Brief encounter

The season for commencement addresses is approaching. In a single event at high schools, colleges, and universities all around us, a door will close, a door will open, and speakers – class valedictorians and distinguished guests – will try to make sense of the bittersweet stew of farewells and new beginnings.

“For everything there is a season,” the Teacher said, “and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away. God has made everything suitable for its time” (Eccles. 3:1, 5b-6, 11). An older translation reads, God “has made everything beautiful in its time.” I like that. There’s a time for everything in life, all the gains and losses, and everything is suitable, even beautiful, at the right time.

Change happens continually, whether we choose it or not. The cycle of endings and beginnings never ceases; welcomes and farewells follow each other in turn, often before we’re ready for them. The only choice we have is whether we will cooperate with change creatively, whether we will embrace it as the opportunity it is for a richer, fuller life. Sometimes it’s in the hinge of transition, in the turning from what has been to what will be, that we find our most creative, transforming opportunities.

Take the story of Philip and the Ethiopian court official, for example (Acts 8:26-40). I’m not sure it was as easy as Luke says for Philip to drop everything, leave his ministry in Samaria, and head toward the wilderness road that runs from Jerusalem to Gaza. As Luke tells it, “an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go’” (v. 26), and Philip got up and went, simple as that. Luke leaves out the messy details, like the inner struggle Philip may have had before leaving what may have been a pretty good ministry, or the doubts he may have had about whether this was the right move at the right time, or his vacillation between going or staying.

Did he experience the move as a call from God to a place where he clearly needed to be? Did he wear out his welcome in Samaria and leave just in time, a wilderness road seeming the best place to be as he pondered the direction of his life and work? Or did he recognize he had done all he could do there and feel the need to grow toward something more, not knowing what that something more would be? Did he go with confidence in his response or with ambivalence, uncertain whether he had made the right decision? None of that is in the story.

Luke not only tidies up the details of what led Philip to this brief encounter; he also pares down the details of what follows. After the Ethiopian had been baptized, “the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; [and the Ethiopian] saw him no more” (v. 39). Nor will we; there’s not another word about Philip except a hint that he may have settled in Caesarea (Acts 21:8). Two journeys intersected on a road in the wilderness; two people met just long enough for God’s purpose to be accomplished; then they parted company, never to meet again.

One of them at least, the Ethiopian, had his life changed, and he went on his way rejoicing at what had happened in that brief encounter. But what happened between his baptism and his rejoicing? Did he say goodbye to Philip easily, or did he try to convince him to stay a little longer, enough longer that he might get more from Philip – more insight, more guidance, more practical help for the journey ahead? Did he shed tears before he rejoiced? I wish Luke had provided those details. It might help us deal better with the brief encounters we have in life, with what leads our journeys to intersect with others on this wilderness road, and with our partings, each in our own direction. But life seldom provides those details until much later, if at all.

Like anyone who trusts deeply in God’s grace and who has lived long enough to see more than a little of it, I believe little if any sense can now be made of our time together. The sense must come later. God’s ways with us are deeply mysterious. As the parable says, it’s hard to tell the difference between the weeds and the wheat (Matt. 13:24-30), so we need to be very careful about what in our time together we discard and what we keep. It’s wise to let both weeds and wheat have their way with us until God sorts them out in the end. Even the darkest, most chaotic sea can be a necessary passage on the journey toward the promised land (Ps. 77:16-20).

It’s also difficult, I find, to say much about what lies ahead. After all the long journey I’ve made so far, it seems I’ve barely begun, and ahead of me stretches a long, uncharted road. What lies ahead is out of sight, beyond knowing. Each of us will travel in some new direction. But which direction? Many roads diverge ahead of us, and each one will make its own difference. But the choice of how we travel the road ahead will make all the difference.

So in every experience of parting and new beginning, we give thanks for our continuing journeys, for the brief encounters to which they bring us on the way, and for the great unknown that lies ahead with all its potential and promise. And we join in this adaptation of one of Thomas Merton’s best-known prayers.

Lord our God, we have no idea where we are going. We don’t see the road ahead of us. We cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do we really know ourselves, and the fact that we think we are following your will does not mean we are actually doing so. But we believe the desire to please you does in fact please you. And we hope we have that desire in all we are doing. We hope we will never do anything apart from that desire. And we trust that if we do this you will lead us by the right road, though we may know nothing about it. Therefore, we will trust you always, though we may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. We will not fear, for you are always with us, and you will never leave us to face our journey alone.

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