Last week's column cited a phrase from the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes to describe some common human follies: "and that was like chasing the wind".
I grew up with a boy in rural South Alabama whose girlfriend invited him to a dinner party in Evergreen, the county seat. His training in table etiquette was limited, but he was doing fine by watching the other guest, until they served coffee at the end of the meal. It did not appear to be hot, but it was. He took a big mouthful of the hot coffee and then spat it right back into the cup. Every head turned toward him. He looked around the table at the shocked guests and finally said, "You know, there are some people who would have been fool enough to swallow that." There are some things we should spit out in embarrassingly poor taste rather than swallow them with painful pride.Yet pride gets most of us.
It is embarrassing to suddenly realize in the middle of a heated argument that you are dead wrong. Backing out of an opinion to which you are publically committed can sometimes produce come interesting mental and emotional gymnastics. However there are some people who have enough ego strength to admit their error with blunt honesty and risk the consequent loss of pride. Self-justification is seldom a wise course of action. It prolongs the pain of being wrong. Blunt honesty is never easy, but it is an admirable characteristic.
Have you ever been wrong but too proud to admit it? Have you ever sugar-coated your mistake with denial or justification and then swallowed it? Did it just about eat you up? Several years ago Dr. Fred Craddock, erstwhile Professor of Homiletics at Candler School of Theology at Emory University told a touching story from his own life experience.
Dr. Craddock said that when he was growing up his father refused to attend church. He stayed home and fussed about lunch being late on Sunday. Occasionally the minister would visit and try to talk to Mr. Craddock, but he was rough on the minister. He would say, "I know what you fellows down there at the church want. You want another name and another pledge. Right? Isn't that the business you are in - another name and another pledge?" This embarrassed Dr. Craddock's mother. She would go to the kitchen and cry while the preacher was there. Every now and then a visiting evangelist would come with the minister. They would double-team old Craddock, but even two of them could not get through to him. He would always say something like, "You don't care about me. You want another member and another pledge. That's how churches operate. You don't care about me." Dr. Craddock said that his father must have said that a thousand times, but there was one time he did not say it.
It was at a Veteran's Hospital. Dr. Craddock rushed across the country to see his father who had throat cancer and was down to seventy-five pounds. The doctors had removed his throat, but it was too late. Radiation therapy had burned him badly. They had put in a tube so he could breathe, but he could not speak. Dr. Craddock said that he looked around the hospital room, and there were flowers everywhere - on the table, in the windows, and even on the floor. He looked at the cards attached to the flowers and they read, Men's Bible Class, Women's Society, Youth Fellowship, Children's Division, the Pastor, and every other organization in the church. Old Craddock saw his son looking at the cards. Unable to speak, he picked up a pencil and wrote on the side of a Kleenex box a line from Shakespeare's Hamlet: "In this harsh world draw your breath in pain to tell my story." Fred read it and asked his father, "Dad, what is your story?" The speechless man took the Kleenex box back and wrote a three word confession. "I WAS WRONG." Can you hear that?
What a frightening road map our footprints make when we see that what we thought was the pursuit of happiness, truth, security, etc. has been no more than a flight from ourselves and God.
The only comfort we may take in this matter, if any, is we are not alone in our flights of folly. The Bible is replete with examples of persons whose futile "chasing the wind" constituted nothing less than running from God. Remember the fleet-footed Jacob in the Old Testament, who took a protracted excursion to Haran to get away from his brother, from God, and from himself? And there was Jonah. Didn't he run!! In the New Testament there was the fun-loving Prodigal Son, whose brief but intense fling in the "far country" brought him full circle soon enough to see his father, from whose presence he had so arrogantly fled. Adam and Eve tried to hide themselves from God with fig leaves, and Saul of Tarsus busied himself chasing down Christians until one day on the road to Damascus he met Jesus face-to-face in the middle of the road, and there was no place to run or hide.
These Biblical characters all ran, each in his own way, and with whatever fig leaf they could find, tried to hide themselves from God. Sometimes, like us, when they were running they would say, "We are trying to find God." What a shift! What a reversing of roles! If anything redemptive ever happens in our lives, if we ever encounter truth and then live it, or encounter love and are saved by it, or trapped in the tangled morass of this ambivalent world, somehow find ourselves and are able to rise above the chaos, it will be because there is a love that will not let us go. Wherever we hide ourselves, in whatever dark corner we may be, there is a love that whispers our name, reaches out and touches us with wounded hands, and gently leads us home.
I could not wish you more than that this redemptive experience happen to you on the road to wherever you are going.
There is more. Tune in next week.