“What is your heart’s desire?” asked my spiritual director as I began planning for my renewal leave this summer. My answer was quick, “My heart’s desire is to spend most of my time outside reconnecting with God and my own spirit through creation. I yearn to slow down and walk, turn off my mind (and cell phone!), stop doing, and simply be: to notice, wonder, and be open to God’s grace.”
It’s a Saturday afternoon in mid-June in Grand Rapids. I am testing out my new hiking boots and backpack during a 2½ hour inner city prayer walk. I’ve walked and run thousands of miles in Grand Rapids over the past 18 years, but today I walk in neighborhoods I have never been before. I repeat over and over the breath prayer, “Light of the world, bless this city, its leaders and its residents, especially the children.”
One house is for sale, the next is an empty crack house, and another has a carefully tended flower garden. It’s 90 degrees, and a beautiful city swimming pool is closed because of a lack of funding. Loud music is blaring, a porta-potty is sitting on its side, food is cooked on patios, a couple argues on the front step, and children play on a swing set. God, can I trust you to guide me wherever my journey leads?
It’s a Thursday morning in late June, and I am walking hand in hand with my 2½ year old grandson. Ezra is curious about everything and continually stops to point out bugs, sticks, and flowers, things I don’t even see. I’d like to think it’s because I am not as close to the ground as he is. However, the truth is that most of the time I am just not paying attention. Can a little child open my eyes?
It’s a Tuesday night in early July, and I am near the top of a mesa in northern New Mexico at 6,500 feet with 9 fellow sojourners. A psalm is read, and we sit in silence for 45 minutes as the sun sets and dusk descends over the desert cliffs and valley far below. A bird sings, a coyote howls. A jet 35,000 feet above hurries toward its destination, a silver bird against the golden sunset, oblivious to the timelessness of the land below.
The rocks silently praise their Maker. Creation is at peace. I am at peace. My soul is still. I am connected to the mystery of God’s creation. The darkness swallows up my friends. It is tempting to give in to fear. I turn on my head lamp, but it’s a long, difficult path in the blackness. Can I trust others to lead me back safely?
It’s a Wednesday morning in mid-July, and Gary and I are hiking back up the Grand Canyon. It’s 100 degrees, the sun is relentless, and I am reminded of the sign at the top, “Going down: optional. Coming back up: mandatory.” Ever since my first sight of the Grand Canyon at age 12, I have dreamed of hiking down to the Colorado River at the bottom. More than 40 years later, my dream has become a reality. The intimacy of walking into the heart of one of the 7 natural wonders of God’s world is breath-taking. The silence of the canyons is deafening. I am in heaven. Gary says it’s the most difficult physical activity he has ever done in his life. I say, “This was magnificent! Can we do it again tomorrow?” When I am back home, will I remember the words of the psalmist, “He alone is my rock and my salvation; my fortress; I shall never be shaken.” (Psalm 62)
It’s a Thursday afternoon in early August, and Gary and I are finishing a 4 day 65 mile pilgrimage walk (St. Cuthbert’s Way) from Melrose in Scotland to Lindisfarne, a tidal island off the northeastern coast of England which is also called the Holy Island. Gary and I have hiked up to 20 miles a day in steady rain, foggy mist, mud a foot deep, fierce wind, and warm sun. We’ve hiked up mountains, though dense forests, along swift-flowing rivers, and wheat, oat, and barley fields, and in pastures filled with thousands of cattle and sheep. Psalm 23 is on my lips.
On the last day we time our hike so that at low tide we can actually walk the 2½ mile Pilgrim’s Path across the sand and receding water of the North Sea to the Holy Island, just as Christian pilgrims have done for 1,400 years. It was an experience Gary and I will never forget. Can I trust God when the tasks in front of me seem as impossible as walking on water?
It’s a Wednesday afternoon in mid-August, and I am standing on top of the highest hill on Iona, an island in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland whose 2,700 million year old rocks are among the oldest in the world. In 563 A.D. St. Columba and 12 monks landed on Iona from Ireland in order to spread Christianity to Scotland. I am the only American among 40 people from around the world who are living, working, and worshipping together at the Iona Abbey for a week. We are hosted by the Iona Community, a dispersed Christian ecumenical community working for peace and social justice, rebuilding the common life, and the renewal of worship.
In my daily hikes I have explored most of Iona except for the Hermit’s Cell, a circle of stones in the wild interior of the island to which there is no trail. With a bit of trepidation I descend from the hill, forging a way filled with barriers: fences, canyons, walls, marshy bogs, dense undergrowth, and my own fear of wandering in the Iona wilderness for 40 years. Two hours later I emerge with gratitude into open land at the other end of the island. I never did find the Hermit’s Cell. Does the out of control undergrowth of my incessant busyness prevent me from finding my own hermit’s cell, a quiet center in you, God?
It’s a Saturday afternoon in late August in Washington State, and my youngest daughter and I are hiking an 11 mile trail to Kendall’s Katwalk, where there are stunning views of Mt. Ranier as well as the Cascade Mountains. It’s a tough uphill climb with careful navigating on boulder strewn paths, scrambling over and around downed trees, and crossing streams.
What I remember the most, however, is not the grandeur of the mountains and the satisfaction of making it to the top but my daughter’s exclamation on the way down, “Mom, look! Golden raspberries!” I’d never seen a golden raspberry before. As we carefully picked several dozen raspberries to take home, I thought of Matthew 6, “If God so clothes the grass of the field … will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith?” God, in the midst of the complex and manifold challenges that we face every day, may we have eyes to see your grace in the small blessings along the journey.
I am walking through the Seattle airport last week when I notice a young woman struggling with a baby, a child carrier filled with stuff, and a medium-sized suitcase. I immediately stop and offer to carry one of her burdens. She bursts into tears, saying that the airline would not check her bag, she cannot possibly carry all her stuff plus the baby, and her plane is about to board. Then she says with sadness, “I can’t tell you how many people have passed by me without even offering to help.” I pick up the carrier, another woman takes the suitcase, and the 3 of us hurry to the tram leading to the gate. God, who are the people right in front of me every day whose burdens I do not notice because I am too preoccupied with the Lord’s work?
Over the past 3 months I have seen the sea roar, the floods clap their hands, and the hills sing together for joy. I’ve walked hundreds of miles in cities, villages, deserts, and mountains and have seen firsthand how all of creation displays God’s handiwork. I’ve had meaningful conversations with people from every corner of the world and am convinced that if we could only sit at table together and honor our differences, our world would surely become the kingdom of God’s shalom and the desire of God’s heart would be fulfilled.
As I continue to integrate my experiences of the summer, I do not claim to have received any earth-shattering revelations from God. I did not acquire new professional knowledge through seminars, conferences, or workshops. Nor did I gain greater clarity about my life and call. The gifts I did receive were far more ordinary and precious:
- Time when I could be fully present with my husband and family
- The privilege of enlarging my borders through travel, reading, and dialoguing with people of other cultures and religious faiths
- Surrendering myself to God’s grace through the extraordinary diversity of creation and the human race
- The richness and blessing of setting aside “work” so that I could be set apart for prayer and spiritual formation
- The recognition that my heart’s true desire is to lead a life worthy of the calling to which I have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-2) What is your heart’s desire?
The 10th anniversary of September 11 this Sunday is a special opportunity to remind our congregations of the holiness of all life. If we can create an open space to set aside labels, treat one another as God’s precious creatures, build bridges, and work for reconciliation, even if just for one day, who knows how the flames of the Holy Spirit will fan out across our world to breathe grace, hope, and peace? Who knows?