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Not All Who Wander Are Lost

My title today comes from one of my favorite authors, JRR Tolkien, in his classic The Fellowship of the Ring. The poem reminds us to look beyond initial appearances, which can deceive.

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Within the plot of the book, the poem refers to a central character who is destined to become king but for the moment is living in disguise among the common folk as a wanderer. The poem says that not all is as it appears. Gold does not always glitter, not all who wander are lost.

Tolkien reminds us to look past the surface, past our initial impressions or judgments to the truth lying beneath. For example, if we fear aging, let’s look past the popular image of decline. Aging also means strength, survival, resilience, wisdom.

The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

A winter frost suggests that all is dead, but appearances are deceptive. We know life remains, deep down. Deep roots are not affected and are ready to bring life forward in the spring. All is not what it appears. The older I get, the more I believe we are surrounded by a world in which very little is as it first appears.

In the second verse, the poem states the promise that the truth will appear, that mere appearances will fall away. If you know the story of Aragorn, the future king, that is exactly what happens as his journey unfolds. Along with his several friends and companions, he travels a long journey of many dangers, overcomes his own fears and many obstacles put in his path, and is ultimately crowned king as evil is conquered.

It’s a wonderful book story of overcoming, courage, resilience and hope.

So I thought about wandering. In our culture we often receive messages that wandering is not allowed – it’s a sign of weakness, lack of purpose.

I thought about the value of our journeys, and the meaning we can find. Telling ourselves that we are “lost” is one of the many ways we limit our experience of life, don’t you find? It’s one of the many ways we deprive ourselves of the profound lessons right in front of us. We often deny ourselves the benefit, the awakening of taking the journey. Even if we can’t see over the next hill.

Greek philosopher Zeno once said “Now that I’ve suffered shipwreck, I’m on a good journey.” The quote arises from an ocean crossing he once took between Phoenicia and Peiraeus. During the voyage his ship went down, along with all cargo and people aboard. Zeno was saved and taken to Athens. An unexpected detour, indeed!

While there, he visited a bookseller and was introduced to the philosophy of Socrates and, later, to the writings of an Athenian philosopher named Crates. Incorporating the thinking of these men, and his own experience, Zeno developed the philosophy we now know as Stoicism. He was forever grateful for the gift he found on this detour.

How often in your life have unexpected detours made all the difference to your ongoing journey?

As in Tolkien’s poem, the notion that we are lost conceals a greater truth. We may be wandering, we may have detoured, the path may be unfamiliar, but we are not lost. Each of us is precisely where we are meant to be on our journey of unfolding, and that’s a very comforting thought.

We all have notions of where we should be in our lives. We are so focused on reaching the goal, on crossing the next finish line, whatever it is – learning a skill, losing weight, finding a relationship, reaching spiritual fulfillment, making partner.

We are in a rush and quite unsatisfied with where we are. We are men and women on a mission. We live life with a laser focus on what’s next. We are done with where we are and we are moving on.

However, there are problems with focusing on the destination. Destinations change, don’t you find? You reach your goal, you take a breath, and then it’s on to the next one. You finally have achieved that job, now it’s concern over whether your boss likes you and how soon you’ll get the next promotion. We’ve become a culture where getting there has become the goal. However, there is always a new destination, a new goal on the horizon. If you have the mindset that your purpose is to reach that goal, the posts are always moving. We get tired of the continual reach for the next step on the ladder.

In addition, you can miss so much along the way. In his book “Openings,” Rev. Larry Peacock tells the story of a traveler to Ireland, who driving along the small country roads became lost. She stopped her car and asked an elderly gentleman on the road “do you know the way to Kildare?” The old man bent down, looked in the window, and in a thick Irish accent asked “Do you have the time to go the beauty way?”

I was so struck by that question. Do we have time to go the beauty way? To stop and see what is before us, to be present to the small miracles that are given to us each day? Or do we decide to barrel on through the fastest way possible, just to get where we are going?

Our lives are so much richer when we stop, pause, and welcome what is in front of us.

Ann Mortifee, in her book In Love with the Mystery writes:

We remain present, with an open heart, to the possibilities before us. We remain open to the journey, even if we have not planned every step, or any step that is before us.

When a path opens before us that leads we know not where, let’s not be afraid to follow it. Our lives are meant to be mysterious journeys, unfolding one step at a time. … Don’t be afraid to lose your way. Out of chaos, clarity will eventually arise. Out of not knowing, something new and unknown will ultimately come. Do not order things too swiftly. Wait and the miracle will appear.

The understanding appears, we find meaning on our path, when the time is right, when we are in a place we can see it. We cannot rush the process of awakening. The Israelites didn’t wander in the wilderness for a week and a half – we are told they wandered for 40 years. Metaphysically, forty is the number of waiting, of trial and preparation. The Israelites symbolize our human consciousness, making a transition from bondage, symbolized by Egypt, to a higher consciousness, the Promised Land. They transitioned from anger, resentment, fear, to trust, surrender and hope. The journey enabled them to achieve that awakening. They could not enter higher consciousness until they were awakened to those possibilities.

Waiting for the gift in the midst of challenging times can be difficult. Trusting the journey through hard times is not easy. We sometimes feel lost – separated from God, from our own self, from our sense of joy or purpose. We may be unsure of our next steps, worried we will hear no small still voice guiding us out. Worse yet, for some reason we never have a pillar of fire, a bush that burns but is not consumed or an angelic appearance showing us the way. I have never experienced any of these, but I know that spirit guides and supports me.

I rely on the certainty that creation is a work powered by love, surrounding me and all of us. Although we are frequently challenged and sometimes battered, the light always overcomes the darkness, and the capacity of the human heart for strength, courage and hope is endless.

Methodist theologian John Wesley coined the concept of what he called “prevenient grace”, meaning that God’s love is waiting for us even when we feel too lost to even try to find it.

Miracles will unfold, even on journeys where we might feel lost. We discover strength, compassion, resilience, love, even when our paths take turns we could never expect.

Matthew Fox tells the story of Fred Shuttlesworth, a minister in Birmingham, Alabama during the civil rights struggle. Rev. Shuttlesworth continued to fight for equality and justice despite being beaten three times, and despite having his young children, ages 8 and 10, jailed. When asked where he got his courage, he replied “you may call it courage. I call it trust.” Rev. Shuttlesworth didn’t know where his journey was taking him, or even what the next step may have been. He just trusted that he was not alone on the trip.

We are also reshaped by our journeys, don’t you find?  During times in which we felt lost, aimless, unsure, wandering, if we wait for the process to unfold the answers will arise.  Just as in Tolkien’s poem, the truth will appear, and the illusion will fall away.

Let me leave you with a quote from John Scharr. He wrote,

“The future is not some place we are going, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made. And the activity of making them changes both the maker and their destination.”


Watch the video of Rev. Melanie’s talk on this topic

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