Randy Komisar begins his book The Monk and the Riddle by telling the story that gives the book its name. He was riding on a motorcycle across what was then Burma and now is called Myanmar with a small group of Americans. Early one morning he came upon a makeshift taxi truck onto which thirty passengers were piled and clinging. One of the passengers, a young monk dressed in a plumcolored robe, motioned toward Komisar and indicated that he wanted a ride. Since the monk spoke no English, Komisar simply nodded his assent and the monk climbed onto the back of his motorcycle.
Komisar didn’t know exactly where the monk wanted to go, so he decided to head off in the same direction the taxi truck had taken. The roadway went through villages and open-air markets and periodically he had to navigate around herds of lumbering cattle and carts pulled by water buffalo. They stopped once for Komisar to have lunch with his American friends and then a second time for the monk to eat in a ramshackle shed with a group of farmers. Finally, near evening they approached what turned out to be an ancient Buddhist monastery built into the rock face of a mountain. He stopped and the monk immediately climbed off the motorcycle and disappeared up the hill. Komisar, still uncertain as to the monk’s final destination, discovered that the abbot of the monastery spoke English. “Is this where he wants to go?” Komisar asked him. “Oh yes, this is where you take him,” the abbot replied. They chatted for a few minutes, then Komisar asked for directions to the town where his friends were spending the night and headed back to his motorcycle.
To his surprise, Komisar found the monk standing there beside his motorcycle. Confused, he looked toward the abbot. “He wants to go back where you picked him up,” the abbot explained. “But you said this is where I take him,” Komisar said. “Yes, but he wants to go back now. Can you take him?” “But he just got here,” Komisar replied, a little exasperated. “I drove him all afternoon. It’s nearly sunset and now he wants to go back? Why?”
“I cannot easily answer that question,” the abbot explained. “But let me give you a riddle to solve. Do not try to answer it right away. You must sit with the riddle awhile and the answer will come to you. Now…imagine that I have an egg, and I want to drop it three feet without breaking it. How do I do that?”
Well I’ll let this riddle hang there to give you a chance to “think about it,” as Gil would say to the youth. In the meantime, let’s consider the nature of our journey in dealing with the changes that come into our lives.
Not unlike Komisar and the monk, we frequently find ourselves on our way to or from something, moving from something known, to something unknown. We graduate from college and seek out a new place in the job world; we marry not really knowing what the future will hold as we make promises for a lifetime; we bring children into the world, hoping their life will be blessed with possibilities; we change jobs, leaving behind old acquaintances on the way to new ones; we get divorced and are confronted with adjusting to single life; we break an addiction; we sell our home and relocate; we retire and wonder what will now give our days structure. In going through these changes, we often discover things about ourselves that we may not have known before.
William Bridges is the author of a book entitled, Transitions – Making Sense of Life’s Changes. I first read this book when I left my career in advertising to go to seminary. Over these past few weeks, I reread the parts I had highlighted at that time. In the book, Bridges points out that there is a pattern of certain definite stages to all our transitions. First of all, something ends. The ending is followed by a time which Bridges terms as the “neutral zone.” It is a hard and uncomfortable place to be because you may not know what is coming next and you may not be ready to leave what has been. This period can last for a long time or it may be very brief. But at some point, this middle period of transition gives way and is transformed into something else, a new beginning.
This pattern of transition from endings to new beginnings is a continual part of life, for all of us. Yet most of us find transitions to be difficult. Why? Because when something ends, it is only natural to feel a sense of lostness or emptiness. We’ve all experienced that, haven’t we? We are familiar with the anxieties inherent in those in-between-times of our lives. Such times are difficult for us because most of us tend to be “take charge” people. But taking charge doesn’t always work well. That is because, Bridges says, we are prone to misunderstand endings. We forget that in fact, endings are necessarily the first phase of the transition process on the way to something new. He points out that no matter however comfortable the status quo may feel – it too was once unknown and untried.
Living in that place of change and transition calls us to be open to possibilities. But in order to do that, we must let go of our expectations about what the future may or may not hold. A story…
In a small village in Korea, a farmer and his son go into the mountains searching for firewood. They come upon a magnificent stallion and capture it. They take the beautiful horse home and the whole village comes around to see it. The people of the village congratulate the farmer on his good fortune. His response is, “Maybe good fortune, maybe not.” One night the stallion escapes from the barn, and though the farmer and his son search and search, the horse is not to be found. When the people of the village hear about the loss, they stop by to console the farmer on his misfortune. The farmer responds, “Maybe bad fortune, maybe not.”
A few days later the stallion returns with many other horses. The poor farmer now has a herd of horses in the corral. The villagers come by and praise his good fortune. But the farmer insists, “Maybe good fortune, maybe not.” Later that month, the father and his son are breaking the horses when one of the wild ones bucks the son off. He lands hard on the ground and breaks his arm. He is unable now to work the rest of the horses with his father. In fact the break is so bad, he cannot help with the harvest. It’s a real hardship for the farmer. Some neighbors volunteer to help him out and offer their condolences on the farmer’s bad fortune and he replies, “Maybe bad fortune, maybe not.”
A few weeks later the Emperor’s soldiers come to the village to conscript young men for a campaign to invade the neighboring country. When they see that the farmer’s son has a broken arm and cannot handle a weapon, he is passed over. The villagers congratulate the farmer and his son on their good fortune. But once again the farmer simply says, “Maybe good fortune, maybe not.”
We can always count on change in our lives, but we can’t always know what will be good fortune and what will not be good fortune. In the moment we can’t always know what new thing will come to be. These are times that can feel very unsettled, but they are also times that are filled with possibilities. Change is not always easy, but it is part of life that calls us to always be growing and always be open to new things. No matter our age, no matter our circumstance. Over the past few weeks as folks learned of my leaving KUC, I received calls from persons who shared their own experience of going through a transition. A couple of days ago, a man told me his story. He had been on the fast track of a demanding job that consumed not only his time, but his person. At one point he came to himself (to use a biblical phrase) and he realized that even when he was with his wife and children, he really was not present to them. That’s when he decided he had to make a change. He quit his job without any prospects. Though it was his decision, initially it was awkward and he avoided being around former associates. Over the course of the next nine months, he got himself in shape, developed a new perspective, found a new job and began a new career. In the process, he recreated himself. Loss was a necessary part of his journey to something newer and better.
T.S. Eliot once wrote these wise words: “What we call the beginning is often the end. To make an ending is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from…And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started from, and know the place for the first time.” (Little Giddings, No. 4 of Four Quartets)
As persons of faith, we trust God is with us along the journey we travel in life. The author of Lamentations drew strength from this conviction. In today’s reading, just preceding the passage we read, he expresses his disappointment, discouragement and despair for the situation in which he finds himself. However as he acknowledges the sense of lostness and emptiness he feels, he breaks through the gloom saying: “The thought of my affliction and homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: The steadfastness of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is God’s faithfulness.” With new boldness, he speaks from his soul, “The Lord is my portion, therefore I will hope in him.” Some years ago in a sermon, Frederick Buechner wrote: “I was sitting by the side of the road one day last fall. It was a dark time in my life. I was full of anxiety, full of fear and uncertainty…and then as I sat there, I spotted a car coming down the road toward me with one of those license plates that you can get by paying a little extra to have a word on it instead of just numbers and a letter or two. And, of all the words the license plate might have had on it, the word that it did have was the word T-R-U-S-T. Trust. And as it came close enough for me to read, it became a word from on high… [telling me] to trust the road, above all else, trust God.”
To trust in God is to be open to the change that life is calling us to make. Yogi Berra, the former Yankee great and American philosopher, was the source for today’s sermon title. You may recall his famous line, “When you come to a fork in the road – take it!” Every fork in the road involves choice. This way or that way? It’s not easy to know sometimes. But every fork in the road taken leads to a new beginning.
As you know, I have come to an ending here at KUC and in the midst of a transition. You also may be in the midst of a transition of one sort or another. I have no idea where my transition may take me. And you know, that is not a bad thing. Because sometimes when you know where everything is, what is and is not possible, life becomes pretty closed. Don’t get me wrong. I’m perfectly aware that predictability and routine is a lot more comfortable than the prospect of an uncertain tomorrow. But God can, and does, use change to surprise us in ways beyond our imaginings. It’s happened to me before – more than a few times in fact – and in my experience the new beginning I arrived at turned out to be a good thing. One of which was to bring me here to Kenilworth Union Church six years ago.
Well let’s go back to the beginning to the riddle where we started. Did you come up with an answer? Komisar reminds us that the metaphor of the riddle speaks only of the journey of the egg. There is no specific destination for the egg other than having to go three feet without cracking. Sooo… if you’re holding an egg and want it to fall three feet without breaking, all you have to do is simply extend its trip to four feet. Which I believe can be understood to imply that when all is said and done, the journey that shapes our life is its own reward.
Now I could, and perhaps should, end this sermon here. But in cleaning out my office files this week, I happened upon a favorite piece that speaks to the journey that is ahead for all of us who are, and have, and will go through a transition. I used it in the sermon I preached at the very beginning of this year. It is from one of the Lord of the Rings books, a little song sung by Bilbo Baggins. It goes like this…
The road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the road has gone,
And I must follow if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And wither then?
I cannot say.
And “wither then” the song asks. We are all on a road that goes on and on, with God by our side. With trust that God is holding us in love, we can have hope in our tomorrows knowing that as some things come to an end and we go through that uncomfortable in-between time, we are traveling on to a new thing that joins some larger way. Now isn’t that better than the same old thing without end? I think so.
In the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.