Saturday, September 5, 2009

Learning as We Go

He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.

                        Psalm 25.9

Shaking Stereotypes

Few feelings are more vexing, I think, than behaving stereotypically without being able to shake it. Years ago, while staying in Paris, Walt and I scooted off to London. He’d never been and I’d not returned since college. Walking out of Victoria Station into a bustling hurly-burly, I instantly saw my memory of the place had been lacquered with Dickensian sentimentality. It remained a labyrinth of streets, but the traffic and crowds diluted the charm I recalled. One evening, we headed into West End clutching a list of plays, planning to see the first we found with available seats. The cab dropped us at The Lion King. It was sold out. So, map in one hand, list in the other, with the clock ticking, we looked for another. No matter which way we went, we’d turn the corner and find ourselves back at The Lion King. “Ask somebody,” Walt pleaded. But something in me couldn’t abide the idea. “There’s no need,” I insisted. “We’ll find something.” The night ended with us eating overpriced curry in Soho, sullen and silent. He was angry at my stubbornness, but nowhere as much as I.

Not asking for directions was such a man thing—the stuff of sitcoms and New Yorker cartoons. What was my problem? The more I thought about it, the worse my regret and deeper my shame at putting myself in the way of what I truly desired. I wanted to share the London I knew and loved with Walt. Somewhere in the middle of that, though, my pride entered the mix. I couldn’t bear to admit I no longer knew London very well. Stumbling through the West End, I kept bumping into me and I couldn’t shake the stereotype of the willful, self-absorbed husband. Pretending I knew the right way led me wrong. Unwillingness to own up to my ignorance taught me the value of learning as we go. It was a costly lesson. It pretty much killed Walt’s interest in London. We’ve not gone back since.

Going With What We Know

If there’s a stereotype David struggles hardest to shake, it’s the “man thing” of not stopping for directions. His notorious scheme to marry Bathsheba is a case in point. He spots her from his palace roof, is totally smitten, and inquires who she is. Learning she’s the wife of Uriah, David hatches a plan to woo him. He invites Uriah to the palace, gives him fancy gifts, and wines and dines him. Once he wins Uriah’s trust, David sends him into battle, where he’s killed. His death crushes Bathsheba. Yet her pain doesn’t faze David, who, given his sensitivity to godly things, surely sees the stupidity of pursuing his plan. Still, he cagily waits until Bathsheba recovers, marries her, and they have a son. According to 2 Samuel 11.27, “The thing David had done displeased the LORD.”

God sends His prophet, Nathan, to charge the king with adultery. Instead of sentencing David to death—the legal penalty for sleeping with another man’s wife—Nathan prophesies the son’s death. No matter which way he turns, David bumps into his pride in thinking he could pull off such a dastardly deed without paying for his deceit of Uriah and Bathsheba. He begs God to spare his son’s life to no avail. Coming to grips with his pride turns into a costly lesson. Perhaps for the first time in life, David experiences the sorrow that befalls us by arrogantly going with what we know instead of humbling ourselves to learn as we go. Had he paused to seek God’s guidance, he would have abandoned his circuitous path and saved himself the humiliation of learning he deceived himself worst of all.

Running on Empty

Since we have no records pinpointing when David composed each of his psalms, we can’t place Psalm 25 before or after his debacle with Bathsheba. But it surely carries the weight of getting lost in pride-inflicted misery. “No one whose hope is in you will ever be put to shame, but they will be put to shame who are treacherous without excuse,” David writes in verse 3, calling on God in verses 4 and 5 to “show me your ways, O LORD, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me.” In verse 7, He pleads, “Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways,” which in verses 15-20 he attributes to causing numerous problems—feeling trapped, lonely, anguished, hated, and humiliated. This is a man running on empty. Nonetheless, his sensibilities rally. He recognizes what has to happen to get back on course. Before even itemizing his woes, he announces what he’s learned from his mistakes: “Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways. He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way… Who, then, is the man that fears the LORD? He will instruct him in the way chosen for him.” (v8-9; 12).

Presuming we’re smart and experienced enough to go with what we know is a stereotype we all need to shake. Christ’s path is too narrow for ego-driven stubbornness and too straight for circuitous schemes. Going our way infers we know where we’re headed and we don’t. When we follow Jesus, we cast off prior knowledge and sense of direction. He maps our course. We humbly accept this. Isaiah 42.16 says, “I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth.” The smarter and more experienced we become, the humbler and more dependent on God’s guidance we are. We stop worrying about dark stretches and bumpy spots. Our Leader turns darkness into light and smoothes out rough roads. We learn the only way to get where we’re going is by learning as we go.

Going on what we know leads to some humiliating places. Better to humble ourselves and learn as we go.

(Tomorrow: Plugged In)

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