I focused on the end of my fingertip, where it met circuitous lines on the crackled pink paper. I tried not to look ahead and how much of the journey remained but centered my attention on where I was on the path in that moment. The pastor played gentle background music for our small group as we explored a paper version of the famed Chartres labyrinth, the narrow channels just wide enough for a pinky.
Some long trails made me feel like I was making progress on the “walk” and others wound back on themselves, veering away from the center. If you’ve ever trekked a labyrinth in prayer (or walked a smaller version with your hands), you know that there is only one path but it is not a straight one. This ancient prayer tool is made of serpentine lines winding in and back out again, helping the pilgrim focus. There is no guessing if you are heading in the right direction, no worries about taking a wrong turn. You can just focus on the walk, focus on the presence of God with you.
As someone who loves to know the plan before I begin, not knowing what lies ahead makes me uncomfortable, even anxious. Somehow in that moment, not knowing where I am going or how long it would take me to get there made me feel free instead—free to trust that I would make it to the center when it was time and back out again safely. I didn’t have to worry about where I was going because I could trust that the maker of the labyrinth had laid it out correctly and the whole goal was to just walk.
As I’ve accepted that I am a good halfway through an ordinary span of life, I have become more profoundly affected by the twists and turns of life. Half of them behind me now, I can look back with insight on a life that has turned out where I supposed it should have, though not without much pain and many unexpected detours along the way. Nothing has turned out the way I imagined it would. But I have the benefit now of looking back and recognizing where God was at work.
My own way has wandered through countless forks and roadblocks. Early in my faith, I met the unexpected moments in life with trite answers and pretended it was enough. I swallowed more well-meaning “when God closes a door he opens a window” answers than I could stomach through the years and they began to rub me the wrong way.
Two distinct moments in my life, I can remember raging back against simple answers to life’s complex twists. Barely three months into my dreamed-of life in the Middle East, already rattled by culture-shock, the call that shredded my insides came. My husband entered the room, his face void of color. I don’t remember much except dropping to the shower floor and wrapping the towel around me to absorb the tears when he told me my father had experienced a “widow-maker,” a massive heart attack. That was 13 years ago this winter and my dad is still with us, but our dream of living overseas is not.
We launched out again, believing we were following God’s particular route laid out before us only to find ourselves again in the wilderness. A shockingly similar call came when we were living in Bangladesh. It was my mom’s voice again on the phone, telling me of my brother-in-law’s ruptured brain aneurysm. The same fears arose inside of me, the same feelings of obligation to my family and the need to be by their sides. The same anger—not at God, but at those who would pin the pain my family was going through on God.
The same words ripped through my throat in those startling incidents a decade apart: “My God did not do this!” When others gave me that, “there, there” look and told me it was all a part of God’s plan or that the Lord was testing our faithfulness, anger surged through me. “God did not give Daniel an aneurysm to test my faith!” Maybe it’s just semantics. Did God cause the suffering? Did God allow it? Was it God’s plan or did Jesus know before the beginning of time that this would happen just this way?
It was during that time that I was reading Kate Bowler’s book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, and a light went on in my soul. The unrest I felt at the easy answers and memorized responses to pain were echoed in the words of the young mother who was diagnosed with stage four cancer. “I can’t reconcile the way that the world is jolted by events that are wonderful and terrible, the gorgeous and the tragic,” she said, “except I am beginning to believe that these opposites do not cancel each other out…Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.”
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to believe the unanticipated can happen. It was that I believed we should expect it. We act surprised when the course diverges, especially when it drives us deeper into the reality of being human—which is that suffering is real, and so is healing. Pain is real, and so is beauty.
I didn’t want to blame God for it or ask someone’s faith to solve it. I wanted to find God inside the wilderness and discover what this could mean not only for my growth, but for the ways in which the contours of our lives intertwined bring us closer to each other. It’s these intersections that show us how to love each other through whatever may come.
“The wilderness has a way of curing our illusions about ourselves and teaching us to depend more and more on God, “ said Marlena Graves in Beautiful Disaster. “When we ﬁrst enter, we’re convinced we’ve entered the bowels of hell. But on our pilgrimage, we discover that the desert drips with the divine. We discover that desert land is fertile ground for spiritual activity, transformation, and renewal.” I think about these words as I pick my finger up off the labyrinth circuit before me.
I look at the computer screen that holds little boxes with a handful of faces inside them, this small group of pilgrims meeting on video chat to learn about the labyrinth together. My sister is one of them. She lives three miles away from me now. Our paths have taken us to places we never imagined: my family back to our hometown from South Asia, hers to becoming the caretaker of a husband who can no longer walk or swallow or leave his bed.
It’s a beautiful thing to embrace this mystery alongside her, this wondering where the passage will take us next and how long it will take to get there. I amble away with the assurance that no matter where the pilgrimage takes us next, the destination is certain. We can trust that we will get there if we just keep walking.