by Pastor Brian K. Woodson
[dropcap]A[/dropcap] few days before Christmas, an old, dear friend called me in Oakland from her home in New York. It is a rare moment to get a call from her and I welcomed the sound of her voice even as I wondered what could have prompted her to “reach out and touch.” The conversation began with sincere and loving greetings and then gently wandered aimlessly.
I asked her about her Christmas shopping, whereupon she told me that she had not done any, nor was any planned. This was strange to me. I am a romantic about many things, Christmas especially, so I asked more questions. She told me that her car was inoperable and needed costly repairs she could not pay. Without the vehicle, she would walk the four miles to work through whatever weather the New York winter would present.
She shared the dilemma of attempting to finish paying for her youngest child’s first college semester — without a check for the outstanding balance, he would not be allowed to return. She mentioned college loans still being paid (she recently earned her Ph.D.).
I probed more, all the while searching my heart for what contribution the Christ of Christmas might require of me to help her. Then she said it. I was startled by her words, even as the whole of her dilemma came into focus. The strange, mercurial bonds between us, as well as the mysterious connections between my friend and her five children, became crystal.
In a moment, the years of struggle and languishing just beneath dreams deferred came into view. Understand that for most of her parental life, my friend was a stay-at-home mom. She entered the workforce in the teenage years of her youngest child and was soon after abandoned by her husband of nearly 30 years. But the heartbreaks and travesties of her life still left me with chasms of mystery, until she said to me, “I promised my children I would pay for their undergraduate degrees.”
In that moment, I realized that the years of her financial calamities were fueled by her attempt to pay the college loans of four children — because of a promise she made.
As this revelation soaked into my consciousness, and before I could speak, I heard my friend shout greetings to someone. Another conversation began thousands of miles away from my ears and my friend abruptly ended our chat to begin another. The next morning I woke to the following thoughts.
“Keeping your promises” sounds noble. “Keeping your promises despite difficult and changing circumstances” sounds courageous and evokes an image of a heroic feat. Its opposite, the notion of an arrogant boast, however, even if spoken from a quiet pride or determined self-confidence, strikes a dissident chord. The notion of sticking to one’s promises despite the damage and destruction it does to others, or even your own soul, is not the image of courage, but of foolishness.
Some time ago, I remember watching an adventurer’s attempt to climb Mt. Everest. Hard days and unfortunate weather had all but closed his expedition’s window to reach the summit. But there was one slight and last chance to reach the peak, and he and his friend and fellow climber decided to leave base camp and attempt the climb.
Not long into that final trek, the Sherpa guides — highly experienced climbers who had made the journey many times — cautioned the men to turn around. The guides could tell that the condition of these adventurers, coupled with that of the mountain, boded ill and urged the men to abandon their quest.
But the pleas of the guides went unheeded. The men were determined. They had spent their lives and hope on this journey. They had promised themselves they would make it. Coupled to their determination was the rarified oxygen starving their brains of the ability to think clearly. So they pressed on against the pleas and counsel of their guides. The result of their determination was that one of them died and the other lost a hand, a foot and several other fingers and toes. Neither reached the summit.
Wisdom is never the product of an individual’s will alone. Wisdom is a stone cut in concord with community, according to the will of the stone and work of God who adds and subtracts according to the Divine’s own calculus.
We make promises. We make promises in the passion of our most noble and sincere thoughts, hope and dreams. We make promises to love, promises to journey, vows to uphold or create or endure. But the real challenge is not just a battle with our fickleness. The real test is not just a test of how much pain we are personally willing to self-inflict.
When we immerse ourselves in a desire, when we willingly and deliberately enslave ourselves to what we believe is a noble pursuit or deed, we forget that we are not our own. We forget that our lives are wonderfully and inextricably intertwined with others we know and love, as well as strangers we don’t.
We know that we cannot know what the future will bring. We know that we cannot know how our actions will affect the universe of our connections, but somehow we ignore these truths. I guess we must, lest we make no plans at all. But what is often tragically missing from our most noble promises is the humble submission to God.
My Moslem friends say “Insha’ Allah.” My Jewish and Christian friends say some version of “God willing” or “If the Lord wills.” What is sacred and sagacious in these expressions is the admission that all of our plans and promises are subject to the unexplained, unsolicited and, at times, unwelcome veto of the Almighty.
The real challenge of the journey to fulfill our most noble promises is to come to accept that our quest must not be to a destination or some discharged duty, but a determination to allow the Divine to alter our destiny according to God’s desire and design at any time along our way.
Our chief prayer and pursuit must be for the wisdom to recognize and welcome the moments when God overrides our prerogative with God’s own.
Brian K. Woodson is pastor of the Bay Area Christian Connection, an Oakland church with a women’s treatment program and a food program that has distributed 435,000 pounds of food.