Life is a journey. How’s that for a trite truism or a true tritism?
A saying is trite when, over time, frequently repeated, it first becomes “the wisdom of the ages,” then common knowledge, then a listless cliché. That said, life as journey, proclaimed by prophets, contemplated by philosophers, taught by sages, rhapsodized by poets, is, I think, an eternal metaphor, ringing with timeless truth.
Some say the journey’s beginning is most important. Others, the end. Still others, the journey itself, taking one step, another, and then another. Whatever one’s view, during the journey, on occasion, it’s important to stop and look around. What do we see?
Speaking for myself, recently having celebrated my 63rd birthday, I confess that I don’t like the idea of getting older, being older and facing, dealing with the limitations that attend this inexorable reality. Limitations that like proverbial “trees” occupy my attention, obstructing my vision making it hard to behold the “forest,” the full sweep of my life.
So it is that these days, looking back, I find myself reflecting on opportunities missed and never to be regained. Historical moments indelibly printed on my memory that I vainly wish, “If only I could do them over.” Then, looking at me, at times I focus on my increasing aches and pains and gaps in memory. Thinking about my parents’ aging, I sometimes wonder what and when will be my next loss in physical ability and mental acuity.
I don’t intend to be morbid, but rather honest. And, as I contemplate these things, looking around, I also confess that I envy young people who possess the “unlimited possibilities” of still elastic and expanding muscles and minds, still largely evolving worldviews through which to perceive the still far horizons of the hard, heart-breaking edges of existence where faith is tested…
Like Job, who, journeying through the losses of children and possessions, health and hope (and though all was restored, nothing could erase that anguish), arrived at his suffering journey’s end, having battered the heavens with his question, “Why?”, only to hear God’s tempestuous whirlwind reply, saying, in effect, “Who are you, O mortal, to ask?”
There’s a sobering truth about life’s journey. To wonder “why” is to discover that sometimes there’s an answer, sometimes, like Job, not. And, as we have been horribly reminded with this past week’s murders of folk gathered to pray at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, there are moments that whene’er a reason can be discerned and whate’er that answer might be, nothing is enough to explain, to make sense of the inexplicable. And, whether we find an answer or no, we always must deal with what is, much of it, like Job, outside of our control. Whatever course we might imagine and wish our life’s journey to take, we must walk the path on which we find ourselves; some, if not most of the twists and turns beyond our power to design or determine.
Conventional wisdom says that when circumstances overwhelm us, we can control our responses (the “make lemonade out of life’s lemons” approach). For me, however, I have known grievous moments when I’ve been out of control; my feelings taking flight from one anxious arc to another, my thoughts, disorderly, contrary and conflicting, crashing into one another.
This past week has been such a time. I have grieved, I grieve for the dead. I sorrow for their families and friends, verily, for all of us. I wrestle with my hurt and anger and outrage, yes, at Dylann Storm Roof, yet also at the culture, those parts of our American culture that planted the seed and cultivated the bitter fruit of racism and violence. And I yearn that Roof and all so embittered might behold and be illumined by the light of love that liberates us from hatred.
Still, on such occasions, I pray, as Job, bidding, begging God to do something. Again, conventional wisdom, in the form of basic theology 101, says that God doesn’t necessarily remove life’s crises, but strengthens us to endure them and that prayer doesn’t necessarily change things, but rather changes the one who prays, broadening one’s awareness and understanding of God and existence, deepening one’s faith, hope, and love. Still, when storms threaten to swamp my life’s boat, I can be a biblical literalist. I want Jesus to wake up and command, “Peace! Be still!”, to the blustery winds and billowing waves of the outward threat and my inward fear.
That said, looking at our gospel text, I can and do find insight and wisdom; sustaining bread for life’s journey. It is instructive that during the storm, Jesus, before being awaken (I imagine rudely!) by his disciples, was sound asleep. A posture of rest and trust.
Many years ago, I was on a flight from Chicago to Atlanta to attend a conference in the company of the Right Reverend Quintin Ebenezer Primo, Jr., then Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese of Chicago and one of my earliest mentors. The skies were turbulent. The flight, rocky. I, who hated flying (still do!), was terrified. Bishop Primo was fast asleep, his arms folded in peaceful repose. At one point, he stirred, looked over at me and into my eyes wide with fear, and said, “Have faith”, and then went back to sleep. I marveled and asked him later how he could be so calm in the midst of the storm. He spoke of his daily, moment to moment awareness of his birth, of having been created and, at some future inevitable moment, his death. In his sacred consciousness of gratitude to God, he joyfully could enter every moment given to him in between. His trust, his confidence always was in the present moment of being alive and being in the present moment.
I’ve never known anyone like Bishop Primo. One who in this life as journey was able to look back without fixing his gaze longingly on some past milestone and to look forward without staring aimlessly into distant, yet unreached and perhaps never to be reached horizons. Someone so abundantly, abidingly present.
Perhaps that, being present, is what it means to have faith; a faith that like bread can sustain us for life’s journey, come what may.
Illustrations: The Lord answering Job out of the whirlwind, William Blake (1826) and Christ and the Storm by Giorgio de Chirico (1914)
 On Wednesday evening, June 17, 2015, Dylann Storm Roof, a 21-year old white man, motivated by his racial animus, shot and killed nine of those gathered at a weekly prayer meeting, including the pastor, the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who also served as a State Senator in the South Carolina legislature.