While listening to a hiking podcast recently, I heard a thru-hiker (someone who attempts to hike an entire trail) say the following: “I’d rather be more of a lake than a river.” He made this statement after he’d decided to get clean from drugs and alcohol and “to walk toward Jesus.”
When he got to a town in Maine, he got off the trail temporarily and took two jobs. He didn’t commit to either job long-term, nor did he commit to staying in the city. He just found the place to be welcoming, and he liked the idea of storing up some cash for the time being.
As he shared his story, I kept returning to what he said about preferring to be more like a lake than a river. It’s profound.
A lake isn’t in a hurry. Its waves gently lap at the shore, providing one of the most peaceful sounds known to man. Its water is inviting, rather than intimidating. And the local wildlife feel comfortable enough to glide on the surface or just frolic nearby.
A river, on the other hand, is often in a hurry, picking up debris as it goes. It has to get from Point A to Point B. There’s no time for being still. Its surrounding wildlife has to fight against the current if it hopes to not be carried downstream.
The takeaway for the hiker on the podcast, I think, is that he doesn’t want to be forced down trail by the current. He doesn’t want to be rushed without having time for contemplation. He wants to take time to examine, think, smell, hear, listen and touch. Maybe even journal.
Presumably, when you are on the trail, you are always consumed by getting in X number of miles each day, and what you are going to eat when you get there, and how you are going to make your money stretch to the end.
But when you are a lake, you get to stop when you see something. Maybe you are enamored with a bird’s nest that is hanging on a low branch. You can photograph it or examine it from afar as the mother feeds her babies. Or maybe you see a side trail that leads to a beautiful meadow and decide to take it so you can sit among the flowers and enjoy their aroma without having any concern about getting to the next spot on the trail.
Most of life is a river. We’re tied to a clock. We’re expected to meet certain criteria in our work. Our bills come due at the same time every month. Time marches on and pushes us along, no matter whether we want to or not.
That’s the allure of the trail, at least initially. It’s a chance to step out of the current. But from what I hear and read, if hikers aren’t careful, they end up jumping out of one river and into another one. They aren’t tied to a clock any longer, but they are tied to a calendar (you have to finish before winter). They aren’t tied to bills, but they have to be mindful of stretching their money until the end.
So it makes sense that the hiker on the podcast wants to be a lake, at least for now. I don’t know if he is truly seeking Jesus or just the idea of him. But I do know, generally speaking, that it’s difficult to realize that Jesus has been there all along, especially when we are busy rushing from one task to the next, one mile to the next. We need to sit at his feet, not rush to find him.
I’m an advocate of being more like a lake than a river. But then I often end up stepping into the river's current and letting it have its way with me. Yes, bills have to be paid, and I have to make sure to keep up with my responsibilities, but I need to continue to consciously step out of the current and enter the calm, still waters. For as Psalm 23 says, he leads us beside still waters, not rushing waters.
In June, I called a former neighbor named Jim on the anniversary of his son's suicide.
Jim picked up right away, recognizing my number. It's not that we've talked on the phone all that often. But he must have figured something was up.
"I'm calling because I know it's the anniversary of Tom's passing and I wanted to see how you and Karen [his wife] are doing."
"Oh, that's nice of you," Jim said.
For the next fifteen minutes, we got caught up on everything that's happened since I moved out of the neighborhood in 2018.
Not long thereafter, I got a notification on my phone telling me that a friend's mom had passed away a year earlier, so I called him.
"Hey, Tom. My calendar tells me that this is the first anniversary of your mom's passing. I wanted to call and check on you."
"Wow. Wow. That's something else."
Obviously, he was surprised that I had remembered. But I didn't really. I just make it a habit of putting such anniversaries and important dates in my phone so I will remember.
He went on to tell me that he wasn't really a date guy, but that he was very appreciative of me calling. We spent the next ten or fifteen minutes catching up.
Part of me laments the days when we called one another, rather than sending texts, and part of me is thankful for the new technology.
The part of me that laments our hesitancy to call one another believes we are missing out on a closer connection through tone inflection and just the normal give and take of an actual conversation.
But we're all busy and have different schedules, which makes it hard to talk on someone else's timetable. And that's really what this comes down to, isn't it? Often, we are really only willing to talk to each other on the phone when it's convenient ... for us.
I'm guilty, for sure.
The new norm is to text someone to see if he or she is available to talk on the phone, and we've all adapted to that. Most of us have a handful of friends who don't need to abide by that code, but once you get outside that small circle, it's expected.
How did this layer of protection become the new norm? It has to be more than simply that technology allows it. Have we become more reclusive, less willing to interact with each other?
If you are over fifty like I am, then you lived in such a time when technology didn't allow us to screen calls, so we couldn't do it. When the phone rang, we picked it up.
Of course, robocalls weren't a thing. And telemarketers were far and few between. So it was easier to know that you'd be talking to someone you knew if you picked up the phone back then.
If telemarketers were the turning point, did we allow them to condition us to build in a layer of protection so that by the time caller ID came along, screening calls became the norm?
Has all of this led to increased feelings of loneliness? If your two or three closest friends were on a cruise and didn't have cell service and you felt an extreme sense of loneliness or sadness pressing down on you, could you reach out to other friends via the phone, or would you hesitate (or send a text message first)?
I suspect that most of us would hesitate. I certainly would, mostly because I don't know if the other person would see it as an invasion of his or her privacy. That feels pretty bizarre, given the way I used to pick up the phone and call friends every day, and at all hours of the night.
It's made me feel less connected, and frankly, I don't like that feeling. That sense of being disconnected has led to people not understanding the changes I am going through, and I suspect the same could be said from their perspective.
I don't think that's a good thing.
How do we turn the tide? Maybe it starts with just picking up the phone and calling someone.
My parents divorced when I was eight years old. Afterward, my mom, my sister and I moved to a smaller home in a neighborhood I didn’t know all that well.
When a kid befriended me and took me to a "secret fort" inside some bushes a couple of blocks from my new home, it became my hiding place — the place I could crawl into and nobody could see me. I could think, dream, relax, and frankly, hide from the rest of the world whenever I needed to.
The summer before I started high school, my hiding place was behind my former grade school. I hit a tennis ball against the brick wall back there thousands of times in preparation for upcoming tennis team tryouts.
I had no way of knowing I wouldn’t really need to try out. My high school didn’t have a good tennis team. The coach usually just needed willing participants. I’m glad I didn’t know that, though. The work I put in behind that school was worth it. It was long, hard, sweaty work, but it made me better in every way.
Eight or nine years ago, a friend invited me out to central Nebraska for a fishing excursion over Memorial Day weekend. He had just purchased a small cabin in the woods and I loved everything about the place. Well, except for the lack of running water, the lack of electricity, and the outhouse. Don’t get me started on the outhouse.
You could take maybe fifty steps from the cabin and arrive at the fishing hole you see pictured above. The water was always calm. The trees offered ample shade. And we always caught fish, which is as close to a miracle as possible, given our lack of fishing success elsewhere.
My buddy sold that little piece of paradise a couple of years ago, so I’m looking for a new hiding place. But in reality, I expect it to find me, if I keep my eyes open.
Hiding places are free from distraction, free from judgment and free from expectation. You just show up and it begins to refresh you. Then you think about the Creator of such a place and a sense of wonder and connection with Him washes over you.
day is my fifty-fourth birthday, which means I'm one birthday away from senior citizen discounts. Hey, you have to look at the positives, right?
Much is written about the transition into adulthood. But not nearly as much about the transition to becoming a senior citizen. As I've been thinking about non-milestone number, several thoughts come to mind:
1. I don’t know as much as I used to. In my thirties, I was quite confident in what I believed. But loss, tragedies and other hardships came along and convinced me otherwise. I find myself saying, "I don't know" far more often these days. I'm still certain of some things, like God sending his son to offer us redemption and then going on to prepare a place for the redeemed. And I'm certain of God's sovereignty. Those three truths are pretty solid things to hang my hat on.
2. While I have regrets, I’ve learned not to dwell on them. That doesn't mean I don't need to process them. I certainly do. But my regrets aren't an anchor that weighs me down. They are bigger than speed bumps, though. So what's the right analogy? Maybe I should just refer to them as wrong decisions and leave them at that. All a person can do is learn from his mistakes and move on.
3. We leave behind three things: possessions/money, memories and the way we made others feel. The latter is the most important. Memories are the second most important. As for possessions, not so much. In fact, as I've written about before, possessions often end up in cardboard boxes in someone else's basement, never to be opened again. If I can keep these priorities in the right order, then I'll be happy.
4. Close relationships matter now more than ever — the kind in which you can pick up the phone at 2:00 a.m. and call a person without apologizing. I hope my closest friends know they can call me anytime.
5. Cutting losses is the right thing to do. This isn’t the same thing as giving up when things get difficult. Cutting losses means knowing deep in your gut when it’s time to move on and then having the courage to do it. My pattern has been to hang on for far too long. I don’t have time for that anymore. Well, I never really had time for that, but you know what I mean.
6. Heaven feels more real. When I was young in the faith, I knew that heaven was real but it also felt distant. Now that I’m one year from senior citizen status, it feels more tangible. I find myself paying more attention to the Scripture verses that talk about it, and then daydreaming about what it'll be like.
7. I have a deep desire to finish the Christian life well. I've written a whole book about that, which I’m currently working on an expanded version of, so I won't get into it here.
What’s on your list of things you are thinking about as you get older? What have you changed your mind about or what feels more real now than it did ten years ago?
“You’re a writer?” asked an eighty-year-old homeless man named George over lunch with a group of some of my friends who meet every Friday.
“I am,” I said.
“What do you write?”
“Devotional material, Christmas novellas, essays. Used to be a sportswriter.”
“What do you write about?”
“Love, loss, loneliness.”
“Are you married?”
“Ah, so you’re a ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ sort of romantic?”
“Yeah, I guess I am.”
It took George about thirty seconds to figure me out. His eyesight is failing but his heart sees just fine. That comes from his days as a plumber, he tells my friend Tom, who introduced George to our Friday group. According to George, you have to be able to read people well when you are a plumber. It’s a skill that comes in handy, no matter the profession.
George talks about his younger days in Milwaukee — its great pizza places and how the ones in Omaha pale in comparison. He moved to Omaha from Milwaukee three years ago. He lives in his car now — a car that doesn’t run. So he takes the bus whenever he needs to go somewhere.
The other day, when temperatures were in the nineties, he asked someone to help him push his car down the street so he could be in the shade. The person obliged. The incredible thing is, George doesn’t complain about his lot — at least, not from what I’ve heard. He’d rather offer his opinion about politics or COVID-19 or Milwaukee, and he does so as any learned man might.
Meanwhile, Tom shows him Jesus. He cuts George’s hair, shaves him, takes his clothes to the cleaners, picks him up for Sunday morning worship and asks our Friday group to pray for George. And we do. My prayer is that as George hears us talk about the implications of the gospel that it will cause him to consider them as well, and that ultimately, he’ll have eyes to see and surrender to Jesus. Will you join me in praying for George?