Living the Questions

“Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart… Try to love the questions themselves… Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given because you would not be able to live them — and the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answers.” —Rainer Maria Rilke

As I sat down to pen this seasonal reflection a feeling of melancholy was working its mirthless magic on my mood. My “Instrumental Christmas” playlist on Pandora was keen on playing songs to cry to, and the grey sky that hung low on the mountain outside my window further repressed the joy that should be dancing inside me. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas has always been a favorite time of year for me from the time I was a child and still is. My immediate family had a rich heritage of Christmas tradition, involvement in the church, and musical activities, and I have carried on in the same manner as best possible. Alas, much of my family is gone now and the rest live on the other side of this great big state of ours – so trying to recreate what once was just doesn’t have the same effect on the heart. But I have digressed from the story at hand…

In that state of melancholy, I dared make things excruciatingly worse by scrolling through the daily version of The Greatest Story Ever Told, also known as Facebook. After reminding myself that I rarely post about the tragedies going on in my life either, with a heavy sigh, I noticed a message waiting for me. And the rest really is one of the greatest stories ever told – at least in this month in this chapter in the book of my life!

Say what you will about Facebook but through its wonders, I was given a glimpse into the lives of my great grandmother, Emma Wilhelmine Pedersdatter Mørck and great grandfather Frederich Vilhelm Phaff Mørck, from a woman living in North Jutland, Denmark who happened across their photos and records in a family collection she was going through. She was inquiring as to whether I might know who she was as she was not related to anyone in her family. She found me on Facebook after finding my name on our Geni family tree. It turns out this woman is a bit of a genealogy buff and has access to all sorts of records. Denmark kept very good records on its populace and they are readily accessible to the public. – and so, I spent the better part of the weekend learning all about my father’s side of the family’s livelihood in Denmark. My father’s dad, Frederik Mørck immigrated to the US from Denmark around 1910 and was one of the founders of Antelope, MT. He died when my father was just six years old so all we really know is my grandfather’s story of arrival and settlement. It turns out my family in Denmark was quite wealthy and made their mark on Danish society with ownership of large farms and manors, working as merchants, millers, and grocers, and perhaps most importantly as the founders of Carlsberg beer (on my great grandmother’s side)!  That this woman would spend so much time researching my family history is quite something, and we are not even related. She presented me with a wonderful Christmas gift – a whole new perspective on life and my place in this grand timeline we are traveling on. I couldn’t help but wonder if Emma was as ponderous as I am? What did she think of her son leaving the homeland – never to return?

This unexpected gift gave me a new perspective as I reflected on life in the waning days of my 48th journey around the sun and the closing days of a decade that for me, embodied the most dramatic changes to life as I know it than any other decade before. In the last ten years, I found my voice, I took flight and moved west, I ventured into the unknown, I began a new career, I faced down a frightening illness,  death made its presence known with the passing of both my parents and dog all within two years’ time, I bought my first home, I brought a new dog ( a gift from God) into my life, I found and lost love not once but twice, I got married and had a marriage end, and I fulfilled a dream that has carried me through much of this by completing my lay pastoral associate program and becoming an “official” proclaimer of God’s word. And now with this new perspective on my past, I could look at it all through a much broader lens.

Miraculously, I still haven’t spotted a gray hair, but I don’t feel much wiser than I did at the cusp of this life-changing span of years. If anything, I find myself not only full of questions but questioning everything! I seem to have lost the certainty with which I once approached life except for the certain discomfort in the realization that I am not God and I have far less control over what happens in my life than I once thought. The transience of life itself – the impermanence of it all – is so disconcerting that it makes me wonder aloud to God and anyone else who will listen – just what on earth am I here for, anyway?

I know I am not alone in this eternal pondering – that is after all THE question behind every man’s search for meaning. It is what inspired the great thinkers of all time – whose wisdom at least brings a sort of perpetual empathy to our daily struggle, a ray of light into our present darkness.  And I am sure it may have been the inspiration behind my grandfather’s voyage to a new land and new life over a century ago. While I don’t know if he ever found the answers he was seeking, he did find life by living into the questions.

It is easy to let questions of meaning weigh heavy on your heart when an unexpected loss or an unimagined future takes away your certainty in life. Yet time immemorial has proven that despite our best efforts to plan and prepare for the future, we live in the midst of uncertainty and unknowing. But as I wrote last month, life is not diminished by darkness or death, nor is it by uncertainty or the unimagined.  It is made more organic, more wholehearted, more resilient and resplendent. The endless interplay of darkness and light, the dying and rising, the endings and beginnings are signs that everything is forever being made new.

Ten years ago, I could never have imagined the path my life would follow in this journey.  I’m quite certain there are aspects of your life today that you never imagined until suddenly they were a part of your life as well. Some good. Some bad. And yet we live on. The poet John Keats wrote about the difficult work of living with negative capability which is the ability to sustain uncertainty, to live with not knowing, to stand in the mystery, to keep the questions and possibilities open, to embrace ambiguity, to not be too quick to resolve or shut down doubt – and to do all this without running away and trying to escape, without grasping for facts and reason.

Life is unpredictable, unknown, and impermanent, but these very characteristics intensify life, heighten its value, and bring deeper meaning to our days. In the year ahead I am going to focus on living into the uncertain and unknown. Will you join me? It goes against our human nature and won’t be easy, but we can face the unknown in hope and with the promise that through it all we have Emmanuel, God with Us. Our greatest gift – God is with us – in our uncertainty and in our hope, in our unexpected present and our unimagined future. May this assurance live in your heart this Christmas and throughout your days.

A simple prayer for your uncertain days and years:

Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  –The Lutheran Book of Worship

Let your light so shine!

The Beauty Behind You

The day began with so much promise. Up before sunrise with a mountaintop destination in mind, I was filled with pre-hike exuberance. The sunrise confirmed every giddy emotion brewing within me as the long drive grew closer to an end. The forecast was a partly cloudy one with clearing skies by afternoon – a perfect photography setup in my book. A few clouds add interest to the landscape and cut the garish glare of sunlight. As I made my way to the trailhead I could feel the clamber of the world falling silent. I was early enough to have the trail to myself and my heart fluttered with the familiar sense of nerves that solo adventures always bring.

Lakes, waterfalls, rock formations, and plentiful wildlife awaited me and my camera. Morning sun highlighted the mountains and the low clouds that hung on my mountain top destination gave visual interest to the peaks surrounding me. Lakes shimmered in grey, gold, and deep blue hues reflecting the changing sky. I made my way in the soft morning breeze all the while dreaming of the incredible views that awaited me some 9 miles away. Surely the clouds would lift I kept thinking.  Surely the breeze and sunshine will burn them away. But the higher I climbed no such dissipation occurred. Instead, much to my chagrin, the wind seemed to be blowing in even more clouds.

By the time I reached the saddle my summit was invisible. My giddiness was quickly evaporating into a cloud of gloom. Confound it, I stammered to myself with an ache in my throat as I weighed my options. I thought back to my first ascent of her holy heights 3 prior climbs before and the reward of 360 views. Since that epic day in which I vowed to climb every peak I could see from on high, this mountain top has captivated me. Alas, on the next two attempts I was turned away by 60 + mph winds, thunder, and smoke so thick you slice it. This time I was determined to show the mountain who was boss and yet I felt defeated once again. All that work with nothing to show for it. And then I turned and looked back.

But wait! You are not supposed to do that! Not on the mountain and not in life! Boston – my all-time favorite rock band – hit number 4 on the Billboard Top 100 with their second album’s title track “Don’t Look Back” in 1978. One of my favorite theologians and thinkers, C.S. Lewis, in his infinite wisdom wrote: “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”

Psychologists, TED talkers, and pithy Facebook posts give similar advice for those looking to make a success of themselves. “Never look back. Always take the next step forward.” “Don’t look back; you’re not going that way.” “Keep your eyes on the prize.”  “Move on.”

Despite the oft-quoted posit of George Santayana and retro-fitted versions of it, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” conventional wisdom of late urges us to let go of the past and leave it there if we want to make any positive steps forward.

Or perhaps you are more inclined to philosophies of the present –  to live in the now – to embrace the present – to meditate on the moment. Leo Tolstoy wrote: “Remember then: there is only one time that is important – Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power.”  And the ubiquitous Oprah tells us that, “Living in the moment means letting go of the past and not waiting for the future. It means living your life consciously, aware that each moment you breathe is a gift.”

Danish theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote that while life can only be understood backwards it must be lived forwards. I have been working hard to heed such time-spanning wisdom and keep these forward-thinking ideas forefront in my mind during challenging times of late – having been told I spend too much of my brain matter reflecting on what was, contemplating on past regrets and what could have been. Despite my deep faith and trust in the Lord, it is not in my nature to put too much stock in the future. I’ve had too many of my hopes dashed by the potholes of life. Indeed, my life would be much easier to navigate if my faith was as clear and strong as my 20/20 hindsight.

We all have moments in life when our exuberant determination for that which is before us is given a cold shower. When our drive for the summit is dampened by dark clouds of self-doubt. When our confidence is shaken by one too many missteps and it seems no matter how hard we try to move forward, it is a slow journey of one step forward and five steps back. It is tempting to give-in, to stay where we are, in the comfort of what we know – in other words – get stuck – or simply retreat.

Which is where I found myself at that saddle of disappointment below the cloud enshrouded summit. Facing the unknown above me, not being able to see past my hand, I stood bereft and pondered. Would I press forward to the top despite my dampened spirit or once again turn back?

As I turned around with my eyes no longer focused on the destination in front of me, I was stunned by what I saw. The valley below me was bathed in sunlight and I saw how far I had come. I saw how far I had come!!

I was captivated! I was stirred. I was energized by my new perspective and I was oddly motivated to press on!

Up, up, up I climbed with my head quite literally in the clouds. I met a lovely ram and his darlings halfway up and then the clouds really started to get low. My eyes began to play tricks on me and I had moments of doubt when I lost the trail. I pressed on. I was not going to let the weather deny me! Not this time. I saw what I thought was a bear causing my heart to stop – only to go faint with relief when it turned out to be a really fat marmot whose girth was amplified by the fog!! A few times the sun tried to shine turning my surroundings into an ethereal misty white – giving me a glimpse of what it must be like on our way to heaven – only to turn a thick soupy gray again.

Up, up, up I went and suddenly, just like that, I was at the top. While I had arrived – you could have fooled me! The air was strangely still atop the mountain after being buffeted by gale-force winds the entire hike up. The swirling abyss surrounding me seemed to buffer sound and was oddly tempting. Indeed, the thought crossed my mind – one could easily plunge off the edge into the marshmallow world – but I had too much to live for! I had accomplished my goal – thanks to looking back.

When we are stuck in the muck of the present, unsure of how to move forward with dark clouds diminishing the promise of what lays before us, how often do we turn around and see how far we have come?

It is only when we look back on our lives that we can truly comprehend the journey we have been on and give thanks for the important lessons we have learned and the people we have met along the way.

It is those lessons and those relationships that allow us, prepare us, and propel us forward in life even as we do not know what tomorrow will bring – let alone comprehend it. Yes, our past does define us but it doesn’t have to confine you. Who you are today is the product of the experiences you couldn’t comprehend or appreciate yesterday.

If you find yourself unable to move forward in life, I encourage you to take some time to look back and appreciate the beauty behind you. Embracing how far you have come may be just what you need to head out strong for the rest of your journey.

Boston sang it best:

It’s a bright horizon (ooh, and I’m awakin’ now)

Oh, I see myself in a brand new way

The sun is shinin’ (ooh, the clouds are breakin’)

‘Cause I can’t lose now, there’s no game to play

 

I can tell there’s no more time left to criticize

I’ve seen what I could not recognize

Everything in my life was leading me on

But I can be strong, oh, yes, I can

 

I finally see the dawn arrivin’

I see beyond the road I’m drivin’

Ooh, far away and left behind, left behind

Let your light so shine!