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I’m dog-sitting for a friend this week. Last Friday, Ruby and I dropped her human off at the airport and then she came back to Kitchener with me, to an apartment she’d been to once before, to be re-introduced to two cats who were certainly less enthused about having Ruby around than Ruby was about invading their space.

Ruby and I go on three walks a day, and our post-work, pre-dinner walk takes us through the woods by my house. We amble beside the creek (though more often than not Ruby is in the creek), run up and down the hilly path above, and stop, with much frequency, to sniff and explore the foliage.

At this time of year, the woods are a wonder. “Glory be to God for dappled things” pops into my mind regularly, as the sun filters through the verdant leaves, speckling the soft floor below, shimmering on the water. There is life and life abundant along the forest paths, and I don’t begrudge Ruby her frequent stops. There is a magic amongst the trees.

But also…also at this time of year, for reasons I believe have to do with the rainfall and which I’m sure Tim Van Deelen could explain in great detail, the woods, filled as they are with glory, are also full of mosquitoes.

And every time we stop, while I take in the beauty around me, I also grow in my awareness of just how many mosquitoes there are. A reality that’s confirmed by the plethora of bug bites I discover upon our return home.

Thus it was that on Monday I begrudgingly doused myself with bug spray to ward off the little fiends. I may have to take the bugs with the beauty, but at least I’ve got some way of protecting myself from them.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week, this co-existence of that which is amazing and beautiful and wonderful and that which is annoying or, moving beyond mosquitoes, sorrowful and painful and grievous. I discussed this with some friends over dinner on Monday. One friend is recovering from cancer, and was lamenting the imperfections of the disability benefits program, while at the same time gratefully acknowledging how good her employer has been with making accommodations and supporting her. Another friend shared that her brother has serious disabilities from fetal hydrocephalus. She grieves this…and also is grateful that her brother was born in a time when such a diagnosis was not fatal, and marvels at the fact that today doctors can treat hydrocephalus in utero, significantly decreasing the chances of lasting effects. We hold the grief and the frustration as well as the wonder and the gratitude.

I’m currently reading The Amen Effect: Ancient Wisdom to Mend Our Broken Hearts and World by Rabbi Sharon Brous. Brous tells of a Mishnah, a third-century Rabbinic teaching she came across. The text speaks of an ancient pilgrimage ritual in which thousands of people would ascend to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The crowd would enter the temple courtyard and turn to the right, circling the enormous complex before exiting again.

Unless you were grieving. If all was not right in someone’s world, they would turn to the left, walking against the current. Every person they passed walking the opposite direction would stop and ask “What happened to you?” And the bereaved would answer, “I lost my mother,” or “I am lonely” or “My son is sick.” And those walking from right to left would look into the eyes of the suffering and say, “May God comfort you.”

It is profound, Brous notes, that this ritual calls for the grieving and suffering to show up, to be present, to be part of their community, when perhaps all they want to do is isolate. But it is also profound, she says, that this ritual requires the celebrating and the joyful to stop and pay attention. On this day of religious fervor, swept up in the emotion of being part of something larger than yourself, surrounded by thousands, overjoyed to have arrived at this destination, you are required to acknowledge the suffering one, to step into the discomfort of interacting with pain. You can’t avert your eyes. There is no protective spray. You must stop, make eye contact, and offer words of comfort.

“There is,” writes Brous, “a timeless wisdom in entering the sacred circle: this is, on some fundamental level, what it means to be human. Today, you walk from left to right. Tomorrow, it will be me. I hold you now, knowing that eventually, you’ll hold me. Every gesture of recognition marries love and humility, vulnerability and sacred responsibility” (p. 6).

The world holds much beauty, and also much to lament. Our lives are full of wonder, and also wilderness. There is magic in the woods, and there are mosquitoes. The people we meet may be circling to the right, or they may be circling to the left. Quite possibly they feel they should be going in both directions at the same time. And to be human, to be a human in community, is to show up and be present to both the rejoicing and the grieving, to engage, as Brous writes, “in the very holy work of not running away.”

So I’ll go into the woods with Ruby today, protected by bug spray from those dastardly mosquitoes. But as we walk along the creek and stand under the dappled light, I’ll ask God to help me think of those who may be circling to the left right now. And as Ruby and I make our creekside pilgrimage, I’ll lift those people up to God, and pray that I might have the courage to be present to them and help them hold the wonder and the wilderness.

Laura de Jong

Laura de Jong is the Pastor of Preaching and Worship at Community Christian Reformed Church in Kitchener, Ontario


  • Gloria J McCanna says:

    Ah, yes… a reminder for me to be aware of those walking to the left today…
    Thank you.

  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

    Over 30years ago, my then boss, Pastor Wes Kiel (now my husband) preached a sermon entitled: Sometimes you carry the litter and sometimes you are on the litter.

    Thank you Laura, well said.

  • Kathryn Vilela says:

    There is so very much to gain from stopping and paying attention. Thank you for this clear, gentle attention you’ve paid to the dappled-ness of our lives.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    This may stretch the point a bit, but having had knee replacement surgery two weeks ago, I have been somewhat helpless for the first time in my life. Our meal train at church has provided meals twice each week. Having taken more meals than I can count to people in our church, it has been a humbling experience to be on the receiving end for the first time. My walker is pushing against the current, with words of love spoken with each suceeding meal. “I hold you now, knowing that eventually, you’ll hold me”. Thanks for taking us for a walk.

    • Laura de Jong says:

      When I broke my thumb Julie showed up and started doing my dishes. I tried to protest and she took me by the shoulders, looked me dead in the eyes, and said, “Laura, you need to let people help you. It’s how we love each other.” I’ve never forgotten that! Hope you’re recovering well, friend.

  • Richard A Bodini says:

    I have been journeying through post sequelae covid (long covid) for 8 months. Not sure if I could enjoy some of the things I and my wife enjoy. Camping is one of them. So we rented a rustic cabin in Bon Echo last week for our vacation. The weather was wet and then turned warm and sunny. The mosquitoes were horrendous. However, the song birds were tremendous!!! There were 15 (some I’ve never heard or seen before) that eat mosquitoes as part of their diet. Thanks be to God for mosquitoes and for these song birds that I was able to enjoy from the confines of the screened vestibule in our cabin.

  • Judy Ponstine says:

    Beautifully said, Laura. Thank you.

  • Diane Dykgraaf says:

    “There is,” writes Brous, “a timeless wisdom in entering the sacred circle: this is, on some fundamental level, what it means to be human.” Beautiful, Laura. Thank you again for ‘nailing it’.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Living now among people in their 80s and 90s (and beyond!), we see daily “loving your neighbor” in action.
    Indeed – blessed are those who give–AND who receive!
    Thanks, Laura.

  • Heidi De Jonge says:

    Oh!!!! This walking to the left and meeting those walking to the right. I will hold this and talk about this and encourage others with it. Now I am wondering how this might be embodied liturgically in our “mutual greetings” or “passing of the peace” in our worship services. Right?! This is so holy and necessary.

  • Heather Kramer says:

    I lost my husband last Sunday. I am navigating the left path. Everything in me wants to roll into a ball and retreat. God grant me the courage to be held.

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