I spent the better part of my young adulthood attempting to rewrite Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Less Traveled.” In my updated version, whenever “two roads diverged in the yellow woods,” you would find me launching an extensive scouting expedition. First, I would reconnoiter one pathway several miles (e.g. six years studying for the priesthood). Next, I would return to the original point of divergence (e.g. leaving the seminary) to conduct a second exploratory journey down the previously neglected byway (e.g. dating first one woman, and then another for a grand total of four years). Eventually, on each pathway, some obstructive undergrowth would crop up, turning my footfalls back in the direction of the familiar stem in the “Y” shaped path.
There, I would bivouac for several years reviewing the data from those trips in the hope of making a vocational decision form-fitted to my peculiar soul. I felt like someone camped out on the “Go” square in a game of Monopoly. While my high school graduating class was putting houses on Boardwalk and Park Place, I was still rattling the dice on my first real throw.
To describe the factors that prevented me from staking a claim on my own less traveled road would take several chapters of a decidedly prosaic, un-Robert Frost-like book. The contents of that yawn-inducing volume would meander through a thicket of fears that resulted in self-defeating perfectionism. The levers that God employed to pry me out of my quagmire included spiritual direction, counseling, retreats, journaling, Al-Anon meetings, and plenty of prayer. But in addition to all of those path-straighteners, there was my old friend Richard.
Richard has always functioned as my own personal polygraph machine. Whenever I have been less than truthful with myself, Richard has been willing to call me out. During the young adult period of indecision in my life, he was the Abraham Lincoln to my General McClellan-always urging me to break camp and get moving toward some decision-any decision.
When God finally knocked me over the head with Lisa, it was Richard who said, “If you don’t ask her out, I’m going to call her and ask her out for you.” Once launched down the pathway of betrothal, Richard’s encouragement and challenge kept my cold feet walking along the warm pathway to my current life as a dad and husband. Even now, when I find myself stuck in some kind of a marital or parental thicket, Richard’s open ear and deep knowledge of me helps in charting a course through the brambles and the briars.
In this Sunday’s Gospel passage (John 1: 29-34), the reader, once again, was introduced to a man cut from the same cloth as my friend, Richard. Whenever two roads diverged, John the Baptist took the road less traveled-the one that involved telling the unvarnished truth.
I have always known that Richard and John the Baptist were similar in their addiction to the truth, but this week, it struck me that John the Baptist and Richard were alike in one other respect. They both knew how to support the mission of their friend.
Like the refrain of a song, this Sunday’s passage quoted the Baptist witnessing to how he hadn’t always recognized the true identity of his cousin, Jesus. But somehow, he became convinced that this childhood playmate of his was actually the pre-existent “Word made flesh.” Now, John was ready to support the mission of his cousin.
It seems to me that this Sunday’s third reading captured an essential insight into what it means to be a Christian friend. Like John the Baptist, and my friend Richard, “a friend,” in the deepest sense of that word, is someone who knows how to help you with your vocation-someone who serves that vocation by walking along the pathway with you.
This week’s Gospel posed some challenging questions. Who are the John the Baptist’s or Richards in your life? Who is it that you really open up to about your marriage, your parenting, or your life as a single, or religious? Sharing on a deep, personal level about the daily “living out” of your vocation allows a trusted friend to speak truths to you that you cannot discover with the blinders of only your own insight. Does your friendship with this person consistently make you a better husband, or wife-or a better you? For whom are you a John the Baptist, or a Richard, speaking the truth, even when it is difficult? Whose vocation and sense of mission is fed by knowing you?