This is the way
Reading sidewalks as a spiritual practice
by Ken Rummer
Fortune tellers read palms. Ancient Etruscans read the livers of sheep. I’ve been reading sidewalks.
Dark purple splatters? Evidence of a mulberry tree near by. BB-sized rounds crunching under foot? Choke cherry pits. And that gray, leaf-shaped stain, like the shadow of an object vaporized by a space alien’s destructo-beam? The calling card of a silver maple tree.
When I tripped on the sidewalk as a child, adult voices admonished, “Watch where you’re going.” It’s still good advice. And not just for hazards like shifted slabs and abandoned scooters. Watching where I’m going helps me notice other things, too.
That dark spot of dirt centered on a sidewalk crack means an ant colony is living and working under the concrete. That bright line of yellow spray paint warns of a gas line passing beneath the walk. And that scattering of cracked corn says the neighbor has put out fresh feed for the wild ducks.
In my youth, Simon and Garfunkel sang about finding prophetic words written on subway walls (“The Sound of Silence,” 1964). Could the same thing be possible with sidewalks?
I’ve seen words chalked on the walk, cheers of encouragement for the distance runners who train on this path. Are there any messages here for me?
I think I’m seeing, not in chalk but in Spirit marker, “This is the way. Walk in it.”
The words seem vaguely familiar. Something from the Bible? As it turns out, yes. The words echo a prophetic oracle preserved in the Book of Isaiah. They show up there as a future whisper in the ear.
“This is the way. Walk in it.” (Isaiah 30:21 NRSV).
A person facing a big decision might hear that as an answer-to-prayer word of guidance. But in my situation it feels more like a blessing, a confirmation of decisions already made.
I think back to the choices around retirement, like when is it time, and where will we live, and how much will it cost, and what will I do if I’m not doing what I’ve been doing for forty years. Big decisions.
But now, five-and-a-half years into retirement, I find that those decisions have lived well. My life has settled into a pace and a direction along mostly familiar paths, but with enough detours and adventures to keep things interesting. And I am feeling at home in this new territory, unexpectedly content.
“This is the way,” and I am on it. As an old Celtic journey-prayer puts it, “I on Thy path O God. Thou O God, in my steps.” (Esther De Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer).
I offer that prayer to you for wherever you find yourself on your journey. It’s a prayer for help in finding and following God’s path, and a prayer for God to walk with you, so closely as to leave but one set of foot prints together.
“I on Thy path O God. Thou O God, in my steps.”
Ken Rummer, a retired Presbyterian pastor, writes about life and faith from the middle of Iowa by the High Trestle Trail. To view other posts by this writer, go to