One of my great fascinations in life has long been back country roads and where they lead. In these days when road trips are so often programmed by auto GPS systems for the shortest or most efficient route possible, it’s an increasingly rare but distinct pleasure to follow the “road not taken” for no other reason than to see what there is to see.
For instance, there’s an old woods road in northern Maine that serves as kind of an “alternate route” to our family’s camp on the lake, and I have to admit that it’s always been my favorite way to get there. Basically, it’s just a narrow dirt road that stretches from one of the surrounding towns along a stream, through a forest, over a mountain and eventually around “the pond.” As a kid, I loved it when we traveled this road because we’d go several miles without a house or camp or field in sight, surrounded by a forest of trees that was dense and dark and quiet; all the better to see nature as it is!
Even now, at least once every summer I’ve just got to travel along that road. Of course, the trouble with back roads, especially those here in New England, is that they tend to be a bit… unpredictable! For instance, a couple of years ago in taking that annual trek, it turned out the way was, shall we say, rough. And understand, I’m not talking “quaint unpaved country lane” rough; I’m talking “seriously needing a high riding four wheel drive vehicle” rough!
Looking back, I don’t know why we didn’t immediately opt to turn around! I do remember thinking that we could have gone on the better road, the easy road, the well-paved road, and we’d have already been home – but no, here we were, too far along the road to turn back but with still “a ways” yet to go; and a difficult way at that. So, as Lisa “rode shotgun,” I bobbed and weaved around to avoid the dozens of potholes that had developed over the winter, all the while endeavoring to keep the bottom of our minivan from scraping on the jagged pieces of rock that were protruding from the road and revving the engine here and there to gain some traction amongst stones and loose gravel that were the remnant of a rainy spring. All in all, I can confirm that this was no longer a ride for nostalgia’s sake, but an adventure, with the goal being to make our way back to camp without inflicting major damage!
Actually, I’m guessing that most of us can name a time in our lives when we have felt just like that: caught on a pathway littered with life’s many and assorted potholes, loose gravel and jagged stones; doing our dead level best to avoid everything along our way that would do us harm but realizing in the end we are caught amidst obstacles that seem way beyond our capacity to conquer. Whether it’s the build-up of everyday stresses that conspire to block the way, or the unexpected crises that catch us unaware, in the end the rough places of life are hard to avoid. In fact, left to our own efforts, more often than not we end up either stuck in some rut somewhere or driven off the road altogether!
That’s why it is good news indeed that you and I don’t make that journey alone, but in the company of Jesus Christ, who helps us navigate the road when the way becomes to rough for us alone. The good news of our faith is truly that our Lord goes with us amidst the suffering; that he gives us the strength we need when we fail, and carries us when we fall. Moreover, while I’ve never succumbed to the idea that a loving and gracious God willfully acts to cause our suffering, I do think there are times that God uses our experience on the rough roads for greater purposes: perhaps for the enrichment of our lives, for the development of endurance or for the nurturing of joy and love in and through our lives and living.
How many of us have had moments in our lives when we’ve looked around and suddenly realized that if we hadn’t gone through what we’d gone through before – as horrible as it was – we wouldn’t be at the good place we are today? How often have we only realized in retrospect that God was present and at work in the midst of our worst situations and darkest moments; moving and shaping our lives even and especially in the moments when we were convinced that everything good was coming to a screeching halt? As a pastor, I cannot tell you the number of times after the fact of a major life changing event – an illness, the loss of a job, the breakdown of a cherished relationship – that someone has said to me, “I didn’t know at the time I had that kind of strength; I guess it was only because God was with me.”
Moving forward from day to day in this life, we don’t always understand what God is doing, if we ever really do; and we can’t always hear God’s revealed truth in an instant. Truth be told, sometimes it’s only when we’ve gotten past the rough parts along the road that we recognize how far we’ve come on the journey and who brought us “safe thus far.” Some might call that 20-20 hindsight, but I think I prefer what the theologian Soren Kierkegaard once said: “We live our lives forward. We only understand them looking back.”
Part of that understanding comes in recognizing that God was indeed at work all along; and realize, perhaps much to our surprise, that by some small miracle we did manage to get our car over the ruts and bumps of that old dirt road, and found our way back home.
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry