Growing up, the Eastern branch of the Huron River ran through our property. Crawdads skittered under rocks and water flowed cold, even in August. It was a creek really, but it was our creek. As our U-shaped stone ranch was being built on the hill, the contractor had disposed of four-foot square cement blocks into the creek. Perhaps he was trying to dam it up; perhaps it was a romantic gesture that was then too heavy to correct. But those flat cement blocks laid over the stream were my favorite place. They made a makeshift waterfall, and it was my waterfall. And in the dark confusion of junior high, it became my favorite place to pray. Throughout my life, the roar of water would signal the voice of God.
When we turn our minivan just two and a half hours north of Atlanta, we can escape to the mountains. Towering Georgia pines and umbrella shaped Rhododendron shrubs greet us. That particular day, we were taking a late-February hike to Hemlock Falls.
Halfway through the hike my fingers wrapped around the cross in my right pocket—a clinging cross. It’s designed with grooves for fingers, perfect for a hand to hold. We are an embodied people, not disembodied spirits, and we are invited to pray that way. Our bodies—our senses—become doors to prayer.
Organically, my family spread out on the trail leaving me in the quiet of the woods. I heard the muffled voices of the boys playing in the rhododendron ahead. Andrew and Madeline aimed a camera at moss and lichen behind me. Between them, I walked alone listening to the chirps of migrating birds. With each step, I kept hold of the cross.
What I was really probing for though, was within—a quiet heart and mind. I was searching for God’s Presence.
I am a product of a people addicted to technology and productivity. My mind can whir so busy it’s bedtime again and I haven’t prayed since early morning. I forget prayer can be as simple as inviting God into the present moment. But I’m no superhuman; I need something tangible to focus my attention. That day, it was the cross. I remembered a simple prayer question—a way to become alert and listen for God’s voice: “What is it You wish to say to me through this experience right now?”
LeAnne Payne encouraged us with the truth that God is always speaking. In Listening Prayer, one of her books I return to often, she called Him “the Word always speaking.” Prayer has become an even greater struggle in a world of beeps and buzzes, information as easily-attainable as candy, and constant availability to thousands of “friends.” Sometimes staying present to the voice of God takes an intentional grasping—a clinging.
I kept clutching the cross, about the size of my hand, and listening as I breathed: “What is it You wish to say to me through this experience right now?” I got silent and waited. As I waited, the sound of the river tossing from rock to rock beside the path engulfed my senses. I began mentally revisiting the waterfalls of my life. Ever since that makeshift waterfall through our side yard, I’d been seeking them out. By now, there has been half a lifetime of waterfalls, and now they seemed as intentional as ticks on a spiritual autobiography—an arc along a storyline.
There was the year Andrew and I took a four-day hike around Linville Gorge, in the midst of our Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at Duke Medical school. We were struggling through the exhaustion of caring for the fearful and despairing. Andrew had been in the PICU all summer and I had been on the neurology floor. We pulled our small backpacking tent right up to the river next to a waterfall. A makeshift stick cross had been stuck into the gravel and left for us, the next campers, to discover a visual reminder that He was present even in the unexplained pain of the world.
Another year, during a dry and confusing time for me, we traveled to the southwest. As we approached the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico, we saw what looked like a giant scar on the land—an exposed fault line. We parked on flat land then accessed the river by walking steep trails down into a narrow canyon a few hundred feet. No one would have known there was a paradise beneath—water slipping over rocks, in the middle of the desert.
Then there was that other waterfall on the Yellowstone River where our marriage was tested by a four day trip downriver in a two-seater fly-fishing pontoon. A few years later we struggled out of the stressful early years of babies and diapers and little sleep. Our marriage survived the stress but not before being tested. We’ve now learned to trust our love through the transitions and pass quicker into grace.
But there was one particular waterfall my mind kept honing in on like a magnet. Just out of Asbury College, Andrew and I had traveled to L’Abri—Francis Schaeffer’s home in Switzerland. He had passed away about ten years prior but there were still wise tutors carrying on his work, creating a place of hospitality for the spiritually questioning. There were many waterfalls that spring but one that I claimed personally. Down a 10-minute path between Huemoz and Villars, the water poured turbulently out of the Alps over the rocks. It was loud and gave me the cover to sing or to lament. I wasn’t just questioning God, I was downright angry. I wondered how He could have allowed abuse into my life when I was a young teen. I wondered if I hadn’t loved Him enough—if I hadn’t pleased Him enough. I wondered if He was good. I wondered how He could allow the innocent to be abused. That summer I questioned, I yelled, I wept, and I worshipped at that waterfall, in a furious unloading of pain.
Here I was, seventeen years later, spending my life ministering to individuals and small groups who need a safe place to bring their wounds to God.
As I thought of the waterfall, I gripped the cross, trying to grasp the word starting to bubble up. I held tight to the question: “What is it You wish to say?” For a moment I just walked silently, waiting. I thought of Switzerland and the original confusion of a woman unsure she could trust God’s goodness. I remembered the original tangle of lies and the constant companion of shame. And just for a moment, in my imagination of that memory, the risen Christ sat down next to me on that rock. Just His Presence shifted the memory. Because if I’ve learned anything through ministry, I’ve learned that when the Light of the World walks into dark places, He transforms them. I could feel tears rising to the surface. Summer, do you see how your suffering has been redeemed? Your wounds have become the path through which you minister. Nothing has been lost. Do you hear me?
Nothing has been wasted.
In that instant, on the hike to Hemlock Falls, holding tight to the cross, all of my brokenness shifted over into meaning. There was an arc to the story. Although my pain had been caused by the consequences of human brokenness, He had not allowed it to swallow me. He had not allowed it to be the end of the story. My greatest pain had become the source of God’s flow of ministry through me. Others say similar things. When I share my pain, my story gives them permission to touch the tender places of their soul and struggle through to accept God’s healing. But sometimes, it takes the voice of God to bring the truth from our head to our heart.
I clung to the cross and tears fell hot—tears that tasted of gratefulness. A long-awaited release. I had finally moved from the cross to resurrection, and nothing had been wasted.
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