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Milestones

September 28, 2011

Two more to go. Tomorrow I go in for my second to last chemo treatment. (The side effects have been getting progressively worse, but that’s to be expected. I don’t know if I could handle more than a couple more of them.)

We like to mark out our lives in milestones. Halfway there. Two more to go. One left. Sixteen and you can drive. Eighteen and you can vote. Twenty-one and you can drink. The big 4-0. Graduations. Weddings. Mid-life crisis. Retirement at sixty-five.

My younger daughter just celebrated a birthday last month, an annual milestone we all look forward to, whether with joy or dread. This one was another milestone, though, because now she is also a teenager. My youngest son also had his first birthday, one which he shares with my parents’ anniversary, a milestone of love and devotion for married people, or at least one of persistence.

A few months ago, we all got to see young people across the country celebrate a major milestone, graduating from high school, ready (or not) to begin their life as adults. And I realized, it’s been 25 years since I passed that particular milestone. When I walked across the stage to get my diploma, the kids who did it this year weren’t even born. And I’m sure some of the kids I graduated with have already graduated their own kids. I know it won’t be long before mine will.

I ended up giving the salutatory speech that year. I was valedictorian (not bragging, the class had only 13 kids in it, and I am not the most diligent person out there, as evidenced by my blog posting frequency), but I had only been at the school for three years, while the salutatorian had been there for ten. So while he got to wax poetic on our (or at least their) shared memories, I had to look forward, which is a trickier proposition. (A wise muppet once said, “Difficult to tell. Always in motion is the future.”) So I talked about how life is a journey that we all have to take. And like any good Presbyterian, I broke it down into three sections, all beginning with the same letter.

The first is planning. You won’t get far on any journey without some sort of plan. You have to figure out where you’re going (since any journey worth taking has a destination), how you’re going to get there, what you’ll need to bring, how much things will cost along the way. I remember when we were growing up in Cape Breton, and each summer we would travel to Ontario to visit relatives for a couple weeks. We usually stayed on the Trans Canada Highway most of the way, but one year my dad changed the plan and took us through New England, which let us stop at the Red Lion Inn in Bangor, Maine, for a fancy dinner. Unfortunately, the plan did not account for three sleepy boys being forced to eat strange food after being in the car for ten hours.

That’s where the second part of the process comes into play: preparation. You may have the best plans laid out, but if you haven’t prepared yourself for the trip, you won’t get far after setting out. One year, after we were living here in the States, we piled in the K-car for the annual Ontario vacation. Now, given that this car could barely make it up a steep hill at more than ten miles per hour, it may not have been the best tool for the job. And sure enough, it died when we got about as far as Syracuse. The plan for the trip was good, but the preparation had been insufficient, and we ended up having to turn around and go home.

Sometimes, though, you can have a good plan, have made all the right preparations, and still things go wrong. There will always be unexpected diversions and distractions and disasters along the road. And that’s where you need the third thing for your journey: perseverance. If the destination is worth reaching, then it’s worth keeping at it even when the road is rough. (In my speech, I think I called it sticktoitiveness, which isn’t a real word according to my spellchecker, but given that I was scrawling the thing out on graph paper the night before graduation, hopefully you’ll give me a pass.)

So that was the gist of my speech. Pretty awesome, huh? At least I thought it was when I wrote it. But looking back now that I’m a lot further along on the journey, many milestones down the road, it looks pretty useless to me. If you’re sitting there at the start of your journey, how do you know what to plan for? What path should you take? What destination do you aim for? Even if you come up with a plan, how can you think about preparing for it, looking down roads you’ve never traveled, with who knows what around every bend? How do you persevere in the face of the unexpected? Where do you find the strength to keep going when the doctor tells you, “Congratulations! It’s a boy and a girl and a girl and a boy and a girl!” Or when the doctor tells you, “I’m sorry, Ma’am, but your husband didn’t make it.”

* * * * *

The school I went to is a Christian school, so one of our other pre-graduation tasks was to come up with our favorite verse, I think for inclusion in the programs for the baccalaureate. I also think I was the only one who was made to justify my choice of verse. I suppose that’s understandable, given what it is. I have more trouble remembering the reference (John 11:35) than the verse itself. But I had, and still have, valid reasons for why “Jesus wept” is my favorite, and not just because it’s easy to memorize.

The first reason is that it reminds me of the importance of context. Why was Jesus weeping? Did He stub his toe? Was He just a moody guy? Did the Jerusalem Angels lose a clincher to the Damascus Red Sandals in the 13th? The verse itself doesn’t help you, but when you look at the context, you see it’s in the story of Lazarus. Jesus was out of town when Lazarus got sick, and by the time He returned, Lazarus was already dead a few days. As He enters the house and encounters more and more people, He is more and more affected, until finally He is weeping.

I heard a minister preach a sermon on this passage once, and he said the reason Jesus was weeping was because the people there didn’t understand that He was the all-powerful Lord, and I had to resist the urge to stand up and tell him that he completely missed the point of the passage (and the second reason it’s my favorite verse), because just a few verses earlier, Mary is telling Jesus that He could have saved Lazarus if He’d only been there. Sounds like they knew about Jesus’ power. But that’s not what this verse is about.

It’s about His humanity. Too often we focus on Christ’s lordship, His divinity, and forget that while He was fully God, He was also fully human. He wasn’t weeping because the people around Him didn’t understand Him. He was weeping because He understood and empathized with the pain they (and He) were going through at the loss of a friend and brother.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that “…we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16) Everything that we go through as humans, He went through, too. The happy times, the sad times, the joys and struggles of our human experience, all of it He knows as well as we do.

So when Jesus says in Matthew 7:7-11 that the Father will give us good gifts, He knows from experience what those good gifts are. And when Paul tells us in Corinthians 10:13 that we won’t be tempted beyond what we can bear, we can know that it’s true because Jesus has been there and knows the temptations we will face, and the way out will always be there because He knows what we will need to get past the temptation.

Let me give you an example. Several years ago, I had to go to a customer site in Rhode Island for something or other. On the way back, there was construction, and I got turned around. Instead of getting on the Mass Turnpike like I wanted, I ended up trundling down a very busy Route 20 (which runs the same direction as the highway, so I knew it would meet up again eventually.)

So as I’m driving along, Satan or my brain or whoever is in charge of temptation put a bug in my ear that there would probably be a strip club along there somewhere. The more I drove, the more it kept building up. I’m a long way from home, no one there would know me or see me pulling in, I needed to stop for dinner at some point. I wasn’t looking for a strip club, but my brain was.

And then I crested a hill, and there it was. I don’t remember the name, but the tagline under it said, “The Gentleman’s Gentleman’s Club.” This was no sleazy dive. This was a fancy place, I think with a patio, probably with a fancy restaurant. At that point, the temptation went into overdrive. I could stop for a fancy dinner; I could probably even expense it. They probably wouldn’t even use the real name, since I was sure they got a lot of business traffic. The girls were probably really attractive, not like you’d expect to find in a cheap place. This was perfect! It was just what I was looking for!

And I couldn’t turn in.

The minivan in front of me hadn’t been there that long, maybe a quarter of a mile. It didn’t stay in front of me for long either, turning into a mall a little ways down the road. Probably just a mom out doing some shopping, or a family going out to dinner.

It had an ichthys on it.

There I was, a couple hundred miles from home, rolling around in my temptation like a pig in slop, telling myself, “It’s just what I was looking for! No one has to know! NO ONE HAS TO KNOW!!!” And the God of Earth and Heaven took time out of his busy schedule to reach down, tap me on the shoulder, and say, “Hey! Dummy! I’ll know.”

He’s been there, so he knows what you’re facing. He knows what you need for the situation you’re in. He has good gifts to give you. If you’ll only ask.

The not-heat-lamped-long-enough burger I had at the Mass Pike rest area Hardee’s wasn’t nearly as good as the dinner I probably could have gotten at the fancy club, but it sure tasted good to me. Was it a coincidence that a car with a little Christian symbol pulled in front of me just when I needed it? Almost certainly. Does that mean God couldn’t work through it? Not at all. He provided the way out when I needed it. And the family that just went out for some shopping never knew I existed, but they got me past the temptation and back onto the highway.

* * * * *

That’s quite a bit from two little words. And that’s the last reason it’s my favorite verse. If there’s that much in those two little words, how much more is there in the rest of the book? The Bible isn’t just something to read along in on Sunday morning and then lose the rest of the week. It’s your Fodor’s guide, your Zagat Survey, your Europe on $5 a Day. (Kids, ask your grandparents.) It’s the Rand McNally atlas for your life’s journey. “Lord, what should my plan for my life be?” Matthew 25:34-40: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”

“But Lord, how can I prepare myself for my life?” Ephesians 6:10-20: “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.”

“But Lord, it’s all still coming apart. How can I find the strength to keep going?” Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

That’s a beautiful picture that probably goes unappreciated in these days of tractors and technology. When a farmer had a task to do that one ox wasn’t strong enough for, he would use a yoke to harness the first ox to a second, and together they would be able to pull the load. So when we have burdens that we don’t think we can carry, when sorrows like sea billows roll, we can yoke ourselves to Christ and lean on His strength to carry us through. Because He’s been there. He knows what we need. And He can get us back on the highway.

Life is a journey, but it’s not one you have to make alone. With apologies to my high school French teacher, I’m going to send you off with an old Spanish farewell as you set out toward your next milestone: Vaya con Dios. Go with God.

And have a good trip.

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