On a road trip across the western part of the country, one is treated to an unending parade of road signs: Falling Rocks, Road Work Ahead, and those signs without words, indicating curves, steep grades and the presence of creatures who might be crossing the highways. What was often baffling to me in trip from which I just returned was the failure of the warned phenomena to appear: I never saw cattle or deer or elk crossing the road. Many of the areas designated for repair were devoid of human activity, no traces of work left behind. I wondered if the Emperor of Federal and State Highways had no clothes after all.
Signs of another sort were waiting each evening as we came to places to rest; newspapers and TV stations filled the available space with predictions of calamity and doom on the economic front or interpretations of the political climate or prognostications of the state of the world with yet another outbreak of violence. Some of these signal givers contradicted themselves and each other. I found many of them us unhelpful as the signs asking me to look for deer crossing the highway.
However, as we traveled through “Indian Lands,” there were unmistakable signs to which to attend as a person on pilgrimage. The isolation and lack of resources for many tribal people was evident. Even in the most nuanced telling of stories of First Nation people, there were residual signs of betrayal, lack of trust and systemic abuse. For city dwellers such as I, the trickle-down effect of these turbulent times in the economy and welfare of all people was graphically apparent as we drove through tiny towns with businesses closed, buildings abandoned, hand-made pointers saying, “This is closed.” Signs of the times and of the ages.
As a pilgrim, I needed to look to older, deeper, broader signs. Somehow the signs in the natural created world were more reassuring and resonant with hope. Rock formations, thousands of years old, evoked intimations of Holy Mystery, who never failed. Cascading waters whose courses had ebbed and flowed over centuries promised nourishment of life in barren places. Incessant hummingbirds kept their appointed flurries throughout the flora of the canyons and mountains. None of them promised permanence of form or shape; however, all spoke of constancy of Life and Love and Beauty. Some formations and configurations of land held in themselves the traces of scouring, remodeling, reformation–changes thrust upon them; yet, there they stood, testimony to a kind of timelessness and intent of the Holy.
So in returning, my eyes are lifted to those hills, those meadows of beauty, that panoply of creatures, not as places of help, but as a witness to the faithfulness of the Creator over time and circumstance. God’s faithfulness persists from age to age in the created world. In deep canyons, where vision and motion is limited, there is hope for presence, for perspective, for surprise. After wild chaos, there is calm and regeneration of Life. Over time there is constancy and new springs of water.
However, I also carry home with me the signs along the road that told me of the poverty, neglect, marginalization of those made in the image of God who are left with the dregs of contentious and self-absorbed governing bodies. Those signs point me to places of prayer and action once again for the “least of these,” who seem to out of the sight and mind of those making budgets and policies for the days ahead.
So I bring home from this pilgrimage three desires: 1) to discern the frivolous signs from the ones of genuine value; 2) to remember the revelation of the Creator in the signs of beauty, magnificence and variety of the universe; and 3) to follow the signs that prod me to bring good news to the poor, to feed the hungry, to welcome the widows and orphans.
“When You send forth Your Spirit, they are created; and You renew the face of the ground…I will sing to God as long as I live…” Psalm 104: 30, 33