you to do that?” they ask. I can only offer them negative proof. “He hasn’t given me any reason to think otherwise,” I say. Does God really want me to do this? How would I know? Dreams and visions? God doesn’t work that way in my life. There is no chapter and verse to cover the choice I’m making. I am left with preference and even then there are times when I feel ambivalent. St. Augustine said, “Love and do what thou wilt.” He didn’t mean that we should always do what we want. But what we want is often a good place to start. Augustine’s point was that whatever path we do take must fall between the two poles of two great commandments Jesus emphasizes. No matter whether we do what we like or like what we do, everything that we do must be shaped by God’s definition of love.

Sometimes what we must do pleases us. Sometimes the things we would prefer to do fall outside the bounds of God’s plan for your lives. Sometimes we don’t know what to do but must make a decision anyway. God does not always shine a light on the path before we walk it. But He does always travel it with us.

Divine direction is no small thing. It is pretty important. But there is more to guidance than navigation. God’s guidance operates by faith. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” Proverbs 3:5 tells us.

This implies that the path is not always clear and our ways are not always straight. We rely upon God to handle the course corrections. Then we trust Him for the trajectory those changes introduce into our lives. They don’t always make sense to us. Or to others. But God is really the only one who sees the entire landscape of our lives. He knows where we should be and how to get us there. He knows how to nudge us in the right direction when we drift off course.

When my children were small, we sometimes took long family trips in the car. We didn’t have GPS in those days. Every so often my kids asked the question that every child asks at some point during a family trip: “Are we there yet?” “No,” my wife Jane would always answer. “But we’re closer than we were before.”

Extraordinarily Ordinary

When my friend Ray was diagnosed with cancer, he started reading obituaries. He found comfort in the newspaper’s daily litany of the departed. Somehow it made him feel less alone. Like a pilgrim who is traveling in company, instead of someone who stumbles along a difficult path by himself. It was the ordinariness of the thing that helped him the most.

I feel something similar whenever I thumb through the old yearbooks in the faculty lounge. Their faces framed in horn-rimmed and cat-eye glasses, the images of former faculty gaze back at me with pursed lips or shy smiles. I do not recognize any of their names. They are long forgotten by the school they once served. Along with them are rank upon rank of students who are also long gone. They are not remembered either. Indeed, most of them were hardly known when they were here. Like the majority of us, they were just ordinary people.

It is hard to be ordinary. Especially in a culture which worships the heroic. This is particularly true of the Christian world. Wendell Berry observes that the Judeo-Christian tradition favors the heroic. “The poets and storytellers in this tradition have tended to be interested in the extraordinary actions of ‘great men’–actions unique in grandeur, such as may occur only once in the world” he explains. This is a standard that is impossible for ordinary people to live up to.

As a young Christian, I remember being captivated by the story of Jim Elliot, one of the five missionaries who lost their lives when they attempted to bring the gospel to the Huaorani people of Ecuador. When I was finished I got down on my knees and prayed that God would make me a martyr too. It was a foolish prayer, prompted more by romanticism than by devotion. It was a request born of youthful impatience and a rash hunger for glory. Not at all like the real martyrs, most of whom stumbled into their unique calling.

It takes another kind of courage and a different skill set to follow the path assigned to the majority. “The drama of ordinary or daily behavior also raises the issue of courage, but it raises at the same time the issue of skill; and, because ordinary behavior lasts so much longer than heroic action, it raises in a more complex and difficult way the issue of perseverance” Berry observes. “It may, in some ways, be easier to be Samson than to be a good husband or wife day after day for fifty years.”

On some days we feel like we are only going through the motions, merely shuffling along as we pass into oblivion. Instead, we are traveling in company. We are upholding the world with hundreds of small and ordinary efforts. We make the bed. We drive the kids to school and worry about the kind of day they will have. We go to work. We clean the bathroom. We wait for the end of the world and the dawning of the age to come. It is a kind of liturgy.

The world needs its heroes. It may be true that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Yet both the church and the world at large are vastly more dependent for their daily functioning on the common efforts of those who are extraordinarily ordinary. The writer George Eliot observed, “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

George Bailey Lassos the Moon

“Mary, I know what I’m going to do tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that. I’m going to leave this little town far behind and I’m going to see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon…the Coliseum. Then I’m coming back here and I’ll go to college and see what they know and then I’m going to build things. I’m going to build air fields. I’m going to build skyscrapers a hundred stories high. I’m going to build bridges a mile long.”

 So says George Bailey in the Frank Capra classic It’s a Wonderful Life. As it turns out, George is wrong. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that. As it turns out, what he is supposed to do tomorrow is pretty much what he did today. God’s plan for him is to do the ordinary thing. Which, of course, is the last thing that George wants to do. Because George Bailey wants to lasso the moon.

 I thought about George Bailey last night when I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking about God’s will. I haven’t thought about God’s will for some time. Not seriously. Not in that obsessive way that I used to back when I was a college student, wondering about God’s plan for my future. I don’t think much about God’s will because, like George Bailey, I know what I’m going to do tomorrow and the next day and the next year. At least I think I do. Get up and go to work (if I ever fall asleep). Come home and have dinner with my wife. Take a walk. Try to think of something to write about in my blog. Goals that are, for the most part, pretty low on the horizon.

 Here is the irony. I am doing everything I dreamed of doing back when I was in college. I am married to someone I love. Teaching, writing and preaching. But not in the way (and frankly not to the extent) that I imagined when I wondered what God’s plan for my life would look like. In those days I was aiming for the moon. God’s will, revealed through the constraints and necessities of ordinary life, have compelled me to lower my expectations. I wanted to expect great things from God and attempt great things for God. His agenda for me seems far more commonplace. This has not always been easy to accept.  

In his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Eugene Peterson recounts the story of the fourth century church father Gregory of Nyssa whose brother Basil had arranged for him to be made bishop of Cappadocia. “Gregory objected,” Peterson writes, “he didn’t want to be stuck in such an out-of-the-way-place. His brother told him he didn’t want Gregory to obtain distinction from his church but to confer distinction upon it.”

 Is this not what Christ wants for us as well? To lower our sights and put away our lasso? To seek the good of the small places in which He has placed us and to confer distinction upon them by serving him with humility there? The path of glory is often an obscure one. It is the way of the cross. “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8