Sunday, August 9, 2015


Spending time with family members this summer, I’ve been struck at how often our conversation turns to questions about what’s “right.” Is it “right” to have insurance, or should we trust God to provide in times of need? Is it “right” to put our family’s safety/comfort/happiness first, or should that be held in balance with calling, mission, ministry? Is it “right” to attend a church where we don’t agree on key theological points? Which points? Who is "right"? 

God gave me a strange gift when I was seventeen. At the time, I didn’t realize its value, and sometimes since then I’ve forgotten what I saw, but I’m brought back, sometimes painfully, sometimes with great amusement, to see again what I saw so clearly as a skinny high school senior.

I had planned, for years, where I was going to go to college. My grandmother didn’t like my plan, but from every other direction the endorsement was strong. Then, through what seemed like a clear word from God and some compelling circumstances, I found myself considering something very different.

The problem was, my first choice seemed like the "right" one. And when I started making lists of reason, weighing out the pros and cons, I found I could make the thing stack up either way. In fact, in talking to people around me, I found I could present either case so compellingly my listener would have to agree. You’re right!

But then, from the other side, You’re right!

Which is when God stepped in and gave me an interesting glimpse of my own tenacious mind, my own need to be right, and a simple, stunning truth: I could have all the reasons on my side, have it all lined up, be right on paper, right in logic, right in every way, and still be completely wrong.

One of my favorite poems at that point was Invictus, the well-known poem by little-known poet William Ernest Henley (1849–1903). I was aware of its questionable theology ("I thank whatever gods there be"), but I liked the idea of standing up to the “bludgeonings of chance,” and I looked forward to somehow becoming “captain of my fate,” and “master of my soul.”

Choosing a college was my first chance to begin navigating my own course, but I remember sitting quietly and considering what I knew of people who had marched forward as captains of their fate. My family was full of smart people, smart in all the measurable ways, logical, persuasive, able to explain the rightness of their choices. But many of their choices, while logically right, had been painfully wrong, for them and those around them. In fact, as I sat looking down the path of the future, it occurred to me that “being right” could be a destructive thing, a license to ignore other people and their needs, a justification for doing great harm, a path into great danger.

College applications on the table before me, I made a decision, a decision that has stayed steady for over four decades now, despite occasional wavering and brief moments of amnesia. I decided I wanted to do what God called me to do, what He invited me to do, and to trust my decisions to Him, even if my own plans, ideas, opinions seemed better, more logical, more “right.”

I applied to just one college, the one I believe God called me to. And continue to thank God for the way He used that time in my life.

Does that mean God always tells us what choice to make? Not at all.

Should we wait until He does? Not necesssarily.

Are we wrong for having our own ideas, our own plans, our own agendas? No. 

It’s how we hold our plans – lightly, or tenaciously. With stubborn, prideful confidence our plans are right, or with a sense of humble, listening prayer: this is the way I’m going, Lord, unless you show me a better way.

Praying this week with family members considering some important decisions, I was reminded of our family’s move to Virginia, more than thirty years ago. We had been living in West Philly, in a neighborhood I’d grown to love. We had a two year old and a baby on the way. I wasn’t thrilled to be moving further south (I'm a native New Yorker), but I’d decided that it would be okay on one condition: we needed to buy a single family house, with a decent yard, preferably fenced, and room for a vegetable garden.

My plan made sense. Except we were losing money on our hundred-year-old twin in West Philly, couldn’t afford a single-family house anywhere near my husband’s new job, and he thought a townhouse in Reston, the planned community where he’d be working, would be a better choice.

I was sure I was right. So sure, I couldn’t even begin to see his point of view. Reston, on our first visit, was a hot, burned-over, weird, new place. The one townhouse I agreed to look at had tiny bedrooms, avocado and harvest gold bathroom fixtures, and bright orange, pink and green wallpaper throughout most of the first floor. No way.

He thought it was a great buy. I assembled compelling arguments against it. And then, in Truro Church the next day, John Howe, Truro’s rector at the time, preached a sermon about sin. 

I remember very clearly what he said: “Sin is wanting your own way more than God’s.”

Of course. I knew that. 

I’d seen it.

And I’d decided, years before: I wanted God’s way, not mine. 

Once I stopped arguing, it was totally clear: that small brick townhouse was God’s answer to our prayer.

I can’t think of a better place for a family of young children than that townhouse community where we spent fifteen years. In fact, when we outgrew our first townhouse, we scoured northern Virginia for something better and finally bought a larger townhouse just down the street. After that move, our kids were sure they lived in the best house in the best neighborhood in the best town in the best state in the best country in the world. God used those two homes for great good in our lives, and in the lives of others we came to know.

When I was a camp counselor one summer, years before that, a friend made me a small gift, a rock with Proverbs 16:9 painted on it: "The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps." 

I’ve saved that rock as a reminder that God's not counting on my wisdom. Instead, if I listen, He'll give me his own. It’s a reminder that it’s okay to plan, to make lists of pros and cons, to envision the future, to think about which way is best.

But to hold that lightly. 

Because God is the one who knows the future, knows me, knows the people I love, knows what’s best for us all. I want Him to be the one to direct my steps, and theirs, through the unseen dangers, the unexpected tests along the way.

The news, as usual, is full of people arguing about debt, taxes, guns, treaties. There are lots of reasons, lots of people sure they’re right. I confess I’ve done some arguing myself, and there are days when I’m not quite sure who’s right, but very sure about who’s wrong.

But being right isn’t the answer. Not in politics, not in personal decisions. Our only hope is in listening, carefully, to the One who is beyond our reasons, our logic, our pride in our own wisdom. If He directs our steps, we can't go wrong.

       The shepherds are senseless
           and do not inquire of the Lord;
       so they do not prosper
           and all their flock is scattered. 
       Listen! The report is coming—
           a great commotion from the land of the north!
       It will make the towns of Judah desolate,
           a haunt of jackals.
        Lord, I know that people’s lives are not their own;
           it is not for them to direct their steps. (Jeremiah 10)

[This summer I'm reworking some earlier posts, as travel and time outside limit my time for blogging. This blog appeared, in slightly different form, on July 31, 2011]

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