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Sunday, February 21, 2021

The Straightforward Pathway | First Sunday in Lent

via Wikipedia
"Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost."The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri : Inferno

Life rarely seems to go the way anyone expects it will. 

This question came up recently on my Twitter feed: "What would your occupation be if you had followed your childhood dreams?" That got me to thinking, and I responded 'mad scientist,' further clarifying that when I was 7 the 'mad' part was an essential component. If you asked me only three years later, I would have enthusiastically told you of how I wanted to be an archaeologist. I hadn't seen 'Indiana Jones.' Rather, my dad had a subscription to National Geographic, and I was enthralled with the idea of systematically working through the soil in a region and cataloging finds. Another three years later the answer would have been 'forester,' and for a long time before leaving the Catholic church I had a suspicion I'd be a priest. 

When I was 18 I was sitting in the Pastor's office at the Presbyterian parish I had joined (PCUSA), anxiously working up the nerve to tell him that I felt called to ministry. In retrospect I'm almost certain that he was expecting me to come out of the closet. In any event, through changes in denominational affiliation that led eventually to the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, this sense of calling came with me. It was magnified and focused when I went to Brazil as a mission intern at age 21. 

To make a long story short, I was a missionary and minister before spending a number of years transitioning into project management. Now I carry out that profession while studying for the Unitarian Universalist ministry. What ever happened to my dreams of science, whether in a laboratory, archaeological dig, or forest?

High school graduation is an odd thing to me. It's a necessary turning of the page; it's a milestone that signifies a great transition in life to adulthood. And yet, there is so much optimism about it that comes to little or nothing. Few of us ended up living up to our dreams, although some of us are still trying. We graduated, and either went to college or entered the workforce. Well, there are also those who went to prison. Along the way, life happened. One classmate got pregnant in college and dropped out, another died in a terrible auto accident, and another went into the military and became more disciplined that I ever imagined he could be. 

It's not at all uncommon for a person to reach their middle years and ask themselves, "What happened?"

The angst of young adulthood is something I remember very well. Within my evangelical circles of friends in college I would often hear questions about what God's will for someone's life was. I was one to ask it as much as anyone. When I encountered Brazil, that's what set the path for me. For others, it was something else. I wonder how many never really found their thing, and instead just carried on day by day. 

For me, the discovery of a purpose that would give meaning to my life gave me a massive psychological high. It was accompanied as well by a strong sense of homesickness for a country that had never yet been my home. Life felt more 'real' that ever, with emotions running high in all directions depending on how I sensed I was doing in working toward my goal. There were times of testing, and decisions to be made. 

The thing is, the experience of a dramatic, life-changing moment in time is fairly simple to understand. The commitments made following on that also seem clear and direct. Where I found the trouble for myself in living up to those dreams was not in the big, obvious events, but rather in the quiet decisions, the mild concessions, and the opting for a shortcut or two. 

As the ship of life moves ahead, through calm or stormy seas, we have have a hand on the rudder. It's a small thing to turn such a great ship, and yet if we don't constantly course-correct and stand vigilant with eyes on the stars to navigate, we can go way off course. Sometimes, that might just be okay. Imagine being so focused on getting to your pre-set destination that you never see the much-to-be-preferred island paradise just off starboard a little ways. 

Perhaps on the way to your dream you meet someone, and you realign your life around them, and they around you. You can find happiness there. What if you discover that however much medicine appealed to you as a child, you can absolutely lose yourself in software development? Or maybe you wanted to be a famous musician, but instead you're now an accountant who loves her job and plays music for events every so often with some friends. 

Alternatively, maybe you've come midway upon the journey of your life, and you wonder how you ended so far from where you dreamed.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."—Mark 1:9-15 NRSV

In the reading from Mark this week something dramatic happened in the life of Jesus, at his baptism, and 'immediately' he was taken out to the wilderness and tempted. Misleading desires could have turned him off on the wrong course, but we're told he overcame them all. This is often held up as an example of resisting devilish misdirection, and I don't disagree with that usage. I do, however, think it's not the entire story.

Read any of the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and you'll find a Jesus who can be moved to anger or tears. He can rejoice and show courage, and he can also be made to feel very weary indeed. This is a better picture of life, as I see it. We have turning points and start out well, pushing through the resistance, only to find ourselves being faced with the dreariness of daily life. In his essay entitled 'Experience,' Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "The years teach much which the days never know." In those ordinary days that tyrannize our existence, much can be accomplished or lost. It's only in looking back that we can see how far we have come, whether on or off-course. 

Fortunately, we can make corrections. If we're not satisfied with where we've come to, we can act within the bounds of our covenants with others and the limitations of our resources to take a different turn. But it's not just one turn. It's many. And we have to keep making them, each and every day.