Words in the Night

God knows, we need some answers that will stand up in our lives. Someone has said that history consists mainly of the same mistakes being made over and over again. So Oswald Spengler in his Decline of the West would echo. Maybe so or maybe not. But our personal history surely consists so much of fancy answers to life’s issues that fail us over and over again. Every time we think we have found the key to the strange mystery of living, a new situation enters the field of experience and baffles our supposed solution. I thought I knew the answer, we think. But something has gone awry and left our souls bewildered and puzzled. Now and then we grow hard and cynical about everything and everybody because we have been betrayed or misled. We decide that never again will we put our trust in anything or anybody. Just when we wallow in the deepest trough of skepticism, some unexpected kindness is done to us or some totally unmerited favor is shown to us, putting all our doubt under assault, and we begin to feel that our skepticism and distrust are all too brittle and cheap. As Browning has it in such shining words, “Just when we are safest, there’s a sunset touch, a fancy from a flower bell, someone’s death, a chorus ending from Euripedes.” And all of a sudden, the gray skies are sunlit again and the rain-misted hills glisten once more.

We may think life’s answer is pleasure, but in our soberest moments we know that while pleasure may be the sauce of life, it can never be the meat. We may think the answer is success, but it so quickly turns to ashes or, still fresh, becomes so empty when our souls cry out for other sustenance. We may think the answer is money, until we read of someone who has more than his share of it committing suicide or making such a mess of his life that we are driven to pity him, though heaven knows we have far less of this world’s goods than he.

The Bible has only one answer for all life’s ills. It is stated succinctly and powerfully in one of the wisdom books of Israel, the book of Proverbs. Here is contained the tested and distilled wisdom of a people’s long and checkered history. The only ultimate, unassailable answer to life is God, it says. “In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.” That’s the Bible’s answer. It is not the answer of a creed, for no creed can do more than mirror reality and echo the authentic experience of truth. The Bible’s answer to all of life is God, not philosophy, since no philosophy can contain the welter and variety of human experience. “In all thy ways, acknowledge God, and he shall direct thy path.”

How hard a lesson! How long we have been in learning it. What sorrow we have endured while learning. What heartbreak we have known because we have not heeded that message. We flounder and stumble and puzzle and go down to dark despair and clouded hopelessness, when there it stands like a mighty beacon on a stormy, starless sea: In all thy ways acknowledge God, and he shall direct thy path. In all thy ways, that would include relating our hopes and dreams to God. It is the province of young people to hold for themselves great hopes and splendid visions of what they might become. This is their heritage and their birthright. Older people commit a crime if they try to reduce the aspirations of young people. This is the sacrament of youth, and you who are young have a right to dream vast dreams and scan the distant horizons. Again, this is your birthright. Nevertheless, the time of youth’s bright hopes can be a desperate, painful period. A friend once said to me that there was a time in his youth when he was subject to moods of deep depression and great fear. The reason, he said, was that he was so afflicted with doubt as to whether he could bring off what he wanted to do and become the kind of man he wanted to be. Yes, youth is a time of high, vast dreams. But doubts afflict also, and there are so many pitfalls. All of us looking back on our youth wonder, as Mahalia Jackson sings, “how we got over.”

Nothing is more tragic about the long season of injustice in this country than what it has done to so many young people and to their hopes and aspirations. At the same time, no disadvantaged young person ought to let the delinquencies of society make a delinquent of him. I know the problems such young people face, but I know the answer also: “In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy path.” Nothing is more sad or wistful than the plight of those who pass the morning years and realize that most of the bright possibilities they once cherished and followed will never come true.

All of us have to come to accept ourselves and to admit that our reach has exceeded our grasp. For so many of us are so far short of where we meant to be. We had dreams of progress and saintliness that are but bruised memories now. We know within ourselves that we will never be what we once thought was our sure destiny. Time is running out now, and so little of our job is done. The sun is going down on so many of our heads, and we are a long way from home. More than one of us sees himself or herself mirrored in a ragged wreck of a man, met by Bishop Hazen Werner in the East India dock section in London. The man, all unkempt and ragged and dirty, shuffled out of the shadows to beg Bishop Werner for the price of a meal, and said, “I know I’ve no right to stop you, and if the bobbies stop me, it will be off to Brixham Prison for me. Please sir, pardon me for stopping you all dirty like I am, but you’ve no notion, sir, the man I meant to be.”

How true in varying degrees is this of all of us. We meant to be more than we have become, and now it’s almost all over. In our faults, acknowledge him and ask for forgiveness, and he will direct our paths. In our failures, acknowledge him. Always there are those who are wrestling with giant enemies who overpower them and strike them down and trample upon them. Sickness fastens its iron grip upon someone we love, and we are powerless to do anything about it. It is all so frustrating and defeating. Or there is that old habit, that despised thing you fought so long. Once it seemed you were on the way to winning the fight, but back it came with a fury and a terrible might to wrestle you to the ground and to chain you again. Today it seems there isn’t much use in trying any longer. The one reliably steadying resource you have in your struggle is that God is there, standing with you in the good fight, sustaining, rallying you.

The recognition of an abiding presence and power in our lives does for us a most necessary thing. The sense of God helps us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to, for in awareness of him as source of life we become sensitive to our creatureliness, to the fact that we are neither source nor center of life. The temptation to identify ourselves as the most important entity in the world is cause for so much of the suffering and heartbreak in the community of humanity. This weird disease of self-centeredness creates the foundation for racism, turns our family relationships into tense struggles for attention and priority, prostitutes friendship into a tool for the satisfaction of our own warped egos. The tendency to think more highly of ourselves than we ought robs us of the unutterable joy of thankfulness, since our gratitude for the bounties of life is diminished by our belief that we merit whatever good things have happened to us.

Likewise, the failure to acknowledge God in terms of our blessings denies to us a direction toward which we may look with thankful hearts and psalms of praise. You will have heard of a well-known unbeliever saying impulsively on a gloriously beautiful day, “I am so thankful for this day.” “To whom, my dear?” asked the friend. So you and I, looking about at all the good which has attended our way, need some direction in which we can turn to express the gratefulness of our hearts that the ways and walks of our lives are as well with us as they are. To have the joy of family, a friend, or daily work is a rich and marvelous blessing. To have someone, God, to whom we can turn to give thanks multiplies with glad thanksgiving the day of the blessing. So we are doubly blessed when we look to God in thanksgiving, blessed once by the blessing and blessed the second time by the joy of thanksgiving. “In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he will direct thy path.” This is the legacy of your sonship and daughterhood to God. Never forsake it. Never forget it. Claim it. Seize it. It belongs to you. “In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he will direct thy path.”

G. Taylor

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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