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The Kind of Bucket Worth Filling: A Divine Recalibration

In my youth I had a long list of the things I wanted to “do” someday: build a log home in Alaska, climb China’s Great Wall, explore the Roman Coliseum, watch Wimbledon from center court eating strawberries and cream, and complete a host of nature-conquering escapades. I most especially wanted to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, hike in New Zealand and Scotland and the Pacific Northwest, kayak the wild rivers of Wales, visit every US National Park, trace the ghost of John Muir in the Sierras and recreate the sailing adventures of the Swallows and Amazons in northern England. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swallows_and_Amazons

Today we would call this a bucket list-making plans to “do” things before we die (as in kicking the bucket). Creating such dreams takes little energy, and I think we each have a natural longing to “do” and “see” as much as possible in our short lives, particularly now that global travel is so easily accomplished.

There’s an inbred alter ego that lifts us out of everyday humdrum life with fir-scented visions of creation’s beautiful, seductive allure.

Some people so over-romanticize their bucket list that the end (checking it off the list) is more fulfilling than the process (actually doing the activity). I have seen people race up to the sign outside a national park, snap a picture next to it, then turn around and drive away without even entering the park. Taking pride in having the deepest bucket but the shallowest mind is an ugly thing.

Lately, I have been doing a great deal of thinking about the folly of the bucket list.

True, in retirement we have visited several national parks and seen things we’d always hoped to see. But life has also narrowed for us, as naturally happens with aging. The parameters of the list have been newly dictated by life’s interruptions: our only child moved to France, our aging parents sorely needed us, the family home required maintenance and stewardship, and visits to the doctor became more frequent.

I do not resent the smaller bucket.

Moreover, I am thinking of remaking the bucket list altogether. It is a divine recalibration of sorts. I am no less adventurous (though Covid did do a gut-check on me), but my goals seem to be changing. Now it is less about the glory of doing and seeing, and more about the humble delight of being. Sunrises are stunning. Noontime is energizing. But the

sunset of life calls me to a quieter, more contemplative mindset, with a silent nod to the deep need to be present and prayerful.

In the Bible Peter encourages us to make every effort to add a 7-fold list of character qualities to our living, each built upon its predecessor like a great crescendo (2Pet1:5-8). He tells us that to possess these qualities in increasing measure will keep us from being unproductive in a life of faith. Goodness-right living and thinking; add to that knowledge-stay informed, and develop a deeper knowledge of who God is; add to that self-control-expunge petty selfishness and self-glorification; add to that perseverance-the patience of waiting on God’s timing for everything; add to that godliness-wise and moral thinking, speaking and devotion; add to that mutual affection-truly loving without judgment and fostering a kind and benevolent outlook; add to that love-the deep delight of living out the two greatest commandments to love the Lord God and to love your neighbor. I wrote earlier about the later years being an ascent toward heaven. https://jpraywalton.com/2022/10/25/the-advent-of-aging/

Practice this music of Peter’s teaching, and your life will awaken to the very kind of bucket that is worth filling.

Thank you for reading,

J.A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

jpraywalton.writing@gmail.com

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A Rare and Precious Nothing

It is unusually still at the bluff this morning, as if the trees and waves are playing Red Light-Green Light, stuck in a frozen, statuesque posture. We had a similar day last week after a powdery snow. Walking up the wooded section of dune through the stilled maple , oak and hemlock, we stopped to listen. And other than the blood pulsing past my ears, there was complete silence. No cars on the distant highway. Not a whisper of breeze in the tree boughs. No timid chips from a bird. No jet skis ripping up the day on the water below. 

A rare and precious nothing.

Our regular lives are noisy. So many things clamor and clang for our attention that we thrust our earbuds in deep in a futile attempt to choose our own noise. We are so accustomed to the noise that real silence is often uncomfortable. And yet, Scripture tells us that God often speaks into silence. If you can believe that, then a life without silence might be one that thrusts God aside, forgoing his presence and wisdom.

Out in the silent snowy forest, I began to think about the times nature is silent. The noise is there, but it is tiny, inaudible to us. I think of mama mouse in her cozy nest of mewing pups. Of the mole busily tunneling beneath my feet. The turtle suspended in the pond with just its nostrils showing. The pinecone and milkweed pod splitting open to disperse seed. The stars making their way across the night sky. The blink of eyes watching silently for a meal; the bobcat and the sharp shinned hawk, the owl and the snake-each patiently, moodily, warily silent.

All of nature speaks without words in a lyrical, melodic fashion with an unuttered language our plodding words cannot describe or comprehend. The rose, for example, nods silently; its sound is beauty and fragrance and silkiness. We know that the trees communicate, yet we hear nothing.

It’s said silence is golden. So why is it so hard for us to be silent? Why must our own thoughts and endless chatter fill the void? In my teaching I was fond of throwing out questions that required thought, massage, analysis, and synthesis. It took a while for students to learn that those would end up being the same questions on an exam. Students were so busy sounding out answers, waving their hands in the air to put voice to the answer, that they never thought to write down the question in their notes. And I refrained from rewarding the “bunny rabbit” responders, because they wanted to answer without the harder work of deep thought in silent rumination. I would ask them to think a little longer. To sit in the quiet with a quieted mind. To marinate on the question. That was where the learning would take place.

We can all learn from the quiet. The questions are where to find it and how to patiently sit in it? How to still the voices in our heads? How grasp the truth that God speaks into the silence?

My prayer for you today is to find a quiet spot where you can stop talking long enough to listen to the silence, blanketed in the comfort of a rare and precious nothing, for that is where you will learn the most about yourself, your world, and God.

Thanks you so very much for reading. My goal is to be hospitable to my readers, giving them ideas and words that delight and challenge. If you want, you can click on the blue FOLLOW button to receive blog posts in your email. Feel free to drop me a note at the email below.

~J.A.P. Walton, PhD

jpraywalton.writing@gmail.com

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The Bear who wasn’t Sleepy

We live in lower Michigan not too far south of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. https://www.nps.gov/slbe/index.htm The Sleeping Bear is a 400’ silken sand dune famous for its shimmering white presence in the afternoon sun and glorious lake views of the two Manitou Islands. People love to run down it to Lake Michigan. The climb back up-not so much.  Anishinaabe (Ottawa/Ojibwe) legend has it that a mother bear and her two cubs fled a great famine in Wisconsin by swimming across Lake Michigan. When Mother Bear reached shore, she turned to watch her cubs founder and drown in the waves. The great dune marks the Mother Bear’s place of vigil, and each cub one of the Manitou Islands.   https://www.nps.gov/slbe/learn/kidsyouth/the-story-of-sleeping-bear.htm

And Mother Bear sleeps on. As a child here, the legend did not much resonate with me because we never had any bears in our forests. That has changed in the last several years. Mamas, cubs, and boars are now routinely spotted, and their tracks are common. Here in the northwest tip of the county, we’ve had a large boar by the name of Buttons roaming from cottage to cottage for about four years. Buttons is, most definitely NOT a sleeping bear. Around here, we like to joke about the bear who isn’t sleepy! He has a regular site visit schedule, meandering from bird feeder to bird feeder, from trash can to trash can. He may be upwards of 400 pounds. Just last month he tore through the screen on our cousins’ porch trying to get at a trash bag.

A bear that doesn’t hibernate? Is that normal? Doesn’t it go against what bears are supposed to do?  Our friend Alan, a retired DNR game warden says that hibernation is less a deep sleep than a nap, and that “boars, in particular, are not powered by the maternal instincts that drive pregnant sows to ground, often resisting slumber as long as there is ample forage- an unprotected garbage bag rings a bigtime dinner bell in a bear’s little brain. So does a well-stocked bird feeder that is within reach.”  https://summerassembly.org/stories

Still, I find myself ruminating on what makes anyone go against their better instincts. Why do we go against our own nature sometimes to take risks, to do something totally out of character, to fly in the face of everything that’s been done before?

In my late thirties I left a good, fulfilling, and secure job to accept a temporary two-year post as a college professor. People thought I had lost my mind. But for me, there was an inner nudge, a very small, still voice saying, “Go ahead and try it out-you will like it!” And I never looked back, having jumped impulsively with both feet into an unsecure and unsure situation. I was the bear who refused to sleep.

Now, sometimes we need the respite and the dormancy. We need to give ourselves permission to enter a temporary torpor that we might recover from a particularly stressful season in life. The pandemic was a hibernation of sorts, where entire populations joined the turtle, frog, skunk, and groundhog in a metaphorical winter of forced inactivity. But now, maybe it’s time to rise up, snuffle around for some goodies, and get busy not sleeping-more like the energetic chickadee and the lumbering Buttons the bear than the sleeping bees and bats. Happy lumbering!

Thanks for reading along! If you click on the BLUE FOLLOW button (top and bottom of site) you will automatically receive blog posts by email. I truly wish for my writing to be easily and freely accessible for any who can use the encouragement. 

J.A.P. Walton, Ph.D. 

Send me a note at jpraywalton.writing.com

Buttons the bear
How to Inhabit Time, James K.A. Smith, Lake Michigan, Lament as a Christian Practice, Lessons from the Wilderness, Life's Storms, Living Faithfully, Moving during a pandemic, When God is Silent, when it hurts too much to pray, when time stands still, When your mother dies

“Some Years are Longer than Others”

I had a solo 6-hour drive to Chicago last week, and the time just dragged. As a matter of fact, the time always drags when I leave this place. As a child, my grandparents would pick us up after school, a tin full of ground ham and peanut sandwiches (ick) on the back seat, and the nose of their old Buick turned toward the bluff in northern Michigan. Time sped up in glowing excitement-my mind bursting with out-of-the-city-and-into-the-forest-and-dunes anticipation of the carefree summer at hand. The opposite occurred around Labor Day weekend. We’d buried our newest treasures, released our “pet” salamanders, and hiked our last dune until next year. Time back to Chicago on that same well-worn road crawled, the summer gone so quickly, a heart full of memories, shoes full of sand.

I am slowly reading my friend and former colleague James K.A. Smith’s newest book, “How to Inhabit Time.” jameskasmith.com It’s not a slow read because it is difficult. No, this is like a deep, purply glass of royal wine; it is to be savored. Part of the reason is that I am just coming off a time of deep change and challenge. Of loss. Of leaving. Of the critical illness of our only child who lives far away. All things filled with longing, lament, grief and fear. Of feeling as if God had retreated to the margins and adopted a hands-off stance. My prayers were whispered. Then shouted. Then stilled altogether. The temporality of life invaded the heart, and the future became the present, which became my history with blinding speed. Yet, it felt as if time had stopped. Even the ticking of my grandmother’s clock was irksome.

It has been a 3-year tempest with numbing spiritual paralysis. In writing about light and darkness in the Arctic, Jamie Smith asks, “What if all the sunlight in your life comes late, at an oblique angle? What if the sun cyclically disappears from a life for nights that seem like they’ll never end?”  

Some years are longer than others” he writes.

James K.A. Smith. How to Inhabit Time. Brazos Press. 2022. Quotes from Chapter 2.

Amen to that my brother. For the last 3 years I have stayed almost manically busy. Traveled. Cooked. worked the garden and the food pantry, watched more than a few Hallmark movies. But now, it is time to begin the great, long-awaited reconnection because we are finally settled. The pain of the uprooting is subsiding. The flow of words has reversed course, ready to run like a river. Our daughter’s health is stabilizing. We will soon be joining a new church. Things like a pot of homemade chicken soup and a fresh loaf of bread are no longer tasteless sustenance; instead they waft glorious whiffs of goodness and rightness throughout the house. We are sleeping well in our own bed; Jamie Smith reminds us to treasure the truth that “there is rest in the dark.”

Rested and ready.  There was evening and mourning. Then morning. A day.  A year. Three years. Only the grace of God gives us the strength and endurance for dark times. And those times are critical to our growth in perseverance and character and hope (Romans 5), creating our own unique history to inevitably shape all our tomorrows.  

If you are in a dark time, hang on. The wilderness eventually gives way to glorious and flourishing life because

God is preparing you for something wonderful!”

He and time are on your side.  

Thanks for reading!

J.A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

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At Home in the Here and Not Yet

It has dawned a clear, crisp early November day at the Bluff following two days of gales on Lake Michigan. As I sit at my desk writing, Mark is out with his chainsaw helping saw up the neighbor’s fallen ash tree. The whipping wind pushed it right out by its roots.

There’s something doleful yet timeless about a tree’s newly exposed roots- it is death, and homelessness, and loss, and capitulation and rebirth all rolled into one.”

I have been thinking about home lately-all the places I have called home, making a new home here at the Bluff after pulling up our lives at Trout Creek by the roots, and all the years my heart was searching for a home when what it really needed was God himself.

Being at home is a sense, a feeling of being nurtured yet challenged, content yet ever searching, with a pillow for your head and loved ones within reach. I have been at home in hiking boots on the slopes of the Rocky Mountains, the rain forests of Costa Rica, and the stony paths of the French Alps. I once had a home in Wales for a semester, rope-climbing the steep cliffs that face the Irish Sea, and paddling the wild Welsh rivers. I have made my home in a flat in Paris, writing for a whole blessed month while my daughter was at work. I was at home for many years in my calling as a college professor, enjoying the gift that thousands of students unknowingly gave me to fill the emptiness of infertility.

Nowadays, having endured the moving of the house back from the bluff’s edge and reconstructing the entire lower level, we are finally settled into home at the Bluff. Since I was five years old, I knew I would live here someday. That is because it has always been the place I come back to; on this side of the river, this has always been my one true home. This is where I set down roots and made lifelong friends, clothed in the balm of nature’s call and care. Here, I am embedded in forest and dune, blissfully at home on the long, lonely stretches of beach with a cherished petoskey stone in my sandy pocket. Here is the delight of slowing down, of welcoming the unplanned coffee and conversation with a new friend, and of taking the time to read, and reread some timeless favorites.

We are one short step from heaven here, figuratively, and literally.

 I know full well that this home is as temporary as all the others.”

Even as I wait on God in prayer and obedience, he too waits for me to finish my upward climb to my last and forever home with him. On that day, that most glorious day, my physical body tumbled like a dead ash tree by the gales of age, my soul will be loosed to heaven, my new and forever home. I can’t know from this side of the river what that will be like, but I suspect the surprise outweighs the not-knowing.

Keep climbing-your home awaits.

Thanks for reading,

J.A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

Contact me at jpraywalton.writing@gmail.com