Around the bend, a waterfall

Power. Beauty. Change, often slowly. Calm, eventually.

A meandering stream, gentle and pure. Strength and sound as the river transforms into a waterfall. Then, a peaceful near silence as the river continues on.

Each waterfall is different. Some are wider, some taller, some roar, some are gentle.

As different as we are as people.

A river follows the path of least resistance, heading downhill, away from its source. Sometimes over an unexpected waterfall.

It never remains in the same place.

A big splash

The river of my life flowed smooth for many years. A great job, a healthy family with three growing boys, purpose in life, community involvement, some recreation and exercise … it seemed too good to be true. It was easy, too easy, to just coast through life, engaging but only to a point, then pulling back before wounds were exposed.

cascade park 2

Until a huge waterfall changed the course of my river.

Losing a job I’d had for 24 years will do that.

I’ve written about that before, several times. We’re coming up on the 10-year anniversary of that event this spring. It feels like a lifetime ago, with the river of my life twisting and turning repeatedly. Many of you experienced this as well, in varying degrees.

My life sometimes feels out of control, emotionally anyway, heading downstream to an eternal destination that features “the river of the water of life” (Rev. 22:1). It’s easy to get caught up in the struggles of this world and lose sight of what it’s all about.

Shortly before we left Rockford, Ill., I visited the Anderson Japanese Gardens there. It was peaceful, with meandering streams and soothing water formations that the Japanese love. It provided a momentary calm in the months before we moved to Elyria, Ohio, during the last polar vortex five years ago.

In Elyria the stream of my life has taken a couple more abrupt turns. After my 24-year job ended, I never held a job more than 2.5 years (twice). One job lasted eight weeks. I’m now retired, although it still seems funny to say that because I’m “only” 58 years old. (My dad retired younger than that, actually, so maybe it’s not so unusual.)

Hard to see the future

days dam 2

I took one waterfall photo through trees.  I should have known the camera would focus on the branches and leave the waterfall blurry. I thought about going back there and re-taking the photo, but decided not to.

Sometimes the storms of life are blurry, aren’t they? We don’t see them coming. We don’t know why. We feel the fall, then the hard splash of the river as it crashes into the pool at the base of the waterfall.

We submerge, and wonder if we will ever resurface.

We eventually do, don’t we?

But we resurface in a new place, a different place. We are changed.

We didn’t ask for change, but it came anyway.

Some changes are exciting. Some are not. Some are big and powerful. Others are more languid.

Each of us experiences the wide range of powerful and calm, the river always moving, always going somewhere, never static, never staying in the same place.

Some of us travel farther than others do, but all of us travel.

That’s what rivers do.

Can any of us see where we are going? Really see?

I don’t think so.

The greatest adventure

mill stream run 1

Yes, we see heaven, for those of us headed that way. (It’s a destination worth pursuing for everyone.)

But on Earth, the journey to get there … we often can’t see around the next bend.

I hear sermons and speeches sometimes that say the Christian journey should be the most exciting path to travel.

It should be. Jesus offers adventure like no one else does. Serve orphans and widows. Take our faith to different lands, or to the next-door neighbor. Meet the needs of others. Pray. Worship. Don’t accumulate worldly possessions for their own sake, but to share with others. And so on.

So often the waterfalls in our lives aren’t those types of adventures. We tend to fall over them, rather than willingly jump into them. If we would jump into a waterfall of our own volition, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a tall one, with such a painful landing.

How prepared are we for life’s falls, twists and turns? They’re inevitable, so why does no one help us navigate them?

O but the Bible does. It’s all in there, really.

I still fall hard because my faith isn’t what it should be. Just because I read the Bible doesn’t mean I’m prepared for life’s waterfalls, big or small, clear or blurry. What do I do with the information I learn? In the words of a preacher, how do I apply it?

During this week’s polar vortex here in Ohio, a friend who has school-age children collected food for dozens of children who might otherwise go hungry because they get their best meal of the day in school. She organized that food collection in her kitchen spur-of-the-moment, and gave groceries to more than a dozen families as well. Not for her own self-satisfaction, but because she saw a need and decided to fill it.

That’s adventure. That’s faith in action.

If the world saw more Christians doing stuff like that, perhaps we’d be more likable, more believable, more like a river worth jumping into.

Even in the middle of winter.

Finding passion in the midst of constant change

Nothing lasts on Earth. Nothing at all.

Is that a good thing?

Depends on your outlook.

If you are adventurous, you like doing new things all the time. You create change. Things that last probably bore you.

If you prefer security, commitment and long-term involvement, then change gets in the way. You might even fear it.

What if change comes, and you wish it wouldn’t?

I’m finding it hard to remain committed to much of anything these days. Maybe I have some secret anger, a restlessness, an insecurity, an impatience with something that keeps me from things that last.

Perhaps it’s none of those things. Perhaps this is just the way life is.

Short-term volunteering

For example, I enjoy mentoring elementary-age students through local schools. Many children these days need a good male role model. If I can help, I enjoy doing that.

Our church in Saginaw, Mich., partnered with the elementary school across the street, and that’s where I first got involved. I showed up at lunchtime and played games with the student, ate lunch with him, and gave him encouragement. Sometimes I helped him with homework that he didn’t finish in the morning.

That lasted a couple of years, until we moved to Rockford, Ill. A month or two after we moved there, I found a reading program through Rockford Public Schools. That winter/spring and the following fall, I spent an hour in a classroom, reading with four students whom the teacher sent to me in 15-minute segments. I assisted them with words they had trouble pronouncing, and I helped with their comprehension – do you understand what you are reading?

We moved away after a year to Elyria, Ohio. I found a lunchtime mentoring program at Midview Schools in nearby Grafton. After a year, that program disappeared and I never heard from the school district again.

So I connected with Greater Cleveland Volunteers, which introduced me to My Mentor My Friend, a lunchtime mentoring program at four elementaries in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.  I picked the school on the west side of Cleveland (the other three schools all were on the east side), and mentored three students there in a little more than a year.

Trying to make a difference

My first student there moved away in the summer. My second student, probably a loner like me, seemed uncomfortable with the one-on-one attention and dropped out of the program. My third student also moved away this summer.

That’s the lifestyle of the typical low-income inner-city student. Many live with one parent, or in the case of one of my students, with Grandpa. The parent often rents and moves across town frequently. My last student told me his dad got a job in Arizona, and he was planning to move out there to be with him. Dad said Cleveland was too violent. The student had anger management issues and it wasn’t unusual for him to be on suspension when I showed up to mentor.

Did I make a difference? Only God knows. I will never see the long-term results of any student I have mentored thus far, in any district in any state.

That’s just the way it is.

And now, My Mentor My Friend lost its United Way funding and has ended.

The Cleveland school district might keep the mentoring program going on its own. We’ll see. I’m also looking into another mentoring program in Lorain, which is nearer to my home. Either way, it’s another new start.

Elyria City Schools doesn’t have a mentoring program, a teacher there told me recently, because of the work involved to set up and administer such a program. I get that. When a man wants to work with children, red flags go up, don’t they?

At each school district, I had to pass a background check. In Cleveland, I also faced two interviews, fingerprinting and had to provide references – as intensive as any job interview I’ve had.

A year and a half later, is it all for naught?

Where’s the passion?

I’ve had trouble keeping jobs long-term as well. I had one job that lasted eight weeks. The job in Rockford lasted 14 months. My first job here in Elyria lasted 13 months. My next job lasted 2.5 years, but I got burned out. Without going into details, that job is over too.

I enjoy volunteering in the community. Mentoring, yes, but doing other things as well.

It’s me and God now. I no longer answer to a supervisor.

Will I find work again? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Financially, we are doing well.

And, as I said, I’m burned out. Impatient. Perhaps angry.

I have no home on Earth. I’ve felt that way for a long time.

The Rev. Doug Mater, who is the current pastor of a former church where we worshipped and served, wrote the following in a church newsletter earlier this year:

 

How often do we let our God-given strengths go to waste? We spend so much time trying to overcome our limitations by doing things we are not equipped to do. On the contrary, we should consider our special talents for ministry and focus on doing these things better, asking ourselves if we are trying to do something that we are not equipped to do, just for the sake of thinking I need to be different. …

We must continue to be the best we can at these talents so that others will see us as Christians who care about others and want them to share in the joy that we have in Jesus Christ. So, I ask you to look at your talents and keep practicing them. … Let us excel for God with the talents He has given us for his glory.

 

That’s a great message. Often we focus on our weaknesses and try to get better. Or take a job, any job, just to meet the budget.

Instead, we should emphasize our strengths and do them with passion.

What am I “equipped to do?” Do I have any “special talents?” How can I “excel for God?”

As I face yet another transition in my life, this is a good time to ponder such questions.

The journey continues.

The journey and the destination

Is it about the journey or the destination?

A friend posted this scenic saying the other day about the journey, and I questioned it. I said life is about both – the journey and the destination. If there’s no destination, what’s the point of the journey?

My friend’s response:

 

So can you tell me what your destination is? And once you get there, then what? I know I have goals set to get me places, but the goals will never stop; otherwise I wouldn’t feel like I was growing as a person. Therefore, I don’t really have a destination because it’s so much bigger than that.

 

I see what she’s getting at. I have goals as well that will never stop. Even if I achieve a goal, others will remain. That’s how we grow as individuals. I’m with her 100 percent on that.

But the destination is the big picture. We need to think big thoughts sometimes. What is our purpose? What are we doing on this Earth, anyway?

A goal is a desired outcome. A destination is a place where someone is going.

We can have many goals. But where are we going?

John Maxwell, a leadership expert I respect greatly, offers this perspective:

 

What matters more, the journey, or the destination? If you only focus on the journey, you lack direction and motivation, and if you focus solely on your destination, you can miss the life lessons and memories along the way. Plus, you often discover through your journey that your final destination isn’t exactly the same as it was when you started.

 

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-journey-you-john-c-maxwell?trk=v-feed&lipi=urn%3Ali%3Apage%3Ad_flagship3_feed%3Bhg6PJcNa16FIVgVp5FKDOQ%3D%3D

Interesting. The destination of our lives may change as we continue the journey, Maxwell claims. As we experience life, we discover new paths and journeys – and perhaps a new place where we want to go.

For most of my adult life, my journey was smooth and relatively easy. I had a secure job that paid the bills with money left over, my wife and I raised three healthy and active sons, we all were involved in a few extracurricular activities – life was full, fun and worth living.

Then, as our boys were heading off to college, my job was eliminated. Since then, I’ve held six jobs in seven years in three states.

The journey got bumpy.

god's plan

I never would have met the friend I quoted at the start of this article if my life had not taken those unexpected twists and turns.

 

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. (1 Cor. 9:24)

 

Every runner runs to win the race (unless you’re in the Boston Marathon, in which case you’re just trying to finish – when the finish line becomes the destination).

My friend poses an interesting question: Once I get to my destination, then what? When I reach the finish line, what comes next?

Her first question gets to the heart of the matter: Can you tell me what your destination is?

I can.

My destination is heaven. As long as I am alive on Planet Earth, I won’t get there. So there’s no chance of reaching my destination while I’m still on this journey.

Why, then, pursue an unattainable place?

Because the destination is attainable. Just not in this life. And if I don’t pursue heaven, I won’t get there.

 

Therefore, my dear friends … continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. (Philippians 2:12)

 

This doesn’t mean I have to earn salvation. No, salvation is a gift from God. But if I am “saved,” then my life will reflect it. My goals will change. My journey will take a different – and better and more meaningful – course.

I have to pursue God continually.

 

Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? (Romans 6:1)

 

This earthly life is not about me. I’ve written about that previously in this blog. I am a tiny piece of the puzzle that God is putting together. But God thinks I’m an important piece, worth having around.

This is true for you too.

The least we can do in response to God’s love – even when those closest to us hurt us, or even when we don’t feel worthy of God’s love – is to say thanks and try to do things He would enjoy. That’s the way we treat those we love on this Earth, isn’t it? We try to do things they enjoy.

This is the journey.

The destination is to live not only for God, but with God.

The alternative?

To live without God. Ever.

There’s no middle ground. We might think there’s a purgatory or something like that, but there isn’t. God is tapping on our hearts. We say yes or no.

That determines our ultimate destination.

We can’t pursue anything bigger than that. Destinations we pursue here on Earth will end someday. Each of us will die one day. That’s a guarantee.

We don’t like to think about that, but the end is coming. Hopefully later rather than sooner, but …

Maxwell profiled a husband and wife who spent a lot of time studying their purpose in life. They offer this conclusion:

 

To those starting out on their own personal journey to find their purpose, the couple gave this advice: “Know that this is your journey. It’s a path to follow, not a destination. Once you realize that you are on a journey of your own, you can stop comparing yourself to others and celebrate their wins, knowing that yours are coming. Someone else winning helps you, it doesn’t take away from you. There is more than enough for all of us to win.” Are you winning in your life right now? Or are you too busy comparing your life to others and feeling let down? The journey, and the destination, are yours to choose.

 

Enjoy the ride. Pursue your destination. See you at the finish line.