The story of the life and times of the Patriarch Abraham in the Old Testament Book of Genesis is a long, colorful, and complicated story. In the absence of sufficient time to read or to recite the unabridged story of Abraham's life, let me read the abbreviated version given in the New Testament book of Hebrews. Listen.
By faith Abraham obeyed the call to go out to a land destined for himself
and his heirs; and left home not knowing where he was to go. By faith
he settled as an alien in the land promised him, living in tents, as did Isaac
and Jacob, who were heirs to the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:8-10)
After answering God's call, Abraham never had a dwelling place more permanent than a tent. He left his home in Haran not knowing where he was going, and he spent the rest of his life without ever reaching a permanent destination. He was a wayfaring pilgrim who never got to where he was going in this world. Abraham's faith in God was expressed by his dogged dedication to the journey. He never considered himself to be in charge of the destination. That was God's business. His faith never did depend on arriving at a destination.
Abraham's life was the journey and so is ours, a fact we tend to ignore. We keep on trying to build permanent places for ourselves in this world when it is clear that we're not here to stay. We are not permanent residents. No one ever has been. We come from a beginning we cannot remember and we journey toward a future we cannot see. We are on the road. That's what I want to talk about today--the journey.
In his book A Life on the Road, Charles Kuralt reminds us that Ambrose Bierce in his "Devil's Dictionary" defines the noun road as "a strip of land that leads from a place where we do not wish to be to a place which it is futile to go." Kuralt said, "He was probably right, at least about the latter part, but what he fails to see is the joy of the journey."
We keep on wanting to settle down as permanent residents and live a predictable forever right where we are which is a yearning that flies in the face of reality. We may not have Abraham's durable faith in the unseen and the unknown future, but we do have the same life circumstance that Abraham had. We are on a journey and we cannot see and do not know where we are going. We have the choice of developing a faith to accommodate our situation or we may develop illusions of predictability and permanence which the circumstances of reality will periodically shatter and finally destroy. Illusions are always temporary except as they exist in the lives of people who suffer certain serious mental illnesses.
Faith is the only reliable tool that we have at our disposal to deal with the unvarying reality of life. There is no way we can learn enough in this short life to know everything and trust nothing. We live twenty-four hours a day by faith in people and in systems that we cannot see and do not understand. We do not understand our own bodies, minds, and emotions. We are dependent upon a life force within to keep our bodies and minds functioning. If you were informed that beginning at noon tomorrow you will be in charge of your heart, liver, skin, and brain for the next twenty-four hours, you would be horrified and so you should be. We are dependent upon a force we cannot see and do not understand for the operation of these organs. We literally live by faith.
We do not know what's going to happen in our lives tomorrow or next week or next year. In one of her recent novels, Sue Grafton begins with a strange and interesting paragraph that reminds us of this very fact. Listen.
Sometimes I think how odd it would be to catch a glimpse of the future? a quick view of events lying in store for us at some undisclosed date. Suppose we could peer through a tiny peephole in time and chance upon a flash of what was coming up in the years ahead. Some moments we see would make no sense at all and some, I suspect, would frighten us beyond endurance. Time, of course, only runs in one direction, and it seems to do so in an orderly progression. Here in the blank and stony present, we are shielded from knowledge of events that await us, protected from knowledge of the future by blind ignorance.
The Book of Ecclesiastes puts it more succinctly. "God has made everything to suit its time; moreover he has given us a sense of time past and future, but we cannot see what God is doing from the beginning to the end." (Ecclesiastes 3:9-11) We are pilgrims, ignorant of how it all began and blind to how it will end. Our only beacon is faith, faith in that transcendent being by whose hand we came into the world unaided by any effort on our own and dependent upon that same being for a safe exit. Our business, our joy and our life is the journey, not the destination.
It is true, however, that most thoughtful people develop some dream or plan for their lives. Some spend a lifetime following a dream someone else had for their lives which is almost always an unsatisfactory way to live. In spite of the well-laid plans and treasured dreams we have for ourselves or which others had for us, life seldom follows the path or reaches the destination we thought it would. In his book Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, Greg Levoy writes, "I have heard it said that the best way to make God laugh is to proclaim your five-year plan." History is, above all, the story of change. It is riddled with the unexpected.
Setting goals is fine, but setting goals in concrete is foolish.
Stop and think for a moment about where you are now--where you live and what you're doing, what you're thinking and what life is like for you. Did you every dream five, ten, or twenty years ago that you would be where you are now? Could you have ever predicted what would happen to you along the way? Could you have guessed why or how you would be at this place in your life? If our happiness is tied to reaching a preplanned destination, we will probably be disappointed with life. Unless we can adjust ourselves to the inevitable unexpected, we will never be happy.
Not only can we not see the beginning or the end of our journey, we make many unanticipated stops and detours along the way. Our happiness is far more dependent upon flexibility than upon our stubborn pursuit of dreams and plans that were obviously not meant to be. All of life is an adjustment to the unplanned and the unanticipated. The essence of life is what happens to us on the way to what we planned. And everything that happens to us makes a difference. The kaleidoscopic changes in life are such that we cannot possibly predict what will happen nor how we will be changed by it all.
Our journey is filled with surprises. In Winston Groom's story of the hilarious life of Forrest Gump, Forrest said, "Life is like a box of chocolates--you never know what you're going to get."
For many people the surprise element in life is the source of great anxiety. I have seen and participated in many surprise parties. There is always, even if but for a split second, a flash of horror on the face of the honoree before they realize that they're surrounded by friends and that everything is going to be all right. Fear of the unexpected is more often than not rooted in a more basic fear--the fear of the loss of control.
There is nothing that detracts more from the joy and the success of our journey than obsessive efforts to gain and to maintain control of our environment and the people in it. An unchecked quest for control can twist life out of shape, poison relationships and dry up the milk of human kindness and compassionate consideration. At the very root of human greed and a lack of the respect for the rights and feelings of other people is the unbridled drive to gain complete control and have everything our way. Our quest for control can sometimes be seen in the specificity with which we pray, which at times borders on telling God not only what we need but how to do it for us.
In his Confessions Saint Augustine pictures his mother, Monica, praying all night at a seaside chapel that her son will not sail for Italy. She wanted Augustine to be a Christian and she could not bear losing him from her influence. She thought if so far she had not led him to Christ how much farther he would be from the Lord in Italy. But even as she prayed, Augustine set sail for Italy where he met a man by the name of Ambrose who persuaded him to be a Christian. Augustine became a Christian in the very place from which his mother's prayers would have kept him. Thus God denied the specific form of her request in order to grant the substance of her desire.
God works in mysterious ways in our lives and in the life of the world. He works his will though strange people and circumstances. He is not bound by our limited vision of possibilities.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon was a famous 19th century English minister. As a young person, he had a lot of spiritual problems. His mind was filled with doubts which seemed to stand between him and a meaningful relationship with God. He went from church to church and minister to minister trying to find someone who could help him. He went one Sunday morning to a particular church where he had heard that there was a minister who was good at helping people such as himself. The weather was very bad that day and there were only a handful of people in the church. The time for the service to begin came and passed, and the minister was still not there. Finally, a layperson got up and said to the congregation, "It appears that our pastor has been snowed in or otherwise hindered, but so that we will not have come in vain today, I will read some Scripture and offer a prayer." Young Spurgeon was crushed with disappointment. He had wanted to hear this particular preacher and now he was being denied this privilege. The old layman with a squeaky voice and no gift for oratory read from the prophecy of Isaiah. Among other things, he read the words, "Look unto me ye ends of the earth, look unto me and be saved." When Spurgeon heard these words, it dawned on him that he was sitting there willing to do almost anything in order to generate a religious experience and here he was being told that all he had to do was open himself up to the mystery of God and that the experience he had been trying so hard to contrive would come to him. Spurgeon had a very profound religious experience based on this insight on that cold winter morning in a half-empty church where an inexperienced layman simply read from the Scripture and prayed. This was the beginning of a vision for his own journey and for thousands of people who were later to be influenced by his ministry.
The experience did not come the way he expected it. It did not come through the person through whom he had expected it would come. It came in a surprising form.
If we let God be the Lord of our journey, then we must be prepared to be surprised. It has been suggested that God's other name is Surprise. I was once reminded that God can answer our prayers in any one of four ways: "Yes," "No," "Wait," and "Have I got a surprise for you!" There is a real sense in which our spiritual maturity can be measured in direct proportion to our capacity to live creatively with unanswered questions, unsolved mysteries, and the surprises of life.
Our journeys are not the same. We are called to a journey that is uniquely our own because we are uniquely and profoundly different. Look how different people are. They look, think, and act so differently that we are able to identify them and call them by a special name. But the outward differences of people are minuscule compared to the differences you cannot see. If you could get inside the heads of other people and be privy to their thoughts and feelings, you would be shocked. Our journey is uniquely our own because we are unique. If we try to follow someone else's journey, we will be lost. If we try to impose our journey on other people, we will do them a grave disservice.
We live in a society that pressures us to conform in so many subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways. We are bombarded with the reasons why we should all use the same kind of toothpaste, eat the same kind of foods, and drive the same kind of automobile. It is not unusual to encounter religious persons or religious groups who try to press everyone into the same spiritual mold. It is obvious that the Wise Being who brought us into existence made us different. It would be strange and incongruous if God now wanted us to all be alike.
Many people are confused by the plethora of conflicting religious views so often offered with unbending authoritarianism. It is proper to beware of religious spokespersons who are absolutely certain about everything and who leave no room for the essential element of mystery in the human quest to know God. It is often difficult to know who is right and who is wrong in the noisy den of competition for support in public religion. But there is a way to avoid having to struggle with these two slippery labels of who is right and who is wrong. Just make sure you are on your journey--the journey for which you came into the world. While it is true there are people who can help us with our spiritual journey, you are probably the best authority on what you need. No one can make that journey for you, no matter how much they love you.
We would do well to avoid bumper-sticker religion. This simplistic approach to the complicated problems of people and society may sound good, but it fails the test of reality. To try to make everyone alike is to attempt to avoid the pain and the "heavy-lifting" of careful thought and respectful consideration of the differences with which God made us and sent us into the world. We are on different journeys.
Celebrating and living our unique journey does not mean that we cannot blend important parts of our lives with others and walk with them in a higher unity. When Jesus prayed that his disciples might be one in John 17, it was a prayer for a unity of love, not ideas. We do not achieve unity by persuading everyone to be like us nor by finding the lowest common theological denominator. Our common loyalty is not to a set of human-made theological propositions (and all theological propositions are of human construct). Our common loyalty is to Christ.
Don't get lost on someone else's journey. You came into this world with a journey of your own. The most important task in your life is to find that journey and to be faithful to it.