Look to the heavens and see; And behold the clouds (Job 35:5)

“Bows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere, I’ve looked at clouds that way
But now they only block the sun they rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all”.

The study of clouds is of no small practical importance to numerous people – meteorologists, farmers, sailors and aviators; but among all the cloud-gazers one group of people in society observe the clouds with greater philosophical interest than any other – the poets. All the great poets from Browning, Coleridge, Kipling and Longfellow to Shakespeare, Shelley, Tennyson and Wordsworth along with so many others down through the ages have had their head in the clouds, figuratively speaking. The poet/author who wrote the book of Job exhorts the reader to, “Look to the heavens and see; And behold the clouds.” So it is reasonable to ask what can be learned by beholding the clouds. While we may not have given it much thought, clouds also permeate the scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. Since that is so, it is good for us to contemplate the subject. We should look at clouds from both sides now, that is to say, in both a literal sense and also a figurative sense.

Consider, if you will, the presence of clouds. One of the things that I love about the autumn is the arrival of the first cool breeze that sweeps away the heat and the haze and the humidity of the late summer. With that refreshing breeze come those distinctive, fluffy white clouds that scurry across the sky and instantly I am caught up and carried back across time and ocean to days gone by. Once more, I am sitting on top of a hill, watching similar clouds as they move across the English countryside, casting their shadows across the patchwork quilt of fields below – some now bathed in sunshine, some now blanketed by shadows. The landscape doesn’t change – but the presence or absence of the sunshine makes a world of difference to the way we view things. And isn’t that an allegory, or picture, of the troubles that come into our lives? They can affect our view of God and our relationship to Him if we look only to our present circumstances. As I look out across the landscape of my life and those who I know and love, I am reminded that clouds have, at one time or another cast their shadows over many of us. The loss of a loved one; divorce; sickness; financial problems; job loss – all of these are clouds in our life.

The presence of clouds, speak to the trials of life. Again, going back to Job, we read: “For affliction does not come from the dust, nor does trouble spring from the ground; yet man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward.” Imagine Job and his friends sitting under the stars at night, around a fire, while he contemplates the calamities that have befallen him and his household – the loss of his children, the loss of his earthly treasures and the loss of his health. As he stares into the fire, numbed by the shock of all that has happened to him, someone stirs the fire to add another log and the sparks dance their way up into the dark night sky while those words lay heavily on his heart; “man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward”. The clouds of life are a given – as surely as we draw breath we will face troubles.

Ponder these words penned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, entitled “The Rainy Day”:

“The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

“My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

“Be still, sad heart, and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.”  

Not only do the presence of clouds speak to the trials of life but they also speak to the transience of life. If we revisit Job sitting around the fire we find him lamenting: “Terrors”, he says, “Terrors are turned upon me; They pursue my honor as the wind, And my prosperity has passed like a cloud”. Riches are fleeting, indeed. Where is our confidence placed for the future? Are we feeling comfortable with our savings and investments; with our career plans; with our retirement strategy? Do we look to our political leaders for direction and hope? But what about Job – didn’t he have every right to feel confident about the future? He was healthy, wealthy and wise. He was well respected in his community. His children brought no shame to his household. He helped the helpless and he served the Lord. And yet calamity upon calamity fell on him leaving him a broken and destitute man who wished he had never been born. His reputation evaporated along with his health and wealth.

And how often did Jesus refer to the fleeting nature of human existence? Recall, if you will, the parable of the Rich Fool. His land was fruitful, his barns were filled to capacity and he had more than he knew what to do with. But just like Job, calamity was about to befall him and he didn’t see it coming: “Soul”, he says to himself, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink and be merry”. “Fool”, God replies, “Fool! This night your soul will be required of you”. Again, recall that Jesus likens our lives to the morning mist, which disappears with the rising sun and as grass, which withers and is thrown into the fire. How transient, indeed, our lives are and how often our plans are turned on their head when clouds overshadow our lives.

When considering the presence of clouds we should also consider the process of cloud formation. Sometimes the build-up of clouds is a gradual thing and you have time to anticipate the coming storm. I recall, many years ago, watching the company that I worked for slowly die. I was anxious, and nervous about the probability of being unemployed. It was like watching a little cloud on the horizon steadily grow into a menacing storm cloud as it moved toward me. I could see it coming and there was no way to avoid it – no way to escape from it. And that’s often the way it is in life. Perhaps it’s an unusual little lump you find in your body, or some other irregularity that creates anxiety, or the announcement by the doctor that your loved one has early indications of some disease that will slowly cause their vitality to seep away. The prognosis isn’t good and the long term outlook is bleak – the storm clouds are gathering. Or maybe it’s a problem child or a wayward spouse that’s breaking your heart. You see them heading for disaster but you can’t turn them away from the course they are on. And the clouds grow steadily darker until, finally, the storm breaks upon you.

But, sometimes, the clouds are upon you before you know it. When I was 14 years old, I was in the Air Training Corp (the equivalent of an air force ROTC) and we went off to summer camp at an RAF station in Devon in the southwest of England. One of our activities was a day on the moors, conducting an orienteering exercise. We were dropped in teams at various locations and given a map and compass and a destination point to get back to. First team back won the competition. Well, the moors of England are renowned as a wild and desolate place and the weather is extremely fickle. We started out on a beautiful, clear morning, but suddenly around midday thick clouds rolled in off the ocean and completely enveloped us in their swirling mists in a matter of minutes. It was so thick that we had to travel in single file holding the edge of the cape of the person in front of us while the leader continued to follow the compass heading. Had we not kept in physical contact, we would have been separated and lost. But, after a while, those clouds departed as quickly as they had come and we found ourselves back in the sunshine once more.

Sometimes, when the clouds of life are upon us before we know it we think we are alone, abandoned by God in the midst of our trials; but recall, once more, the words of Longfellow: “Behind the clouds, is the sun, still shining.” It is true to say that you could not see the clouds if the sun was not shining behind them. It’s a wonderful illustration of God’s sovereign control over all things.

So after having considered the presence and the process of clouds, what then, one might ask, is the purpose of clouds? One of the first things we have to realize is that God owes no one an explanation for what He chooses to allow in our lives. Poor old Job – all he wanted was an opportunity to plead his case before God and yet the heavens were like brass to his prayers. He argued with his friends, he justified himself. He emphasized his own righteousness based on his good works and he couldn’t understand why he was suffering while the wicked were enjoying the luxuries of life and ridiculing him. “Why?” he asks, “Why? Why is this happening to me?” And don’t we do the same thing? Yet listen to these words from the King James translation of Job 36:32, “With clouds he covereth the light; and commandeth it not to shine by the cloud that cometh betwixt.” With clouds He covers the light, and He commands it not to shine, by the cloud that comes between. Between what? Between us and God. Between heaven and earth. God places the cloud there for a purpose.  He causes the sun not to shine on us for a season. Why? The answer to that question can only be found by looking back from the vantage point of having gone through the storm – and maybe not even then. But consider Job 37:13, “He causes it to come, Whether for correction, Or for His land, Or for mercy.” What is the “it”, to which he refers?  The rains bound up in the clouds, of course.

Let us consider the three reasons given.

For correction – did He not use the rains to cleanse the earth of the wicked in the days of Noah?

For His land – listen to these verses from Deuteronomy 11:11 – “but the land which you cross over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water from the rain of heaven”, and v.14,15 – “then I will give you the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your grain, your new wine and your oil.  And I will send grass in your fields for your livestock, that you may eat and be filled.”

For mercy – think back to Elijah and to the drought and severe famine brought on the land by the sin of the people. Then think of the rain, which came to a parched and barren land after three years of judgment. But also when we think of mercy, consider the cloud that covered Israel and led them for 40 years while they wandered in the wilderness.  That’s mercy.

In the desert there are seldom any clouds. And where there are no clouds, there is no rain. And where there is no rain there is no growth. No growth? Who would want to live in a barren and parched land where there is no growth? And yet that is what we are seeking for our lives when we desire to avoid the clouds of life. Consider the Apostle Paul’s words to the Roman church: “We also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.  Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” What are tribulations?  Are they not, simply, the clouds of life. Is it not, then, for our ultimate good that God allows the clouds into our lives?

img_7105“The sunset”, as one of my favorite authors – F.W. Boreham says, “The sunset is not the glory of the sun, it is essentially the glory of the clouds.  When the west is a pageant of fire, when earth and sky and sea melt into a riot of crimson and violet and gold, it is the clouds that most deserve our admiration.  As though they cannot bear to let it go, the clouds catch the dying sunshine and hold it, even after the sun has vanished from our sight.  They toss it to each other until every feathery fragment and fleecy tatter is ablaze.” He goes on to say; “When the sun sinks behind the clouds and appears through the vapor like a ball of fire, it is possible to behold it with steadiness and comfort.  You see the sun through the tapestry of the clouds as you can never see it in its unveiled splendour”. A clouded life, he therefore reasons, is a life of revelation. Men cannot look upon the sun when it is bright in the skies. Ah, but when it passes behind the clouds, that’s another story!

I walked a mile with Pleasure,
She chattered all the way,
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.

I walked a mile with Sorrow,
And ne’er a word said she;
But, oh, the things I learned from her
When Sorrow walked with me!

The clouded life, then, is one that can reflect the glory of God’s Son. It is a life through which God reveals Himself, in a way that we don’t otherwise see, when the skies are clear and the sun is shining.

So, having looked at the presence, the process and the purpose of clouds; let me conclude by looking at the promise of clouds. Acts 1:9-11, in speaking of Jesus’ ascension, tells us, “He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.  And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel who also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven?  This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” As we read in Matthew 24:30, “And they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”

Revelation 21:1-4 declares, “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.  Also, there was no more sea.  Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, ‘Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” There will be no more clouds in the life of the Christian; for they will have fulfilled that which they were sent to accomplish.



A Light In The Dark

Luminescent lightning bug
Lingering on the lawn,
Lighting up the dark of night
Until the break of dawn.

When one think of summer nights, and perhaps more so from childhood, one tends to conjure up images of those magical yellow-green flashes of light flitting around the garden or through the woods.  Glow worms, we called them as children.  Fireflies to many, but lightning bugs here in the South.  Surely they are the inspiration for those mystical creatures, the fairies; and didn’t Tinkerbell light up in J.M. Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’?  Who hasn’t tried to capture that magic in a glass jar at some point in time?  Perhaps we grabbed a dusty old jar from a shelf in the garden shed and set out in hot pursuit of the magical lights.  Sadly, our efforts got us a few glowing insects and the magic was lost, but can the magic be contained in an earthly vessel?  Perhaps so.

Frank Delaney, a master storyteller if ever there was one, says in ‘Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show’ that “Most men have three lives, public, private and secret.”  There is a great deal of wisdom and truth to that statement.  A man’s reputation is his public life – his work ethic, his skill, his standing in the community, his generosity and his attitude towards others.  His private life is how he is known by his friends and family – by those who see behind the image he projects in public.  Ah, but the secret life – therein lies the rub!  For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him?  And are we not masters at deceiving ourselves?  How easily we justify faults in ourselves that we would be (are?) critical of in others. Sometimes bonhomie and generosity are used to hide the true character of a scoundrel while at other times it could just as easily be the outward appearance of piety that hides a similarly wicked heart.  How often gossip is cloaked in piety and called “sharing”!

As Elie Wiesel said, “We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.” Or, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago: “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.”

It used to be that to describe someone as a “crackpot” was to label them as eccentric, but the truth of the matter (if we are honest with ourselves) is that we are all rather defective – we are all cracked pots, aren’t we?  Notwithstanding our obvious flaws, we don’t have to remain on the shelf, so to speak.  There is, as C.S. Lewis would say, a deeper magic at work in the universe.  For those earthen vessels that house the God presence are like those dusty jars containing the lightning bugs.  Unlike the fireflies, however, the light doesn’t flicker – it burns steadily and although the condition of the vessel often obscures the light within, still it burns.

To carry the analogy further, the private life of man is often like those fireflies trapped in a jar emitting brief sparks of magical light.  We will never truly shine until we are freed from these earthen vessels and know true freedom, but in the meantime we should glow as much as we can – “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

The Wings Of The Morning

In keeping with the theme of my last post (flying and literature), I thought to share my favorite (or should I say favourite?) F.W. Boreham essay.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

The Wings of the Morning

From “The Golden Milestone” by F.W. Boreham

first published October 1914


I AM sitting here at the open window with my foun­tain-pen for company. It is one of those delicious evenings that so often follow upon the heels of a hot and trying day. My window faces the west, and the giant form of Mount Wellington towers up before me. It seems only a few moments ago that I came to this very window on rising, just to look at the mountain and see what kind of a day it was going to be. It was morning then. It is evening now. But where has that morning gone? It was here a few hours ago. It is here no longer. It must be somewhere. Give me its latitude and longitude. Where is it? Ah, to be sure, yonder it flies! Mount Wellington stands out bravely against a glowing sky. The clouds above its head are a moving pageant of purple and gold. There goes my morning! Away over there the sun is rising upon some other scribbler, whilst he leaves me here in the gloaming. If only I could follow, skipping over the ranges and leaping across the seas, I should see him at this very minute lighting up the old familiar scenes that I know so well. He is gilding the windows of the dear old home; he is sending the bees from the hives under the wall to the roses over the door and the lavender down the garden. He is looking down, too, on the school that will presently buzz with the same old drone of lessons, and upon the playground that holds wondrous secrets if only it could speak! Yes, the sun is vanishing over the mountain, but he is taking my morning to the old folks at Home. I am left here in the dark. In a few moments I shall have to light the gas, draw down the blinds, and leave the open window. My morning, that seemed so fair and fresh and invigorating, is gone, gone, gone; but it is pleasant to think that it is over there, and that those I know so well are revelling in its radiance.

Sitting here and losing myself in a lazy reverie like this, it occurs to me that it was this selfsame beautiful phenomenon that gave us one of the loveliest phrases in our literature. For I am not the first man since the world began who has sat watching the sunset and wondering what had become of his morning. The Jews used to do the same thing thirty centuries ago. They watched the glowing sun sink slowly into a crimson sea, and wondered upon what strange lands its beams now shone. The morning had flown. It had taken wing. It was away over there, over there, over there! And, in a fine transport of poetic rapture, one of their poets fancied himself flying after it and gazing upon the wilds where now it rested. ‘ If I take the wings of the morning,’ he cried ecstatically, ‘if I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall Thy hand lead me, and Thy right hand shall hold me.’ As I sit here tonight thinking of the morning that has so soon left me and flown to other lands, and as I wish that I could borrow its wings—the wings of the morning— and follow in its wake, it adds a fresh charm to the cool of the evening to reflect that exactly the same sentiment surged through the soul of Israel’s sweetest singer one summer’s evening many, many years ago. Like me, he longed for the wings of the morning; and, by some strange magic, our very longing seems to give us wings more powerful than those we yearned for, and we cross, not the seas but the centuries, and enter into very pleasant fellowship

We have all smiled at the old story of the boy who set out to find the pot of gold that was said to be hidden at the foot of the rainbow. The beautiful bow eluded him as he clambered up the hills and scampered down the valleys. And although he never came upon the jar of precious metal, it was wonderful how much he gained in the course of his quest. We have smiled, I say, at the story; but it is the history of the world in miniature. It is Herodotus and Caesar, Grote and Gibbon, Carlyle and Freeman, Hume and Macaulay, all condensed into the compass of an exquisite picture. For, when you come to think of it, what is the difference between looking at the rainbow and then setting out to find the pot of gold, and looking at the sunset and starting off to find the vanished morning? And, ever since our little race began, men have watched their mornings receding over the horizon each evening, and have felt their fancy stirred beyond endurance by the thought of the unknown lands to which that departing dawn had flown. And, like the boy in search of the foot of the rain­bow, they have pushed their little vessels out into the tossing western seas in their effort to follow the dying gleam and track the retreating daybreak. The mind of man loves to be teased and taunted by such things. I knew a little maiden, years ago, whose brother left home on a long holiday. At length the day arrived when Arthur was to come home, and Jessie was to go to meet him. As soon as it was light, the little maid was wide awake, clapping her hands in her excitement.

‘Whatever is wrong with you, Jessie?’ her mother asked. ‘Why don’t you lie down and go to sleep?

‘Oh, I can’t go to sleep, mother,’ Jessie replied; ‘Arthur’s coming home!’

‘But that’s nothing,’ the mother reasoned; ‘Arthur teases you, you silly girl!’

‘Oh, yes, mother,’ Jessie admitted, ‘but I love to be teased’

I am inclined to think that poor artless little Jessie was speaking, not for herself alone, but for the whole wide world; only she had more candour and less reserve than characterizes most of us. If, like her, we blurted out the whole truth, we should confess that we dearly love to be teased. We love the mountains that dare us to scale them; we love the seas that challenge us to cross them; we love the Poles that proudly defy our approach. These are the things that have teased the fancy of Man and lured him to his finest exploits. We owe more than we can tell to the wings of the morning. ‘Westward the course of empire takes its way!’ exclaimed Bishop Berkeley two centuries age. But why? Why has civilization always moved towards the sunset? Why did it pass from Asia to Europe, from China to Persia, from Persia to Assyria, from Assyria to Greece, from Greece to Rome, from Rome to Britain, and spread from Britain across to America?

It was simply because men were lured round the world in pursuit of the vanishing mornings. ‘After the morning!’ they cried, and pursued the setting sun. They could not bear to think in the summer evenings that the morning now played on lands which they had never seen. And so they took the wings of the morning and set out for the West. And thus it came about that the morning, moving westward, across sea and land, drew men on and on and on until the entire globe had been girdled and the whole world won. The moon may draw the tides in her train; but the morning leads the nations on. Civilization has marched through the ages to the watchword of ‘Westward Ho!’. Man has always been hunting the morning.

It is getting darker now, and I can scarcely see to write. But as I watch the last faint tints die away from the leaden clouds about the mountain, I find it good to reflect that my sunset means some other’s sunrise. The morning is over there, and somebody is revelling in its sweetness and saying that it is good to be alive. And here am I in the dusk. And so, all unsuspecting, I stumble upon something substitutionary, something vicarious, something like a sacrament, in these fading, flickering hues about the mountain’s brow. I am plunging into darkness that some one else may enjoy the day. I am feeling it chilly and cold that some one else may laugh in the glorious sunshine. I am about to lie down and abandon myself to sleep, Death’s own twin sister, that some one else over there in the land of the morning may wake up and feel the rush and riot of new life surging tumultuously through every vein. If only I can manage to remember this, it will often cheer me in the darkness. Have I lost my beautiful morning? It is bathing some other face in sunshine. Is my day waning? Some other is waxing. The old leaves fall off only because the new buds are pushing their way through. ‘I must decrease,’ cried John the Baptist bravely, ‘but He must increase!’ And that fine philosophy, if only I can make it my own, will help me, even when my last sun sets, to greet the unseen with a cheer.

Yes, to greet the unseen with a cheer. For God is the God of the unseen, the unknown, the unex­plored. That is what David saw in the sunset thirty centuries ago, although I am so gross that I fear I should never have noticed it. Follow the morn­ing; and to whatever barren rock or coral reef or sylvan isle or spreading continent it may lead you, you will discover Jesus standing as of old upon the shore; ‘If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall Thy hand lead me.’ What a comfort that has been to all our pioneers and pathfinders. There lies before me an ancient map of the world, which an old pilot showed to King Henry VII in the year 1500. All over the unexplored territory I find written ‘Here be dragons,’ ‘Here be demons,’ ‘Here be sirens,’ ‘Here be savages that worship devils,’ and so on. But David wrote across the whole of the unexplored, ‘Here is God!’ And David’s version has proved, after all, to be very much nearer to the truth. I have had the great honour of holding two pastorates—one in New Zealand and one in Tasmania. In New Zealand no name is more honoured than that of Bishop Selwyn; in Tasmania none is more cherished than that of Sir John Franklin. Now here is a striking and impres­sive coincidence! When young Selwyn landed in New Zealand, that country was the land of the Maori, and the Maori had the reputation of being the most ferocious of cannibals. The youthful Bishop looked around upon a land of volcanic wonders and of the most unusual vegetation. When Sunday came, he conducted his very first service in the new land. Turning for a moment from the natives to his white companions, he exclaimed, ‘A great change has taken place in the circumstances of our natural life; but no change which need affect our spiritual being. We have come to a land where not so much as a tree resembles those of our native country. All visible things are new and strange; but the things that are unseen remain the same.’

And he took as the text of that first sermon in New Zealand these very words: ‘If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall Thy hand lead me!’ He had found the land on which the sun shone after it had set in England; he had reached the land of his long-lost mornings; and he discovered to his delight that, whenever the morning broke on those strange scenes, Jesus invariably stood on the shore.

And now for Sir John Franklin! Sir Francis Leopold McClintock, away in Arctic seas, found a boat-load of bones, representing all that remained of Sir John Franklin and his gallant companions. And with the bones there were Bibles. And in one of those Bibles these same words were marked and underlined: ‘If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall Thy hand lead me.’ The wings of the morning took Selwyn to the far South, and the wings of the morning took Franklin to the far North, but when­ever a morning broke on those new and strange horizons Jesus was in His old place. ‘When the morning was come Jesus stood on the shore.’  You may steer your craft to what land you will, but you will always find Him there.

I was reading the other day the Life of Andrew Fuller, by his son. One of the most affecting pages relates to the great man’s prodigal son, Robert. To the unspeakable grief of his father, Robert ran away to sea, and died off Lisbon in 1809. In a sermon preached on the Sunday after the receipt of the mournful news, the good man seemed to take great comfort from the words, ‘If from thence thou shalt seek the Lord thy God, thou shalt find Him.’ ‘Some,’ he said, ‘are far from home, and have no friend in their dying moments to speak a word of comfort, but He is near. When Jonah was compassed about by the floods, when the billows and the waves passed over him, he prayed to the Lord, and the Lord heard him.’ Here Mr. Fuller gave vent to his feelings, and many who knew his dark secret wept with him. Later and fuller intelligence proved that the father had been speaking almost prophetically, for, during his last days, Robert was known to all his shipmates as a sincere and devout Christian man. Robert had taken the wings of the morning and flown to the uttermost parts of the sea; but he saw the Saviour walking on the waves, and, whenever he drew near to land, Jesus stood on the shore.

One of these days I shall set out on my own great voyage of exploration. I shall see my last sun sinking, and shall set out for the land that is mantled with the flush of morning. I shall leave behind me all the old familiar things, and shall sail out into the unknown, the unseen, the unexplored.  I shall be surrounded on every hand by the wonders that here were beyond me, by the mysteries that here baffled my comprehension. I shall see strange sights and hear unwonted sounds. But it will be all right. For when I take the wings of the morn­ing, and fly out into the uttermost of the utter­most, even there shall Thy hand lead me, and Thy right hand shall hold me! In a little Cambridgeshire churchyard there stands a tombstone whose epitaph is more than a century old. It records the names of two aged sisters, and the text that follows their names is simply this: ‘When the morning was come, Jesus stood on the shore!’ And, really, it would be very difficult to find a passage more cheer­ing or appropriate. But there is no tinge of gold in the scudding clouds now; it is too dark for writing; they are lighting the gas behind me; I must draw the blinds and go~

Preparation for the journey.

I’m not a very spontaneous person (that may be an understatement) – if you ask my wife she’d probably tell you that I tend to be more on the obsessive-compulsive end of the spectrum.  So, when it comes to traveling, I like to be well prepared for the journey and not leave things to the last minute or to chance.  Some destinations require a visa for entry into the country and that requires some advance preparation in order to get your passport back in time.  Other places require innoculations which are best not left to the last minute.  Of course, there are also the more routine matters of selecting the right clothes, the right luggage and the right accessories for the journey (and for me in particular, which books to pack).  I like to know where I am going, how I am getting there and where my travels will take me along the way, so an itinerary is an important consideration.
A number of years ago, my wife and I decided to make a motor touring vacation of the western isles of Scotland and it quickly became apparent that you can’t just go with a car and expect to catch a ferry.  There are limited sailings and limited space on most of the ferries.  It was necessary to plan out our journey, booking accommodations and spaces on the ferries and calculate distances and driving times in order to see all that we wished to see and to complete our journey successfully.  It worked (with the exception of one missed ferry) and we had a wonderful trip with many great memories.
Just the other day I was asked if I would do the reading at the funeral of a friend’s mother.  There were two passages of scripture and a poem by Robert Frost that she requested I read.  The common thread that held these thoughts together was that life is not a journey to be embarked on carelessly or without thought to the purpose and destination.
I wonder how many people find themselves on the journey of life without realizing how they got there and having given little thought to where they were heading?  I’m rather reminded of foolish hounds (and yes, we’ve had some) who get on the scent of a deer and chase it for miles before coming to a realization that they are lost in the woods.  The Italian poet Durante degli Alighieri (commonly known as Dante) wrote of his sudden awareness at the age of thirty-five that he was lost:
“In the midway of this our mortal life, I found me in a gloomy wood, astray, gone from the path direct…How first I entered it I scarce can say.”  Now, I don’t know what it was that brought him to this awareness, but whatever providence or misfortune awoke him to his dilemma; to it he owed a debt of gratitude for it was then that he was able to change his course, fight his way out through the undergrowth and glimpse the sunlit hill which was the goal he desired to reach.
It has been said that if you have no particular destination in mind any path will take you there and that, sadly, seems to be the case with so many travelers on the road of life.  Even for an obsessive-compulsive person like myself, life has plenty of surprises, detours and hazards along the way that we have to learn to take in stride and adjust for, but an unexamined life is one that leads deep into the heart of the woods.  From there, it is hard to see the sunlit hill that we desire to climb, to rest on its summit and to look back with satisfaction on the journey that took us there.

Puerto Rico

View from a sunlit hill – Puerto Rico

I wonder as I wander out under the sky…

So read the words of the old Appalachian Advent hymn, and really, is there any better time or place to ponder the big questions of life (or even the small ones that you otherwise never think of) than when you are far away from the daily distractions of computers and the myriad other “conveniences” of modern life?  Apart from traveling for the sake of seeing and experiencing new places (which I love to do), what takes me away from my urban life?  Well, when the weather turns cold and the old year fades away and the calendar is on its last page it is time to dig out the boots and outdoor clothing, to clean and oil the shotgun and to reconnect with old friends for the start of the annual pilgrimage to the woods on Saturday mornings for the next couple of months.  It is rabbit hunting season once more.  Now if you know anything about rabbit hunting you will know that it typically involves a pack of noisy beagles and a group of men wandering (apparently aimlessly) around in the woods and fields following the dogs as they seek to stir up rabbits and get them running.  Surprisingly though, there are times of perfect quiet and stillness when the hounds are not baying and cannot be heard snuffling around in the undergrowth, when the rabbits are secure in their hiding place and the hunters are spread out and waiting patiently for something to happen.  It is in those moments when the eye catches the splendor of the natural world in its minutia, the ear is attuned to the smallest sounds and the heart and mind are open to contemplation.
To witness the spectacle of horizontal shafts of early morning sunlight piercing through the trees on a frosty morning is to capture the moment when the pine needles are festooned with gems and the hard ground is broadcast with emeralds and rubies.
To stand in a clearing in the woods and hear nothing but the slightest rustle of small birds moving through the undergrowth is to realize how crowded and noisy our days have become and to appreciate the beauty of silence.
To smell the fresh air of the countryside, the earthiness of the soil and the decaying ground cover disturbed by moving feet is to reconnect oneself with the land in ways we have forgotten in our urban lifestyle.
These are the times when the heart and mind are open to the wonder of life and the beauty of those words “Be still and know that I am God” resonate deeply within the soul.  As I grow older the hunt is becoming less important (although the sound of a pack of beagles hot on the trail of a rabbit is still a thrill) and the time in fellowship with friends, in solitary meditation and the refreshing of the spirit is far more gratifying.  That is the essence of a good day in the woods and the reason why I wonder as I wander out under the sky.