Choosing to Journey with God, Even in the Rocky Places

cross on the path

Our church recently held a retreat to begin a season of exploring the concept of pilgrimage. Our speaker defined pilgrimage as an intentional journey with God to find God, together. After hours of prayer and discussion, we were given the task of making a mini-pilgrimage around the building and grounds. We were instructed first to pray—to get in touch with God’s loving presence with us—and then to walk around, looking for something that spoke to us of God in our surroundings, keeping our eyes and heart open to see or feel what God had to say to us. Once we found it, we were encouraged to talk to God about it and what he had for us in that object or space.

I wandered around the fellowship hall, noticing signs and scripture verses on the walls. I stood looking out the window, regarding nature—the bright sunshine, the snow on the ground, the bare trees.

And then I saw it—a painting of a rocky path with the verse from Proverbs 3:6 underneath: “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your path.” I’ve always liked that verse, so my eye stayed there a minute. And then I looked at the path. It was covered in stones and looked really hard to walk on. It also went uphill, leading to a destination around a bend that was not visible in the painting. Everything about that path spoke to my heart in this season of learning to live with cancer. It made sense that God would draw me to that image, as though saying he understood how I felt. That was comforting. I rested in that idea for a moment.

God being the good and loving Father he is, though, he had so much more for me in that painting. As I stared at it, I shifted my focus ever so slightly, and then I saw what God really had for me. Reflected in the frame’s glass was the stained glass cross in the sanctuary behind me, which by this time in the afternoon had the sun beaming through it. And where I was standing in relation to the painting and that cross put the cross directly on the path. THAT was God’s message to me. He is with me on this cancer journey—in fact, he is going before me on it, he knows each stone I’ll encounter, and he’s┬ápreparing the way.

The second day of the retreat, we were each given a little stone (seriously? a stone?) as a token to remember that we are all pilgrims, and God is with us.

Living with this disease is not anything I’d choose. But I can choose to make it a pilgrimage—to journey through it with God, seek to find God in it, and do it together with those I love around me. I don’t even have to look very hard to see God in this experience–he makes himself pretty obvious, if I’m at all attentive. A few days after the retreat, I received a card from a friend who frequently sends me notes of encouragement. On the front was a path that looked similar to that painting. Further affirmation of what God had spoken to me at the retreat.

Being sent to “the back of the plane”

On a Christmas flight, we paid extra for “economy plus” seats to have a little more legroom and board earlier to ensure we got space in the overhead (we hate to check bags). This put us just a few rows behind first class, so when it was time for a restroom break, I followed my husband up to the bathroom at the front of the plane, which was by far the closest one to us. As I stood there waiting my turn, a flight attendant asked if I was seated to the rear of the plane, and before I could even answer, she said, “There are two bathrooms in the back of the plane you can use” and motioned for me to move on. Somewhat embarrassed, I mosied down the long aisle to the rear.

When I returned to my seat, I noticed the flight attendant had closed the little mesh curtain that separated first class from economy class. I resented having been told I wasn’t welcome at the front of the airplane, and the curtain seemed to add further insult. It also seemed ridiculous. You could see right through it, and it did nothing to dampen sound between the passengers in the front and those in back. Yet, its message to those of us in the “cheap seats” was clear—stay back there where you belong.

That curtain made me stop and think. I had essentially been told that, at least in this circumstance, I was “second class.” The fact that I could see through the curtain to first class made it worse. I could see everything I was missing: the special service, the better drinks and snacks, the spacious and cushy seats… and the uncrowded bathroom.

Those feelings for me ended when that flight did. But I couldn’t help thinking that there are people for whom that’s a common experience—not just on an airplane, but in many of aspects of life. People who are told they aren’t welcome, who get the message they are somehow “less than,” who are treated differently because of what they look like, where they’re from, or how much money they have.

This reflection called to mind a conversation I had with a friend last year. Like me, he’s married with a few kids, has a professional job, lives in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, drives a nice car, and attends church regularly. Unlike me, however, he’s African American. I had asked him to talk with me because my assumption had been that because his life was similar to mine in many ways, his life experiences and his interactions with employers, neighbors, store owners, police, etc. must also be similar to mine—even though his race is different than mine. Surely, race alone can’t really be enough anymore, not in this day and age, to influence how one is treated. After many stories in the news, though, I thought perhaps I should actually talk to someone “different” from me to test my assumption.

I learned that my assumption was very wrong. His experiences—many things being equal to mine—were, in fact, quite different. As a child, in his own middle class, mostly white neighborhood, police had stopped him while walking home to ask what he was doing there. As a teen/young adult, he had been pulled over repeatedly by police for no good reason because of his skin color. While shopping, he had been followed or watched by salespeople with extra scrutiny. And he had watched as servers gave the check to his wife, who is white, instead of to him. In subtle, and not so subtle, ways he received the message he was somewhere he didn’t belong, he wasn’t trustworthy, and he wasn’t worthy of respect.

My little incident of being told to go to the back of the plane to use the economy bathroom was really no big deal, and because I don’t often experience the “we don’t like your kind” or “you don’t belong here” message, I was able to shake off the anger and embarrassment I felt within moments. But I haven’t been able to shake off the lingering questions that resulted. What would it feel like to be someone who encounters that message frequently? How jaded would I become? How angry or dejected? What might I start to think about myself? And about the world around me? Would I try to rise above that message, to prove people wrong? Would I become defensive and act out against the people and systems sending that message? Or would I simply start to believe that I’m not equal, welcome, worthy, valued, or capable—would I stop trying or hoping?

As importantly, in what ways do I communicate to others around me that they are not welcome, not enough, not valued? And why do I do that? Do I honestly believe those things about some other people? Do I think on some level that if others are “less than,” then I can be “more than”? Do I even realize I’m sending that message?—how can I be more self-aware in that regard? And how can I work to instead extend hospitality, foster inclusiveness, and promote dignity of all people—including, and especially, those who are different from me.

These are weighty questions. But given the division in our country and in our own neighborhoods, they are questions worth pondering.

Welcome, 2018!

new-years-day-image

So, I’m a day late with this, but here’s a quick New Year’s blog….

I had a conversation with a dear friend yesterday, during which we acknowledged that it was good to turn the page on 2017 and start looking forward to a better 2018. But then I thought, we shouldn’t put pressure on the new year to be anything special or different—it’s just a year like any other, sure to have its ins and outs, ups and downs. You be you, 2018.

We all have as much control over the status of the new year—good or bad—as we have over anything. That is to say, we have little control. (I need this reminder often.)

BUT—we do have control over how we respond to everything that 2018 holds. And we also have control over how we greet each day of this new year.

So, right now, I’m setting a goal for myself to awake each day with gratefulness that I have another day on this earth, despite any challenges the day might present. And I’m pledging to find some way to spread hope and encouragement on each day. Maybe that’s a quick text to a friend who’s struggling. Maybe it’s a word of thanks for a kind deed or kudos for a job well done. Maybe it’s a smile to a complete stranger or the gift of charity to someone in need. And maybe it’s the gift of grace for myself if I stumble and give way to negativity, fear, or frustration.

Who wants to join me in this endeavor?

Bring on 2018.