May 14, 2009 Length: 16:53
Steve the Builder is on the road. Join me on my trip to St. John's Monastery in Manton, California, where I will be working on their new church for the next few weeks. I just traveled through about 1,000 miles of desert and stopped at a lot of interesting and sobering places along the way. Companion pictures for this podcast and more from the trip are on my blog at http://pithlessthoughts.blogspot.com/2009/05/in-desert-of-sorrow-and-sin.html.
Welcome to Steve the Builder. The next series of podcasts—I don’t know how many—are going to be “Steve on the Road.” I recorded a couple of podcasts on my way to Manton, California, where I’m going to be doing the sheet rock work on the Monastery of St. John’s new chapel. I listened to the podcasts that I recorded in my truck while I was driving, and the quality was just so bad and so distracting that I decided to go ahead and re-record them here on the monastery grounds. I’m actually recording this while I’m walking around in the forest outside the monastery, so you’re probably going to hear birds chirping and frogs croaking and the roosters crowing and all that. If I sound like I’m out of breath or gasping for air, I am, because I’m also not used to the altitude here.
The immediacy of the podcasts on the road was kind of unique and interesting, but I couldn’t subject you listeners to the sound of the road and the truck and the thumping of the tires. Essentially what I’m going to do is discuss the content of what it was I was talking about as I was driving across the Arizona and Nevada desert on my way to California. I decided to take the scenic route, which means about a thousand miles of desert, through Arizona and up through Nevada and Death Valley and all the salt seas that you come across as you travel through the desolate miles of the Nevada highway. I made a couple of interesting stops, and you’ll hear those podcasts in later episodes.
What I started doing was recording, because I had this real bad habit of falling asleep at the wheel. I have two of my employees who have become monks, probably because they rode with me to work every day, and they got real good practice of the constant remembrance of death. Anyway, I was driving by myself, and I decided that as long as I was driving, I would try to do some podcasting along the way. I was probably about 300 miles into the desert terrain, and as I was driving, I looked at the terrain around me, and I thought of the children of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness, and this is probably pretty much what they saw for most of those forty years.
As I sat there in my truck, hurtling through the air on a paved road at about 85 miles an hour, with air conditioning and a bag of Cheetos and a Big Gulp sitting on the seat next to me, knowing where I was going and about how long it was going to take me to get there and that I had a destination and a roadmap and a Google directions to tell me what turns to make along the way—in a lot of ways, this is metaphorical for how we regard our spiritual life. A lot of people, especially from the Protestant tradition, wonder, “What’s the will of God for my life?” I remember, back in the ‘60s, with the Jesus movement, it was always “God has a wonderful plan for your life.”
In a lot of ways, we regard our life like a trip, and it’s as if we have a destination, as if we have someplace concrete we’re supposed to be, and something tangible we’re supposed to do, and that God has a vocation for us, and there’s something that God has prepared us for, to do, to make a living or to accomplish some kind of goal for our life. So we think of the will of God for our life in terms of a destination, in terms of an end product. When we look at the children of Israel, and we look at the forty years that they spent in the wilderness, someone once told me—and I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s probably pretty close to it—that if they’d made the trip straight across the desert as the crow flies, they could have covered the ground in forty days, but because of their faithlessness and because of their grumbling and complaining and their needing to be spiritually formed, God led them around the wilderness for forty years. They had a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. They had a concept of a destination, but what God was trying to tell them was that the destination was not as important as the preparation.
In one sense, they had to learn to live in faith in the present moment, because they had the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, and they had to follow it. They couldn’t get out ahead of it. They couldn’t get too far behind it. When the pillar of cloud sat still, they sat still. If it sat there for six months or six years, they sat there. But when it started to move, they had to move. So moment by moment, they had no clue what was going to happen to them. They had no clue where they were going to be going. They had no clue when they were going to be going.
The present moment of the will of God was centered around obedience. Essentially, this is what they had to learn. They had to learn to trust God. They had to learn to obey God, because ultimately when they got to their destination, when they got to the land of Canaan, even with all the preparation and everything that had happened to them in the wilderness, the land of milk and honey wasn’t handed over to them. They had to go in and conquer it. They had to go in and take it by force. They had to be a disciplined army. They had to be a focused people. They had to be spiritually prepared to both take the land physically and to take it spiritually, because there were the Canaanite gods and the Canaanite pagan religions that they had to confront.
As I’m traveling through the desert and I’m looking around me and seeing the desolate landscape and the apparent lack of life and especially the lack of water, and if I was placed in the situation where I had no clue where my next drink of water was going to come from, where my next meal was going to come from, where I was going to be going the next day or the next hour, I’m not sure that I would react much differently than the children of Israel did. I’ve had a lot of goals and a lot of plans in my life, and I had a lot of things that I thought God was calling me to do, and I’ve had a lot of ideas of how I might best serve the Lord, and all those kinds of things.
I can honestly say that most of those things haven’t worked out. I’ve ended up doing most of the things that I thought I would never do. I’ve ended up doing a lot of things that I swore I would never do, both in terms of vocation and education, and some things that I swore I’d never do in the moral realm, too. All of the trips that I had planned in my head and all of the illusions I had about who I was and what I was capable of and not capable of have all pretty much gone by the wayside. But at every step of the way, each of those events and each of the things that have happened to me and that I’ve perpetrated and the things that I’ve been constrained to because of circumstances and because of circumstances that I’ve created have ended up working out for the good—but not always the good in terms of finances and in terms of the ease of my existence and having more stuff and reaching some goals, but it’s been to my good for the formation of my soul.
In a sense, each of us wanders in a wilderness, sometimes created by our own selves and sometimes given to us by God. And we really don’t know what’s happening to us. We have really no clue what it is we’re supposed to be learning, because all of the lessons that I thought I was supposed to be learning, and all the things that I thought God was trying to teach me all ended up being, again, my illusions and delusions and not based in any kind of spiritual reality. All the signs and all of the coincidences and all of the convergences of circumstances that seemed to point me in one direction or another always ended up being, again, delusions and lies and deceptions. They were things that I wanted to believe so badly that all Satan had to do was toss a coincidence in my path, and I interpreted it as the will of God for my life.
What are we to do? Well, we’re to do what the children of Israel did, and that is: wait on God, to not get too wrapped up in career and plans and things that we hope to and want to do in life. We can go to college, we can get a degree, we can get the promotion and make the move to a new town for a new position with the company and things like that, but in the end, are those things really the will of God for your life, or are they just places that you will be and places that perhaps God put you or perhaps that you’ve put yourself where you can learn to be faithful and you can learn to be obedient and you can be tested and you can be tried and you can find a new patch of desert to wander around in for a few years or a few decades.
One of the things I’ve discovered over the years is that a lot of us function on the “only if” clause. I was working at St. Anthony’s last week before I came up here to Manton, and one of the carpenters there was my age. Both of us were groaning like old men as we lifted plywood and trusses up on the roof and all of that kind of stuff. He said, “Man, if only I could win the lottery—not even a big one, just a small one. The things that I could do. I could be here, I could work here for the rest of my life and work for free. I could travel around the country and help build churches. There’s just so much that I could do.” It occurred to me that, yeah, I’ve thought that, too.
It also occurred to me as I was driving down the road here that perhaps God has blessed me by not letting me win the lottery, because none of us really know what we’re going to do with what we have until we have it. We think we know what a blessing is, but a lot of times when we get what it is we want we turn faithless, we turn selfish, and we have no clue what to do with it. So when God takes us out of Egypt and takes away our semi-comfortable existence with the surety of a meal tomorrow and the things that we’ve grown accustomed to, we end up in some kind of a desert and we’re looking at the same thing day after day after day, miles and miles of sand and scrub brush and lizards and snakes, and every morning we get this white stuff that falls on the ground that we don’t even begin to recognize as a blessing any more because, well, we just get tired of the same old thing from God and we always want something new, something that appeals to our senses and something that appeals to our passions. Sometimes God sends the quail along, and we gorge ourselves… You get the picture.
I guess the point is looking for certainty in life and looking for a clear picture of what the will of God is for you in terms of what it is you’re going to be doing tomorrow and how it is you’re going to accomplish something that you have an idea of what it is you’re supposed to be doing with your life, well, that’s probably not going to come down the pipes in the way that you imagine it will.
One of the things that happened as I was driving along and thinking about all of this, I came upon a stretch of road, and I could see up in the distance there were about a half a dozen cars parked on my side of the highway, and there were probably that many more parked on the other side of the highway, right out in the middle of nowhere. As I came up closer, I slowed down, and I looked, and there was this large median, kind of a large ditch between the highways. There was a red SUV at the bottom of it that looked like it had rolled over probably a half a dozen times. There were probably 20 people surrounding the car, and I didn’t think I could do any more than pray, and I could do that from my car, so I didn’t stop.
But there it was: an example of everything that I had been talking about. Some people on their way, maybe a family, who knows, some newlyweds, some grandparents, and they were off on a destination, maybe off to Las Vegas, maybe on to Phoenix, maybe they were traveling across country to visit grandkids, maybe they were on a honeymoon. Who knows? But in a split second, somebody sideswipes them, they blow a tire, the driver nods off, he reaches for a CD, turns the wheel just a little bit, and in seconds their entire life is altered irrevocably.
It really wasn’t the plan. It really wasn’t the trip that was important. It was everything that led up to that event. It was the preparation. It was what they had done with their lives up to that moment, and what they had done to prepare themselves for that moment that was really important.
I was reminded of Bridegroom Matins and the wise virgins and the foolish virgins. Everybody had the same goal, everybody had the same trip, everybody had the same plan: they were attending the wedding. But one group attended to their preparation, and the other group attended to the goal. Ultimately, what God is concerned with with us is who we are, regardless of where we’re going or what our plans are. You can be a miserable person, married with kids, and you can be a miserable person as a monk. You can be a saint as an abbot of a monastery, or you can be a saint as an accountant in a parish. You may think of yourself as able to endure all manners of ascetical disciplines, and what it is that you usually imagine yourself to be best at is usually either an illusion or it’s a cover-up for what you’re really worst at. But in the will of God, and in the providence of God, he’ll put you in a desert, he’ll let you wander around, he’ll give you a pillar of cloud, he’ll give you some manna. Once in a while he’ll shoo some quail your way, and if you attend to the desert, you attend to the wandering, and you don’t get too caught up in the destination and the trip and the plans, you might just be able to take Canaan when you finally reach the border.
I’m going to close this podcast for now. The production on these is going to be a little bit sparse because I’m recording these at the Monastery of St. John, and I don’t have my desktop computer with me. I’ve got my pared-down laptop. So you’re on the road with Steve the Builder, and thanks for wandering with me through the deserts of Arizona and Nevada. In the next few podcasts we’ll be doing a little sight-seeing and stopping by the side of the road and visiting some interesting places. Oh, and by the way? You can see companion pictures to this travelogue on my blog. Just Google: “Pithless Thoughts” and it’ll pop up. Thanks for riding with me, and we’ll see you next time on Steve the Builder.
I have a postscript to this podcast. At the monastery they have me actually staying in the bishop’s quarters because I’m the despota of drywall. Abbot Meletios said, “This is how highly we regard this drywall work for our church.” I’m sitting at the desk, and in a frame there’s a prayer of the Optina Elders, and it’s appropriate for the bishop but it’s also appropriate for all of us, as we consider the will of God. It says:
Grant unto me, O Lord, that with peace of mind I may face all that this new day is to bring. Grant unto me to dedicate myself to thy holy will. For every hour of this day, instruct and support me in all things. Whatsoever tidings I may receive during the day, do thou teach me to accept tranquilly, in the firm conviction that all the eventualities fulfill thy holy will. Govern thou my thoughts and feelings in all that I do and say. When things unforeseen occur, let me not forget that all cometh down from thee. Teach me to behave sincerely and rationally toward every member of my family, that I may bring confusion and sorrow to none. Bestow upon me, my Lord, strength to endure the fatigue of the day and to bear my part in all its passing events. Guide thou my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to suffer, to forgive, and to love. Amen.
With that, goodnight.