Moving Forward When We Don’t Know the Way

When my daughter was in elementary school, there was one year when math was more than a class—it was a foe that demanded months of wrestling before she could pin it to the mat. Those afternoon homework sessions required a lot from both of us; it took all the patience and humor, strength and courage we could muster.

But the most important breakthrough came when I finally realized that she believed she was supposed to already know how to work the new problems. She cut herself no slack for the process of learning a new skill. If she couldn’t master it immediately then it was too scary, too hard, and too far out of reach. The first thing she had to learn was that it’s ok if you don’t yet know how to solve a problem. You’re not supposed to already know everything. You’re learning. That’s your job.

After that, it was just a matter of learning to work the problems. She overcame her math anxiety—better than I did at her age. And I came to appreciate the importance of not being intimidated by problems we don’t yet know how to solve. Years later, it remains a good lesson to remember when I need to move forward and don’t know how.

We all face problems that we’ve never encountered before, requiring resources and abilities we have never used. People who have passed through a time of change often speak of finding strength they didn’t know they had. They look back and see the growth that occurred as they rose to meet the challenge. Life seems designed to foster our development in this way.

The issues we face have been there for others as well. Whether the challenge arises from a particular situation or in the larger context of the changes in our lives, we are not alone. There is a source of wisdom and clarity that far exceeds anything we can know on our own. That Source is at work, urging us toward where we need to be and helping us to get there. It’s ok to take one step at a time; it’s ok to only see one step at a time. God works through those steps, leading us to move in the right direction. People with insight and experience can also help, and often appear on our path as if placed there by a loving guide.

We can trust that we’re being led forward even when progress is hard to see. It’s easier to remember that when I know how to work the problem. But it’s even more important to remember it when I feel I’m not up to the task. “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid,” are the words of Jesus in John. This deep reassurance is part of the gift of faith. Not knowing how to proceed doesn’t mean I can’t meet the challenge. It means relying on the abundant resources available. It means remembering to pray, and to open my eyes to how prayer is answered.

What helps you move forward when you don’t know the way?


I love the word libation. It suggests an experience set apart, invoking the spirits as well as mixing them. It acknowledges the fine complexity of ingredients from aged and distilled essences to juices squeezed fresh from the fruit. It captures the sense of ritual in measuring and pouring, selecting the particular gleaming glassware, and finishing with a fresh garnish.

The alchemy of a shaker is a powerful magic to wield, a container within which texture, temperature, and flavor combine to yield something altogether new, a frosted elixir poured from its mysterious depths. The visible process of a blender is more transparent, almost hypnotic, as colors and textures roil until they are transformed under its power. The musical swirl of a swizzle stick and ice mesmerizes in its own way, yielding the luxurious simplicity of a potion clear as crystal.

It’s one thing to pour a drink, but quite another to prepare a libation. It’s an offering for all the senses, an experience to savor, and a privilege to imbibe.

The word libation comes to us from the Greeks. It was originally a drink offering made to the gods, and came to mean both the drink and the act of offering it. It was poured out as a sacrifice—language that permeates Christianity through the description of Christ’s life as poured out for others.

To prepare a libation is to prepare an offering, even if we no longer make its presentation to a deity part of the ritual. For us, to partake of a libation is to participate in the goodness of life. To share a libation is to acknowledge together what has been poured out to create a world capable of yielding what is beautiful and good.

Alcohol may be an ingredient in a special drink, but not always. In ancient days a libation was sometimes water—especially in the desert where it was appreciated as a precious liquid necessary to sustain life. Today we may use sparkling water and add fresh juices, or blend our ingredients into a smoothie. But a beautiful drink in a sparkling glass retains a breath of awe.

Rituals of pouring an offering upon the ground are rare these days. But the loveliness of a drink specially prepared, and the privilege of sharing it with people we love, is a moment worth noticing. Even in these overfull days, centuries removed from the drink offerings to the gods, a libation still captures our attention. It leads us to pause, to appreciate, and perhaps even to pour out our thanks.

The drink in the photo is a Sea Breeze, a pleasure to have at the beach last week. What counts as a libation for you?

A Prayer at the Shore

God of power and mystery,

Long we have stood in awe on your shores—

the endless expanse of sea and sky—

humbled by vastness in which we are held

and grateful to belong.

Photo by Laura C. Brown

Ceaseless waves speak of eternity

with crashing surf, the pull of tides.

We walk through foam when the surge is spent,

restored in the refuge of the immense.

But now we are stricken

by our own reckless sovereignty.

The fathomless sea measures the reach of irreverence.

Oil-soaked wings and gasping mouths

indict our choices, our hubris, our sin.

Lost lives and wasted marshlands,

ruined livelihoods and filthy shores—

work of the small and sullied gods

that we have made,

who trade paradise for a golden calf,

untempered by humility,

risking life for the chance of gain.

We are caught in the spreading slick

of blindness and indifference.

We depend –

for food and shelter, travel and trade—

on a society in want of discernment.

We rely on patterns not of our making

and confess that we perpetuate

a culture in need of change.

Forgive us our thoughtlessness,

and foster in us the desire for wisdom

in those decisions that are ours to make.

Lord, we are not self-sufficient.

We need your help to be the stewards

you created us to be.

As we lament the carelessness

may we learn to care;

In our dismay at destruction

may we learn to protect.

Lord, hear our cry. We have sinned, we were wrong.

We have fouled our home and harmed your creation.

We confess, we repent. Please help us to change,

To heal, to cleanse, to learn, to pray.

The Path Back to the Garden

I’ve recently read two good books: Women Food and God by Geneen Roth and The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. At first glance they seem to be about very different subjects—making peace with food and making art. But reading them in close proximity has me thinking about them together and finding connections I didn’t expect.

Geneen Roth’s work arises out of her experience with compulsive eating and her years of helping others separate food from the emotional issues tangled up with eating. But her insight is into addictions of all kinds. Seeking refuge in the addiction is how we abandon ourselves, withholding the attention to our own hearts that can show us what we most need to know.

She describes it as:

an attempt to avoid the absence (of love, comfort, knowing what to do) when we find ourselves in the desert of a particular moment, feeling, situation. In the process of resisting the emptiness, in the act of turning away from our feelings…we ignore what could utterly transform us.

Steven Pressfield’s work is about overcoming the resistance that arises in anyone attempting to do something new. An artist must recognize and conquer the impediments that inevitably arise when we try to shape a new creation, realize a new vision, or express a new idea. Resistance would enforce the status quo, having us abandon our risky calling and with it our highest self.

He writes:

To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be. If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius.

Both writers see the work we’re called to do as deeply connected with the divine. Both understand how easily we are kept from that work, and the heartache that ensues. Roth urges us to remain present to ourselves when we’re tempted to flee. Pressfield insists that we show up to do the work even when it feels impossible. They are connected.

Being present to ourselves allows us to do the work. Doing the work makes us present to ourselves. Both place us in the presence of God. Taking refuge in addiction is a kind of resistance to the life we’re called to live. Allowing resistance to come between us and our true work creates a false refuge in which we can never find a fulfilling life. Both are an attempt to hide when God calls our name.

An addiction cuts us off from the Tree of Knowledge standing in the center of the Garden. But as soon as we bring our attention to our behavior, to the thoughts and emotions driving it, the addiction shows us the way back. Likewise resistance keeps us out of the garden we were created to tend. No other work will give us satisfaction until we climb over the walls that stand between us and our calling.

What’s the next step leading back to the garden?