Most folk don’t take nearly enough time to notice it. These days way too much ugliness hides the beauty that’s always around us. Even when we don’t pay attention, beauty surprises us with magic and mystery. Beauty is a lot like hope.
The magical appearance of beauty is, indeed, in the eye of the beholder. For me, beauty can inspire me by color and movement, by the shimmering stars on a clear night, by the magnificence of a tree’s movement in the breeze, by looking into the eyes of my grandchildren. Beauty is there for us always—to be seen, to be heard, to be sensed deeply in our bodies and in our spirits.
These days, I need more of it—more hope, more beauty. I need more visions of beauty to supersede the ugliness of injustice, division, racism, misogyny, homophobia, political warring, brokenhearted immigrants looking for life, mass shootings, Covid, gun violence, child trafficking, suffering in Ukraine—all the varied chaos around the world.
And then there are the people here and there who bring grace to us all by transforming ugliness into beautyand hope.
As for the beauty revealed in the opening photo, I don’t know who created it or photographed it. I do know that he or she is a person who finds beauty in unlikely places at unexpected times, and translates that beauty into grace to be shared with those who most need it.
Who knows about that image? The striking silhouette of the trees, the birds flying above, the twinkling stars in the sky, and all of that with swirls of color that seem to me like holy movement. Regardless of the source of that photograph, I like to believe that its beauty—all beauty—comes directly from God as grace for me, and for you.
“Come, Ye Disconsolate” is one of my favorite hymns. You might ask why. In every person’s life, there are times of sorrow that fall very deeply into the soul. There is a sense in which deep sorrow communes with us like no other emotion. Being disconsolate can be a beautiful experience.
It is a beautiful word — disconsolate — a word full of depth and full of meaning. Yet, it is not a word we often use. It sounds a bit like an ”old” word to me, perhaps more widely used in decades past. The definition? According to Merriam-Webster, the word disconsolate means “cheerless.” I don’t find enough soul angst in that definition, but the word has many soulful synonyms.
Synonyms for disconsolate can be as heart-rending as the word itself: downcast, inconsolable, dispirited, desolate, crushed, despairing, destroyed, despondent, hopeless, heartbroken ~ comfortless
So many words, so full of sorrow. Still, I love the word disconsolate. It has been my companion on many a journey and, although I did not welcome it as an emotion, I learned to own it, which is surely the most important way to have full awareness of your spirit. The truth is, when one is disconsolate, it is an opportunity to imagine being wrapped tenderly with a soft blanket of hope. Wrapped completely, face-under-the-covers wrapped!
How can such a word remind me of a soft blanket tenderly wrapped around me? How can the soft cover be called a blanket of hope? I will offer one reason that is a personal story about my friend and colleague in ministry, Donna. When I was desperately ill with end stage kidney disease, Donna came to visit me in the hospital often. Many of those visits I can’t remember, but she came one day holding a gift in her hands. The gift was a fluffy, white crocheted blanket that her entire congregation had prayed over as they petitioned God to restore me to health.
Every time, from that day to this, that I covered myself with that blanket, I would think of Donna and her church members and their act of love and concern. I imagined them nearby and sensed their prayers becoming a part of my soul’s lament. They did not leave me comfortless.
Whenever I feel disconsolate, comfortless, it helps me to remember these words from the Gospel of John, one of the most beautifully poignant passages in all of scripture:
16 And I will pray to God who will send you another Comforter who will abide with you forever, the Spirit of truth; Sadly, the world cannot accept the Comforter, because it does not truly see her or know her. But you know her; for she dwells with you, and shall be in you.
18 I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. 19 In a little while, the world will see me no more; but you see me: because I live, you shall live also.
25 These things have I spoken unto you while I am still present with you.
26 But the Comforter — the Holy Spirit — God will send in my name,
and the Spirit will teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, all the things I have said to you.
27 Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you: I do not give you peace as the world gives,
Instead I give you peace as if it were from God. And so, my beloved children, do not let your heart be troubled, neither let your heart be afraid. — Jesus, recorded in John 14: 16-19; 25-27, paraphrased
During the times I felt disconsolate through the years, I have always been able to rest under the comforting wings of the Spirit, the Comforter who is with me always. Yes, it is true that many times my heart was troubled and afraid. The words of Jesus did not always repair the state of my heart or diminish my fear. But the promise of Jesus — that I would not be left comfortless — soothed and strengthened my heart.
The words of this hymn held for me a depth of meaning that has spoken comfort and truth to my disconsolate spirit — every time — easing my suffering and leaving me with hope.
Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish; come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel. Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish; earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.
Joy of the desolate, light of the straying, hope of the penitent, fadeless and pure! Here speaks the Comforter, in mercy saying, “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot cure.”
Here see the bread of life; see waters flowing forth from the throne of God, pure from above. Come to the feast prepared; come, ever knowing earth has no sorrow but heaven can remove. Thomas Moore (1779-1852)
I have experienced the “joy of the desolate” many times. It is a joy that fills my heart, in spite of how deeply desolate I feel. As for what this all means during this Lenten season. For me, it means that a Lenten experience can help me see the ”light of the straying,” and that I will experience the ”hope of the penitent” and once again hear the words of the Comforter “in mercy saying, ‘Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot cure.’”
From this time forth and forevermore. Amen.
As you spend a few quiet moments during this Second Week of Lent, the following video of this moving hymn may give you peace and hope.
We could have a long conversation about the potter’s messy hands, about the mud under his nails, about the strength of hands that look as if they are using every muscle to shape the pot. We would probably talk about the dynamic force of his hands that hold the pot lightly enough to form it, but controlled enough to avoid marring or damaging it.
In our conversation, we would probably remember the prophet Jeremiah’s encounter with a potter and the ways we have used that passage of scripture over the years. I don’t know about you, but my teachers and preachers used this text to teach me about the ways God can mold me into a worthy vessel that can hold enough faith and hope to get me through the hard times. Plus, being remolded would mean I was being ”obedient to God!”
We certainly do not want to use scripture out of its historical context, but another use of a scripture passage is to consider its imagery, its symbolism and its relevance to us in a given life situation. The following scripture, as translated in The Voice, contains a powerful section after verse 1 that tells us how God’s message comes through a prophetic drama played out at a potter’s wheel, and that there, the prophet sees an ordinary event from which he receives an extraordinary message.
1 The word of the Eternal came to Jeremiah
Now God’s message comes through another prophetic drama played out in a potter’s shop somewhere in the city. The prophet sees an ordinary event but receives an extraordinary message.
Eternal One:2 Go down to the potter’s shop in the city, and wait for My word. 3 So I went down to the potter’s shop and found him making something on his wheel.
4 And as I watched, the clay vessel in his hands became flawed and unusable. So the potter started again with the same clay. He crushed and squeezed and shaped it into another vessel that was to his liking. — Jeremiah 18:1-4 (The VOICE)
I cannot help but remember the many times throughout my life that this passage was interpreted as a potter (God) forming me. The message inevitably moved to the part where ”God is not pleased with me and is trying to remold me into a more worthy vessel for God’s glory.” Not the best biblical message we could glean from Jeremiah’s drama! Not only that, but I don’t much like the idea of the potter ”crushing, squeezing and shaping” me.
The best truth is that God does remold us in so many ways, gently and intentionally, so that we are always in the process of change and growth. In our case, the God who loves us just as we are, also holds us, as if in a potter’s hands. Though this passage does speak of serious remolding, it never indicates that the potter throws the damaged pot into the trash pile.
It is true that we are damaged again and again in this life, but God loves who we are, and like the potter, God gently remolds us along the way, creating of us the best we can be. God never throws us away, no matter how severe our damage — damage on the outside, visible to all; and on the inside, where the deepest damage rests, in the soul and spirit. Visible to no one, excruciatingly visible to us.
We can choose to be like clay in the potter’s hands, allowing a gentle God to remold us, repair our damaged life, and empower us to be new, remade. This sounds like hope to me, and grace.
This is Jeremian’s story, his vision. He sees it as an ordinary event that graces us with an extraordinary message. Jeremiah’s story is ours to ponder and to ask ourselves if there is any damage to us or in us. If you sometimes view yourself as damaged, seek help from someone you trust — a friend or family member, a therapist, a spiritual director, your minister.
And remember, the potter is always near for gentle remolding.
Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.
Author, poet, critic and Chinese literary giant Lu Xun. (Lu was a pen name; his real name was Zhou Shuren.)
I have stumbled upon places where there was no road and no way to move forward. I am mulling over the poet’s affirmation that ”Hope is like a road in the country.” I know a little about hope, a little less about country roads, and even less about walking trails in a forest. I also know many, many people who hang on to hope through every narrow, rocky path they encounter. These hope-filled ones follow the path ahead of them and persist on their journey, in spite of the reality that the path is steep, arduous and sometimes not beaten down enough to walk on.
That’s the important thing about paths—that travelers might walk on one for years when it is barely passable, beating it down for smoother walking. It’s called a beaten path. I imagine you have walked some beaten paths.
Even I have walked a few, like when I was just a wee girl. The path for me was a short one, but nevertheless ominous. It went from my back yard to Miss Martha’s back yard next door. But wait! You must know that the path also led us to Miss Martha’s plum tree, filled with delicIous plums just waiting for my brothers and me to devour. We felt hope every time we got to the tree and began to shake it so that the plums would come tumbling to the ground. We hoped—until we heard Miss Martha’s shrill, frightening voice yelling, ”Get away from my plum tree!”
Because we so feared Miss Martha, hearing her loud voice chastening us made us run immediately home and into the house. We also knew she would tell our Yiayiá (grandmother), and we feared that too. Like Miss Martha, Yiayia could give rise in us the most daunting fear of all. We hoped for plums that day, but got fear instead.
Fear can be the enemy of hope, which brings us back to our path. The poet says to us that hope is like a country road. While reading the poet’s words, I imagine reaching a place where is no road and no way forward—a situation of facing a path without much hope. But there is hope after all! Because many people had walked on the path, it was eventually beaten down. Now the people could travel on with hope. There was an open way, a possible path. There was hope.
What’s the message in this parable-like tale? Just this. All of us walk a journey that leads us to pleasant places as well as to sorrowful and terrible places. No one can make the pilgrimage we call life without encountering rough and rocky roads and impassable paths along the way. They are the places that hold the power to steal our hope and leave us paralyzed.
I know how it feels to lose hope. I have known abuse, violence, illness, betrayal, loss, grief. And I have known it first hand, these things that took my hope. I can also bear witness that my hope has returned many times, just in time, but not before I had to struggle with the real, deep despair of absent hope. When I stood at the entrance of the way where there was no way, at the beginning of the path that was impassable and impossible, I often thought of this testimony of hope and faith found in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9; 16-17.
We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed . . .
Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though we are outwardly perishing, the inner place in us is being renewed day by day.
For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.
Yes, you and I may feel cast down and almost crushed by the weight of the world. We may feel the strongest despair. But we must know that, even on this day of threats and pandemics, some of our paths will be smooth and passable. We will feel hope when we least expect it. Hope will surprise us and flood us with grace, directly at the juncture of our despair. A beaten path might appear before us today—rightnow—and invite us to travel from fear to hope.
God’s love protects us from nothing! Yet… sustains us in everything!
I am intrigued by the words I read this morning in a community chat about God’s love. I’m not sure which part is more compelling to me: that ”God’s love protects us from nothing!” or that God’s love ”sustains us in everything.” The truth is I have experienced both in my life. I imagine you have as well. The circuitous journey we call life leads us through rocky paths, crises of every kind, dark and dense places that make us feel lost, daunting mountains to climb, roads we take that take us to dead ends, roads to nowhere.
God did not protect me from any of the real-life crises that came my way—abuse as a child, a serious eye disease in Africa, the loss of my youngest brother, the fire that almost destroyed our home, the kidney disease that almost killed me at least three times, the years of dialysis, the miraculous, but very hard, kidney transplant. I assume God kept watch over all of it, but God did not protect me from it. God did not spare me from the traumatic events that marked my life.
So I have to ask questions, honest questions, about how God’s love really affects my life. How do I experience God’s love? How do I sense it in my spirit? Do I really believe that God loves me, especially in my life’s dark times? Do I believe that God should spare me from every life danger?
In my experience, God’s love is elusive, intangible, difficult to hold onto. At times, I don’t sense it at all. At times there are no holy ”everlasting arms” holding me until my darkness turns to light. The only way I sense it at all is by faith, the faith that is ”the substance of all things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
To understand this love thing fully, I think I have to read the rest of that chapter in Hebrews, where we find a litany of what important Bible people did by faith. You may remember the list: “By faith, Abel; By faith, Moses; By faith, Jacob: By faith, Sarah: By faith, Rahab . . .” Many more are listed, each having done some great thing by faith. This chapter, though, presses hard on the things that can happen to the faithful ones. Listen to this part:
Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two,[l] they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised . . .
Oh, my! They did everything right. Their faith was commendable. Yet, they did not see the promise they expected, the great and good things that would come to them because they were faithful. In the end, did they hold on to their faith—without experiencing their reward? Without seeing God’s promise?
What do each of them—Moses, Abraham, Josua, Rahab and the rest— have to do with us? Was their faith like ours? Were their challenges and obstacles like ours? Did they feel void of God’s love like we sometimes feel? Without the promise the expected, did their faith still hold?
We can only speculate about all those questions. But we do not have to speculate about our own faith. We know it. We live with it—when it is strong and when it falters. Did our faith, and God’s love, protect me from every hurt and every harm? I have to answer, ”No.” Yet, the opposite statement—God sustains us in everything—has been real and true throughout my life, in sunshine and in shadow.
I have not known where I was going or where I would end up most of the time, but I kept walking even in my soul’s dark times. The journey has had its rough passages. The journey has most definitely lead me through the dark. Yet, I have also experienced the sunrise that always comes, day after day without fail. And as for God . . . well, God’s love has been present, covering me in the warmth of the love that would not let me go, not by sparing me every hard time, but by “sustaining me in everything.”
The beautiful sunrise image at the beginning of this post points me to the thought that God’s love is a little like the sunrise—a calming light, a gentle light, forever dependable. I have yet to experience even one day without a sunrise. The photo also graces me with the image of footsteps in the snow. Look at them. They are the footprints of someone walking alone, and in truth, we all walk our journeys alone. I imagine, though, that we also depend upon the invisible footprints of the God who leads us on the path.
If we see God’s holy footsteps at all, we see them by faith. That will always be true, that by faith, we ”see” the footsteps that go before us. Only by faith can we claim the ”evidence of things not seen.” So when all is said and done, I believe this to be true: God’s love protects us from nothing! Yet… sustains us in everything!
I believe it by faith.
I hope you can spend a few quiet moments listening to this beautiful choral arrangement. Pay close attention to the words. This is just one sentence among other words of assurance . . . I walk in footsteps of God’s love.
I see His footsteps in the way, And follow them through darkest night, Unafraid, I stumble not, In the glow of perfect light, I see.
I walk in footsteps of His love, And find His light leads on before, Then He gently turns to me, Softly whispers, “trust Me more, I walk.
Then as I follow in His way, My path ahead will brightly shine, For in His path of guiding light, I find His footsteps first, Then mine.
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. Luke 2:15-16 NIV
I am searching this Advent season for hope—hope that’s a tiny bit brighter, hope that lifts up my eyes to see more than I have seen before, hope that stirs in my heart, even for a moment. I feel the words of this hymn, ”I come in half-belief.” It’s not the most promising mood to bring to Advent, but it’s all I’ve got. The reasons don’t matter. They are myriad, as perhaps your reasons for hesitatingly approaching Advent.
The truth is that many of us have experienced struggles in the past year. The truth is that our country has seemed unbalanced, troubled, confused. It is also true that suffering has made its way into villages and cities and hamlets all over the world. I feel the strain. It affects my soul and troubles my spirit, so I longing for a gentle sign of hope to make its home in my heart.
My contemplation led me today to the hymn I share with you for your own reflection as we approach Advent’s first Sunday. I hope you will ponder the text and listen to the video of the choral arrangement. I am moved by this hymn every time I hear or sing it. The words invite me to the manger, the place where there is room and welcome always and forever. Even as hope eludes me, the eternal truth still stirs my soul: How could I forget how Love was born, and burned its way into my heart—unasked, unforced, unearned, to die, to live, and not alone for me. For all the world, the Hope of the world!
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 9:6 NIV
Where shepherds lately knelt and kept the angel’s word, I come in half-belief, a pilgrim strangely stirred; But there is room and welcome there for me, But there is room and welcome there for me.
In that unlikely place I find him as they said: Sweet newborn Babe, how frail! And in a manger bed: A still, small voice to cry one day for me, A still, small voice to cry one day for me.
How should I not have known Isaiah would be there, His prophecies fulfilled? With pounding heart I stare: A child, a son, the Prince of Peace for me, A child, a son, the Prince of Peace for me.
Can I, will I forget how Love was born, and burned It’s way into my heart—unasked, unforced, unearned, To die, to live, and not alone for me, To die, to live, and not alone for me?
Dr. Jaroslav Vajda (1919-2008)
“Where Shepherds Lately Knelt” arranged by Craig Courtney | BYU Men’s Chorus featuring Laurence Lowe, French horn
How often we find ourselves wandering in what feels like wilderness. We wander, and then wander some more, in barren places — in parched, dusty and dry deserts of the soul. We wander in aimless travel that moves us from one nowhere to another. The truth is that we have been nowhere and we’re going nowhere.
It’s a long, hard way, this wilderness wandering. I have found myself there at times. You probably know the desert, too. Like the people of Israel, we don’t much like wilderness wanderings. Remember their laments and complaints?
The Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” Exodus 14:10-12 (NIV)
Other Biblical passages speak more favorably about walking in a desert wilderness and about finding there comfort and hope. One of my favorite passages is rather obscure, so I want to share it with you.
The Lord said, “Therefore, I will now persuade Israel, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. From there I will give her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. Hosea 2:14-23 (NRSV)
Finding ourselves wandering in a parched and barren desert can cause us to feel, not only exhaustion, but also exclusion. How bewildering it is when we are excluded, left alone to wander and feeling that no one is near, no one hears our laments, no one cares. My hope for you this day is that, whenever you have to wander in the wilderness, you will find on your way a friend beside you and at the end of your path, a door of hope.
I leave you with these words, a benediction spoken by a dear friend.
Sometimes some things don’t work! Like today as I am trying to insert the image for this post. It’s a watercolor painting I did a couple of years ago titled “Grays.” I don’t remember what was gray about that day or why I felt surrounded by gray, but I know that something was troubling about the day.
Like today! No, it’s definitely not gray outdoors. No gray skies above while the sun is shining brightly. Yet, I feel the “gray” closing in on me today, and for the past few days. News of the world’s hurt certainly has something to do about it. I can’t bear to hear of the spike in Covid cases, the danger of the Delta variant, exhausted health care providers gasping for relief, maltreated children at the overcrowded migrant center in Fort Bliss, Texas. I can hardly bear to hear another report about my friend who is very ill or about another friend I spoke to this morning who lost two love ones this week.
It feels gray in me right now. I think the gray feeling has a lot to do with the chat I had with my nephrologist at Mayo Clinic this week. He was beyond concerned about our current pandemic situation for his transplant patients. Of course, I am one of those patients. He was adamant that we immunosuppressed patients must begin isolating again immediately.
So again, the outlook for me is bleak. Not only am I one of his patients who are on high doses of immunosuppressant medications, but also I am one of the people for whom vaccines are not very effective. So while the general vaccinated public is around 90% protected from the virus, we are 50% (or less) protected. My doctor ordered an antibody test and, sure enough, it revealed that I have zero antibodies, which means I am not protected from Covid and that I can infect others.
I think that means retreating again from public gatherings — from stores, from groups of friends, from medical offices, from church. The time I was so looking forward to — seeing my grandchildren — is now a more distant possibility. All of that looks pretty darn gray to me!
I know in the depths of my soul that there are no simple answers for the gray times, the times when I am disconsolate and despondent. I know that I cannot change every adverse circumstance of my life. I know, too, that we cannot always change our soul’s response to those difficult circumstances. Sometimes, the “gray” of despondency simply has its way in me, and I cannot pull myself up and out. Sometimes I feel as if I am in a desert wilderness, and although streams of water may be there, I do not find them.
In such times, I have found that my ability to hold on to my very self comes directly from the Spirit, who is my sure and certain comforter. And I have learned that, while Holy Scripture and contemplative space do not always mysteriously rescue me or magically change my circumstance, I receive the peace and strength I need to live.
Jesus said to them: “I must leave you, butI will ask God, and our Mother snd Father God will give you another Comforter. This Comforter will stay with you forever. She is the Spirit, who reveals all that is true and real about God. . . . So when I go, you will not be left all alone . . . I leave my peace with you. I give my peace to you. So do not let your hearts be troubled. And do not be afraid.”
John 14:1, 16-18, 27 (my translation)
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
May you find that Spirit wind is moving gently within your spirit, and may God be the strength of your heart forever. Amen
Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.
Joel 2:28 NRSV
Because I am an ordained Baptist minister, I followed a path that made hearing the whispers of God necessary. I heard God whisper to me on many a dark day. So I am fairly certain about it when I do hear the whisper of God. Only that kind of holy whisper could cause one to face off about ordination with a patriarchal system. But truth be told, I did accept that face-off almost forty years ago. And I persisted through a long season of unkind challenges and lengthy treatises about all the reasons a woman could not be ordained.
In the end, I was ordained. I am deeply grateful to have experienced a rich and varied ministry through those years, including serving as pastor of two churches. I preached every Sunday, realsermons. You might say — borrowing the words of the prophet Joel — that I “prophesied.”
Oh, my! God whispered. I followed. It’s just that simple.
The truth is that throughout my life, I have heard the whispers of God many times. God’s whispers were just for my hearing, sometimes to comfort me, sometimes to gently correct my steps, sometimes to encourage me, sometimes to lift my spirits, sometimes to show me a vision and sometimes to call me to a mission, like prophesying or preaching.
I have learned a very important life lesson: that when I am grieving, confused, sorrowful, hurt, betrayed, beaten down . . . God’s whispers give me hope. When I am disheartened, God’s whispers touch me with healing. When mourning has stolen my songs, God’s whispers move me to sing again.
I am reminded of the inspiring words of Rev. Dr. Prathia Laura Ann Hall (1940-2002), an undersung leader in both the civil rights movement, womanist thought, social justice and African American theology. These are her words:
Out there in the brush arbors, the wilderness, and the woods, the God of our ancestors, the God we had known on the other side of the waters met us and whispered words in our ears, and stirred a song in our souls . . .
Right now, I am in “the wilderness and the woods.” In other words, I am in a shaky place. I need that quiet, familiar, sacred sound of God whispering in my ear. I wonder if maybe you, too, need to hear that sacred whisper that can make all the difference. Wherever you are, however you feel, in whatever place you are in your life, in whatever way you experience God, I pray that you will listen closely for the holy whispers you need to hear.
I have taken many trails throughout my life and I imagine that you have as well. It’s one of the things all of us have in common. The trails we take can sometimes lead us to places unknown. Not just places on a map, but places in the soul. Our more difficult trails can push us to our limits, mostly the limits of the soul at its depth. Sometimes, today maybe, my soul is in the depths of unknowing.
What does that sentence even mean? My soul is in the depths of unknowing? If I don’t know what that means, how can I possibly talk about it with you? I can try!
I’ll try. I’ll search for words that explain how I feel, how my soul feels and what it means — the depth of unknowing.
These days I sense an unease in my soul, in its depths. I have named it depression. I have tried in vain to make an appointment with my therapist. Isn’t that what people do when they are depressed? Anyway, I did that, but cannot see her until the end of July. So I determined that I had to become my own therapist. In doing that, I decided to search myself more deeply. I determined that perhaps what I feel isn’t depression after all. Instead, what I feel may be the depth of unknowing.
For me that means chasing away the unknowing, getting rid of it because I want to know when I will feel stronger physically, or when I will see my grandchildren, or how I will handle my emotional fragility, or where I will live for the rest of my life. Just to name a few things I need to know.
And yet, the depth of the soul’s unknowing may well be exactly where my soul begins to fully know. The trails I take while inside my soul’s depths contain lessons and treasures and wisdom. The trails bend and wind leading to an unknown path that opens its way for me. I follow it willingly, blindly, yet for some reason, expectantly. The trails are most surely my depression, their unknown, perilous way distressing me as I walk. Jagged rocks on the trails, vines creeping their way onto my path, thorns, bristles and barbs — boulders sometimes — all to remind me of the hard path I walk and the heavy load I carry.
The trails I walk may be no more ominous than yours. We all walk them and we all carry burdens on the way. You and I walk no easy trails. There is “no easy walk to freedom,” the song reminds us. Truth! The trails I walk, and your trails, are many and winding, hard and confusing. The obstacles overwhelm. I suppose this describes my depression as well as any words could, and it is precisely that unease in my soul’s depths that has come to me in these days.
The difficult thing about soul-deep depression is its dogged persistence. That kind of depression has staying power and it sits in the soul, creating that terrible sense of the soul’s unknowing. It has the power to convince me that I will never know the things I want to know. Mostly, I want to know destination. Where am I headed? What jagged rocks and prickly thorns will injure me along the way? And will I survive my injuries?
There lies the depth of depression. It lies in the desire, the need, to know. We need to know the unknown — where will the trails take us and what formidable obstacles will stop us. Now understand this, if I had answers, I would have given them to you several hundred words ago. I have no answers of my own, but I do have a nugget of wisdom written by author Angie Weiland-Crosby.
Some trails defy definition, longing only for the soul.
There may be something in her words. If the trails defy our attempts to define them or to know them, perhaps we can find comfort knowing that the trails long only for our soul. The trails only want us to bare our souls along the way and to open them up to the new. The trails are meant for our good, for our spiritual maturing. And as for another comfort, the God we know has seen and known the trails before us. However you see and know God, you can rest in the knowledge that God has some hand in the work of the soul. God knows about the trails we take.
Haven’t I commanded you? Strength! Courage! Don’t be timid. Don’t get discouraged. God, your God, is with you every step you take.”
Joshua 1:9 (The Message Bible)
When all is said and done, I believe the trails I take are necessary ones. In a way, perhaps the trails I take are sacred ones, meant for opening up my soul to its depths where transformation can occur. No, God does not lay out my every trail or remove its thorns and rocks. The trails I take are strewn with rocks meant for me, thorns that pierce just enough to get my soul’s attention. I believe that. And I believe that there is for me a way to trust God wholly. My personal translation of Proverbs 3:5-6 gives me a tiny inkling of hope even when depression ravages my soul.
Trust in whoever you believe God to be in your life. Trust God with all your heart, and don’t rely only on what you understand. In all the twists and turns in your life, perceive this God as one who offers a depth of mercy, A God who sees and knows the trails you walk. And be assured, know deeply in your soul that God will direct your paths.
I want to share with you a video of a beautiful, meditative song entitled, “Depth of Mercy,” performed by students of Fountainview Academy, a Christian high school based in southern British Columbia, Canada. I also share this because of where it is filmed — a beautiful wooded area with various trails. Whatever trail the students took to arrive at their destination seemed a treacherous pathway to me, and even more treacherous, the place where they stood to play and sing.
They were on top of a magnificent ridge, but way too close to the edge for my comfort. At the end, as they sang, “Depth of mercy, can there be mercy still reserved for me?” The image pans across them to the jagged edge and then reveals a very deep and ominous gorge. Panning even farther across, you will see a most beautiful portrayal of nature, one that stirs the senses and reminds us of the depth of mercy our God reserves for us. I hope the video is meaningful to you.