Just a nice, straight, honest path please

Who wants to see into the future? Paul Handley does. The Editor of the Church Times explains the difference between 'waiting in the Lord' and 'running towards the goal'.
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The Independent Online
On the last page of Little Women, Louisa M. Alcott works on her readers, coaxing them towards buying the sequel. (Nowadays it would be given a more marketable title, like Little Women II or Big Women.) Laurie turns to Jo and asks. "Don't you wish you could take a look forward and see where we shall all be then? I do."

"I think not," answers Jo, "for I might see something sad."

But I want to: and so, I reckon, do most people.

To want to see into the future is thought of as cranky or, if not that, then greedy: wanting more than we have a right to. You get shovelled into the same bracket as all the sad people who consult Russell Grant and Mystic Meg: or it's assumed that you want to fiddle the National Lottery or your insurance.

But really, it's only that I get so tired of living in a world of guesswork. If we could just live in the present, as we are constantly enjoined to do, that would be fine. There is only one of them. But there are always three, four or five futures we have to cope with. Every action has to be thought out and duplicated in case X happens, or Y happens, and to guard against the eventuality of Z happening.

This making of provision (an ironically inappropriate word, given that that's precisely what we don't have) gums up all of life. It means I have to (or ought to) leave early when I go out in the evening in case I get held up in the traffic. It means the local health authority has to guess how many ambulances it needs to cover my area in case I smash into another car at the same time as somebody falling downstairs. (At the moment everybody round here drives carefully, since there is only one ambulance.) It means that somebody falls downstairs, because the health authority cancelled their home-help in order to spend the money on a second ambulance, which it might never need.

Generally my desires are modest. I want to know when the car will need to be replaced.

I'm not afraid of the big one, though. Unlike Jo, I don't worry about the sadness, since to know when one will die is to be able to prepare for it. My children used to play up in church because they weren't able to judge how near the end of the service they were. Knowing how long you have to go on suffering something helps you to endure it.

There are two spiritual ways of coping with uncertainty about the future. One is referred to as "waiting in the Lord". (Not to be confused with "waiting on the Lord", which, translated, means simply "I'm flummoxed".) The other, more common in Evangelical circles, is talked of as running towards the goal. The new Bishop of Chelmsford, announced this week, is a runner, but a marathon-runner rather than a sprinter; in other words, an Evangelical "enriched by other traditions". The Lord-waiters cope by letting events wash over them: for them, faith has been confused with hope. By contrast, the goal- runners set a target, and believe themselves to be heading towards it, disregarding life's awkwardnesses: for them, faith has been confused with determination.

For the rest of us, when faced with all the eventualities we ought to cover, we rely on habit, routine and the television schedules. We know that on Thursday evening next week we will have eaten sweetcorn-and-pepper- topped pizza and that Matthew will be telling us about his central heating. We know that the car will start tomorrow morning. We know that the sun will rise. In other words, we pretend. And we gamble: the lure of the National Lottery is that it is so easily predicted compared to the number and complexity of the risks we take each day. We walk on a tissue-strewn carpet of supposition and getting across it depends on not looking down.

It is a wearisome business, and I'd like it to stop. Just a nice, straight, honest path for me, please: seeing the next joy coming towards me, seeing the next sorrow. It doesn't seem that much to ask. I wouldn't necessarily want complete prescience about everything: and I'm even willing to agree not to change too much as a result of my new knowledge, if people think that's cheating.

Until this is granted, I'll have to practise: I'll carry a watch to church, believe the weather forecast and skip to the last pages of novels. Not one of Jo's boys, I'm afraid.

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