Sunday, 20 May 2012

The Road Not Taken: Choose Life

A few weeks ago I was invited to lead worship at the chapel where I first discovered Unitarianism, Cross Street in Manchester - It was a life changing event the day I chose to walk into Cross Street, a path I never dreamed I would tread – That day I felt completely connected to everything. I felt that life, the universe, that God, was speaking to me in and through all that I encounted; that everything was deep and rich in meaning. One of those special days, I’m sure that we’ve all had them.

After the service I bumped into a member of the Altrincham congregation Ann Molyneaux, who was at Cross Street to play with the Alberti piano group she is a member of. I briefly said hello to Ann as we passed in the foyer and then I tootled off into Manchester to do a little shopping. I thought I’d treat myself, hey why not.

 After an hour or so I decided it was time to go home and got on the tram in Piccadilly. A couple of stops later Ann got on the tram herself. I called out to her as she passed me and we sat and chatted for a while. It seems that Ann had been doing some shopping too. She held the poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost, in her hand.

“The Road Not Taken” truly is an everyman poem; it speaks such a universal truth. How often in life do we all meet that fork in the road and have to make a decision, often not an easy one, to walk down that road to who knows where? Of course for every road that we take, there is at least one other road that we do not take and I am sure that we all wonder, from time to time, where that road may well have led.

Now of course in every moment of our lives we have to make small almost insignificant decisions. We often make them without really thinking, they are purely instinctive. That said there are other decisions that we make that are monumental and life changing. I suspect in the poem, this fork in the road is one of those big moments, those life changing moments. Of course when making these decisions we cannot have the gift of foresight. Like the path in the poem we can only see so far ahead. The future truly is unwritten, we cannot know for certain what is to come. Would it help if we did?

I visited my granddad the other day, it was his 89th birthday. It was a joy to sit and talk with him, if only for a short time. He talked about how we can never predict the future. How as a young man he and his best friend Percy had gone to sea together, to serve in the war. My granddad came back, but Percy did not. They both chose that same path, not that they had too much say in it, but only one of them carried on through this physical journey. My granddad has lived a long life and has experienced so much. He has made many decisions and I know for sure that he has made numerous mistakes. What was clear to me during the conversation was how much he respected the privilege and opportunity that his life has been, something denied to so many others. Life truly is the greatest gift of all, it is the ultimate grace. It is a privilege that we did nothing to deserve.

 “The Road Not Taken” ends with the immortal words “I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence; two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.”

The poem ends with this sense of not living with regret. It is about taking the path that will make all the difference; about taking the more challenging path. The path less taken is the one that will lead to the deep and meaningful life, but it won’t be trouble free.

It brings to my mind the journey that the Israelites took to the Promised Land. In Deuteronomy 30 vv 11-19 Moses speaks to the people on his 120th birthday. God had just informed him that he would not enter the Promised Land with the people he had led out of exile.

As they reach the Promised Land the people gathered to receive Moses’ final blessing. And what does he say? He tells them that they must “choose life.” They are told that in order to keep the freedom that they have been given they must make thoughtful choices. I am sure that this must have been scary for them, for after all they were frightened of their freedom. Throughout their time in exile whenever they were given freedom they did not want it, they hoped that someone would make their decisions for them. Again this is such a universal predicament, it echoes through the ages. How often do we wish that someone would make our decisions for us? Wouldn’t that make life easier?

Now "Choose Life" is a phrase that has seeped into public consciousness on at least two occasion over the last 30 years. Two places that would at first glance seem highly unlikely.

One was in a "Wham" pop video to the song "Wake me up before you go-go". I feel fairly confident in claiming that George Michael, Andrew Ridgley and Pepsi & Shirley didn't know they were quoting Moses when they were dancing along to this song.

It is also the inspiration for a poem by John Hodge that was spoken by Ewan McGregor to the tune for "Lust For Life" by Iggy Pop at the beginning of the film "Trainspotting". A film that is definitely not about "choosing Life", as its a film about heroin addiction.

By the way those decision makers, those forces, may not all be external to us. How many of us are led by long established habits that seemingly do our choosing for us? How do we escape from the grip of these habits and compulsions?  How do we find the freedom to choose life?

To leave the comfort zone of our established way of being often appears terrifying; after all this is the way we’ve always done things. To wander down an uncertain path, the one rarely travelled down, does appear frightening. No doubt it will be uncomfortable and uneven and a little overgrown, there maybe monsters hiding in the shadows. But should we avoid this path? Should we choose the easier softer way? By avoiding the path, that is still partially grassed over are we choosing life, or are we just making things harder than they need to be? Is it better to choose caution, to just let life happen to us rather than to choose the riskier path, that forces us to engage with danger?

I believe it is better to choose life, but to do so wisely and this requires discernment.

The word discernment is formed from the Latin word “discernere”, which means to separate, to distinguish, to sort out. Just think of prospectors panning for gold or sifting through the rocks and dirt in search of gem stones. They are separating, they are sorting through the muck for what is precious, they are distinguishing, they are discerning.

Discernment is the key to making those wise choices. We need to discover what is of value and what needs to be discarded in our minds. We need to discard the dirt and muck to uncover the gold, the gems, to have clarity of thought, so that we can “choose life”. This is not easy, especially when we think of all that information that swims around in our lives and are consciousness; information like an enormous shoal of fish swimming round and round aimlessly in a small tank and not really going anywhere.

Our lives, our heads are just so full of stuff. How do we discern what is healthy, what is right? Well we need silence, we need time away from all this information and all these things that pull us in so many directions. We need time to be still, time to be silent, time to connect to our bodies and our breathing; time to hear that still small voice of calm. A voice less than a whisper, but somehow more than silence.

We need to awaken to our true consciousness in order to make those sane and sensible decisions about life. We need to learn to separate those things that are of value and those that are not. We need to do this in order to hear that voice, that is less than whisper but that is somehow more than silence; that voice that has spoken down the centuries, to those who had ears that could hear it; the voice that spoke to the people of Israel and said “I have set before you life and death, a blessing and a curse. Therefore choose life”

The choices we make matter. It matters what we are and what we do. I do not think that God chooses this for us. Yes God offers guidance, “The Lure of Divine Love” but it is up to us to choose the path that we follow. Often the most rewarding path is the one that is less worn and more over grown and perhaps seemingly more treacherous. Often it is the one that is less travelled by.

Choose life, choose the path rarely travelled down.

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