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

Affirmation, Cancer, Cancer treatments, Creator, Darkness, death, Desert, Dying to Self, Faithful Living, God, Heaven, Lessons from the Wilderness, Life's Storms, Mary Oliver, Pilgrimage, Uncategorized

Pilgrim

Another brother has cancer.

We are not stunned like we were with Hugh. All the same, it’s another round of watching and waiting and praying it through.  It is true: our body ages and decays in this broken world. I have never stopped wondering at the marvel: that we are created body, soul, and spirit together. An amalgamation of identity and being. It isn’t an integration where one is a receptacle for the other, like lock and key, but blended, so tangled up together that they cannot be distinctly teased out.

It is a ONENESS that defies full description, almost impossible to appreciate or embrace but for a blind faith in God who is himself three yet one.

So, when our body gives way to time, disease, unlucky genes, and the random tragedies of this earthly life, we spend most of our resources on trying to eradicate the physical dis-ease with drugs and surgery, while often ignoring the impact this all has on our whole self.

It’s easy to forget that the wilderness, which we seek out for its inherent beauty, quietness, and solitude is also constrained by the world’s brokenness. We tend to think, wrongly, that the wilderness is eternal, unchangeable. But, even its fullness is stained by decay, predation, random fire or flood; dangers lurk in its untamed, and indifferent beauty.

Upon hearing her own cancer diagnosis, poet Mary Oliver wrote,

Why should I have been surprised?  

           Hunters walk the forest without a sound. 

           The hunter, strapped to his rifle,

            the fox on his feet of silk,

            the serpent on his empire of muscles-

            all move in stillness,

            hungry, careful, intent.

            Just as the cancer entered the forest of my body,

            without a sound.*

The same goes with us. Though God promises us eternal life –conditional on our recognition and acknowledgement that we cannot save ourselves- we walk as pilgrims through (rarely around) life’s wilderness and dangers. And, for each of us, there is an appointed day in which the shroud of our whole self is forever torn by death, our body returned to the dust from which it came. What was once whole is now separated, that our soul and spirit can rise unburdened to God. Who can explain it?

And so we go forward, hand in hand in the hope of healing for our brother, the one who’s “got next”. If God is for us, who -or what- can be against us? We call the treatment of cancer a battle, and its eradication a victory. A curious thing, that it is couched in war language. But, it’s not just our physical self that is saved is it? All through the wilderness of living is the battle, often unseen, for our soul and spirit too. God wants, he demands that we yield all of what and who we are, cancer or no. On this side of the river, you just can’t be whole without it.

~J.A.P. Walton

* Mary Oliver. “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac” in Blue Horses.2014