By Charlie Johnston
Teach me thy way, O Lord, and lead me in a plain path.
The last four verses of my favorite Psalm, the 27th, are among the most compelling prayers I have ever read. They are a rebuke and a consolation, a weary plea and a profound statement of faith:
Teach me thy way, O Lord, and lead me in a plain path, because of mine enemies. Deliver me not over unto the will of mine enemies: for false witnesses are risen up against me, and such as breathe out cruelty. I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord. (Psalm 27:11-14)
During a grave crisis when I was in my 20’s I read this Psalm and the last line was like a slap in the face – but the good kind, the kind that drains you of all hysteria and fear – filling you with the determination to go forward with steady resolve. I built my own prayer around verse 11. “Lord, lead me in a plain path. Let me turn neither to the left in anger or to the right in fear, but lead me in a plain path before You.” Almost every time I am unsettled, I say that prayer. If I am really shaken, I read that whole Psalm aloud to myself – and then say that prayer.
When I was on my pilgrimage, the concept of a plain path took on a much deeper, richer meaning for me. As you can imagine, when you walk uphill with 75 pounds on your back, it is very hard. Walking downhill is, in some ways, even worse. Your leg muscles are constantly tense, serving as a sort of brake, which is also very draining. If you stumble when walking downhill, you are much more likely to injure yourself then if you do the same while walking uphill. In either scenario, when I finally came to a level stretch, it was a soothing balm.
This plays intimately into my concept of the next right step. When inflamed with anger, you are sorely tempted to lash out in the same. I hate making decisions when I am under the influence of any powerful emotion. If the decision I prefer when emotional is a good one, it will still be a good one when I am calm – and I will be in a better state to assess it properly. On the other hand, sometimes a decision is time sensitive. It is easy to become paralyzed when time pressure mounts, for fear of making a precipitous decision. Yet a bad decision is almost always more easily corrected than a paralyzed refusal to make any decision at all. “There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.” (Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3, 218-221) I try not to make a decision in anger when there is time for reflection, nor to avoid making a crucial decision on the best information I have when time is of the essence.
Lord, lead me in a plain path. Let me turn neither to the left in anger nor to the right in fear, but lead me in a plain path before You.
The devil is, to the spirit, what infection is to the body. He inflames our spiritual wounds, making us feverish and turning what is innocuous into a deadly threat. Infections rarely attack areas of the body that are healthy or undamaged. They opportunistically attack where we have been scraped, cut, bruised or wounded. Similarly, the devil rarely attacks us at our strongholds. Instead, he seeks out the broken places, the wounds we try to hide – and then inflames these hidden places, however innocuous, into something deadly to our soul. The devil attacks our fears, our resentments, our desires, our vanity until they are fearfully red and swollen, oozing with the bile of his malice.
These last few weeks I have noticed that many people, including some of the best I know, are more on edge than usual. The infection, I think, is trying to work its way into each of us. I love Fr. Richard Heilman saying that we are approaching a “spiritual D-Day.” One of the most deeply insightful meditations I have ever seen on how the devil works to exploit our weaknesses against us comes from a most unexpected source: Stephen King’s 30-year-old novel, “Needful Things.” In it, in oily, soothing tones, a demon inflames what is worst in people by playing brilliantly on their desires, lusts, fears and resentments – and plays them against each other to their mutual destruction. I frequently recall something that was said to me at the tail end of a “little vision” decades ago: “What you desire most is most effective against you. Desire God and all shall be added.”
“Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)
Lord, lead me in a plain path. Let me turn neither to the left in anger nor to the right in fear, but lead me in a plain path before You.
In a recent conversation with my son, he told me that I messed up plenty of times when they were kids, but that the thing that gave him a deep sense of security was his certain knowledge that, whether we had a good day or a bad one, whether I had done real good or messed up real bad, I would be fully at it again the next day and the next and all the days afterward – that I would press on with them doing the best I could think of whatever the day before had brought. What a lovely compliment it was.
If a parent set a standard that they must always do things just right or they would quit the field, all of us would be orphans. To become a parent is to agree to intimately accompany and love some little souls in the very first stages of their pilgrim journey through life. You are your children’s first Sherpa. Their security is not dependent on knowing that you will never err; it is dependent on knowing that you are with them through their wobbly first steps as toddlers and through their wobbly first steps into independence – and then with deep affection and desire for their good throughout your life. You can’t teach them how to be perfect along the way. You can teach them how to be wrong with grace, how to get up again after having stumbled badly, how to find joy in the midst of both prosperity and need, in good times and in bad. You can show them how to navigate the often stormy and treachorous waters of the human condition. But you can only do all this if you are fully committed to being there, unto death. A wise parent instinctively knows this. Happy the child who has a wise and committed parent!
When I first started writing my website a little over five years ago, I told readers almost from the beginning that, somewhere along the way, I would make a significant interpretive error. Being one who usually exceeds expectations, I made two. First, I interpreted being told that “Obama would not finish his term,” to mean that he would either leave office early or late, not that he would leave office while his partisan bureaucracy would continue trying to effect a coup against his successor. Second, I interpreted the Rescue to be an event rather than a process – a process that is unfolding before our eyes and that we are called to be participants in rather than just witnesses of.
I knew several things about this. First was that it was time to speak publicly, for the Storm was very close at hand. People needed my voice, inadequate and flawed as it is. Second was that people’s expectations were all messed up – that they were looking for a Guru who would tell them precisely what to do so they would not have to exercise any moral agency themselves…and part of my job was to break up those expectations and have folks get real, letting them know that they cannot escape their moral accountability to God…that each must choose. Your moral agency is not transferable. Third was that I was going to err in interpretation in some significant way, but must speak anyway – and speak boldly, not timidly. Fourth was that, when the error came, I must candidly acknowledge and take full responsibility for it. To do otherwise would have been a cheap vanity.
When the errors came, those who were hostile thought it proved I was a fraud, despite my having said clearly that at least one would come. Some of those who have taken inspiration from my work tried, briefly, to put a gloss on the errors so that there was no error at all. Both were inadequate responses, borne on the aberrant expectations we have adopted for discernment. I was wrong while being true to my call – and the errors were entirely my fault and my responsibility. The hubbub made me wonder how many people have seriously read the Bible at all. All of the prophets, kings and priests had feet of clay – some of them quite glaring and inflamed. The authentic people that God sends us are not bloodless, plaster icons of improbable virtue or prowess. God works with real people, stumbling characters formed of ordinary mud and blood through faith – people determined to make their stand and be true, regardless of any obstacles – including those put in the way by our own clumsiness. Those who were successful were those who persisted, who endured despite their errors, their failures, their many stumblings, trusting God to sustain them and lead them to safe harbor through the storms of their own times. What was most important was their resolve to ever go forward, never turning back to an easier, less challenging (and more comfortable) way.
Some ask, “Why not speak plainly? Just give us the info and we will set to work.” This is something I often asked God about His enigmatic proclamations to me, before He forged a greater wisdom in me through many trials, failures and setbacks. Knowledge without discipline is a formula for disaster. Would you give your teenage son a driving manual and turn him loose? Of course not. You go with him and give him instruction – for the reality and the challenges of driving are greater than he can possibly understand before he has gained some experience. Would you train a man to be a pilot by giving him a flight manual and turning him loose alone at the helm of a plane? If he was foolish enough to accept such a proposition, he would soon crash and burn. Knowledge without discipline is a formula for disaster. In order to be able make effective use of what God offers us, each of us must stretch our hand out to Him. (Matthew 12:13) If given knowledge that has not been formed in the forge of our reaching out to God, we remain the same incompetent people we were before, only with a dangerous new hubris. It is like giving a 16-year-old a Mustang V-8 and sending him out in a snowstorm. God loves us much more than that, and so insists that we go through the pain of stretching out our withered hand in order to receive the real knowledge and wisdom He has for us.
I know many would have preferred that God send a guy who would just tell everyone reliably what to do. I am sent, but sent to find my way with the help of my friends while encouraging and heartening all I can to stay the course and, together, find the way forward without losing our way – without turning to the right out of fear or to the left out of anger…to walk in a plain path back to God, holding fast to what is good (including those institutions He founded) while determinedly pulling out what is corrupt. Many of the best insights I have gotten have come through others along this pilgrim way. My virtue is not that I know precisely what must be done, but that I am more persistent than a mule – and would rather die than break faith with my call. No one can know that for sure about themselves, but I had opportunities during my pilgrimage (and a few other times) to see whether I truly meant it. So far, trust has sustained me and led me through those dark, fearsome passages that could lead me to swoon. But God never intended me to be a one-man band. I was always intended to found a sort of divine orchestra in His service. While I can lead, no one can be a one-man orchestra. So I rely on the combined wisdom of my friends who are as dedicated to God and neighbor as I am, even when we don’t see eye to eye. Together, acknowledging God, we will find the way – but a lot of the old verities we counted on are not reliable in this Storm.
I worry most about those who think they have it all figured out. I internally smile ruefully when someone tells me some approved prophecy is straightforward and easy to understand. In the over a half century of training I have had on the matter directly from God, I have learned that the seemingly most straightforward are the most dangerous to interpret – and the most easily misinterpreted. God wants us to keep our eyes on Him. When we develop the hubris of thinking we have it figured out, we take our eyes off of Him. Prophecy is God’s way of saying, “Pay attention,” not His way of deputizing us to press our own agenda, rejoicing that we are His special pet. Jesus told religious officials, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19) They could be excused for not understanding that He was speaking of His own body; what is not excused is their refusal to recognize, because of their vanity, what He meant after He accomplished it. God challenges us frequently to show that we love Him rather than loving our smug sense that we have figured Him out. We all will find that some of our cherished suppositions are wrong. We are called, when so chastened, to humbly acknowledge it and carry on in His service. Sadly, many of those who think they have it all figured out will, when they find they have gotten a lot of it wrong, bitterly decide that God has failed them rather than that, because of their feet of clay, they have erred. If they don’t repent, they will have failed God – and will perish.
You and I will all make mistakes as we go forward. Let us stumble forward in His service anyway. I will remain in His service with you tomorrow and the next day and all the days afterword so long as I draw breath.
Lord, lead us all in a plain path. Let us turn neither to the left in anger nor to the right in fear, but lead us in a plain path before You.