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We often find God, faith by bumping into things

by Paul Prather | January 28, 2023 at 2:46 a.m.

There's a story I've told many times, but I can't recall telling it here -- although maybe I have. The state of my memory ain't what it used to be. (And probably never was.)

Anyway, when I was a little child, 5 or 6 years old, occasionally on a Sunday we'd end up down in Pulaski County, Ky., at my grandparents' farm in time for dinner, which was what they called their noon meal. (The three daily meals were breakfast, dinner and supper. As far as I know, lunch didn't exist.)

I loved the farm and I loved to follow my grandfather anywhere he went on it. On these particular visits, he and I would traipse out to the chicken coop. He'd grab a fat hen and carry her back across the yard to a stump by the cellar house.

From somewhere -- this detail fails me now -- he'd produce a hatchet, press the hen onto the stump and whack! Her head would go one direction, her body another.

That bloody, headless body would hit the grass -- and then it would leap up and start running. I got a first-hand view of the expression "running around like a chicken with its head cut off." The image has stayed with me 60 years and counting.

The bird would flap her wings, run until she bumped into the wall of the cellar house or a fence or one of my grandma's potted plants. She'd fall down, jump up, and go blindly tearing across the yard again until she bumped into something else.

A town boy, I found this scary. I always thought she was chasing me. Heart pounding, I'd dash behind my grandfather and clutch the legs of his overalls.

Eventually the hen would seem to realize she was already dead and fall over one last time. At that point, Grandma would come outside and get the carcass. She'd scald it in a tub of steaming water, pluck off the feathers and finally fry up the remains into a platter of delicious fried chicken.

This memory has occurred to me as a metaphor, however imperfect, for various things in life. One is this: it reminds me of our own spiritual journey.

We learn the most valuable things not so much by embarking on a purposeful pilgrimage or a defined course of study -- although such pursuits have their place -- but by flopping blindly through life bumping into things. And falling down. And getting up and going on. And then hitting something else.

We tend to discern more about God, ourselves and the human condition by accident than on purpose. Life is its own best teacher.

You start some new job with the expectation of excelling at it. You have a well-thought-out career path. You can pretty well gauge when your first promotion should come, and the second, and so on right up the ladder to vice president of the company. You're optimistic and energized and the sky seems to be the limit.

But then you bump smack dab into a boss who, for reasons you couldn't have foreseen, doesn't like you. Maybe he's a narcissist. Maybe he's incompetent. He blocks your path upward and you can't get around him.

Before you've hardly sorted that out, your young, healthy husband suffers a stroke, and you find yourself taking care of him, being both mom and dad to your kids and paying astronomical medical bills that leave you frazzled in mind and spirit.

You're inching past those barriers when you discover your youngest child is on the spectrum and needs all manner of special attention you don't have the energy or the money to give her.

Once you thought you were shooting skyward to glory land, with visions of Mercedes and beach villas dancing in your head. Now, 10 years in, you find yourself barely able hold any job at all, flailing through life like that proverbial chicken with no head.

Finally, you realize that in this world you're as good as dead anyway, and you just surrender to the universe.

Congratulations. Gurus from nearly all faith traditions have agreed for millennia that this state of affairs is where we meet God. Here's where we uncover the great mysteries of the heavens.

Here we come to know ourselves, our fellow travelers and the cosmos itself in ways and in a depth we could never have imagined back in that moment when the planets were aligned in our favor and our attentions were consumed with shiny trinkets.

We're forced to behold, up close, our own weaknesses and failures.

We find that, having been knocked down so many times, we've acquired, instead of cars and mansions, an empathy for other people who've been knocked down, too. If we're fortunate, we find God there with us, closer than our own skin. He's in our hearts, in the midst of our pain, speaking peace to us. He's all we have.

We realize all the world is wracked by struggle, always, but that within our trials it's possible to discover lasting love, real meaning, unaccountable grace -- largely because the superficialities that used to distract us have been ground into dust.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling, Ky. You can email him at

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