There’s a unique urban greenway near my house, a huge expanse of land and trails too marshy for builders to develop, so the city turned it into a nature conservatory. It snakes along the Cumberland River for seven or so miles before crossing over a large bridge and leaving the city. I love going running on the greenway, or just wandering on its side trails alone while I think and pray. But my favorite greenway activity is the walk-n-talk; you know, those marathon phone calls with old and distant friends, the extended catch up conversations that never feel quite sufficient to close the expanse between you.
There was a night recently too hot for a run, and my heart hasn’t been super present during the thinking and praying walks lately, so I called up an old friend, headed to the greenway, and quickly fell into the effortless cadence that exists between people who know each other well. We talked for hours, about everything and nothing. Old friends are like that. It’s not so much what you’re saying, it’s just the presence and the comfort and the consistency that matters. It’s one more in a million exchanges, and they already know most of it anyway. You’re just shading in a few details to a picture that was painted years ago. As I walked and talked on the greenway with that sweet, familiar voice in my ear, I couldn’t help but think how much I love these trails and all the characters on them, the cute families and funny hipsters and the deer and the golden light of a late summer sunset.
Before long that golden light was fading, and I turned down a side path to start the trek back to my car. My conversation was wrapping up, and I remember thinking this was the perfect way to spend an evening, and why don’t I come down here every night at this time? The trail curved on, and night was falling quickly, quicker still in the more densely wooded parts of the path, and I felt the first twinge of concern. Shouldn’t I be back by now? Was that bamboo here before? By the time I finally told my friend goodbye only 10 minutes or so of daylight remained. Feeling a little disoriented, I googled the location of my car and was shocked to realized I’d overshot my turn off by 3.5 miles. Instantly, the whole scene around me shifted. What had only minutes before been bathed in a golden glow was now a dusty gray, and a place that caused me to feel connected to my community now felt deserted and threatening. In the darkness, the familiar path felt foreign, and fear clouded my usual rational thinking. Was that a coyote I just heard? Are those human shadows or just trees? And, most importantly, do I call the cops? An Uber? Or just my roommate? Gratefully, my roommate came to my rescue, but it took another 20 minutes for me to even reach a place where she could pick me up. It was completely dark when I rounded the trailhead and saw her headlights shining I felt foolish and fearful, and I hated that I’d inconvenienced her. Most of all, I wanted with everything in me to be anywhere but on those trails.
Lately, I’ve been on a very different kind of dark trail. 3 months ago I was diagnosed with a tumor on my pituitary gland, which sits at the base of the brain right where the carotid artery and optic nerve meet. The tumor is most likely not cancerous, and it’s probably been there for about 5 years. Back in 2011 I was misdiagnosed with clinical depression based on the same set of symptoms I’m still experiencing today. In the 5 years that have passed, the tumor and antidepressants have wrecked my endocrine system which has created problems all over my body, and I’m now in an ongoing treatment process to get back to a healthy, functioning place. Unfortunately, there isn’t really a “cure” for these tumors, and this likely will be a chronic condition that I’ll manage for the rest of my life.
But I’m not really writing to talk about tumors. I’m writing to talk about friendship and familiar trails and darkness. Shortly after being diagnosed, I was talking with my old pastor friend and he asked me how I was doing. “I’m fine,” I said. I’d said it a million times that week, and it was as much me reminding myself as it was me telling him. I really am fine. This is not life threatening, I’m still mostly functioning just like I was before, and God is still “on his throne” as they say. He’s no less in control of my circumstances than he was before I knew a tumor was growing in my brain. I’m fine. The trails are all the same. But here’s the thing: darkness changes everything.
Talking to my pastor, I thought of this beautiful Charles Spurgeon quote that says, “I have learned to kiss the wave that crashes me upon the rock of ages.” I love the quote, and I want it to be true of me. And when the trails are golden and the deer scamper by and there’s a knowing, friendly voice in my ear, I can kiss all the waves in the sea. But the darker the path, the more costly this kiss. And I can’t google my way back to God, and there’s no getting the last 5 years of my life back, and all the paths that have been so beautiful before feel scary and threatening and deserted. My faith feels like a dark trail, the truths I’ve run to, the spiritual routines that brought so much life in the past, they all feel unsafe. I’m tempted to say God feels unsafe. And I don't know what to do with all of it.
“I’m fine,” I told my pastor, “But I don’t feel quite like ‘kissing the wave’ just yet. Maybe I’ll get there, but right now, if I’m honest, it all feels so dark.” His response was kind and compassionate. He didn't give me verse or platitude, didn’t make what I was feeling seem small. He simply reminded me I was loved, and then told me the thing I’ve needed to hear more than anything else over the last 3 months, “You’re not alone in this.”
In that moment, and in a million moments since, I’ve felt the same blend of foolishness and fear I experienced the night my roommate came to rescue me from the greenway. I feel ashamed that my changing circumstances can so heavily influence my faith in an unchanging God. I’ve hated how this has humbled me, hated how much I’ve seen the shallow condition of my heart, hated that I’ve needed other people to come to my rescue. There’s this lie in me that says I should have it together by now, that somehow spiritual maturity equates to total independence, and that needing other people will make me a burden. It’s a lie I’ve clung to most of my life, and one the Lord continues to graciously pry from my grasp.
And as much as I hide from my need and want to flee from these trails, as I loosen my grip on pride and fear and shame I’m finding my hands free to receive instead the love of a community that has shown up in a big way. And, whats more, I’m learning that good friends are willing to be inconvenienced to find each other in the darkness. Mine have come with coffee dates and shared tears and kind texts. They’ve come with experience and wisdom, honest reflections from their own seasons on dark trails and the hope they found along the way. They’ve come with their wallets open and given so much money just to make sure I don’t have to sacrifice financial health for physical healing. And they’ve come with their presence, a willingness to sit and talk and pray, a physical reminder of a spiritual reality: We are not alone in this.
We are NOT alone in this. We don’t always know how to love each other well. We can’t fix each other, we certainly can’t heal each other. But we can show up, headlights shining.
And do you know what happens when enough light shines onto a nighttime trail? Darkness is forced to flee and the whole scene is illuminated. And slowly, by the light of those who love us, we can begin to see signs of dawn breaking over those old, familiar spiritual trails. I’m coming to see once again all the beauty on this path of faith, the disciplined roads that have led me so often to a place of grace, the thinking and praying and drawing near. So much life. And with a little perspective, I can remember that this is not the first dark trail in my journey, nor will it be the last. But there is one who walked his own shadowed road to ensure one day all darkness will be swallowed whole by a light that has no end. Dark nights of the soul don’t change the fixed realities of my faith any more than actual night changes the landscape of the greenway. Day or night, I don’t want us fear the trails that lead to grace. And on the days we find our will too weak or the darkness to great, I hope we’re humble enough to call for rescue.
Because we are not alone in this.