On the door of my office at hospice there is a small picture showing a tiny boy and girl walking away from the camera, holding hands and headed toward what looks to be an open field and blue sky beyond. Underneath the sweet image is a caption: “We’re all just walking each other home.”
These words are attributed to a spiritual teacher by the name of Ram Dass, a psychologist and author who was well-known for writing books that brought ideas of spirituality, divine presence, and interconnection to our broader Western culture. Many years ago, when I first ran across this quote, it immediately struck a chord with me and rang true. Because no matter what job I’d had up to that time in my life—a clerk at a pet store, a preschool teacher, a copy editor, a writer—it seemed that people always came to me needing to talk about something. Whatever the outer task might be, they’d share about a falling out with a sister, a betrayal by a friend, a struggle over whether to take a new job or not—so many things. Sometimes the problem was work related, but mostly not. Maybe you’ve experienced the same thing—we are all people, wherever we go, whatever we do. And people need connection. People need care.
At the time when I first read that quote, I was working as the editor of a journal in education, and I’d been listening to and trying to support a colleague who was heartsick over the failing health of her dad. It was quite a harrowing journey for her; she felt helpless and confused as her dad insisted he stay in the family home, even though all the kids feared for his safety there by himself. She apologized profusely for taking up my time; she knew I had a deadline looming. But I knew supporting one another, caring about each other—that was our real work, whether we had articles to edit or not. We’re all just walking each other home.
My part was very small and inconsequential—and I’m sure you’ve been in the same position many times—and we never know how a moment of caring attention can help and even maybe heal a painful spot someone else is walking through. My own life has taught me what a great comfort it is to know we’re not alone when times are hard, to know someone else understands what this tough part of our journey is like. I would discover years later—in seminary—that there is research showing that the simple presence of someone who cares is healing in itself, lowering our blood pressure, slowing our respirations, and giving our bodies a boost of endorphins, which picks us up, even in the midst of a difficult time. Our suffering lessens. We begin to feel a little hope. Journeying together makes all the difference–whether we know what to do or or not. Something inside tells us the answers will come. And they do.
This kind of kinship happens just when we need it—I think it is God’s continual effort to bring love into our lives–and it can happen anywhere, anytime, among anyone. There are moments when the “kindness of strangers” is a healing balm and a lifesaver to a lonely traveler—think of the Good Samaritan—and moments, perhaps many moments, when God’s love and tenderness shines out through the eyes and actions of people we’re closest to in the world.
In Psalm 139—a beautiful psalm about the closeness of God—we can hear how deeply the author understands and appreciates God’s presence in his life:
“You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely. You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
There are not many places in scripture we get such a clear picture of the close way God wants to be involved in our daily lives; but here David is spelling it out for us so that we can recognize God working in our lives in the same way. He tells God how sure he is of God, certain that God is always with him, no matter what, guiding him and protecting him. He also says he knows that God knows him intimately—the words he says before he says them, his plans for the day before he does them. It is a love letter to a constant, caring presence he knows well, a companion who never leaves him, someone he is sure of, a soulmate faithful across all time and circumstance.
Several decades ago, a friend and I decided to do something adventurous, and we planned a four-day trip to Kauai. Neither of us had ever done anything like that before. And I hadn’t really traveled at all beyond a family trip to Nantucket, Niagara Falls, and Fort Ticonderoga the summer I was eight. That’s the same trip my mom bought a huge chunk of blue cheese in Pennsylvania and then forgot—until we couldn’t—that she had left it in the trunk of the car. My memory of the rest of that trip has a strong aroma associated with it that is not one of my favorites.
The night before my friend and I were supposed to leave for our trip, she called and apologized and said she wouldn’t be able to go after all. Disappointed, I struggled all night with what to do. I’d already bought the ticket; I’d reserved a room at a bed and breakfast near the ocean. A rental car was waiting. Even though I’d never traveled as an adult—much less on my own—I decided finally to just trust God and go, come what may. I was scared. I was uncertain. And I didn’t have a clue how I would find my way around. But the plans were made, and I decided to follow them.
My stomach was in knots and I was nervous as I drove to the airport early the next morning. I went to the check-in counter. That went ok. I found my gate. So far, so good. People were friendly and helpful along the way. I still remember—almost 40 years later—the kind lady with the gleam in her eye who pointed me toward my gate at the stopover and said, with a laugh, “Better run for it!” She was so right—they were closing the door just as I got there.
It was well past dark when I arrived in Kauai, and by the time I pulled the rental car out onto the one major road that circled the island, I was weary and needing sleep. I had my handwritten directions and a little map with me, but the tiny side roads weren’t well marked, and I didn’t know where I was going. And did I mention it was dark? Like, really dark. No streetlights anywhere. Finally, frustrated, lost, and quite anxious—actually, thinking about just locking the car and sleeping in it for the night–I stopped on the side of the dirt road I was on and looked once more at the instructions, trying to figure out where I had gone wrong. Then I closed my eyes and took a deep breath and prayed, simply, “I don’t know where I am, God, but I know you do. Please help me get where I need to go.”
When I opened my eyes, I saw very dark sky and very tall sugar cane on both sides of the road, illumined by the car’s headlights…but there, a few yards ahead on the right…I saw something green gleaming. A street sign? It couldn’t be! That wasn’t there before, I thought—or at least in my frustration and worry I hadn’t seen it. I drove a little closer and realized it was exact road I was looking for, the road the bed and breakfast was on. One turn and a few houses and I was there. I had been so sure I was lost, but I never was! Somehow in my exhaustion in the dark, God had gotten me there, in spite of all my inner worry and resistance and confusion. I wound up having a wonderful time the next few days, exploring the island, swimming in the ocean, and reading and writing to my heart’s content. Plus I learned one of the most important lessons of my life: We never travel alone. God is a great traveling buddy.
And God travels with us, with each of us, no matter what our journey looks like or what kind of valley or hilltop we are currently on, whether we are traveling solo through life or we have found the perfect person to walk alongside us. Our intimate human-divine connection—one to one with God—continues uninterrupted for each of us, and it strengthens–right from the source–the love we feel for one another, in marriage, in friendship, in our meeting for worship here today. When our relationships with God are close and strong, our understanding of and care for each other deepens. We get good at forgiving; we remember what’s important; we celebrate each other’s victories. We mirror the goodness of God in each other’s lives and feel grateful for all the growing and learning we do. Over time that intimacy that has its roots in God bears fruit and we find we know each other so well that our bond stays strong and full and blessed, come what may. The more deeply we know each other, the more peace and ease and trust we find, and the more God can and does show up, walking with us daily. Our journey becomes beautiful and blessed, full of God’s grace, everywhere we go.
Quaker Douglas Van Steere, who was a philosophy professor at Haverford College and instrumental in hunger relief during World War II, says in his book On Listening to Another, that this tender intimacy between us grows because, “over the shoulder of the human listener…is the never absent silent presence of the Eternal Listener, the living God.”
Our New Testament story today gives us a colorful glimpse of just how this happens. Two weary and discouraged townspeople are walking along the road to Emmaus, lamenting what has just happened in Jerusalem, where the good teacher Jesus has just been crucified. The people are in shock and heartsick. A stranger comes and walks alongside them, asking what happened, and they pour out the story to him as they struggle with it themselves.
After they finish telling him what happens, he begins to explain the scriptures to them, showing them what the scriptures had foretold and helping them see that Jesus was who he’d said he was. This must have reassured the travelers and given them a sense of peace and maybe even reignited their hope that this new movement of love could continue. At the end of the day, the travelers ask the stranger to stay with them and have supper, and when he breaks the bread—a symbolic moment for the communion of souls—they recognize him and Jesus disappears. Instantly the dumbfounded men look at one another, already knowing deeply in their hearts what had just happened: Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked with us on the road? The Eternal Listener, the divine companion, had been traveling with them all along.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote, “Love consists in this…that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other,” which says to me that in all our relationships—intimate and otherwise—we are called to respect the uniqueness of each soul and give each other the freedom we need to really get to know that of God within us. Because nurturing our relationship with our Source of Life and Truth and Love is the key to all the other relationships we have. When that relationship is strong and “two or three are gathered,” sharing a moment or an experience or a lifetime, we are helping to make the love and presence of God more visible in this world, brightening the way for everyone on our shared journey home.
- OT Psalm 139: 1-12
- NT Luke 24: 28-31