And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East
King George VI—the king of The King’s Speech—read this poem to his British radio audience during his Christmas broadcast in 1939. Great Britain had, by that time, declared war on Germany. Germany had conquered Poland, virtually over the weekend, and Hitler was biding his time for the attack on western Europe. It was a dark time and finding the way in that dark time was daunting. You can see why it appealed to the king.
The poem was popularly called, ”The Gate of the Year.” Minnie Louise Haskins, of the London School of Economics, who wrote the poem in 1908 called it “God Knows.” You can see the whole poem here.
I have loved this first part of the poem since I first heard it. “The man who stood at the gate” engaged my imagination and asking only for a light and being told there is a better way and finally, treading “gladly into the night.” All those appealed to me. But something did not appeal to me and I’ve never known just what it was. Today, I want to poke around a little and see what I can find.
When I think of it as my own problem, rather than King George’s, I start at a different place. Here’s what I want: I what to tread safely into the unknown. I think it will not be “unknown” if I can see it, so I ask for a light.
The man said, “You will be better off trusting God because this trusting will be better than seeing where you are going and it will be safer than knowing where to go.” That’s how I read what the man said.
I have that sentiment myself sometimes. “Tell me what to do so that I can be safe,” I want to say. I formulate it in those terms, but I don’t say it out loud because I don’t approve of it. Safety first people don’t do improv, I’m sure. Safety first people don’t put their lives in the hands of local populations who may be friendly or not. Safety first people don’t catch a pass on a crossing route when cornerbacks of reliably hostile disposition are waiting for them. So safety is good, but “safety first” is not.
As I see it, there are two kinds of reassurance I might (probably would) prefer to trusting that I have put my hand into the hand of God. First is “the known way.” Familiar; habitual. “I could do this with my eyes closed,” we say, but we don’t often say it in inescapable darkness.
Second is “the observable way.” This is not a “way” we know, necessarily, but it is a way we will know how to react to if we can see far enough ahead. We trust our reaction time, rather than our foreknowledge.
I might have a shot at either of those, if I were entirely sure that I had put my hand into the hand of God. But it’s hard to be sure of that. It is easy to see that I am not calling the shots anymore, but it is not easy to know who is.
The image that comes to my mind—influenced, I am sure, by a rapidly increasing technophobia—is “giving control” over to my computer to someone as at “remote source.” If the tech at the “remote source” cares about this glitch as much as I do (unlikely) and if he or she is more competent than I am (extremely likely), then I can relax and watch the cursor jerk frantically from one menu to another and from one function to another while I watch. Do I trust this person to manage my computer better than I could myself? Absolutely. Do I trust God to manage my life better than I could myself? In principle. Do I know that the remote source now exercising control over my life is, in fact, the God whom Jesus referred to as “Father?” No. I don’t know that.
And if I did know that, would I turn control over to God with the wholeness of heart with which I submit to the tech at the remote location? My very best trust in God comes when there is no alternative.
When I have some notion, myself, of how things should work out, I discover that other, deeper, levels of myself have preferences. I know a little something about this “way,” I say, because I have been here before. I am asking for only a little light, not a lot, because I do trust my ability to respond to unforeseen events. If there are alternatives, like these two very partial ones, trusting that the Being to whom I have given remote control over my life is, in fact, God and that He will “guide my way”—then those are harder.
There is a solution to this dilemma. It is, to borrow a phrase of C. S. Lewis’s, a “severe mercy.” It is to trust, not that God will guide me safely along my path, but that God will direct me where He needs for me to go. When the weak point in a military position is just about to give way, any general will send more soldiers there That might not be where the soldiers want to go, but it is where they are needed, so it is where they are sent. I don’t think of my life as a battlefield, really I don’t, but in the battlefield situation, the contrast between where I need to go and where I want to go is nicely illuminated.
If I trust that I will be guided where I need to be, that will be “a mercy.” If that “place” is somewhere I will be humiliated or bored or fired or killed, that will be “severe.” But if I can tread gladly into the night, I will feel that it is trust well placed and I will gladly give up my known way and my attraction to safety.