Paying Attention to the Forks in the Road


Fourteen years ago I was fortunate to receive funding to take a

three month, clergy renewal Sabbatical. The central piece to this

time involved a trip I made to northern California where I spent

four days alone camping in a redwood forest during which I

fasted. A “Spirit Quest” it was it’s called. The basecamp for the

Quest was a Presbyterian Church Camp. The day before the quest

was to begin by spiritual director instructed me to hike up trails of

the small mountain beside the camp with two gallon jugs of water

and locate a spot where I would spend my four days alone.

I found a lovely spot in front of an old Redwood tree. After

leaving my two gallons of water and taking note of the location of

the spot off the trail I hiked back down to the base camp where I

picked up two more gallons and hiked once more up to my

campsite to deposit them as well. No problem. There was a

misty rain, and the afternoon was growing late, but I had

accomplished the hard part. All I had to do now was hike back

down the mountain, which I set out to do swiftly and confidently.

Except, somehow I managed to get lost. It wasn’t that the trails

themselves weren’t clear. Somehow I managed to overlook a

fork where I was supposed to turn off one trail and get onto


When I realized I had made a wrong turn I backtracked to try and

find exactly where I’d gone astray, but this proved to be difficult.

The sun was setting. I quickened my pace as my anxiety began

to rise. The darker it got, the less familiar everything looked.

Eventually the sun did in fact set. Fortunately I had a flashlight

and I continued on searching for the correct path down to the

basecamp. My anxiety was pretty intense by now. There was

some anxiety about spending the night in the forest without my

tent or sleeping bag. The anxiety had more to do with my

embarrassment. My spiritual director was waiting for me at the

But I was humbled. I had assumed with some degree of

arrogance that I had this forest mastered.

So it was all for the good. It is with humility that one should go

on such a quest, and it is with humility that one should walk

through life.

The experience became something of a metaphor for the journey

of life itself. There was a fork in the road and I had missed it

I had missed it perhaps because I was going too fast. I had missed it because I wasn’t paying attention.

To choose not to choose is to still choose.

Life is about choices, and I would suggest the vast majority of the


base camp. I knew that she would be growing alarmed at my

failure to return, and that probably at some point she would

notify the authorities and a search party would be sent out for

me. How embarrassing would that be?

Well, eventually I did find my way back, and with the exception of

some blisters on my feet for all the extra hiking I had done I was

no worse for wear.

At daybreak the following morning when I set out to hike up the

mountain to begin my quest I did so as Psalm 51 from Ash

Wednesday puts it, with “a broken and contrite heart.”

choices we make we don’t even notice.

How does a politician who goes into politics with good intentions

to make a contribution end up becoming corrupt?

How does a marriage that starts off with two persons “in love”

making holy vows to one another end up in divorce?

How does a job that begins with hope and idealism end up being

a matter of just going through the motions in order to pick up a


Generally speaking, there wasn’t one decisive place where a bad

choice was made — the wrong path taken at a particular fork.

Something similar can happen with our relationship to God.

If we were hearing the story for the first time we probably


No, it was thousands – maybe tens of thousands — of little

choices along the way. Most of the choices, like mine in the

forest, we didn’t even recognize we were making. Before long

the choices became habits.

So Jesus went to the River Jordan and was baptized by John and

soon thereafter he heard the voice of God calling him the beloved

son, and he was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.

wouldn’t guess what happens next. We’d probably expect him to

get to work.

But instead Jesus goes out into the wilderness for forty days to be

tempted by the devil.

Why does he do this? He does this because he knows there will

be countless forks in the road ahead of him, and in that fast-

paced manner that life comes at us, the implications of the

choices won’t always be obvious.

And so he spends forty days anticipating those forks – those

choices – in order that he might choose decisively in advance the

path God was calling him to take.

He feels the temptations – the attractions of the “wrong” paths.

As God’s beloved son – as the messiah sent by God – he has

been given power – the power represented in the temptations to

turn stones to bread and to leap off the top of the temple to be

outward oppression will arise to take the place of the old


caught by angels.

On occasion Jesus will put the power he has been given to use.

He will heal sick people and feed five thousand poor people who

have followed him out into the wilderness. He will give people a

glimpse into compassionate heart of God.

But his mission isn’t to be a miracle man – to fix all our earthly,

bodily problems. “Man does not live by bread alone,” he

declares, which points to the fact that there is more to life that

our physical life – there is also our spiritual life – that connection

to our true center that is God’s love for us.

It involves each of us recognizing ourselves as God’s children,

and embracing our the birthright of freedom to make choices, to

take responsibility, to recognize the forks in the road.

The second temptation – to be given all the worldly power of this

world – well, there’s real appeal in this. He could take this power

and overthrow the Roman oppressors and the corrupt religious

authorities. He could deliver the people from their outward


But if we don’t deal with our inner oppression, then new forms of


And here’s the thing: This is what the people want him to be

about. This is the kind of messiah they long for.

They will shower him with praise and adulation if he will be who

they want him to be for them.

It will all be very enticing to Jesus’ ego. And yes, since Jesus was

human just like you and me, that means he had an ego that

could be appealed to.


But Jesus turns down the devil’s temptations. He chooses to stay

close to God and the humble path that God has called him to

forge. He will please God; not the adoring masses. And as Luke

in particular makes clear, in the end the masses will turn against

him for not being who they wanted him to be.

Luke tells us that Jesus repeatedly went off by himself through

the course of his ministry to pray – to be alone with God – which

says something about how powerful the pull can be to take the

wrong path.

So there is this struggle going on in this world between good and

evil, light and darkness, and if we think this struggle is taking

place only out there somewhere, we deceive ourselves.

The struggle takes place in the hearts of each of us:
To live with prideful arrogance or to walk humbly with our Lord. To harden our hearts, or to choose love, choose forgiveness.

Lent is a time to see our lives more clearly.

So Lent is a good time to begin paying more attention to the

choices we make, the forks in the road, the paths we passed on

by because we were going too fast to pay attention.

It is a time for repentance – which isn’t about feeling bad about

what a miserable sinner we are – rather, to repentance involves

changing directions: from walking away from God to walking

with God. It may be that the need for repentance – to change

direction — involves particular portions of our lives that we have

managed to compartmentalize. We take a hard look at our lives

and recognize places where we’ve been heading in the wrong

direction and need to turn back – towards, God, towards the light

towards love.


All of this requires extended times of stillness and prayer. And

what we may see are habits that have been established over time

and which we find ourselves powerless to break. requiring us to

intentionally turn towards God in humility asking for the power to

do that which we cannot do by ourselves.