Knowing the right Way
A key epiphany. I can’t recall the precise date in 1973 but I do remember its precise location: West Derby Road in Tuebrook, just by the junction with Lisburn Lane. Where was my life going?
An essay in this week’s New York Times caught my eye. In fact, the heading was much better than the article itself: The Art of Choosing What to Do With Your Life. It comes at an apt time this week when so many young people are making key decisions about their future, often under pressure and with a deadline.
Written in an American context, it could just as easily have been on this side of the Atlantic. “Our educational system focuses obsessively on helping students take the next step. But it does not give them adequate assistance in thinking about the substance of the lives toward which they are advancing.”
It’s one thing to know how to open doors. It’s something else to understand about what lies beyond them, to lay hold on the bigger picture. In making key decisions, we need to have a sense of our life’s direction. And it’s not just a tick-box exercise; how to make key choices is an art form.
Like all art such decision-making is both creative and intensely personal, not something we simply learn from a book. We learn by doing and significantly, by reflecting on our actions. It’s a key life skill and a skill we so often neglect, how to make key decisions undaunted.
The irony is that often the really big life-decisions are made when we are young, and so inexperienced and unsure of ourselves. Certainly those 18-year-olds today deciding on which course and where need a lot of support. More so, as this particular cohort has had a raw deal from the pandemic.
My own experience was that the transition from school to university was not difficult. Once I had decided on my subject, economics, it all fell into place. Straight-forward, even. For me the crisis was three years down the line, at the end of university when the tramlines came to an abrupt end. It was when I faced a completely open vista.
All very unsettling because there was no obvious next step. The world was my oyster, true. But to quote from the musical Annie: “But where was the pearl?”
Maybe that was the privilege of my baby-boomer generation. We didn’t face the economic pressures of our parents, of just getting a job to pay the bills. This was the era of Mike Nichols’ 1967 film, the Graduate, when the character played by Dustin Hoffman is spoiled for choice, literally. The film ends with him sitting bewildered at the back of the bus with the bride he has just snatched from the altar: they have no idea where they are going.
In fact, a school friend graduating with a degree in philosophy tried so many jobs that with this experience he finished up as a careers advisor!
C S Lewis writes: “We are not living in a world where all roads are radii of a circle and where all, if followed long enough, will therefore draw gradually nearer and finally meet at the centre: rather in a world where every road, after a few miles, forks into two, and each of those into two again, and at each fork, you must make a decision.”
And of course, there’s no going back. Once a decision is made, that’s it. We may think we can put the clock back but that’s an illusion. The situation may seem the same – but we have changed. We are now a different person.
Going back to my experience of leaving college, it may have been profoundly unsettling but over some three years or so it gave God the opportunity to reorientate my life. I remember at the time thinking that God was bouncing my life about, like the exercise in physics, of shaking iron filings on a card over a magnet to reveal the magnetic field previously hidden.
I did give local authority social work a try, that’s a story in itself. But I soon realised that this wasn’t me – but what was me, so-to-speak? This is where the epiphany at the junction of West Derby Road with Lisburn Lane comes in. It may have been God speaking or just a very clear thought, or both.
If I had surrendered my life to Christ, which I had, then my life was his and not mine – and so he would ensure that I would be at the right place at the right time doing the right thing. God takes full responsibility for the life yielded to him.
At that point everything fell into place and following an utterly bizarre series of events within months I had started training for the Anglican ministry at Cranmer Hall, Durham.
Fundamentally, the way forward is not a mapping exercise but a person. For it is Jesus who claims, even in my Bible reading this morning, “to be the Way, the Truth and the Life.” (John 14:6). He doesn’t just show us the way, he is the Way. Once we know Jesus, we have already arrived.
For me one of the key bonuses of being a follower of Jesus is the privilege of guidance. It’s one thing to ask “Which course should I take?” However, it’s something altogether different to ask “Which course should I take, Lord?”
A radical implication of asking this question is that we may not need to know the big picture but sometimes just the next step. As the remarkable F.B. Meyer observed: “God only undertakes that the steps of a good person should be ordered by the Lord. Not the whole pattern, but the next stitch in the canvas.”
Lord, lead me in the paths of righteousness for your name’s sake.