I want the words back.
It has been twenty years since I said them. The man sitting in front of me was a relative, one whom I hadn’t seen for twenty years before that. We had, as seems to be the custom in many far-flung families, come together in the same place on that day to mourn the loss of a loved one.
I found in my cousin a kindred spirit. After the funeral and the ensuing family dinner and socializing, all the other guests had gone to bed or left for other quarters. He and I sat into the wee hours of the morning talking about nothing and everything.
He is a pastor. I have a great love for God and for knowledge of Him. After the lighter subjects had been exhausted, we spoke at length about our faith and then about the foundations of our faith.
We started out speaking in broad terms, our joy at finding common ground, where we had never considered it might exist, almost palpable. The smiles on our faces as we shared our hearts mirrored the spirit within.
Eventually, the broad terms used up, we found the field of discussion narrowing, pinpointing individual doctrines and long-held beliefs.
I should have seen the danger.
Tighter and tighter grew the spaces in which we maneuvered, both intent on sharing our passions. From the clean and straight foundations, we had made our way to the living quarters in which we dwelt, day in and day out, each of us sure in our direction and in the integrity of the building.
We had obviously gone to different schools of architecture.
His structural design began to feel at odds with mine; my rooms built too large with doors that opened at a touch. I was cramped in the spaces he described, sensing that there might even be locks on some of the doors into the spaces, as well.
I said the words. He didn’t.
I said them.
I grew uncomfortable with the picture I was seeing and I wanted to seem open-minded, but firm. I made one statement and as a result, the house we had built together in that one glorious evening would soon be deserted, never to be inhabited again.
“There is only one thing that will keep me from fellowship with another believer. If he or she believes…, I don’t see any way for us to walk together.”
It was the one thing I was sure would allow us to move into the next room, a room where we would leave behind our differences, our arguments, our petty dogmas. I could see the room just ahead. The welcome light from inside shone down the narrow hallway we were in. In there, we would enjoy the splendor of being single-minded and in harmony once again.
The pain on his face was nearly instantaneous.
“Uh. I believe that. It is absolutely essential to my faith.”
We were done. I think I heard a door slam somewhere.
The narrowing passage led to a dead end, never to open up into another space of comfort and camaraderie.
The awkwardness of the silence which followed was profound. He went to bed. I went out to the motor home in which I was housed for that night. I couldn’t sleep.
The next morning, he flew home. We said goodbye without the slightest sign of the emotion the evening before had foreshadowed. He promised to keep in touch. I did the same.
Neither of us has.
My mind searches for the truth to be found in the event. All I can see is a snapshot in my memory of a face peering through boulders at me. It was on another day, even more years back.
To this day, the fear in the eyes is still enough to make me cringe.
We had taken a day trip to a nearby state park. Devil’s Den, they call it. I saw its beauty and wondered at the name. The place was astounding.
All around, the Ozark mountains climb. For miles, as we traveled toward the park, we rode along ridges and overlooked spectacular wooded valleys and limestone bluffs that fell away below us. Then we began to go down, down, and down some more, winding along tortuous roadways into a valley that was, in a word, beautiful.
We wound our way along the river that dropped over a dam in a roaring waterfall of sound to the little lake below where swimmers cavorted in its coolness. There were hiking trails that lead to amazing overlooks and placid meadows.
Then there were the caves. Ah!
Now I remember why they call it Devil’s Den.
Our group of young men grabbed flashlights and headed up the trail that led to the caves. Imagine. All the beauty of the woods, hills, and noisy water around us, and we wanted to clamber underground, over and around fallen boulders in the dark.
In the dark.
It started out nicely, the yawning opening inviting all of us to head deep into the maw of the cavern. We stood upright and just walked right in. It wasn’t long though, before the walking became climbing, as the big boulders seemed to want to be right in our pathway. We had to climb or turn back, and we weren’t about to go back.
Soon the climbing became crawling as the open cave turned into nothing more than a tunnel. Fortunately, the tunnel eventually opened up into a place where we could stand, but within moments we were sliding through tight spots, the like of which I had never been in.
I remember coming home that night–we did get out–with the stitching worn off the pockets of my jeans where they had rubbed constantly against those tight rocks. At one point, I found myself remembering that those caves had been formed by earth movement, and I wondered what would happen if the earth chose that exact moment to move again. Not a reassuring thought.
We got in and then we got out with each other’s help. Still, I was never so relieved as when we saw the light of day shining into the mouth of the caverns in front of us. We stood outside the entrance and counted off, to be sure everyone was out.
Three guys had been left behind. A friend and I were elected, perhaps we volunteered, to go back in and find them. It didn’t take long.
As we called out in the dark, we saw a light shining through a crack, a very small crack, in the wall of the main cavern. I will never forget the frightened face pressed up to the crack. It was the face of a young man who was in a tight spot, one he feared he might never be rescued from.
He could see the big open room of the main cavern. He could even reach his fingers through the crack in front of him and feel the moving air of the space. What he couldn’t do was to move from his position, jammed in the small space of a side passage, into that room which was the embodiment of freedom, and life, and joy to him and the two other guys pressed in behind him.
The friend with me knew the caves better than I. He had traversed them before and recognized the side passage the fellows were in. Urging them to move away from the crack, he gave them clear instructions on how to get back on track and into the main cavern once more.
They moved away from the crack only reluctantly. It was so close–so close–to safety and relief, yet they could not squeeze through the tight spot they had worked themselves into. Still, they didn’t want to leave the spot when they could see their goal within reach. But the guys finally did follow instructions and minutes later we heard them puffing and exclaiming about the hardship, but they were smiling sheepishly as they came into the big cavern, just feet away from where we had found them.
So close. So far.
My mind shifts back to that other night twenty years ago. That night when my cousin and I moved from the wide spot where we walked side by side and conversed, never realizing that the room was narrowing. Then, before we knew it, it was too late.
Too late. The tight spot my words put us in were supposed to be the way out. They only drove us in deeper and we never found the path back.
So close. So far.
I hear the questioning voices. What of the important doctrine I spoke of? Shouldn’t I have done exactly what I did and stood my ground? Was is that important?
I have asked myself that question again and again. I still believe the dogma of which I spoke. It’s just that the years have shown me another truth.
When we disagree with others who are walking in the same faith as we are, it is not wise to make the way so narrow that no one else may pass. Imperatives that leave no way out make it difficult (impossible even) for us to walk side by side and to learn from each other. We are robbed of fellowship with fellow travelers who are as passionate as we to walk in truth.
The Apostle, for whom my parents had the audacity to name me, suggested that it was okay for his listeners to believe something other than what he taught. He did add that he was sure God would show the objectors the truth, but he asks that they continue to live up to what had been attained. Even if they couldn’t agree with him on that one point.
Freedom to find the truth. As they walked beside him.
I still want the words back.
The tight spots in this world are plentiful enough. There is no need for us to go building more, or even looking for those we needn’t travel.
I’m still making my way out of the devil’s den I stumbled into that night.
There are others in here too. Their cries for help echo in my ears.
Maybe we can find the way out into the passageway together.
We might even share the light along the journey.
“We must hold onto the progress we have already made.”
(Philippians 3:16 ~ NLT)
“Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”
“And he has Brain.”
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”
There was a long silence.
“I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”
(A.A. Milne ~ English author ~ 1882-1956)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.