VIEW VIDEO What an eventful week it was last week, the annual motorcycle trip of the Quaker Oatlaws Motorcycle Club, followed by the 165th annual sessions of Western Yearly Meeting, which I have attended 46 years in a row. Both went smoothly, though not as I had imagined. We had intended to ride to Giant City State Park in southern Illinois, but the day was cruelly hot, and one of our members suffered from heat exhaustion, necessitating a detour to New Harmony, Indiana, where we spent the first night, eating dinner at a bar called the Yellow Tavern, the only restaurant open on a Monday night in New Harmony. We thought it unseemly to spend the evening in a tavern, but then it occurred to us that perhaps God had diverted us to New Harmony for the very purpose of going to a tavern and witnessing to its occupants, converting them to Quakerism, and setting them on the straight and narrow path of righteousness, which we tried to do, but met with stiff resistance, most of the tavern-goers being Episcopalians and therefore resistant to conversion.
The next day we rode to our farmhouse in Paoli, where the Lord guided us to yet another tavern in the town of Celestine, full of Catholics, who proved every bit as impervious to the Gospel as the Episcopalians from the night before, so we shook the dust off our feet, as Jesus counseled us in the gospel of Matthew, and awakened the next morning and proceeded north to Nashville, Indiana via State Road 135, which turned out to be closed due to bridge repair.
It didn’t say State Road 135 was closed on the map. On the map, it was shown as a designated scenic route, winding its way through the Indiana countryside before arriving at the charming village of Nashville. But in reality, State Road 135 was one detour after another. Plus, on the map, Nashville was written in tiny letters, denoting a modest population, but in reality, it was bumper to bumper traffic all the way through town, worse than any city.
We’ve been thinking about maps as a metaphor for our lives, specifically about the maps we learn early on that shape and guide our lives. Today, I want to suggest that while maps promise us one thing, we sometimes experience something entirely different. I wouldn’t ever begin a journey without consulting a map, but neither would I deceive myself by thinking my course would never change once my journey was underway. Even the best maps, drawn by the brightest cartographers, can never anticipate the detours we might experience.
How do we handle the unexpected detours in our lives? I was visiting with an old friend this week and he asked me what had become of a girl in our high school class, one of the brightest students in our grade, who had studied at Purdue University and landed a dream job at a big company. Ten years into the job, she was laid off in an economic downturn, and returned home to live with her parents, where she has remained ever since, undone by this unexpected turn in her life.
In his book, The Failure of Nerve, the rabbi Edwin Friedman defines maturity as “the willingness to take responsibility for one’s own emotional being and destiny.” This means that when our lives don’t follow the paths we had anticipated, we abstain from blaming circumstances, impugning others, or resigning from life. Instead, we take responsibility for finding another route, another course, and moving forward toward our goals. That is maturity.
It’s easy to look at someone whose life seems easier than our own and think to ourselves they’ve never known trouble. Except I have never met someone whose life’s path was free of difficulty and detours. Have you? Even the most fortunate among us have encountered setbacks and difficulties, the dashing of dreams. Paths we thought would be direct and trouble-free were found to be burdensome, full of unanticipated turns. And let’s suppose we did meet the one person whose life had never been touched by hardship, is that something to envy? It only means their character and strength have never been tested, and they are the poorer for it.
How do we handle the unexpected detours in our lives? Anger is my go-to emotion. I stomp and storm and rail and shake my fist. Joan and I were chatting with someone last week who commented on my equanimity and self-control, noting that in all the years they’d known me, they’d never seen me upset, and Joan started laughing so hard she snotted herself.
There’s this Bible college over in Ohio that has a class called, I kid you not, The Work of the Pastor’s Wife. And the first thing they teach you is not to snot yourself when someone compliments your husband.
But back to anger. You know what anger is? It’s someone saying to the world, “How dare you do this to me?” as if they should be exempt from the challenges faced by everyone else. In that sense, anger is egotistical, an expectation of favored treatment.
How do we handle the unexpected detours in our lives? Some react with resignation. “Oh, well, I should have known this would happen. Nothing ever goes right for me. No matter how hard I try, it never works out. Why bother?” The thing about resignation is how often it is laziness and irresponsibility masquerading as a plea for pity. If I am fired from a job because I’m habitually late and don’t do a good job when I finally get there, I am not the victim of bad luck or capricious mistreatment. I am being held accountable for my irresponsibility. If I don’t maintain my car and the engine blows, it isn’t because Toyota has it in for me. I am suffering the consequences of my negligence.
How do we handle the unexpected detours in our life? Two words. Graciously and creatively.
We begin by acknowledging that we are not exempt from difficulty, sorrow, or bad luck. We therefore remember our manners. We do not rant or fume or stomp. Now be assured, I am not speaking here of systemic injustice visited upon us or others, in which case ranting, fuming, or stomping might well be appropriate. I am talking about those moments in life when the bridges are closed for repair and another way must be taken. We respond to those detours, those frustrations, graciously and creatively. We remember our manners. We remember that our families and friends do not want to hear our litany of complaints. We forego whining and moaning and anger and direct our energy toward creative solutions.
The irony of all those bridge repairs on State Road 135 is that our unanticipated detours made possible one of the finest, most beautiful, rides the Quaker Oatlaws have ever enjoyed. Curves and creeks, forests, and farms. It was a day of unexpected loveliness and charm, reminding me that sometimes when life does not go as planned, it is not a curse, but a gift.