When You Come to a Fork in the Road
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Where I’ve just come from, Yogi Berra’s the man. Of course, the Yankees gave Yogi his fame but in Northern New Jersey, and my town, specifically, Yogi is a larger than life, philanthropic, fun-loving legend. We have the Yogi Berra Museum, Yogi Berra golf outings, Yogi Berra sightings, and Yogi Berra honorary chairpersoned events. In Montclair, New Jersey, Yogi Berra is a legend, complete with all of the Yogiisms any one of us can recall. One of my favorites? “Baseball is 99% mental. The other half is physical.” Something else Yogi would want us to know? “Always go to other people’s funerals. Otherwise, they won’t go to yours.” I didn’t realize that Yogi coined this one: “It’s déjà vu, all over again!” But can we admit that this rings true for a lot of us? “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!”
Can you remember a time when you’ve come to a fork in the road and you’ve dived right in? In a reactive mode of thinking, you just went for it. – Took the plunge. Maybe you weren’t exactly sure where you were heading, and you sure didn’t how it would end, but there you were. At a fork. And you took it.
Life is a long journey. We can’t know how it’s going to turn out. Sometimes, we make decisions that make sense to us at the time but never really made sense in the overall scheme of life at all. At some point, maybe we determined that it was the best decision that was ever made. Or maybe we realized that our decision or someone else’s would came back to haunt us – or them. What I’ve come to realize is that it’s in the tension of the decision making process, including how we react to one another and what we do with the results, where we learn and grow into the people God has called us to be. The younger brother came to the fork in the road. Was he going to maintain his younger brother, casual and potentially superfluous status, or was he going to go out and see the world? I suspect that the younger brother just came to the fork in the road, and he took it. We really don’t know why. The text doesn’t say, other than the fact that he ended up in the land of pigs (Gentile territory). But was his goal debauchery, as his older brother accused? How about frivolity? Was he looking for the end of the rainbow? Was he hoping to escape the constraints of his religious heritage?
There’s a point in all of our lives where we have to make a decision. We have to make a decision about what we’re going to do with our education, career, life partners, and family. We come to a point in our lives where we’re expected to make choices in this world and sometimes we just close our eyes and leap. Unfortunately, when you’re a high functioning human being, you can’t get away with life being entirely hit or miss, Yogi might say that there’s the potential to “make too many wrong mistakes.” Our objective understanding of the world around us – the opportunities and potential pitfalls – is informed, or complimented, or complicated by our subjective understanding of what might lie ahead. We get hurt or we grow (or maybe our choices cause one of these effects upon someone we’ve loved) and eventually we have to look back on how we got into this mess to begin with. Have you ever found yourself in that place, too?
Even once we seek and receive forgiveness for a wrong decision, we still have to live with the consequences of that decision the effects of which linger long after the decision has been made. (Let’s set aside good decisions, because everyone likes a happy ending.) – Like the prodigal son who blew his inheritance only to return home to a forgiving father and resentful brother. Of those snap, fork in the road decisions that have brought us or someone else to a very uncomfortable place? Every decision brings with it consequences that we need to anticipate and respond to accordingly. So as tempting as it is to react to situations upon us in the course of life with hapless emotion we need to respond to such opportunities with thought. As Yogi has been heard to say, “Little things are big.”
Each choice in our lives comes with the potential for great ups and downs Which is why we blow it, or when others blow it in our minds, we hope to be able to depend upon those who have it in their hearts not only to be fair, but to be better than fair.This is a proposition made by Dr. Henry Cloud, a Christian psychologist, in one of his many books, Nine Things You Simply Must Do To Succeed. In sharing one of the nine things you simply must do, he makes a statement that he agrees seems counter-intuitive. He says, “Here’s all you have to do to ruin every relationship in your life: play fair. If you play fair, you will ruin all of them. Some may go pretty quickly, others may take longer. But in the end, you will succeed. Play fair and all of your relationships will be ruined.”
Fair, you see, is good for good and bad for bad. But because everyone is a fallen person, eventually someone will do something bad and eventually someone will do something bad to us. Then, in the eye for eye reality of how most people look at the world eventually, we will do bad to others. And that is what will destroy a relationship. Cloud says that if we move through life expecting things to be fair, we will be miserable. Because life isn’t intended to be “fair.” Fair sends us down a cycle of revenge in a “good for good, evil for evil” kind of way. That’s something Jesus was trying to communicate with his whole, “turn the other cheek” thing. Cloud concludes that we shouldn’t simply play fair. We should play better than fair.
Forgiving always feels a little unjust but it’s the better than fair thing to do. Which might just be where the prodigal’s father landed but what the older brother hadn’t quite figured out after the younger brother took the fork. Said another way, when we think of fair as a way to maintain “balance”, we will eventually, always, find ourselves and the ones around us out of balance – because life isn’t balanced. For one thing, what seems balanced to one person might seem unbalanced to another. So rather than making attempts at balance, I would like for us to instead attempt to maintain a sense of rhythm. If we consider life as a rhythm sometimes balanced in one person’s favor and sometimes balanced in another’s, we begin to see that there is a longterm rhythm to life that necessarily ends in equilibrium.
In the rhythm of the forgiving father’s life, he lost a son, then he threw him a party upon his return. Clearly, this seemed out of balance to the older son, who’d been faithful and hardworking, never feeling like he’d received a special benefit in return. But we don’t know what happens after the party. Maybe the young son, having received his welcome party, had to juggle the consequences of his actions soon after the guests had gone. There’s a rhythm to life that we simply can’t see when we’re in the midst of an awfully wavy ride. In our inability to see the rhythm to our lives we can experience tension.
The tensions in the story of the prodigal son are many. There’s tension between being blame-oriented and being graceful. There’s tension between enjoying life in the moment and being dutiful branching out on our own adventures or staying near the ones who might one day need us in a very important way. There’s tension between giving our loved ones what they want and making sure that our loved ones have what they need.
Something we’ll be working on with Session in the coming weeks as we begin to make decisions about how our interim process will flow is how to evaluate the tensions between situations, perspectives and choices. Andy Stanley, Founding Pastor of North Point Community Church, a mega church based in Atlanta with satellite congregations throughout the US and Canada, reminds us that it’s in the tension that we experience some of our most profound learning. He uses the image of a thumb and finger to describe how the tension between opposing digits is what creates our ability to make things happen. We strengthen the muscles that we exercise to get to the place where we are – for good or for ill. He reminds us that if we were to cut off our opposing thumb, we would lose this ability to make things happen. Tension between the two digits is key. It’s in the tension between possible outcomes, or unexpected consequences that we grow.
Yogi said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.” But this might not be a bad thing, after all. Because our wrestling with options and possibilities and situations of all of the paths before us is what strengthens our conviction and our capacity to think and feel and do what is right. It’s in this tension where learning is the richest.
There are tensions in the story of the prodigal son: grace vs. betterment; frivolity vs. duty. Through the lenses of our own lives, you and I can probably identify many other tensions in this story (there’s a little prodigal in each of us, just like there’s a little elder brother in each of us).
In the midst of the journey, I still say “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” Learn from the tension of the prodigal son, and his brother, and certainly his father. Recognize that there are consequences to each decision that we make whether we’re reacting like inanimate objects or making a calculated decision. There are tensions we have to wrestle with and outcomes that others will realize, too. As we find ourselves in the midst of these tensions, ones we’ve created and ones we’re caused, think rhythm, not balance, in the grace and love and mercy of God, never intentionally neglecting what is morally right and good but always mindful of our opportunity to learn from the tension all around us, turn back toward a God-intended end, and begin again with hope and conviction of our God who is calling us home.
For my last Yogiism of the day? “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Thanks be to God!