This is the third message in a series about objects that help shape our experience.
Jesus is reaching out to Peter in the most intimate of conversations, seeking to restore him to fellowship and service from the shame of his cowardice and betrayal. Jesus points Peter to the importance of love by a poignant illustration. “When you are young you get to go where you want and do what you want, but when you are old you are going to stretch out your hands and another will dress you and carry you where you don’t want to go” (John 21:18, combination my paraphrase and ESV).
There comes a time for all of us when things don’t work out like we’d thought they would, when our pace slows, and our direction changes. Gravity is an inexorable law and none of us is exempt. The spiritual secret of dealing with the inevitable is to seek God in the present moment and not strain our eyes to see over the horizon. Moses prayed for the grace to do this: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12).
It is hard to believe now but running fast was one of the true joys of my life — rising up to full stride, digging hard, arms pumping in rhythm. Later on, after law school, I switched to long slow distance, mile after mile, eighty miles a week, sometimes twenty miles in an early morning, alone, deep in thought, endorphins flowing. The pounding took its toll over the years, but I loved the solitude most of all, so I slowed to hiking.
The sun dropped below the peaks as I inched my way down “the devil’s backbone,” a narrow quarter-mile thread of loose-rocked trail with steep drop offs on both sides. I probed ahead in the shadows with my walking stick. It was clasped in my right hand, thumb hooked over the well-worn “Y” at the top. I followed the stick on down the knife-edge ridge, bracing myself with each step.
I bought the stick in 1983 from an exclusive men’s wear shop in Carmel, California with British pretensions. It is an English thumb stick, five feet long, made out of a hard yew branch. This is the wood used in the English longbows that won the famed Battle of Agincourt. The stick is simple and plain and felt comfortable in my hand from the moment that I first held it.
The stick became my constant companion on rambles in the woods and hills. It’s height allows me to set and pull going uphill and to steady my pace going down hill, taking weight off my knees. It is long enough to keep the occasional rattlesnake at bay.
I enjoyed many carefree days with the stick in the first years that I owned it. There is a deep craving in me to be outdoors. Most of my work finds me at a desk or a conference table, but every so often I have to seek solitude in nature for my well-being. The stick helped me get where I wanted to go.
On this evening, I was returning in the October twilight from Pine Mountain in the San Gabriel Range of Southern California. I’d gone there to pray by a great, old cedar that clings tenaciously to the side of a cliff. It is big enough that I can scramble into the crevices of its trunk, read, journal and talk with God. That was then. It’s been quite awhile since I’ve been back. Because . . . .
The radiologic technician entered the room where I sat looking at the wall. He switched on a lighted display screen on the wall and arranged the x-ray images that he’d made of my left leg. He stood back, squinted at his work and turned and walked out without a word.
I stood and approached the screen to look at my bones. I had been through this enough to identify the major elements of what I was seeing.
The knee was damaged in an accident when I was twenty-years-old. My anterior cruciate ligament was ruptured and repaired in what was a radical surgery for the time. The hip on my other leg had been dislocated at the same time. So when the heavy cast came off of my knee, I had been in a wheel chair for some months.
My knee took a while to limber up and I found walking to be a challenge. Slowly my mobility returned and I could run again, but the spring in my legs for chasing fly balls in the outfield never really came back. I had to think a bit about what I wanted to do before I could will my legs to do it.
Eventually I started the distance running. I kept at it for years. One morning, when I was about a quarter-mile from home, my knee just froze mid-step and I couldn’t get it loose. I hobbled home. The surgeon found a cartilage tear and removed the tissue. I had instant relief, but he told me at the follow-up visit. “You do not have a normal knee and it will get worse. If you want to stay active with the use of your knee, you are going to have to stop running. This was depressing news. I was 34-years-old and the father of a new-born son. This was not what I wanted to be hearing.
I made adjustments, but several years later, I took on new responsibilities causing me to move across a campus day after day hauling a large briefcase stuffed with legal papers. The brief case added weight and torque to my left side and wore out the remaining cartilage. The pain was quick and severe. One step I was feeling fine, the next step I was in agony. That’s what brought me into the Orthopedist’s office.
There on the screen, in skeletal relief, was my fibula and my tibia, but where they met at the knee there was something wrong. There should be a clear line of cushioning cartilage running through the knee joint. It was missing. The florescent white fibula touched and slightly overlapped the tibia in an awkward tilt — bone on bone. The reason for my renewed pain was confirmed.
The orthopedic surgeon entered. He went right to the screen, pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose, and peered. “M-m-m-m,” he said. “Your knee is definitely deteriorated. You need a replacement.” He discussed options with me and advances in the field that could help. I told him that I wanted to wait for as long as possible before the surgery. I was young enough that I could wear out an artificial knee and need another surgery well before the end of my life.
The surgeon told me that with each surgery there is less knee to work with and the effectiveness of the joint is lessened. He agreed that I should walk on my knee until I could no longer stand the pain. He prescribed a regimen of physical therapy and I hobbled out into the hot afternoon. I haven’t taken a pain-free step in nine years, but by putting mind over matter, I’ve gotten used to it.
The desire to be outdoors is still strong in me, but my ability to get out there is diminished. I don’t carry my stick anymore as much as I depend on it. It isn’t that there is power in the stick itself as Elisha learned (2 Kgs. 4:29-31). In fact, a weak or broken staff can injure one who leans on it (Isa. 36:6).
The stick is only an instrument, but it reminds me that the Lord is with me and keeps me walking straight. He comforts me in the aches and pains of my journey. “I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4b).
My spiritual life parallels my physical history. I limp to be sure with a painful reminder that I am broken and not capable of making my way unaided. Where once, I ran and scrambled off trail enduring the falls, scrapes and scratches, that came from bushwhacking my own way through the brush and rocks, I now am growing content to take the path the Lord shows me and to lean on him.
I used to have to push ahead to be first down the trail. That’s my nature, but I can’t anymore and rather than curse that fate, I’ve been learning to yield the way to Christ and follow him, no longer suffering from the arrogant delusion that he needs to catch up with me. It has taken a transformation of my heart to bring me to this place.
The slow, one-foot-after-the-other pilgrimage to his throne has taught me that “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4) means that he gives me new and different desires, not that he grants my demands for gratification.
It is enough to know that crippled as I am, he remembers me, his child, and is leading and supporting me as we head for home together. My soul resonates with the prayer of the prophet Isaiah: “In the path of your judgments, O Lord, we wait for you; your name and remembrance are the desire of our soul” (Isa. 26:8).
Even when my grasp comes up short and my grip is weak, I don’t need to fear, because Jesus Christ has hold of me and, in that assurance, I continue my walk (Phil 3:12-16).
Jesus’s words to Peter that morning are a living truth. When our strength is exhausted and our choices limited, love shines brightest and love will bring us through. “After saying this he said to him, ‘Follow me'” (John 21:19).
Hearing the same call, the “one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14).
“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps. 34:8).
Under the mercy of Christ,