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?

Seeing Those We Meet as an Expression of the Divine

A friend recently shared with me her sense that everyone we meet is an expression of the divine. Maybe that’s what is implied in saying that we’re all children of God, but her way of stating it captured my attention.

A day later I was on a plane for New York City, and her words remained with me while I was traveling. As other passengers claimed their seats, I considered the greater connection we shared. In that light, the aircraft seemed a container of sacred space.

In the city, among rivers of pedestrians filling the sidewalks, the press of engines and car horns through the streets, and the whoosh of full subway cars gliding by, I moved in close proximity to thousands of other people in a single day. So many souls; I was one among many. It changes everything to remember that each one is a way of seeing God. When the light changed at the street corner, I joined the wave of people washing across the avenue, part of the ocean of humanity in that city, upon this earth.

Thinking of other people as expressions of the divine lets everyone in. It shows that adopting tunnel vision regarding what I want is to choose a kind of blindness. All these people line the walls of that tunnel, each with their own ways of manifesting life. Each one matters. When I open my eyes, I see that every place where our lives intersect is holy.

Yet sometimes it’s too much, letting in all that humanity. Their energy clashes. Their oblivion is painful. They make such a mess, leaving chaos behind wherever they go. Like the trash blown up against the curb early on Sunday morning. Like the young woman dropping a gum wrapper on the stairs of the subway in front of the old man sweeping up and spitting a round of Spanish in response. There are reasons why we block out the press of life around us.

But if people are the diverse expressions of a divine commonality, we inherit a connection to all of them. Other people are the sea we’re moving through, whether we’re fighting the water or swimming in it. We, too, make up this sea of life. We’re part of a miraculously varied and endlessly energetic creation. The diversity we see out there is within us as well, and the expression we give to it makes us an integral part of the whole.

We really are all in this together. Why is it hard to learn a truth so old and so familiar?

Make Us Free to Dare and Dream

Graduation day at Lexington Theological Seminary is announced with bagpipes. The piper, in full regalia, fills the air with tradition. The past is present as we look to the future. Today the Class of 2010 walked down the green hill of the LTS campus and across South Limestone, led once again by the piper, Will Young.

The sound of the bagpipes carries, whether across the moors or across a busy city block. The tones evoke a sense of ancient memory and speak of spiritual longing. The graduation procession winds down the hill, leaving the campus of the seminary—a fitting ritual for commencement. The traffic of modern life pauses for a moment as the line of choir, faculty, trustees, and graduates threads its way across the busy street to the swell of the piper’s chords.

The church has been changing for centuries upon centuries, and the education of its ministers has changed as well. Those connected with LTS are now living through the necessity of change, its uncertainty, and the arduous effort it requires. The seminary is making a transition into new ways of reaching and educating students, and the churches its graduates serve will be finding new ways to reach out and to embody Christ in the world.

Through all the change, we continue to be shaped by memory and longing. The wail of the bagpipes is a way of describing the place where we stand. In our own lives, and in the lives of the institutions we foster and depend on, we stand between what has been and what will be. We hold the teachings and traditions we have received, with our hopes and longings for the world we want to see shaping the way we pass our faith along.

It was a privilege to hear Rev. Dr. William L. Lee, Senior Pastor of Loudon Avenue Christian Church in Roanoke, Virginia give the commencement address. He spoke about the power of being “Chosen,” and the responsibility and accountability that comes with such a designation. He reminded the graduates: you have not just been invited—you have been chosen. Jesus has done the choosing; he knows you for better or worse, and yet he chose you anyway. He sees in you what you cannot see in yourselves. So don’t dwell on what you are not; focus on what you have. God’s grace will always be greater than any failure. And when you no longer believe in God, know that God believes in you. “God knew just what she was doing when she laid hands on you,” he assured them. You can know that, because you have been chosen.

One of my favorite aspects of the LTS graduation ceremony is the hymn, “God of Wisdom, Truth, and Beauty,” sung to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” It names God in fresh and revealing ways, ascribing divine presence to a vast scope of human endeavors. It offers encouragement to all of us who stand in the transition between what has been and what will be. I leave you with these word to the hymn below:

God of Wisdom, truth, and beauty, God of Spirit, fire, and soul,

God of order, love and duty, God of purpose, plan and goal;

Grant us visions ever growing, Breath of life, eternal strength,

Mystic spirit, moving, flowing, Filling height and depth and length.


God of drama, music, dancing, God of story, sculpture art,

God of wit, all life enhancing, God of every yearning heart;

Challenge us with quests of spirit, Truth revealed in myriad ways,

Word or song for hearts that hear it, Sketch and model—forms of praise.


God of atom’s smallest feature, God of galaxies in space,

God of every living creature, God of all the human race;

May our knowledge be extended, For the whole creation’s good,

Hunger banished, warfare ended, all the earth a neighborhood.


God of science, history, teaching, God of futures yet unknown,

God of holding, God of reaching, God of power beyond each throne;

Take the fragments of our living, Fit us to your finest scheme,

Now forgiven and forgiving, Make us free to dare and dream.


Holy Week: What We Learn from Looking into the Dark

It’s Holy Week, a time in the liturgical year that draws Christians into and through great darkness. But there is plenty of darkness in the world—why do we need to invite more? I don’t relish the thought of entering into the stories of betrayal and fear, of manipulation by people in power and humanity’s willingness to extinguish a light. It would be easier to take if that had all changed now, but we know it isn’t so. Even knowing that this story has a good ending, it’s not an easy one to engage with.

I approach this week thinking, “not again.” Why is this, of all weeks, the one labeled “holy?” It’s a week filled with unholy actions as well as holy moments, like all of life. Why is its suffering and desolation what we choose to lift up?

Nonetheless, it comes ‘round every year. And like any observance that occurs with that regularity, it brings a chance to look at a familiar ritual from the slightly different perspective that another year of living brings.

This year, I’m noticing that the story shows how quickly things turn around: from celebration and adoration to arrest and death; from horror at the crucifixion of a beloved teacher to wonder at the empty tomb. The first Easter morning wasn’t yet a triumph, but it brought hope wrapped in mystery. What the disciples thought was over was made open-ended. Despair was replaced with questions that led them to a new place.

In this week of reversals we celebrate the consistent thread running through all of them. Jesus knew who he was and what he was about, regardless of how the world around him shifted. Reality wasn’t determined by the crowd’s response, good or bad, but by his certain connection with God.

He knew his time was limited and he knew what was important. When the world was growing dark he washed his disciples’ feet and shared a meal in a way that remains in our memory today.

Holy Week shows us that everything in the world comes to an end. But we can endure it, knowing that life moves beyond the endings we can see, and that darkness does not have the final word.

Do you find light in this week of darkness? What do you do with Holy Week?

The Real Fight

The hate spilling into public spaces and political discourse in this country feels to me like a flash flood these days. I knew that river was there, but as long as it kept within its banks I could approach warily and life continued as usual. But now bridges are washed out and the angry torrents are sweeping through all kinds of communities.

It’s frightening to see.

All that anger, all that fear, directed at some evil “other,” is a horrendous force. When some other person, or institution, or ideology comes to stand for everything we detest, we lose the ability to think rationally about the dynamic we’re engaged in.

Things become artificially simple when we disregard the humanity of the other person. It unleashes the darkness within us. When that happens, we lose our own humanity and evil prevails. Jesus was truly looking after us, speaking out of love and concern, when he said “Love your enemies.”

We all need to be asking: What’s behind all the anger? What are we really afraid of? When someone in the media really pushes my buttons and I feel the swelling tide that wants to drown them out, what exactly is going on?

The true answers are not the huge concepts, not the vague generalities, but the specific and deeper things. Personal ones. What am I personally afraid of? What is the source of the anger that is mine?

If the enemy is painted large enough to be an easy target, we don’t have to be specific about what we’re fighting, or clear about what we stand for. To really know our enemy we have to understand who we are, and face what lies within us. That is the first fight, and the one that’s necessary for peace.

The Storm that Doesn’t Arrive

The forecasters predicted some serious winter weather this weekend. My plans were in question; falling temperatures were expected to ice the wet roads, followed by an accumulation of snow. I went to bed under a winter weather advisory, wondering if an important event the next day would even be held.

The next morning brought a dusting of snow, the roads were wet but not frozen, and the winter storm I was braced for simply didn’t happen. I felt a little silly for spending the previous evening watching out the window and wondering when the freeze would begin.

My point is not to bash forecasters. They do their work the best they can. The thing is, I knew better than to get caught up in weather-watching.

My own experience has taught me that a lot of winter storm advisories, literal and metaphorical, never come to fruition. And while it doesn’t hurt to be prepared for ice and snow, or challenging days, it doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of time worrying about it.

I know now that a better approach was to simply prepare my talk, be aware that I might need to change my plans, and then allow myself to sleep under blankets rather than advisories. It’s a lesson I want to remember.

Do you find yourself watching for events that might happen? Have you found a way to stop worrying about what might be in store?

Susan Christerson Brown

What Good is the Contemplative to a World in Need?

Again and again, in my own mind and through interactions with others, questions arise about the value of a prayerful interior life—both for an individual and a faith community. In this world where people suffer without clean water or shelter, safety or justice, there is work to be done. The need for tangible, material help is clear; the value of what the contemplative has to offer is less apparent. Prayer stirs us to compassion and action, but is it more than a means to that end? Is spiritual practice important in caring for people in need?

I do know that my quality of life, as well as survival, is shaped not only by physical needs being met, but by relationships and environment. Life is fostered in finding meaning, and a sense of connection to the reality beyond mundane existence. All these elements are necessary not only to sustain life, but to allow the flourishing that permits me to have something to offer another person.

But none of us can focus on everything. We need doctors and nutritionists to share their knowledge of the body. We need scientists and knowledge workers to lend their expertise in solving problems. We need business leaders to provide products and services that make life better for their customers as well as jobs that bolster the lives of their employees.

We need teachers and counselors who understand how people learn and grow to help all of us live fuller, healthier lives. We need artists, poets, and visionaries to show us new possibilities. We need all kinds of people with open eyes and generous hearts to lend their strength in meeting the unmet needs that they encounter, and to help others become part of the effort.

In the midst of challenging lives, we also need the guidance of those who tend the soul. We need spiritual practices carried forward from ancient days and adapted to the times in which we live. We need prayers and meditations from writers who dwell closely with the spirit, and models of community from those who reside together with sacred intention.

I saw this recently in conversation with a generous but severely stressed friend. She is committed to raising her children responsibly, working for a non-profit organization she believes in, volunteering within her community of faith, and giving creative expression to her life through her writing. All of these are important, but her mountain of commitments had become an avalanche. Her ability to give with any sense of peace and purpose depended on reconnecting to the source of life.

Like my friend, we all need the strength that spiritual grounding offers. When everyday demands weigh us down, we need the sense of meaning and wider perspective that comes through a connection with the divine. Those more practiced at cultivating their spiritual life can help.

The contemplative aspect of life fosters all our endeavors. It nourishes the body of believers, feeding the spirit as we go forth to do our work. Spiritual practice is one of God’s callings. Sharing it is a way to love others. It yields gifts that soothe a hurting world, and teachings that are a blessing for all.

How are prayer and service related for you?

Susan Christerson Brown

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King

Listening to a stirring speech from Rev. Tanya Tyler at the Disciples for the Dream service last night, I thought of how the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King is often referred to as Dr. King, but rarely, if ever, Rev. King.  As a culture, it appears that we respect the academic accomplishment more than the mantle of ordination. Yet it was his faith and his relationship with the church that both fueled and sustained his work, providing a source of community and network of support.

Martin Luther King embodied the ideal of an intellectual, spiritual, and activist life coming together in a single, extraordinary individual. Not every person can bring the strength in each of these three areas that he did. But we can join with others to form the beloved community, where together we value clear thinking, deep connection, and heartfelt service. In a community where myriad gifts can find expression, we gain strength from each other. Strength enough to change the world.

In the Wake of a Natural Disaster

The photos and reports from Haiti show a scale of suffering that is painful merely to absorb, much less live through. What can we do? Send money. Pray. Help weave a web of compassion to hold the people there.

I’m supporting the efforts to help through donations to Week of Compassion and Church World Service, who are experienced and effective agents for responding to disasters around the world. Even a dollar helps. For a more tangible means of giving, Church World Service is also in need of hygiene and baby supply kits.

What else can we do?

Perhaps, as in the wake of any disaster, we can practice seeing our own lives more clearly.

  • I’m reminded that my life rests on the relative luxury of counting on water, food, and shelter
  • I’m thankful for the health and safety of my loved ones
  • I’m mindful that it’s having my basic needs met that allows me the privilege of working towards a fuller and more meaningful life
  • I’m grateful for the ability to share the journey of body and spirit with others, and to offer help
  • I’m appreciative of the organizations in place to deliver assistance to people in need

Life is fragile, and we are missing out if we don’t try to make it as rich and good as possible.

The outpouring of concern and support from around the world is a reminder of the human connection that binds us all together. My heart goes out to the people of Haiti, those who have lost loved ones, those who cannot feed and shelter those they love, those who are injured and suffering, those who need some reason to hope.

Sometimes it’s hard to see that we’re all in this together. Sometimes it’s easy.

What’s on your mind as the news reports continue?