Affirmation, beauty, Blessings, Cancer, Creation, Darkness, death, Faithful Living, Forest, God, Hardiness, Heaven, Home, Hope, Lake Michigan, Lessons from the Wilderness, Life's Storms, Nature, Peace, Perseverence, Pilgrimage, Prayer, Storms, Trees, Uncategorized, vigil, wind, wisdom

Soldiering On

There is a dead calm in the trees today after a string of gusty days. The calmness amplifies animals’ movements; looking out just now, I can see a doe raise a front foot, then continue her slow browsing in the woods across Trout Creek.

Though a calm is often just a comma between storms, we should pay attention to it, because it invites introspection and watchfulness, a time heavy with anticipation like a maple leaf just waiting for the wind to ask it to dance.

I am at a point in life of watching and waiting. Watching sick loved ones cling to life, waiting for God to answer prayer. My eyes see misery clawing at hope. My pulse drones in my ears and pacifies the waiting like an undisturbed river flowing deep and sure.

Vigil is the gutsy response to life’s gusty times.

It is a posture of watching with loved ones, and waiting for an outcome while in the eye of the storm.  Every day I see adult children in their 60’s and 70’s visiting aged parents at the nursing home.  The visits are difficult-many residents can’t even remember their kids’ names-but the children soldier on out of respect, accepting the duty to honor the last days of a parent’s life. There is calm, and order, and rightness in the watching and waiting.

Vigil gives time for forgiveness and reconciliation, for sharing old memories, and for meditation on the way all of life soldiers on.

At the bluff, there is a lone cedar tree about 10 feet from the dune’s edge.  The dunes along this stretch of Lake Michigan have been unstable since the ice age created them, crumbling in the constant onslaught of waves and winds. The property my grandparents bought has lost 88 feet since the early 1960’s. This means that the cedar soldier was once deep in the forest at the back of the dune, playmates with the grand, towering beech, the stately ash, and the playful maple.  But, time has marched on with unstoppable force. The other trees succumbed to the storms of disease or the loggers’ saws. The dune continued to roll into the deeps.  So, now this cedar stands alone and bent, facing its inevitable demise with deep roots and grace in its vigil of watching and waiting. Each morning it greets the eastern sun and takes delight in the jays and cedar waxwings that haunt its branches, and the bald eagle who hunts from its crown. At night, it lifts its face westward, basking in the sun’s glow, a view it never had in its youth.

Today, my dad would have been 90 years old. But, like the ash and beech, disease took him before he could have a better view, a vigil cut short. Like the cedar, my mom stands at the edge, soldiering on through the indignities of Parkinson’s disease, in a vigil for glimpses of heaven.  Watching. Waiting. Praying.

~J.A.P. Walton

Affirmation, Blessings, Creation, Creator, Cycling, Faithful Living, God, Hardiness, Hope, Life's Storms, Mountains, Perseverence, Pilgrimage, Risk Taking, Uncategorized, virtue, wilderness, wisdom

Test Your Mettle

Lately, I have been thinking about the notion of testing one’s mettle.  It’s an old-fashioned way of explaining resiliency, the capacity to soldier on through tough times, and drawn-out challenges. I think the key concept is that we grow in character by stepping out of our comfort zones, and enduring hard experiences. This happens to us as an individual, and to “we” as a community.

We test our own individual mettle to see if we have the courage, tenacity, and inner strength to climb the mountains in our way.

This is jarring, because our world is oriented towards personal comfort, faux strength, and instant gratification. And, because testing oneself is so disorienting, we rarely welcome a chance to see what we’re made of.

First, we don’t want to appear as if we’ve stumbled, splayed out publicly in our weakness, hurt, disbelief, and despair. We often fail to test ourselves because we are too busy acting as if we don’t need to.  Second, such testing is uncomfortable. 

We lay ourselves bare for the blacksmith’s hammering, a tempering that flattens and smashes our beliefs and suppositions on its way to forging strength and stamina.

Third, we are afraid of failing the test, of running the gauntlet only to find ourselves worse off than when we started.  When has your life been at a place of testing?  What was your response?

As a timid kid with little self-confidence, my first tests were all physically-difficult enterprises that pushed my fragile mental and emotional stability to-and beyond- their limits.  Climbing a 13,000 foot mountain while hampered by asthma and anemia was beyond difficult, always served up with a mental side dish of “I can’t do this.” But I did.

Taking a graduate biochemistry course without having the undergraduate requisite of general and organic chem was insanely challenging, my mind constantly gnawed with “I can’t do this.”  But I did.

Biking long distances, when the legs were dead, the seat numb, the fatigue’s lie of “I simply can’t go another mile” an unwelcome inner whine. But I could, and I did.

When we could not have more children, the emotional ache was unbearable. When confronted with “you can’t have kids” I finished my doctorate and taught for 20 years. I had thousands of wonderful kids over time.

Fortitude is an odd virtue. It digs deep, finds strength we didn’t know we had, keeps us moving forward, upward, and outward.  It is gas on the fire when our tank is empty. It is a second wind.  Each time we overcome some unpleasant or challenging circumstance, we carve another notch of confidence in our belt. But, I say fortitude is odd because for people who know and trust God, the real story is not in our own strength and endurance and ability, but in our weakness, our exhaustion, and our inability. All of creation glorifies the Creator.  When we manage to do something we thought impossible, and credit ourselves with fortitude, we take credit for something God did in and through us, trying on God’s glory for size.

We are fallen and always falling. The strength to stand is not our own. Nor is the strength to endure. Those who trust in God know this secret: we don’t have to survive these things alone in our own strength.

God will test your mettle. He will allow some uncomfortable, disorienting, heart-rending chapters to be written in your life. How you respond is up to you. Just know, you don’t have to go it alone.

~J.A.P. Walton

Affirmation, Birds, Blessings, Creation, Creator, Faithful Living, Forest, God, Lessons from the Wilderness, Nature, Peace, Pilgrimage, Prayer, Religion, Silence, Spring, Uncategorized, wilderness

Manifold Witness

We are briefly back north at the bluff to open the house and plant the garden. It is always a “hard work” kind of week-clearing sand out of gutters, raking leaves, sweeping and dusting every horizontal surface, washing windows (a never-ending list really…when was spring cleaning ever easy?).  At the same time, it is curiously restful because we are surrounded by beauty in every direction.  The distractions are natural ones, instead of manmade. No highway or airport noise, no sirens, no teens driving by with thumping base, no door-to-door salesmen. Not even cell phone robo-calls, since the cell signal in the north woods is so weak. The Internet here is iffy too, and our monthly plan severely so limited datawise that we must, by necessity, trim the sails of online time.

Away from town, it’s easier to pay less attention to the news and its tendency to dampen the spirit. There is just something about finding yourself isolated from the noise of the world that is settling. Calming. Affirming. It layers on a balm of hours to get to work with grateful hands, despite the creaky knees and shoulders.  Here, the distractions are different- the screech owl and red-bellied woodpecker. The drumming of an amorous ruffed grouse, a deer prancing by, and the fog rolling in over the lake. Just like in town, we aren’t alone.

The manifold witness of all of nature* reminds us minute by minute of the love, creativity, faithfulness, and constancy of God, maker of heaven and earth.

The bird chorus at dawn, the pregnant bobcat, the mist heavy over the bog, and the waves pounding the foot of the bluff- these are God’s way of assuring us that he is here, ever-watchful, always waiting.

The good news is that you don’t have to go to the north woods to hear and see God’s goodness.

It is my prayer that you can find a space this week to let the beauty of creation enfold you right where you are.

There is glory in the daffodil, marvel in the work of the ant and wren, and a delight in the unfolding of tender new leaves. See if you can silence the distractions wrought by this worrying world long enough to go outside and enjoy what God gives to all so freely.

~J.A.P. Walton

* from the hymn, Great is Thy Faithfulness

Adventure Tourism, Birds, Blessings, Camping, Faithful Living, God, Home, Nature, Prayer, Religion, River, Uncategorized, wisdom

With a Honk and a Prayer

On our meandering way home last week, we camped near a lake in northern Kentucky.  We went on a rainy walk before supper, so glad to stretch our legs, gladder still to see geese on the water, which, like robins, I prefer to interpret as another sign of spring.

After dinner and washing up in the RV, we settled into our bunk with our books, lulled by the sound of rain on the roof. Outside was a deepening twilight. Faintly at first, then growing louder, the honking of an army of geese approached the lake for the night, answered robustly by the birds already in residence.  The honking was a roar at splashdown.

At first I thought the geese were honking to establish some kind of hierarchy, a kind of threat between resident and intruder. But my reading revealed that geese make such a racket in their dusky landings and dawn takeoffs so that other geese will know where they are.  They don’t honk in threat, or greeting, or goodbye. They honk to be “seen” in the dark, to prevent accidentally colliding with one another. Our church has become so crowded of late that I laugh to think about honking in the vestibule so that no one accidentally elbows me while drinking hot coffee! Still,

we can use our hearing as a kind of sonar, to listen for people’s stories, hopes, fears, and needs.

The other time geese routinely honk is while migrating. Bird experts think it is a form of encouragement. It reminds me of they way players on the bench, and the fans behind them cheer on their team on the court and field. My church family is truly my flock in this regard.

In returning to our home church for worship, it felt wonderful to be welcomed by our church family… the honking of landing back in our fold, of encouragement in the questions about our trip, our welfare, what we learned, how it went. And we learned what had been happening at home in our absence.

The Bible calls this being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses… people on both sides of the river, alive and dead, who greet us, enfold us, encourage us, pray with us, and then send us back out into God’s world with a honk and a prayer.

Who is in your flock to encourage you, to see you safely home? Listen for them!

 

~J.A.P. Walton

Photo credit: bestof:canada geese branta canadensis …snappygoat.com

Affirmation, Blessings, Dying to Self, Faithful Living, New Year, Uncategorized, virtue, Winter

A Voice in the Wilderness: “Prepare!”

Ah, the end of another year! I always enjoy looking ahead to a new year. For me, there is a certain pleasure to be found in getting things ready and in order. We do it every time we pack for a paddle or camping trip, make and shop for a week’s worth of menus, or stock up on necessities (nothing worse than finding out the hard way that you’re out of toilet paper!).

How do we prepare for another year? Usually we don’t to be honest. We shuffle along without looking back or forward, content to use these last vacation days to eat, sleep, and play with loved ones. Still, there is precedent for preparing oneself, for understanding the lay of the land in our heart, mind, and soul. To do that well, we need to study history. In warfare, the best leaders know from history how to confuse the enemy. They know to send out a vanguard to spy out the situation. They draw up plans of attack.

In our own life, the way the past year transpired can be instructive for directing our future steps. The year’s end is a good time to do the hard work of review. I have lately been thinking about the virtues-beautiful concepts like love, honesty, courage, hope, steadfastness, kindness, chastity, charity, humility, temperance, prudence, justice, and diligence to name a few. I have been wrestling with the question: which virtues do I regularly display in my life, and which are weak?  If I wasn’t humble before, an honest survey like this will help develop humility, because there is much work to be done in the arenas of the heart, mind, and soul.

Our family cottage in the woods is not winterized, so it sits shuttered all winter, mantled with snow, empty of life except for the mice that squeeze in through the cracks. Each spring, someone takes on the task of making the place habitable. Opening the cottage is a yearly ritual of “getting ready”- airing out the dank, musty rooms, sweeping away dust and cobwebs, washing windows, baiting mousetraps, making beds, turning on the water, and setting wood in the fireplace for the first fire.

I think it’s a good analogy for what we should do at the New Year with our own insides.

Where have we been lazy? What needs airing, sweeping, washing?

How have we been treating others? How can we smooth our roughest edges to be more hospitable, more just, more charitable, more loving? How can we be wiser about finances? About the way we use our time for the greater good instead of our own numbing leisure? It all starts with the virtue of honesty. How honest are you willing to be about your own shortcomings? And, how willing are you to accept the responsibility for growth?

God has the future in hand. We look forward, yet are sometimes too fearful and protective about our lives. Yet Jesus and the angels’ most frequent reassurances were always, “do not be afraid.”

Can we be bold enough to believe God, and to understand that our own shortcomings and sins, when dealt with honestly, become a faith-filled path toward virtuous living? As the ball drops at midnight, listen for the voice of one calling in a wilderness to make way for God in your heart. Be honest with yourself, make plans, and you’ll be surprised what the New Year brings!

~J.A.P. Walton