“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
We smile at Yogi Berra’s oft quoted aphorism, amused at the obvious mismatch of situation and choice.
Then, with a bit of reflection, we realize that our personal and collective journeys are filled with forks in the road that have a significant effect on our destinies.
This school or that one, this job offer or that one, this or that place of service – our choices create our futures, with consequences small and large. Yogi would be pleased – we do in fact take the fork in the road.
A more poetic reflection on this reality is Robert Frost’s familiar poem about life’s choices:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, … I could not travel both. …
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Our national journey is bringing us to one of those forks in the road that will make a profound difference in the short and longer range of our future.
Portrayed by the pundits as a clear choice between two different visions of what America can be, the options of the fork in the road offer us two sets of values by which we will choose to live.
Carefully designed appeals encourage us to take each one, extolling the virtues of the one and castigating the dangers of the other.
Like the beloved poet, we can stand and look as far as we can down each road before choosing. But, once we take the fork in the road, “knowing how way leads on to way,” we doubt if we “should ever come back.”
What we see as we look down the two roads is one that’s well trodden. It seems preoccupied with money – how to get it and keep it, how to use its power to guide people’s thinking in directions that are profitable for those who control it, how to ease restrictions on how to obtain it, all under the banner of restoring freedoms perceived to be lost at the hands of wealth’s enemies. Many seem to have liked and chosen this road.
The other road doesn’t look quite as worn. It understands and values money, but doesn’t seem as preoccupied with it.
There are signs along this road that speak of freedoms of other kinds, of support for many levels of human need, of concern for the environment, of educational opportunity for all, of hospitality to the stranger.
Many seem to like this road, too. However, it seems less worn, perhaps because many of its travelers are carrying others.
Both roads promise a better future – one with a promise of greater prosperity; the other with a promise of greater justice. Nothing really wrong with either one, so how does one – how does a nation – choose?
It is hard to face this dilemma without recalling the admonition of Joshua as the covenant people are settling into the land that they understood to be the Promised Land:
“Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).
A three-way fork in the road: the gods of a nostalgic past beyond a river now crossed, the gods of the culture in which they now live, who promise agricultural success and prosperity, or the Lord of their wilderness journey, who simply promised, “I will be with you.”
Do we get the feeling we’ve been this way before?
It is also hard not to recall the remembered words of Jesus recorded by Matthew and Luke: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon [translated “wealth” or “money”]” (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13).
Given the fork before us in the road, it is not difficult personally for me to choose one.
Friends will choose the other with equal ease. Still I struggle with the either-or of it, because another image than winning and losing seems to be more apt for who we are called to be as a people of faith and as fellow citizens of a diverse nation.
Perhaps that image could be the rails of a train, bearing its passengers across the landscape of history on the pilgrimage toward the future.
Clearly at different places in the roadbed, the rails move in the same direction, in a consistent parallel partnership, without which they simply could not function.
Neither one alone can support the train, nor can they do so if they don’t cooperate by embracing the same goal and remembering what their job is and whom they serve.
We will definitely take the fork in the road. Maybe we can also hope for a time when those who part company at the fork will find their way back together to help each other along the journey.
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.