Around the Bend

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Photo by Steven Nawojczyk

I wonder sometimes what I might find around the bend. “Around the bend” is an apt metaphor for the twists and turns of life’s pathway. No matter how long I have traveled my journey, no matter how much life wisdom I have gained, I never, ever know what what’s around the bend.

The pathway before me can frighten, even while I strain to see as far as I can into what lies ahead. The bend is sharp most times, and the angle hides my view. As I age, fear on the journey looms large, for I am completely aware of the dangers I might encounter around the first bend, and the next, and all the bends that are ahead of me. And yet, I am constantly graced with flashes of hope and faith whispering that what is ahead of me could be even better than what I have left behind.

The beautiful photo above by Steven Nawojczyk is a gift of calm waters bending in a gentle flow at the foot of a mountain, lightened by the golden rays of the sun. The image makes me believe that whatever is around the bend is lovely, peaceful, comforting, safe. And that is exactly what God would want me to believe, and woukd want us all to believe. I cannot help but think of the Psalmist’s affirmation that God “leads me beside still waters.”

In so many comfort-filled passages, the Psalmist offers sure and certain comfort. Hear the Psalmist’s words . . .

Keep me safe, my God, for in you I take refuge.

Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure.

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
Surely I have a delightful inheritance.

I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
   Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure . . .

You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

— Psalm 16:1, 5-6, 8-9, 11 (NIV)

And hear the words of the Prophet Isaiah . . .

Even to your old age and gray hairs, I am he, I am he who will sustain you. 
I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.  

— Isaiah 46:4 (NIV)

And so “around the bend” is not so frightening after all. In God — “who makes known the path of life” —  there is comfort, safety, protection, constancy, and even joy. Thanks be to God.

Dream, Always!

3EBA32DC-4D61-4073-9AEF-78FFD295DE48Today, I am celebrating my granddaughter’s birthday. More accurately, I am contemplating my granddaughter’s birthday. I do not celebrate the day, really, I celebrate her, the person she has become in the last nine years. I celebrate her smile, her humor, her laughter, her sweet spirit, her strength, her talent and her beauty. I celebrate hope for the ways she will grow and mature.

I want to tell her everything about life, how it will lift her up and also let her down. I want to tell her about love and how to know when it’s real. I want to talk with her about faith and what it means to draw close to God. I want to tell her about the joy of life so that she will know how to transcend the sorrows of the world and claim abiding happiness and contentment. I want to tell her about the healing power of laughter, and of tears. I want to tell her that she has within her all the resilience she needs to overcome adversity. I want to tell her to dream, always. And I want to tell her about inner strength and how to develop the ability to rise up on wings of confidence and soar. 

I want to tell her that I will be near her always, so that when she falls, I can pick her up, wipe off the dust, clean her wounds, tell her she is okay, and set her back on her life journey. But that I cannot promise, because I won’t be with her forever in this life.

So I want to tell her about the adventures that marked my life and how each one made me wiser and stronger. And that’s really my point for this day’s post: that I need to make adventures! I need to live a life full of new experiences and new discoveries. I need to fill my life with substance. What I do and what I discover in this life will be my legacy for my granddaughter and for my other grandchildren. I think of the words of Cristina Garcia on this subject.

Before you know it you’ll be my age telling your own granddaughter the story of your life, and you wanna make it an interesting one, don’t you? You wanna be able to tell her some adventures, some excitements, some something. How you live your life . . . is a gift for those who come after you, a kind of inheritance.   (Cristina Garcia)

I hope the story I leave for my granddaughter will give her courage and determination. I hope she will find in my life story an example of one who chased dreams always and actually caught them, sometimes. I hope that in my story, she will see perseverance and persistence, so that she will know that she can run like the wind toward every dream she chooses.

Happy birthday, my sweet Jordan! I love you.

 

 

 

 

Holy Wondering

7CD31664-E73F-4B6B-B168-4291D78B28DBWandering may well be a spiritual discipline. Many years ago, young Annie Morgan sang about it as she wandered in the hills and hollows of Appalachia. . . “I wonder as I wander out under the sky.”*

Wondering while we wander makes wandering a spiritual act. It is not merely aimless meandering. Nor is it rolling on pointlessly as if there is really nowhere to go. It is not wandering around in circles because we are hopelessly lost. It is more like a contemplative journey of discovery. J.R.R. Tolkien observed a truth about wandering. He said, “Not all those who wander are lost.”

We wander, most certainly, but might there be a purpose in our wandering? Suppose our wandering becomes a joy to us. Suppose we learn and grow as we wander about. Suppose our wandering leads us to a deeper relationship with God. Suppose in our wandering we do some wondering, looking up into the sky for new light and sparkling new thoughts that change our lives forever.

So I wonder . . . How are the stars set in their places? Apart from the certainties of astronomy, of course.

I wonder . . . Why does the sun rise every day, and then set in a wondrously painted sky at dusk making way for the rising of a luminous moon? Apart from the scientific explanation, of course.

Wondering is not about science at all. It is about discovery of beauty in most unlikely places. Perhaps it is about practicing mindfulness atop a majestic mountaintop, or contemplating life on the edge of the sea, or meditating in a forest filled with all manner of living things. It is about the exploration of the heart to know its deepest desires and longings. It is about looking into the soul, and there finding both the intense pain and the tender healing that completes a life.

A well known Christmas carol, “I Wonder as I Wander”* was first sung by young Annie Morgan, a destitute girl in Appalachian North Carolina. At a Christian fundraising meeting, Annie stepped out on the edge of the platform and stood before a crowd of people. Although she wore rags, unwashed and in shreds, she stood proudly. It is said that she smiled as she sang, “smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song the people had never heard.”

I wonder as I wander out under the sky . . .

I imagine that Annie, a girl living in poverty, wondered about many things as she wandered through the Appalachian mountains. She probably wondered about the stars in the sky, the rising and setting of the sun, the brilliant moon that lit the path before her in the night. I imagine she wondered about God and about the ways God might be present with her. I imagine she wondered about herself and about what would become of her. Like her, we wander through this life, mostly alone.

As this is my very own blog, I can freely change tenses to say with great certainty that, as I have wandered through many years, I have grown by myself, but not alone. For as I wandered, I learned to wonder.

So I highly recommend wandering for the sole purpose of wondering. Our wondering might well reveal the longing in our hearts. Our wondering might lay bare the pain hidden in our souls, but also show us the balm of healing that dwells there. Our wondering might open up a place within us to hold God, all of God, more completely than ever before.

I don’t know about you, but I plan to do even more wandering. And on the journey, I will pour myself into some holy wondering. Who knows what I might discover!

 

* “I Wonder as I Wander” is a Christian folk hymn, typically performed as a Christmas carol, written by American folklorist and singer John Jacob Niles. The hymn has its origins in a song fragment collected by Niles on July 16, 1933.

While in the town of Murphy in Appalachian North Carolina, Niles attended a fundraising meeting held by group of evangelicals. In his unpublished autobiography, he wrote of hearing the song:

“A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform and began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievable dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins…. But, best of all, she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing. She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song.”

The girl, named Annie Morgan, repeated the fragment seven times in exchange for a quarter per performance, and Niles left with “three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material. In various accounts of this story, Niles hears between one and three lines of the song.

Based on this fragment, Niles composed the version of “I Wonder as I Wander” that is known today . . . His composition was completed on October 4, 1933. Niles first performed the song on December 19, 1933, at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. It was originally published in Songs of the Hill Folk in 1934.

Struggle and Wonder

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Aging, they say, is not for sissies. The person who coined that statement must have known about the many ways getting older would take its toll. Physically, emotionally, spiritually, our lives change,

We have at least two ways to live through these days that bring aging’s challenges. We can languish under the weight of life, fighting through every day to maintain our elusive youth. Or we can live deeply, embracing the sweetness and the sorrow, and savoring the memories that have brought us to this time in our lives. We can hold on tightly to the “small bagful of stars” that make our every moment a wonder.

Bishop Steven Charleston speaks great wisdom, describing a “place of struggle and wonder.”

We do not have long to linger in this place of struggle and wonder, surrounded by the clamoring throng, or sitting silently beneath the moon. We have only a measure of moments, a small bagful of stars, to spend here among the laughter and sighs, before the days of our counting are complete. Let each one, each day, each moment be lived then, as if it was the only hour creation will ever know, lived in as deeply as love will allow, lived in for all of its sweetness and sorrow. We do not have long to linger, but we have forever to remember.

Struggle and wonder, sweetness and sorrow . . . inextricably joined, woven together to create the tapestry of our lives. And so we grasp the struggle and cling tightly to the wonder. We welcome the sweetness, knowing full well that the sorrow is a necessary emotion of a life well lived.

We have forever to remember the struggle and wonder that swaddled us, abided with us, made its home within us, and fashioned our wondrous lives.

And this is God’s good news for us.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face struggles of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

James 1:2-4

Life’s Narrow and Wide Gates

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Life is full of narrow and wide gates, beckoning us to choose which gate to enter. On one hand, the idea of gates — narrow ones and wide ones — is a Biblical idea describing the kind of life a Christian person might choose. On the other hand, narrow and wide gates are simply a part of our life pilgrimage.

The Scripture reference is found in the Gospel of Matthew.

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

– Matthew 7:13-14 New International Version (NIV)

The pilgrimage that we call life is, most certainly, a series of challenges we must face. How common it is for us to complain when the gate before us is narrow and the road ahead is rocky. Why do I struggle financially? Why must I endure failing health? Why am I in the middle of a failing relationship? Why did I lose someone I love so deeply?

Didn’t I choose the narrow gate, God? Did I not commit my life to the way that leads to life? Then why? Why the suffering?

God seldom answers us when we ask these questions. We listen constantly for God’s voice and a satisfactory explanation of life’s suffering.

We hear nothing.

Just relentless, ominous silence. It can try one’s faith.

Gratefully, I came across an encouraging quote. Before collapsing on my life’s dusty road, I found a place to lean in the words of Brother Luke Ditewig. Here’s what he said:

After making much fuss about our great accomplishment at having found a narrow and obscure gate and walked through, we’re often surprised at the ordinary challenges of life that follow, again and again. I’m embarrassed by how much I say: “Wow, this road is hard!” or “Why are we still in the wilderness?” But if you look around right now, you’ll notice divine love in the ordinary stuff of life.

– Brother Luke Ditewig
Society of Saint John the Evangelist

So let us persist, moving forward with even a tiny fistful of faith. And may we look around on the way, passing through the gates we encounter and always noticing the divine love that is ever present in the “ordinary stuff of life.”

Remember Me

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Aging brings up many questions about life, the past, the future. I think all of us wonder if we will be remembered. Will our accomplishments live on? Will anyone remember us? Did we change the world in any significant way? Will we leave any kind of legacy?

As always, Bishop Steven Charleston shares wise and wonderful insight.

Not many of us will be remembered for what we have done, though we may have accomplished a lot. Institutions change, communities move on, new faces appear, priorities shift, different challenges present themselves. As important as we once were, we fade into the mist. What remains is not what we have built, but who we have inspired. The lives we touched will go on. The minds we opened, the hearts we cherished, the spirits we set free: it is in relationship that our names are remembered. It is in how well we shared our love that we transcend thoughtless time and live on in ways unchanging.

– Bishop Steven Charleston

When I take stock of my life’s accomplishments, I am pleased with myself and proud of what I have built. But it is so very true, as Bishop Charleston says, that all of us fade into the mist and what we have built falls into decay as new things emerge.

So will we “live on in ways unchanging?” I think we will. I also believe that if we are remembered at all, it will be by the people we have inspired, the lives we have touched, the hearts we have cherished that cherished us in return. And that’s the very best way to be remembered.

“Life for Me Ain’t Been No Crystal Stair”

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The First Sunday during Lent finds me nursing a tension headache. The week of Fred’s testing caused no small measure of stress. A sense of fear overtook me. My Lenten journey, though, reminds me that this is appropriate, an expected part of life. For the Lenten walk is nothing at all if it does not reflect life’s journey itself . . . filled with times of darkness, fear, grief, uncertainty — all the human emotions that so assail us.

I am reminded of the brilliant poem written by Langston Hughes.

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps.
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

– Langston Hughes

How true it is that “life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” But God has walked with me along the way, pouring grace upon grief. Thanks be to God.

Out of the Miry Clay

 

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The Jordan River, Israel

Sometimes I sink into the mire of my journey. It is if I am walking through thick, deep clay, barely able to take another step. All the prayers and promises I have held on to for so long suddenly do not bring comfort or courage. I feel as if I cannot take another step.

It doesn’t happen to me often, but when it does, I am immobilized. For just a time, all the faith of my mothers eludes me. I am stuck, fearful, and in search of a word from God that has the power to release me and guide me forward. The promises from the Holy promise maker seem not enough when I am so weary of the journey. I protest and lament, complaining that the way is too hard and long.

When I have nursed despair long enough, I begin surveying what has worked before. I go through message and melody that might hold the power to restore my will. Often, I will recall the words of the hymn, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.”

When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside.
Bear me through the swelling current,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side.

The Prophet Isaiah reaches me with this word of hope.

When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.

– Isaiah 43:2 New International Version (NIV)

And Jeremiah’s conversation with God hits me squarely with a hefty dose of reality.

The Lord answers Jeremiah:
“If you have run with the footmen, and they have wearied you,
 then how can you contend with horses?
 And if in the land of peace,
In which you trusted, they wearied you,
 then how will you do in the swelling of the Jordan?”

– Jeremiah 12:5

God still calls out to each of us with words of hope if we are open to hearing. The miry days will come again, no doubt. No life escapes that. I’m sure I will once again struggle through the mud, but one thing I have learned well comes from the words of the Psalmist.
I waited patiently for the LORD; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry. He brought me up also out of the horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings.

– Psalm 40:1-2

Celebrating the Journey

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We are travelers on a journey, fellow pilgrims on the road;
We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.
I will hold the Christ-light for you in the night-time of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.

– Richard Gillard (1974) Copyright: © 1977 Scripture In Song/Maranatha! Music/ASCAP

This hymn, “The Servant Song,” offers the image of life as a journey. It is a clear call to our interconnectedness as “fellow pilgrims.” It is a portrait of making the journey together, caring each for the other, holding up the light when the darkness becomes overwhelming.

So we are not wandering strangers, but instead brothers and sisters united by our mutual care for one another weathering the storms of every difficult hour. For me, the path has been steep and rocky at times, smooth and pleasant at other times. The brothers and sisters along the way gave me enough grace and courage to keep moving ahead when the journey got the best of me. Bishop Steven Charleston offers a tribute for journey travelers.

Here is the respect you deserve for all that you have done. You have weathered the storms of many difficult hours, kept going when others might have stopped, continued to believe despite all evidence to the contrary. Were you perfect in thought and action? No, of course not, none of us are, but you have tried, more than once, and tried again, admitting mistakes, growing in wisdom, learning the lessons of a life well lived. For all of this, from one other traveler walking the road beside you, you have my respect. I honor you and celebrate what you have accomplished.

Always celebrate the journey you have traveled. Always honor the wisdom you gained, the lessons you learned, the brothers and sisters you found along the way. May God bless you as you journey on.

Transformation: The Spiritual Journey

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The labyrinth is a walking meditation, a path of prayer where psyche meets Spirit. It has only one path that leads from the outer edge in a circuitous way to the center. There are no dead ends. Unlike a maze where you can lose your way, the labyrinth is a spiritual tool that can help you find your way.

The life quest of drawing closer to God is best described as a spiritual journey. But it is a journey of our own choosing. We are not forced to take it. God does not coerce us to travel such a path. Each of us must choose it, and in a spirit of prayer embark on an unknown journey.

We cannot predict its path. We can only give ourselves to its gentle turns with confidence that, along the way, we will discover and learn and grow in our faith. It can be transformational. Wendell Berry describes this journey with the words arduous, humbling and joyful, an apt description. Most importantly he describes “arriving at the ground at our own feet” and there learning to be at home. Here’s what he writes:

The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.

– Wendell Berry

Taking the journey leads us home, a place of peace and comfort, a place where we are comfortable in our own skin, a place where our heart meets God’s heart. The journey can bring transformation within us.

The danger is that we can shrink in fear from transformation because we cannot control the process. Giving up control is always a challenge for humans, but refusing the spiritual journey means that we will wander aimlessly, always searching and never finding our deepest spiritual self.