I keep the most curious little book beside my desk. It’s no bigger than a notebook, 127 pages long. It appeared on the discard table here at Guideposts ages ago (the table where the vast majority of review book copies sent to us end up; you know what’s a great tragedy? the schlock quality of most Christian publishing in this country). I don’t even know how the book turned up here. It’s not new, not a review copy. It was published in 1974 by a woman no one’s heard of.
The book is called On Morning Trails by Ruth C. Ikerman. As far as I can tell it’s a compilation of short devotional writings by a woman who lived many years ago in Southern California and who once attended a Guideposts writers’ conference. Inside the front cover is a handwritten inscription from Ruth to Jim McDermott, a former Guideposts editor who retired before I came to work here. I suppose this book once belonged to Jim and he left it behind when he cleaned out his office.
I picked up the book for two reasons. First, the front cover is illustrated with an etching of what is clearly a California oak tree backlit by strong sun. Second, Ruth’s brief author biography inside the back cover says she lived in Redlands, a former hub of Southern California’s orange-growing Inland Empire now mostly swallowed by the subdivisions’ relentless march to the desert.
I’ll look at anything with California hovering about it, and I was especially drawn by the Redlands connection because Redlands is on the way from Los Angeles to the San Bernardino Mountains, where Kate and I climbed 12,000-foot Mt. San Gorgonio a few months before our daughter Frances was born. That was a magical trip, and Kate and I bought celebratory chocolate-banana milkshakes at a Baskin Robbins in Redlands on our way home. Such are the wisps of memory that inform seemingly random choices.
For months Ruth’s little book sat face-up on my bookshelf. I liked looking at that picture of the oak when I arrived at the office each morning. I thought briefly of Redlands, of the mountain, of milkshakes, of Kate, and then I got to work.
A few months ago, feeling terrible as I always do about my meager prayer life, I decided to try carving out 15 minutes each workday simply to sit in silence at my desk, either staring out my westward-facing window or with eyes closed. My goal was to listen. I realized most of my prayers are nonstop chatter—God, do this for me, God, make that trouble go away, God, God, God, me, me, me. What I didn’t do much of was listen. What would God say if I managed to shut my inner trap for once and be quiet?
That last question I can’t answer yet because I’ve only managed to pray like this about half the time and I’m still waiting to hear God’s unmistakable voice. Either God doesn’t think much of my experiment, or I’m not listening very well, or, most likely, God speaks more slowly than I’m accustomed to and in ways—in a language, really—I’m not yet adept at understanding.
However, these hard-won oases of prayer (hard-won because I have to fight my own laziness and inertia and achieve them) are delightful anyway, for one simple reason: Ruth C. Ikerman. Early on I decided I needed some sort of prompt at the start my prayer. On impulse I pulled Ruth’s book from the shelf and leafed through it. It appeared perfect, each devotional no more than one or two short pages long, preceded by a Bible verse, concluded with a prayer. No, the writing wasn’t scintillating. But the words held something else. They were heartfelt. And for some reason they were always exactly what I needed to hear.
Each devotional (Ruth calls them meditations) is structured around the daily morning walks Ruth took with her husband Larry in the foothills near their home. Some stray detail spied on the trail—a bird flying up to catch an insect, a lizard scuttling beneath a rock, a dusting of snow one cold California winter, mountain lion tracks—prompts a quiet but profound observation about God’s work in the world.
I’m lulled at first by the California imagery. By the end I’m usually convicted by Ruth’s tiny but unyielding lessons. To Ruth life is like these daily walks in the dry California foothills. We trod familiar paths each day. If we’re not careful we can be lulled into forgetting that God is present even in the barest patches of our brittle, barren lives. Look around, Ruth says, take notice. The birds, the trees, the dustings of snow, the changes in weather that seem so remote—it is through these commonplace things that God speaks in a subtle, powerful language.
Today’s meditation, called The Bird in the Yucca, ends with a simple injunction to follow God as faithfully and unerringly as birds who live by sharp, darting instinct. Of course these days I often think my problem is not so much following God as figuring out where God is leading. I’m willing to go anywhere but when I listen for orders I seem to hear nothing.
And yet perhaps Ruth has an answer here, too. Perhaps the search for God’s voice is itself the obedience God demands. Perhaps our souls—or mine anyway—are still too weak to bear the full burden of God’s plans all at once. Perhaps it’s a mercy God’s voice comes so softly and gradually. The book is called On Morning Trails. The day is just beginning. There is time—God’s slow, perfect time—to learn the answers we’re so impatient for now.
I wonder, readers, how do you discern God’s voice in all the clutter of daily life? Even in prayer, even reading Scripture, messages can seem contradictory or hard to understand. How do you sort through it all? Where’s your morning trail, and what do you find that’s true there?