Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.
From The Road Not Taken – Robert Frost, 1916
I think this is the second time in the past few years that I’ve had cause to think back to the poetry I read in Mrs Roberts’ lessons for my ‘O’ Level English Literature. Yes, I’m that old*
When I started thinking about what I was going to write this morning, The Road Not Taken sprang readily to mind, which surprises me and gives me hope that at least something about Robert Frost’s work actually went in. It all seemed to be a lot about death at the time and I think our class deliberately looked for death in every poem. We mostly found it; and it’s there in this one, hinting in the final stanza to the end of Frost’s life when he will look back. But I don’t want to look back at my entire life this morning, I want to look back at the last ten years.
In spring 2001 I started attending Ampthill Baptist Church and Stephen was preaching that day. I expressed these sentiments at my Baptism the following year, but it was like someone had tuned the radio in properly. For the first time I understood what a preacher was on about. I got it and more to the point I understood that I had to do something about it. It took me a further seven months to come to the decision point and become a Christian, but that Sunday morning was the moment my life changed forever. Christianity was no longer something at arms length, something I did. It was now something I wanted to be. Big difference.
At that moment my path and the paths of Stephen and the rest of the congregation at Ampthill Baptist Church converged and we’ve walked most of the last ten years together. I am completely and utterly a changed person as a result – but I am not, repeat NOT perfect and I never will be. God is doing a work in me but he’s not finished rooting about chucking the rubbish out yet. It’s still a bit of a mess in here and I am inclined, at times, to display the most un-Christian thoughts, words and deeds. It’s all over, God has the victory in me, but there’s still a lot of fighting and arguing going on by those forces who previously held sway in my life. They, at times, do not go quietly.
But paths are not permanent things, they change and evolve over time. Some trails become overgrown and forgotten, new trails open up and, however long you’ve walked a path, there will inevitably be a point where a path diverges.
This week for me and for those of us in my church we come to our own Road Not Taken. This Sunday, our Senior Pastor and us will be pausing at the fork in the road, saying our goodbyes to one another and from then on we will take differing paths in life. He and his wife Carole are moving to Freshwater, Isle of Wight where he will become the new Pastor at Colwell Baptist Church. We will remain here and travel the path God has laid out for us in Ampthill, Bedfordshire; discerning how God wants us to reach out to the community in future and what sort of leadership we need to be able to accomplish that job. Life is sad and exciting for both of us. On one hand we are both facing new challenges; but on the other both of us are losing that day-to-day contact with dear friends and I can’t think about that right now without tearing up. I suspect there are many people in our congregation who feel the same. Thank goodness for social networking and the blessing that both Stephen and Carole will only be one Facebook post away, wherever they are. I know a lot of people don’t like this new trend for social networking, but with the busy lives we all lead it’s sometimes the only way you can keep up with people.
Annoyingly, we can’t take both paths, each of us has to chose a fork and travel it. We can look back to the good times over fifteen and a half years that Stephen’s been leading the walk at Ampthill Baptist (pointing out the fauna along the way!), but ultimately we have to accept that God is calling Stephen down a path different to the one the rest of us are on. We have to let him go; with joy, with love, with oft-repeated demands that he stay in touch and perhaps, in time, to come back to visit.
I won’t be around on Sunday to witness the fork in the road moment – the valedictory service; we’d scheduled our holiday before his departure was announced. So on Sunday morning I will be several hundred miles away in Cornwall, but my heart will be at Ampthill Baptist Church. When I come back to work he’ll be gone and I will be turning up to work in a church that needs to adjust to life without him as part of our group.
The fork in the road is a time for our congregation to take stock of things and just as Stephen and Carole are off to do exciting things on the Isle of Wight, we’re going to be doing exciting things in Bedfordshire – but we don’t know what that is yet! We need to listen, we need to pray we need to take time to consider the way forward for our church.
Last Sunday, Stephen, sorry, Saint Stephen (private congregation in-joke), preached his last sermon and you can listen to it on the church website. In it, he summarised what he believed were the characteristics of a church that had an impact in the local community. One of those characteristics was to take a few risks, to step out and try things but always be mindful of what God is saying to us in the process. Is this working or is the door closing on this way of doing things? Stephen used the illustration in Acts 16 where Paul and his colleagues are heading in one direction but due to unspecified circumstances they find themselves subtly prevented by the Holy Spirit from going where they want to go and are instead called towards Macedonia. Paul’s not making a wasted trip here because that man’s going to have some impact wherever he goes. You suspect he’s the kind of guy who could take his dog for a walk and lead three people to Christ on a morning in the park. If we try something and it doesn’t ultimately work it won’t mean that someone’s life won’t be transformed as a result – we all know that God has a funny way of working at times!
Stephen was saying that it’s important that we don’t get all hung up on the endless waiting for God, the praying and waiting for clear signs that something is right. He said we should follow our hearts, do what feels and seems right. If it’s not, we’ll soon know, as we’ll find that our efforts are subtly angled around by the Holy Spirit to where they’re meant to be. Or even, that the door will firmly close; but at least we’ll have tried something and we’ll know, that at this point, it doesn’t work. That won’t mean it won’t work in the future, just that the time’s not right for it right now.
Forks in the road of life are common. We all have people in our lives that were alongside us for a while but their lives take them off in different directions. My friend Tess is herself moving from the UK to the US this week, swapping life in Bedfordshire for life in Connecticut. I’ll miss her dreadfully but she too will only be a Facebook post away.
Life is not a fixed point, it changes and evolves – Ecclesiastes 3 illustrates this so well, the famous verses that start, ‘There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven:’ Everything has its time and at some point that time is over. Who among us can remember our favourite Blue Peter presenter leaving (for me it was Lesley Judd), or our favourite Doctor leaving Doctor Who (some of us are still in shock that David Tennant would even consider not doing that job for eternity).
It was Shakespeare that said ‘parting is such sweet sorrow’ but frankly, at times, that’s rubbish, it’s just sorrow. Sometimes it hurts to say goodbye to those you love. And the Bible’s not immune to rubbing a bit of salt in the wound, where it says in Romans 8 that ‘all things work for the good of those who love him’. Yes I know that God, but the loss still jolly well hurts and I’m going to have a damn good cry if you don’t mind!
So this Sunday a group of people will stand at at a metaphorical fork in the road. We will say our goodbyes and two of our party will take what will be for the rest of us The Road Not Taken. We’ll cry, we’ll be sad but once we’ve waved them off into the distance we’ll have to look around at the path ahead of us and work out where it’s going. We have an exciting time ahead of us and it might not all be skipping through the bluebells. Some of it might be wading through big sticky mud patches. But we’ll keep our eyes on Jesus and wait for that moment when there’s another fork in the road…
… and someone else joins us for the next bit of the walk.
Stay tuned to find out who that will be…
*A note for overseas readers. O Level’s and CSE’s were, until 1988 the end of formal schooling assessment in the England and Wales. In 1988 they were replaced by GCSE’s, which, unlike ‘O’ Levels are not 100% pure exam but a combination of course work and exam. The jury’s still out on whether they’re generating a better educated country.