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During the long and difficult days of the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. and his family received daily death threats as he led the nonviolent assault on the city’s unjust labor practices. After one particularly difficult strategy session, which extended late into the night, he arrived home to a silent house, his family already asleep. Before he could join them, the phone rang: “Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.”[1]

Agitated and exhausted, fearing for his life, doubting his call to lead, and feeling utterly alone, he sat at his kitchen table to pray. As he prayed, he felt the overwhelming presence of God saying to him: “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.”[2] He learned that he was, in fact, not alone, that he had nothing to fear. He took the message to heart, and his fear melted away. This experience informed how he articulated a core tenet of his approach to nonviolent resistance, confirming to him that “the universe is on the side of justice,” and that anyone who stands up for justice knows that in that struggle they have “cosmic companionship.”[3] Years later, in a Christmas sermon, he returned to that language and broadened its scope in light of the Christmas story: “And so this is our faith, as we continue to hope for peace on earth and good will toward men: let us know that in the process we have cosmic companionship.”[4]

It is one thing to take MLK at his word. Unquestionably, his words have sustained the test of time and endured. They are trustworthy words indeed! But it is another thing entirely to experience for yourself the truth which his words so powerfully convey. Several years ago, I found myself in an existential crisis that was a distant echo of his—I wasn’t leading a movement of historical significance or receiving any death threats. I felt lost and alone. I needed to know I was wrong on both counts.

*          *          *          *          *

My experience began in the late spring of 2013 when I boarded a jet in Michigan bound for Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport. I went to begin my doctoral studies in Old Testament at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam with a two-month residency. I had rented an efficiency apartment in the vast student housing area, located about a 10-minute bike ride south of the university in a suburb called Amstelveen. The apartment was a 30-minute bike ride south of Amsterdam’s city center—one of the most diverse and complicated cities on earth with a long and fascinating history.[5] It was close enough to visit relatively easily, but far enough away to make it difficult to feel the pulse of the city and to walk along the grachten (canals) daily like a local.

The apartment’s best feature was its location adjacent to the Amstel River, from which Amsterdam derives its name. South of Amstelveen the river is wide and clear, flanked by gorgeous homes with elaborate gardens. The horizon is peppered with sheep and the occasional windmill, all under a big blue sky. One of my favorite memories from that summer was the long, leisurely bike rides I took each week on Shabbat along the Amstel—where I practiced riding without hands like I was nine years old again.

But all that came later. When I arrived in Amsterdam, I didn’t know a soul, and hadn’t heard of the Amstel. Trying to fall asleep that first night in a new apartment in a strange city in a foreign country on a continent I had never visited—without an international cell plan or Wi-Fi—I felt more alone than I had ever felt in my life. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that coming here had been a grave mistake. My wife had remained in Michigan. The chronic illness that had debilitated her for the past ten years also prevented her from traveling, so she spent the nine-weeks with my mom in Kalamazoo. I had abandoned her there to come here. For what? I couldn’t remember.

*          *          *          *          *

I had joined the teaching faculty at Western Theological Seminary three years prior and had found great fulfillment in the work of forming future leaders of the church through the texts and language of the Old Testament. But my contract was dependent on me starting and completing a Ph.D. What had seemed feasible on paper was terribly intimidating in real life. This was going to take too long and be too hard for me to complete alongside my teaching responsibilities. I was beginning to think that I had misheard the divine call. Had it been a wrong number? Had heaven butt-dialed me? Maybe I should start to imagine being something else when I grew up.

After a couple weeks, I had met a few people, but the loneliness and fish-out-of-water feeling had only intensified. One Sunday morning, as I rode my bike to the small English-speaking Anglican Church I had found online, I was soul-deep in self-pity. The old stories of “I’m not smart enough to complete a PhD!” and “I’ll never make friends here!” and “Why did I think this was a good idea?” were playing like a broken record in my mind. My feet pedaled faster and faster in a futile attempt to outrun them.

Self-pity has a way of promoting tunnel-vision. With my head down, feet pumping, and soul aching, I was caught in the downward spiral of my inner thought-world. As I crested a hill and began to descend, picking up speed as the bike path came alongside a canal, I was jolted back to my senses by the sudden presence of wildness. An enormous great blue heron had appeared, out of nowhere, right next to me. It glided above the canal in perfect alignment with me as if we were two lovers taking our daily walk along a familiar path. Its wings outstretched, effortlessly riding the invisible air, it seemed to reach out, as if from another realm, to pull me out of my dark tunnel and into its world, flush with light, pulsing with miracles. We continued “paralleling” like that for some time. The city life around us melted away. All I knew was the moment, the connection, the electric surge of wonder and delight coursing through my whole body, dissolving my fear and anxiety.

And then, it was gone. The moment ended. Our connection broke. But it had given its gift. I was transformed. The world had opened itself to me, revealing the presence of a Love that was—and had been—accompanying me along this journey into the unknown regions of heart and vocation. I knew beyond all doubt that in doing this work—which had brought me halfway around the globe and separated me from all that I knew and loved—I was not alone; I had “cosmic companionship.”

The heron was to me what the wild geese were to Mary Oliver, assuring her that she belonged, that she had a place “in the family of things.”

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.[6]

As important as it was for me to remember that I was not alone, the heron-visitation did more than that. It reminded me of the passion and the purpose that originally set me on the course that led to this empty apartment south of Amsterdam. It reminded me what it felt like to be truly alive, to be filled with wonder and delight, to feel the immediacy of connection and surprise. In the moment of our connection, the walls I had erected to protect myself from the lies that I had feared (that I wasn’t good enough, smart enough, disciplined enough, or tough enough) came crashing down. I found myself open to the world that had always been open to me.

To change the metaphor, it was as though the scales had fallen from my eyes and I could see the world and my place in it more clearly: I am a teacher who creates spaces of hospitality in which students can have meaningful encounters with the subject, each other, their own hearts, and ultimately the Spirit of God so that they might engage in faithful action in the world.

For perhaps the first time, I saw that my doctoral studies were integral to that vision. My studies were not just a necessary “means to an end,” or a side-hustle necessary to keep my job long-term. They were an opportunity for me to become more fully who I was called and created to be. Like MLK, I had a renewed sense of purpose and courage to face my (much smaller) fears head on.

Bringing this memory into conversation with MLK’s insight, as I have done here, adds another layer to the discovery. God not only spoke a word of personal comfort and confidence to MLK during his time of need, God’s visitation also empowered MLK to continue the public or corporate pursuit of justice—of inspiring others to engage in faithful and courageous action in the world on behalf of the oppressed.

So often we get captivated by only one half of an experience of visitation. Either we come away with a profound sense of God’s personal presence, comforting us and assuring us we are loved and not alone. Or we come away with a renewed conviction to engage the world by advocating for the oppressed and fighting social inequities. It is less common for the personal and the public, the devotional and the prophetic, to commune as they did for MLK. My own instinct leans toward the former (personal), and I have tended to associate this memory with the renewed awareness of cosmic accompaniment I received toward my vocation as a teacher and the role of the Ph.D in that process. MLK’s insight helps me stay oriented toward the horizon of my teaching’s impact: forming students who will lead the Church to partner with God in bringing about the kingdom of shalom, the foundation of which is justice.

*          *          *          *          *

Over the past several years I have also come to see my heron-encounter as a window into the Sabbath, for this clear-eyed vision is part of the Sabbath’s gift as well. It apprentices us to see and to engage in the world in alignment with the two-fold horizon of my heron visitation and MLK’s “kitchen table epiphany.”[7] On the one hand, the weekly practice of pausing and stepping back changes our perspective, giving us space to both see and remember what brings us delight—both within and beyond our work. The break from work reminds us we are more than what we do, and our lives are more expansive than the actions that produce our paycheck or the schedules which dominate our days. The movement toward delight reconnects us with our childlike wonder and keeps us connected to the people and the places and the things (the “nouns”) that bring us joy.

On the other hand, the Sabbath’s commitment to universal access to rest and delight exposes systemic inequalities—and the complicity of the privileged in protecting and perpetuating them. For too long our Sabbath practice and theology has been disconnected from the social, cultural, and political aspects of our lives. It has been reduced to private, individualized expressions of piety—or it has been abandoned altogether. But the Bible’s vision of the Sabbath is the seed of a new community, the blueprint for the New Jerusalem, the template for the good life.[8] It is the bride of shalom. And in the Bible, shalom is the flower nourished by the root of justice. The flower cannot grow if the root is malnourished. As Rob Muthiah put it, “We can never enter the fullest Sabbath rest until all our brothers and sisters around the world are able to rest as well. Until then, our rest is provisional.”[9]

*          *          *          *          *

We certainly cannot expect God to send us a heron messenger every time we feel lost or alone. How much more so if we consistently ignore the more subtle messengers God sends our way every moment of every day? To look at the world and fail to see it as “crammed with heaven,” as Elizabeth Barrett Browning famously put it, is like sitting around the burning bush and munching on blackberries.

                                              Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God:

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes;

The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries.[10]

If we practice slowing down and paying attention—if we truly take the Sabbath to heart—we will find that wild geese and herons and burning bushes are everywhere. The world is always offering itself to our imagination! Annie Dillard called these sightings “pennies,” the little glimpses of whimsy and wonder and delight that we so often overlook as common or worthless. The world is “planted in pennies,” she says.[11] And when we look for them, what we find is the Spirit of God, waiting in eager anticipation to speak to us through them, reminding us of what brings us life and joy, assuring us that we are not alone, and empowering us to live in such a way so that no one is alone, so that the root of justice is healthy enough to produce a bountiful harvest of shalom-blooms.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), 124.

[2] King, Stride Toward Freedom, 125.

[3] King, Stride Toward Freedom, 95.

[4] Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., ed. by James M. Washington (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1986), 257. Dr. King first delivered this sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he was co-pastor. It was aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on Christmas Eve, 1967.

[5] From the perspective of U.S. history, when Amsterdam’s Nieuwe Kerk (“New Church”) was built 600 years ago (15th century), you know you’re in a city with history.

[6] Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese,” in Devotions (New York: Penguin Press, 2017), 347.

[7] This is how my former professor, Tom Boogaart, described it in a lecture on MLK in his popular “Prophets” class. Tom Boogaart, “From Pastor to Prophet: The Awakening of King,” class lecture (March 27, 2008).

[8] See, for example, Leviticus 25 and the Year of Jubilee. See also Isaiah 58, which connects the Sabbath (and fasting) with commitments to social justice, and employs the metaphors of the sun rising and the devastated cities being rebuilt.

[9] Rob Muthiah, The Sabbath Experiment: Spiritual Formation for Living in a Non-Stop World (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), 57.

[10] Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh (Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1979, original copyright 1864), 265.

[11] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: HarperCollins, 1974), 17.

Travis West

Travis West is Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary.


  • Arika says:

    Such a beautiful reflection, Travis! Your words sent me back to my old worn-out copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which has brought me such joy and wonder in the 20+ years that it’s been part of my life. Your words also remind me of books I’ve loved by Barbara Brown Taylor and Wendell Berry and the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and of the way my heart expands when I’m in the midst of God’s people at Maple Ave. (you know what I mean!) as the Spirit breathes into and through us all in song and Scripture. Thank you for this reminder that herons and pennies are everywhere, and that the gift of seeing them is meant for more than just my own joy and contemplation.

    • Travis says:

      Thanks Arika! I love love love all the authors and books you listed – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, BBT, Wendell Berry, GMH, MAM!! So good. Thanks for reading, and for sharing in the energizing work of caring for words. You also share in the practice that Mary Oliver called her work: “which is mostly standing still and learning to be / astonished.”

  • Thomas Bartha says:

    Such a fine piece of writing, Travis. I read it slowly and pictured the various scenes along the way—Dr. King, and then your own feelings of aloneness and wondering, and your bike ride. The last time I biked anywhere was about two years ago, but I visually accompanied you. Anyways…thanks, and thanks also for your reminder to slow down and pay attention for God’s small gifts that surround us and that we can so easily miss.

    • Travis says:

      Hi Tom! Thank you so much for reading, and for ‘accompanying’ me through the journey of the story. I hope you’re well.

  • Thomas Bartha says:

    Such a fine piece of writing, Travis. I read it slowly and pictured the various scenes along the way—Dr. King at the kitchen table, and then your own feelings of aloneness and wondering, and your bike ride. The last time I biked anywhere was about two years ago, but I visually accompanied you. Anyways…thanks, and thanks also for your reminder to slow down and pay attention for God’s small gifts that surround us and that we can so easily miss.

  • Ann Conklin says:

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful story and experience of vulnerability, loneliness, and doubt with us, Travis. That inner dialogue can be tough to shake off and I am grateful you were able to do so. Sharing this helps all of us to do so more effectively also. It also helps us realize, once again, that *we* are not alone.
    I especially appreciated this insight: “It is less common for the personal and the public, the devotional and the prophetic, to commune as they did for MLK.” The pairing of personal/public with devotional/prophetic is very helpful. And it reminds me of an excellent book I am currently reading on the pastoral approach to prophetic preaching by Lenora Tubbs Tisdale. May the many blessings of our good and gracious God be with you! ~ Ann

    • Travis West says:

      Hi Ann! Thank you so much for your thoughtful engagement with the essay! I found MLK’s blending of the personal/public and devotional/prophetic to be both inspiring and convicting. I’m glad to hear you found it similarly illuminating! Also, would you recommend that book on prophetic preaching? It sounds great.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I was having a hard time in my second parish, in rural Wainfleet, Ontario. I was drained, nervous, and fearful. It was Holy Week, and I was riding my bike along Highway 3 to Dunnville. Suddenly to my right, in the shady woods along the road, a single beam of sunlight fell through the tree cover onto a couple of red spring flowers bright amidst the shadows. It was enough.

    Some years later, at my next charge in urban Hoboken NJ, I had a similar experience. Again it was Holy Week. I was empty. I had nothing for my Easter sermon. I was in my car, crawling in traffic through the industrial wasteland of Secaucus, “sanitary” landfills, derelict leftover wetlands, weeds, garbage, warehouses, pools of water, and when I stopped at a light for traffic to cross, and onto one dirty pool suddenly two ducks alighted. (Like Tony Soprano?) I was renewed. I got my sermon right there: “Of Two Ducks and the Resurrection.” I doubt anyone in my congregation got anything out of it, but it was for me.

    • Travis West says:

      Hi Daniel – thank you so much for sharing these moments from your own story, and how creation brought you home, as it were, to yourself, and filled you enough to fulfill the day’s responsibilities. I’m grateful it spoke to you and recalled for you similar experiences in your own life. Shalom!