A Fork in the Road

March 4th, 2012

Preacher: The Reverend Doyt Conn

I received an email from a friend the other day asking the question:“When I get to a fork in the road, how do I know which direction to go?”

Peter reached a fork in the road at Caesarea Philippi.That is where we find him in today’s Gospel.He and the disciples were there with Jesus, who had just asked moments ago:“Who do people say that I am?” Peter responded, “the Messiah.” “You’re right,” Jesus replied, “but keep it to yourself.”“We are going to Jerusalem, where I will pick up my cross, walk to Golgotha,and be crucified.The fork in the road appears…Peter pulled Jesus aside. The Messiah was suppose to come to liberate the Jews, not die at the hands of the Romans. To which Jesus said, “Get behind me Satan, for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”

Which of course is the answer to the question about the fork in the road, When you come to one set your mind on divine things not on human things.Which is all well and good,if we can tell the difference.

I find there are three types of forks in the road.Ones we see in advance, slow down for, and consider.Ones we see as we’re screaming past them, and then reconsider.And ones we don’t see at all, but leave us with nagging feeling that we missed something.

I had a nagging feeling the other day.

It 7:15AM on Thursday. My 12-year-old daughter came popping down the stairs and asked if she could shower in our bathroom? “No,” I replied. She gave me a look of irritation. “No,” I reiterated. “We have three showers in this house. Use the one upstairs.” “The showerhead isn’t as good as yours,” she retort. “Then use the one in the basement.” “There are spiders down there,” she replied,Can I use yours? It will be quick.” “No.”

This is not the first time we have had this conversation. Occasionally, I say “yes,” that morning I said “no.” But every time we have the conversation I am left with the feeling that I missed something.

Was this a fork in the road? Can every confrontation with your teenage daughter be a fork in the road? I hope not, but I do believe that the ones that tug at us, the ones that persist, the conversations that happen over and over again,the ones that provoke inconsistent responses, or anger or resentment or consternation,those are conversations where we need to wonder… did we pass something?Did we miss a turn.Did we fly by a fork in the road without even seeing it?

Aristotle’s words come to mind in moments such as these:

“What was essential,” he might ask, “and what was accidental?” Which is another way of saying, “What is a divine construct and what is a human construct?”In other words: “What is important and what is immaterial?”What was really happening that I was missingin this particular situation?

As a guy my mind immediately jumps to solutions,like buying a new showerhead for the upstairs bathroom.To which Jesus would have replied “Get behind me Satan, you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”Sure, a new showerhead may have alleviated the shower issue,but the consternation would migrate;that nagging feeling would go dormant.,only to show up again behind another issue.That is what happens when we focus on the accidental not the essential.The accidental seems urgent and possible and important.And in the moment it magnifies our own competence and power. “I can fix the showerhead and that will solve the problem.”But it doesn’t.

The essential on the other hands gets to the heart of the matter;which is where we want to go.

Dietrich Bonheoffer reminds us: “There is a God shape place inside of each of us.”That shape is the essence of who we are.It is the outline of our soul.And it is more real than our age, race, genders, smarts or the other accidents of our birth.

Desmond Tutu use to come to my seminary to visit a professor, Mark Dyer.Mark had a son Matthew born with only a brain stem.Everything had to be done for Matthew, and someone always had to be with himWhen Archbishop Tutu would come to town he would take his turn, he would sit with Matthew for hours.He claimed just to be in the presence of Matthew’s soul was a beautiful thingNo wonder Bishop Tutu was always so happy,he was in the habit of seeing the essential over the accidental.

Lent is the season where we become better acquainted with the shape of our souls, and better trained in seeing the essence of things.We do so through the spiritual practices.

The training regiment is time tested and simple.It includes the things we always talk about at Epiphany like:prayer, fasting, tithing, sharing the bread and wine, study, reflection, discernment, confession.

These spiritual practices train us to slowdown.They train us to see with the eyes of the soul,and this allows us to see those forks in the road long before we come barreling down upon them.

Or better yet, they train us to choose the right path by habit, without even having to acknowledge the fork in the road in the first place. This is how men like Desmond Tutu live and you can too.

It is a matter of training.My Mother-in-law often says, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.”The spiritual practices push us off the merry-go-round of insanity,and reorient our mind toward divine things.

Sports give us good analogies for differentiating between trying and training.

I was watching a 7th grade girl’s basketball game the other day. These girls were trying like crazy. There were some good athletes on the court. There were some baskets made… but everyone single one of them looked like an accident. After the game I opined, as Fathers are want to do who are disappointed in the outcome of their children’s sporting activity… I said, “You guys played a good game, the only problem was no one on the team knows how to shoot a basket.” “That’s mean,” was the response. “We were trying.” “You were trying and you tried hard and that’s fine. But if you want to make baskets you have to train, not try. You have to go out and practice that’s all. Otherwise you’ll continue to make accidental baskets not intentional baskets, which is fine, if you don’t really care about the outcome.”

To which my daughter should have said:“Get behind me Satan, you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”I was commenting on the accidental, not the essential… again.

The essence of that game was not winning or even basketball,the essence was teamwork, friendship, exercise and being together.

At Caesarea Philippi Peter was at a fork in the road, and he was focusing on the accidentalHe was seeing the human Messiah;he was looking for a man with the power to conquer the Romans, and he missed seeing a God who loves us enoughto come to us, and walk with us, and carry a cross with us, and die for us.

I missed the mark that Thursday morning, and I wasn’t sure why.I wasn’t sure what turn I missed, or what fork I went shooting by.

So I ran my consternation through my spiritual disciplines.I prayed. I talked with my close spiritual friend.I wrote in my journal. I thought about the pattern.And what became clear was that this low-grade irritation had to do with my daughters lack of respect for all I was providing for her. I have worked very hard to give her the same things I had when I was a child.And I grew up in a house with three bathrooms, after all.

And I took my insight to Christ in prayer and what I heard was,“Get behind me Satan, you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

My childhood grace had nothing to do with the size of the house or the number of bathroom, that was accidental.The essence was the love and care and sturdy community my parents gave me.

So I shared this with my daughter that the essence of our relationship is more than the accidents we surround ourselves with. And I apologized for so often missing the point. And while this doesn’t mean she can use the bathroom whenever she wants to, it does mean I won’t get as upset when she asks.

And what I received back was divine.I didn’t hear, “Oh, I understand.”I didn’t hear, “I’ll do better to respect your efforts, or I appreciate it.”

What I heard was infinitely better. She told me about something that was bothering her;Something that set her at a fork in the road.And I just listened,that was my mission.