It was early in the crop planting season on a large Kansas farm when Tim reported to his father in the barn. With a slight grin, his dad flipped him the keys to the big tractor and said: “It’s your time. You plow the big field.” Tim felt both pride and terror rising in his mouth. Gulp. “The big field?” Finally, he stammers out, in as calm a voice as he can muster. “How will I know if I am going straight?” “Drive to the middle of the field along the fence row, pick a spot on the far horizon in the middle of the field and keep your eye on that spot and you’ll be fine.” “Okay.” So off he goes, driving to the middle of the field along the fence row. He turns the tractor from the fence line and then surveys the land. Nothing but the curve of the horizon in the distance and on all sides. A moment of panic strikes him. There is no marker on the far horizon that he can see. Then he peers ahead and finally finds a spot, just barely visible, in the middle, puts the tractor in gear and off he goes. And he drives. And drives. And drives. Eyes still on the spot. Suddenly, with a sinking realization, he looks behind him, and sure enough, he can see a gentle, steady curve to the right in the newly plowed rows behind him. He looks ahead, the object now clear in front of him. His ‘fixed’ spot had been a grazing cow…
Before the invention of the GPS, mariners had to find something to navigate by. If they were close to the coast and stayed in known waters, they used recognizable landmarks. But if they ventured into the open ocean or to unknown waters, or had to sail on a moonless night, those were not available. Eventually, they discovered an important truth. Because of the earth’s spin, the stars appear to travel across the night sky in circular arcs. But one star, the North Star remained fixed. By taking their bearings on the North Star, showing them the ‘true North’, they could navigate to wherever they wanted. .
For many, true North also became a beacon that led them to freedom. When slaves were stolen from their homes in Africa and brought to America, in their bid for freedom, they were told to make their way to the Underground Railroad. And in a land that they did not know, they had only to follow one thing – the Northern Star. That fixed point indicating true North would be their guide on the journey to freedom.
So for us. To find our way in this life we each need a North Star, that fixed point that gives direction and purpose to our lives. And we need to surrender to that power, to that true north which is bigger and stronger than all the other things that seem to have power over our decisions, over our minds and hearts and bodies.
Today’s readings from both the Old Testament and the New name our True North this way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and body.” To which Jesus adds, because they are inseparable: “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That is the true north that will guide you faithfully home.
I learned this truth in grade-school. I remember being taught that, yes, there is a commandment, “Honor your father and your mother.” But, if your Mom or Dad asks you to do something immoral, you should not do what your Mom or Dad asks. There is a higher power, a truer north more important even than love of parents.
Similarly, if a boyfriend or girlfriend says, “You need to do this or I won’t love you”, there is a higher power which allows us to rise above the emotions of all of that to stay true to what keeps us free… our true north.
We simply have to have something wiser and more clear-sighted than the chemical reactions in our own brains. How else could someone be faithful over the course of a 40 or 50 or 60 year marriage when the infatuation has gone? Or, against the chemicals that light up the brain with the instinct to survive, what else would free us to die for something or someone? There simply has to be something to transcend the swirl of emotions; the temptations and trials of this moment in time.
Step 2 in AA and all 12-step programs names it this way: We came to believe that a power higher than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Those in recovery from addictions know that recovery is impossible without a higher power. Do we? Are or we still trying to do it by ourselves, for ourselves?
We need a true north that has more power for us than the immediate and the transitory, that can guide us when the Hurricane Sandy’s of our life hit. And it is not enough to find that true north. We have to re-orient our lives to it. Step three of any recovery program is this: Make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand God. We need to surrender our lives to that One God. So did the Jews and our Jewish Jesus, when He said, “Love the Lord your God with your whole mind and whole heart and whole soul.”
Tim found out the hard way that you need one fixed point to orientate your life. The ancient mariners knew that truth. As did Jesus. What is your true North?