Every year at my fall retreat, I spend our reflection time at the end of the weekend walking the path around the lake. It was a bluebird sky, with the fall colors near their peak. This year, we started our quiet time later in the afternoon, and soon, the sun was low in the sky. I began the path, confident this year I could easily stay on track. As usual, I made a couple of wrong turns as I wandered the path. Realizing I had strayed off the trail, I would double back and try again to find the path. Often I would come to a point where the path seemed to disappear, and I would gaze forward looking for the trail. In those moments, I often find myself looking over my shoulder. That reassures me, since I can see that the path has led me here, I know it still lies ahead.
As dusk began to settle, I began to worry that I might not make it around the lake before dark. Then, I found solace in the knowledge that God was here with me in the woods, and the path would lead me home. I was bemoaning the low light dimming the colors when I began to realize that indeed, as I begin my 59th year, I am entering the dusk of my life. More of the trail is behind me than lies ahead. While not a surprise, it was still a new realization for me.
In The Teachings of Don Juan, Carlos Castenada researched the religion of the Indians of the Southwest. He spent years learning from Don Juan, a Yaqui Indian medicine man. One of the concepts that stayed with me since reading this book 40 years ago is the Path with a Heart. Don Juan told Carlos that each of us has a path with a heart that is our destiny. In my Christian understanding, I would translate that idea to mean God has a purpose for each of us, a path that will lead to our highest possible purpose and existence. God’s Faint Path follows my efforts to find and walk this path in my life. As I walked around the lake, each time I would take a rabbit trail off to the left or right, I was reminded that one definition of sin is anything that distracts you from the path God has designed for us. When we take our focus off God and His path, we stray into sin.
I find that no matter how many times I have walked this path around the lake, I continue to stray off the trail. Each time, I end up confused and waste time and energy, and as dusk turns to twilight, it is risky to tarry too long. Keeping to the path keeps my energy focused, and I make progress. Straying off the path leads to danger and robs me of energy and progress.
As I walked, the only thing that separated the path from the woods around was that the brush and limbs had been taken out of the way of the path. I began to understand that the way to follow the path was to look for the one place I could walk without encountering resistance. As I read a handout from the weekend defining the stages of personal growth from the lowest to the highest level of being, I notice that at the highest level, it states, “Experiences no resistance.” So, I thought this was a nice affirmation of being on the right path.
Over the last five years, if I used “experiences no resistance” as a guide, I would have known I was off the path. I just kept pushing through the resistance. Realizations began to settle upon me as I prayed and walked. I was praying prayers of surrender to God and His will, and asking for his Spirit to guide me in each step forward.
Mike Foss told me in a conversation a couple of weeks ago that God allows us to take on the pain of others. “But,” he went on, “God will never allow us to take on more pain than we can bear.” After continuing to pray and walk in this way for some time, all of a sudden God awakened me to the fact that my heart was broken.
As I reflected on my broken heart, I thought back about the journey over the last ten years. I have walked through the broken places of our church institution, feeling the stuckness and frustration of those I encountered. From church to church, from Synod to Synod, I could feel the dysfunctional structures that are stronger than the valiant people trying to hear and follow God. I could see the burnout, the loss of passion and a sense of mission. I encountered many flickers of hope that our project might bring some light to a healthier way forward. The hopes of these leaders kept me going forward, no matter the cost, no matter the resistance. I began to realize as I walked the trail, that the pain I had walked through had weighed heavier and heavier on me until my heart broke.
Last year, on the week we launched our Pilot Class of the Transforming Leaders Initiative, I hit the wall. In the previous month, I had blown out a knee, a disc in my back, and found out I had a heart condition. When I got to the event, I discovered I had two impacted molars. I did not sleep the first three days of the retreat.
Tears came flowing from my eyes as I walked the trail, realizing that I had walked through the last year with a broken heart. Then, I became aware of a pain in my chest, a pain in my heart. I then realized that I was holding onto the pain, and it was slowly killing me. I had not forgiven the church and all those who had in some way inflicted pain in this journey.
I remembered a wonderful Rob Bell sermon podcast I listened to a month or so ago. Bell was preaching on the Lord’s Prayer, specifically the phrase, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive others.” He suggested an analogy to breathing. If we breathe out our forgiveness of others, we can breathe in God’s forgiveness of our sins. He called someone up from the audience, and put a snorkel and mask on the person. “What happens if we breathe in, but don’t breathe out?” he asked, while he put duct tape over the end of the snorkel. Within 30 seconds the man was turning red, and it became very apparent that continuing in this way meant death.
So, I began to do a series of deep breathing exercises, alternating between breathing in God’s forgiveness, and breathing out my own forgiveness. I could feel myself letting go and setting down a great weight. Within five minutes, the pain left my chest, and I stood amazed at what had just happened.
I had no trouble following the trail on around the lake, and emerging from the woods just as darkness settled. I emerged from the path feeling some healing, a sense of wholeness. One of the group noted at our closing session how different I looked from the first day of our retreat. “Something happened this weekend,” he said, “because when Gregg arrived, I could see the burden of his pain. Something has lifted that burden.” For a year, I have struggled under the burden of physical pain, and a weakened heart. This retreat started 35 years ago. I joined the group in 1982. For the 10 of us who come each year, this has become a safe place where we can talk about thinks we can’t talk about anywhere else. Through the loving embrace of this spiritual community, I emerged from the weekend beginning to heal. I know once again I encountered the Spirit of Jesus as I walked God’s Faint Path.