The Walk: The Paths We Did Not Take

Walk 6.2
For the audio version of this sermon, click here.

Another day. The sun was streaming between the trees. The sky was a brilliant cerulean shade, high wispy clouds floating across the expanse. The display of nature, the creation of God reminded Max of an old saying from back home, “God was just showing off.” Indeed, the beautiful tapestry looked much like an artist rendering of the natural world. By all accounts, it would be a wonderful day to continue the March toward Mount Katadhin and the end of the trail.

It would be. Too bad he couldn’t enjoy it.

Max stared at the quarter inch tube, following it from the wall down the edge of the bed, and beneath the linens, into his left side. It started two days ago when he woke up at the Libby House Bed and Breakfast. He was picking up his pack and felt a twinge in his shoulder. He massaged the muscles for a moment and didn’t think any more of it until he tried to lift his pack. It felt like his arm just went dead, a sudden, sharp pain in his chest and a dull ache in his shoulder. His pack thudded to the floor and the innkeeper came running. A short ride up to the emergency room at the Androscoggin Valley Hospital in Berlin, New Hampshire revealed the cause of his pain: a collapsed lung.

Max couldn’t believe it when he was given the diagnosis but the ER doctor explained that most likely, there had been a birth defect on the upper portion of his lung. The stress of climbing up and down in elevation day in, day out journey had finally caused the little bubble at the top of his left lung to burst. It was a common enough occurrence in tall, thin, young men with a certain physique and Max fit the description for falling in the category. He would be out of the hospital in a few days but no heavy lifting for the next few months and no strenuous activity for the next six to eight weeks. Given that it was now into September, he was finished with his bid to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail for now. His parents were on their way to pick him up and take him home when he was released in a few days.

At first, he was furious, asking the doctors and nurses how long it would take for the lung to heal? Was it a complete collapse or just partial? Had anyone ever had this kind of injury and finished the trail? Finally, his doctor, a man most likely in his early fifties with a touch of gray around his temples, sat in a chair across the room and fix Max with a stern, paternal gaze.

“You’re done,” he said firmly. “There will be other opportunities. You’re young, healthy, and this will heal but for now, the trip is over. Go home and heal. Accept it and move on.”

Accept it and move on.

The thought stung, a sharp string of words that Max felt needling him inside. Like it or not, rail about it or not, the trip was over. He could continue to fight it or he could accept it and heal, perhaps try to thru-hike again next year or just finish the section he had left at the moment. Whatever the decision, Max had a year to figure it out. At the moment, a single plastic tube was making the decision for him. Connected to the wall, waiting for his ‘flat to reflate’, Max could take his time figuring it out.

An hour into the second day, Max was beginning to find a routine. The nursing staff had been great, keeping the necessities from his pack close by and plugging in his phone. He was writing in a journal that one of the nurses had bought from the gift shop downstairs, listening to one of the many playlists he had set up on his phone. He was trying to recount some of the moments or stories he wanted to remember or learn from during his time on the AT. Moments like meeting and periodically running into Jason, Liz, Chris, Sarah, and Stephanie or the man who gave him a lift when he got lost in Virginia; the time when he met Mick and spent what felt like an agonizing afternoon listening to a raving, annoying jerk who turned out in the end to be someone not too unlike himself; and the moment that all but left him paralyzed and heartbroken all over again at The Dartmouth Green in Hanover. Scraps of paper with social media contacts and phone numbers littered the top, outside pocket of his pack, scraps that he hoped would keep him touch with people from all over the United States and North America.

Max finished his journal entry for the moment and picked up his Bible, his closest companion on the journey and a conversation partner he had come to treasure more than before the hike. Time and usage in the elements had left what was once a well-conditioned volume rough and dog eared, with pages brittle from moisture and water, stained by dirt, food, and who knew what. Yet this only made the text more precious, special in a way that few things in his life had been. He found his way to the red ribbon, fraying on the bottom with threads sticking out in every direction and opened it to the text of Hebrews. A single, folded slip of paper fell out into his lap that read,

O my faith, my untamed knowledge, how shall I fly to your height and see with you man’s larger self pencilled upon the sky? How shall I turn this sea within me into mist, and move with you in space immeasurable? How can a prisoner within the temple behold its golden domes? How shall the heart of a fruit be stretched to envelop the fruit also? O my faith, I am in chains behind these bars of silver and ebony, and I cannot fly with you. Yet out of my heart you rise skyward, and it is my heart that holds you, and I shall be content.[1]

Underlined in his bible was the first two verses of Hebrews 11: “Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see. The elders in the past were approved because they showed faith.” From there, the chapter went on to talk of the great deeds the forefathers of the Jewish and Christian faith and the great faith that powered those deeds. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham & Sarah, Moses, Rahab and on and on through the prophets. With faith in God as their guiding light and strength,

“they conquered kingdoms, brought about justice, realized promises, shut the mouths of lions, put out raging fires, escaped from the edge of the sword, found strength in weakness, were mighty in war, and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured and refused to be released so they could gain a better resurrection.

But others experienced public shame by being taunted and whipped; they were even put in chains and in prison. They were stoned to death, they were cut in two, and they died by being murdered with swords. They went around wearing the skins of sheep and goats, needy, oppressed, and mistreated. The world didn’t deserve them. They wandered around in deserts, mountains, caves, and holes in the ground.”[2]

There was something about the practice of faith, particularly the practice of those who had the experiential faith written about in the Old Testament stories that gave Max pause to wonder about his own ideas of faith. Through the course of his life, faith was something conceptual, an assent to ideas that seemed to line up and make sense in a certain system of thoughts. Yet here was a list of fathers and mothers in the faith who had none of his theological training, none of the understanding or apparent understanding that comes with being able to look back at the past three millennia as a whole and see the history of the world and the faith since then.

What they did have, in the stories that were told, was an unwavering desire to be obedient to God, an obedience born of a faith that God was. That faith, that singular focus of belief, drove them to live lives that would be remarkable for their devotion to God and the stories told about them to be passed down from one generation to the next, eventually to be written down for posterity as examples of what it meant to be a follower of God as they had come to believe.

Max tried to make some comparison of his own life and found it frustrating. He was just getting started, not even thirty yet. Most of these stories were of people who had lived to an age where some maturity might be assumed. Then again, not everything these paragons of ancient Judaism did was commendable: liars, murderers, adulterers, prostitutes, and then some made up the list of those who were faithful. So, what was the thing to be sought after, to be admired in what they did?

They simply believed and acted on it when called to do so.

It really wasn’t any more complicated than that. When it really counted –when the time came for Abram to leave his home, for Moses to stand before pharaoh, for Rahab to risk her life to hide the spies, for Elijah to pray for fire from heaven – when the bet was made and someone had to answer, they saw it and called.

For Max, the time had come: fold or call. He had put off the decision long enough and now it was time to grow up, to begin ‘adulting’ as it were. In the moment or that decision, he found the other decision, one of the academy or parish to be made easier than he thought and in a way to satisfy both desires within him. He would finish his education by taking the next few years to finish his doctoral degree and stay in the process in order to use that knowledge in the church. There was no reason that he couldn’t serve God by using the talents he had for both so he chose both and the idea settled over his soul like a warm blanket on a frosty winter morning. This was the path, the way. The time on the trail had served its purpose and Max was now content, not willing to give up the trail completely but enough to give it up for now with the lessons learned tucked away in his mind.

The next day, Max was reading Gibran again, finding that the poet’s feel and meter was a fit for the beginning of this new season of the soul. His doctor had visited earlier in the morning and declared that there was no fluid in the chest cavity or the lung and so long as tomorrow’s x-ray showed the same as today, Max would be discharged. He was finishing the page when his parents walked in the room.

He heard the familiar baritone of his father’s voice, light hearted but slightly strained. “You know you could have saved yourself the trouble of being in the hospital and dropped in if you wanted to see us so badly.” His parents hugged him in turn and sat down.

“I like to keep things interesting,” Max said. “You guys would never go anywhere if I didn’t give you a reason to.”

His mother put her hand on his, “Next time, just plan a vacation or at least wait until later in the season. The leaves haven’t even started to turn yet.”

They started to catch up, his parents listening to a few anecdotes about taking a long walk in the woods when his father looked up and held out his hands. A set of car keys flew across the room and over the bed before falling into the older man’s hands. Silhouetted in the doorway was a familiar form, the hair shorter, but the face unmistakable. As were the jeans and Rolling Stones t-shirt. Max fought off tears as she walked across the room and sat on the end of the bed, careful not to jostle the IVs and chest tube, and took his hand.

“You know if you wanted my attention, I would have settled for an email.”

“Didn’t think you were the settling type,” Max smirked. “What are doing here?”

His mother, misunderstanding her son interjected nervously. “We needed an extra driver to get up here this quickly. She volunteered to help us get up here. I hope that’s okay.”

“Yeah, it’s okay.” Max answered, looking at Sarah. She looked just the same as she had the day they parted ways save the hair, and he realized a lot had changed on the trail. The selfish, childish college boy that wanted his way and no other way was left sitting in an apartment in Marietta. Maybe the man he had become on the trail, was becoming, could do a better job of seeing through the faith he was experiencing now. Maybe this new faith, a faith born of more than intellectual assent would give him something more to offer those around him, especially those that meant the most to him.

Max wrapped his other hand over Sarah’s. “It’s definitely okay.”


References

Gibran, Kahlil. The Complete Works of Kahlil Gibran: All Poems and Short Stories. New Delhi: General Press, 2016.


[1] (Gibran 2016, Kindle Loc: 3116-3121)

[2] Hebrews 11:33-38

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The Walk: Making Peace with the Past

Walk 5.2
For the audio version, click here.

Two days off. It was a great feeling to know that the extra miles he hiked and extra-long days through Pennsylvania and New York had given him enough wiggle room to take a day or two and rest before the final leg of his journey. It was a beautiful day, sunny and cool, certainly cool compared to back home, not even eighty degrees. Max leaned back and thought about how good it felt to sleep in a regular bed, waking up to a warm breakfast at the Hanover Inn, and now relaxing with a book under a stand of trees just off The Green at Dartmouth College. Even though it would add a few ounces to the pack (an ounce in the pack was two on the back), it was nice to have something new to read. He lifted the copy of Kahlil Gibran’s Thoughts and Meditations and read,

“Then the earth swayed under me and the sky trembled over me; whereupon I leaped up as though raised by a magic power. And I found myself in a meadow the like of which no human being has ever fancied.” (Gibran 1960, 72)

As he read on, Max read how in a dream or vision, the writer was transported to a world of fantasy, where the queen of this realm was the muse of creation and the creators of artistic words and verse from Isaiah the Prophet to Dante. At one point in this dream, the Queen gives the writer a kiss and says, “Tell them that he who passes not his days in the realm of dreams is a slave of the days.” (Gibran 1960, 75) He lowered the book and smirked. It was poetic and beautifully written, metaphorical, and deeply influenced by a romanticism that Max thought over the top sometimes but still enjoyable for its literary prowess. Apparently, Dartmouth was bringing out the literary critic in him.

He read for a while longer and after his legs began to fall asleep on him decided to take an impromptu tour of the campus. He walked north across the grassy fields between College Street and North Main Street until he came to the massive colonial building that declared itself the Baker-Berry Library. To Max it looked like a movie reproduction of some pre-Revolutionary meeting house for the future leaders of the United States. He followed the walkway toward the front of the building and heard something – someone – who stopped him in his tracks.

Max stopped suddenly and turned to face a crowd of people walking out of some auditorium. In the crowd, a voice, that voice, was talking among several others. He couldn’t see everyone in the group and found himself drifting toward them as the collection of students, professors, and others began dispersing. The last two people finished their conversation and walked away from one another as Max looked around, dumbfounded.

“Looking for something?” Max looked up to see a woman, most likely in her late forties or early fifties with short, cropped hair, smartly dressed in what was probably an off the rack Nordstrom pantsuit.

Max shook his head. “Not something, someone. I thought I heard…heard someone I knew.”

The woman smiled, something almost maternal. “Familiar environments can play tricks on us. Sometimes the mind pieces together things from places we’ve been and puts them together to help us deal with things we don’t really want to deal with.” She stuck out a hand, “Kem Webster, professor of psychology.”

“Max King, thru-hiker.”

“Nice to meet you Max.”

“Likewise.”

She turned to walk away and stopped. “Maybe hiking the trail has brought up something you didn’t know you needed to deal with. Too much time to think does that sometimes.”

Max heard the clicking of her heels on the walkway but his mind was somewhere else, seventeen hundred miles and five years away.

Max was still standing in front of the main library at Dartmouth but he wasn’t seeing the lush green landscape and colonial era buildings. He was in an apartment just off the Kennesaw State campus in Marietta. Sarah was standing in front of him, a lock of light chestnut hair covering her left eye, in her favorite jeans and Rolling Stones t-shirt, her face a combination of tears and frustration. Another fight, the third one in as many days. First it was rings (gold or platinum). Then it was the minister (Methodist or Episcopal). Then it was the location (First Methodist or St. John’s). Then…well, at this point he couldn’t remember. It was almost like Max and Sarah made the decision to get married and divorced at the same time. Things were fine until the day after he knelt down in the middle of the square and placed a sparkling diamond on her hand. In that moment, something happened, call it jitters, call it whatever, but something about moving from seriously dating to seriously getting married led their relationship careening off an emotional cliff.

They tried talking to his family, her family, close friends, each other’s ministers. They went to counseling. They did premarital studies. They tried. In the end, Max found himself standing in her apartment, holding a ring in his hand with tears sliding down his face as she held her hands in her face and cried. A few months later, Max made the decision to continue on with his plans and go to seminary. He kept his mind on work at a local church, the candidacy process, and seminary for the next four years. Now, with all that behind him, he found himself back where he started, a moment in his life that eventually led him on a long walk in the woods.

Despite his bewildered state, Max managed to find his way back to the Inn. After the better part of nearly five years, he had thought he was over this, past the past and moving on, but it certainly didn’t feel like it. After thinking about the professor’s words back at the campus, he realized all the solitude had allowed his mind to work its way around to things that he thought buried and gone. Max was all about moving forward, not looking back, not being nostalgic but progressive. Yet, here he was, sitting on a hotel bed in New England, a Gideon’s Bible in his hands, looking for comfort.

Apparently, he wasn’t the first. Max noticed a bookmark, actually a menu for a local pizza place, tucked in between the pages. When the pages parted, he found himself looking at the first chapter of Galatians. He read the beginning, the part where Paul is trying to establish that he doesn’t need to be authorized by the Jerusalem church to preach the gospel but that he, Paul, was authorized by his call of God. He kept reading until he got through with the part about Paul’s past,

“You heard about my previous life in Judaism, how severely I harassed God’s church and tried to destroy it.  I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my peers, because I was much more militant about the traditions of my ancestors.” (Galatians 1:13-14)

Max thought about that for a moment. Here was a man who had given up everything he had worked for through his early life to embrace a new way of life, started over with a new message, and was being told that wasn’t enough for him to be. Paul was once the great persecutor of the church, able to bring charges of heresy against any found not following the law as he, Paul, saw fit. Paul was a Jew’s Jew, a man schooled in the ancient teachings and traditions to the point that few had his skill and understanding in interpreting and debating the Scriptures and traditions. Yet, here he was, having to live down that past: the stoning of Stephen, the harassment of men, women, and children in their homes and places of worship, single handedly being able to dismiss people from the synagogue on his word alone.

How many people hated the sound of his name? How many people spat on the ground he walked on? How many people were unwilling, unable to acknowledge this change of person and being? Paul, no matter how devoted to his new faith and cause, most likely never lived down his past life. Yet, he kept going. Why?

Then it dawned on him and Max felt silly. It was something Paul had written to the Corinthians as a reminder of who they were and were expected now to be, “…if anyone is in Christ”, if you are now a person who chooses to live and be as Jesus was, “that person is part of the new creation…In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ…The old things are gone away, and look, new things have arrived.” (2 Corinthians 5:17, 19) Paul was living in the now, not the then. Paul was embracing the moment and the opportunities that existed in the moment. He hadn’t forgotten the past or the things that had happened, he simply came to terms with them, accepted that he had made mistakes, and moved on.

Max put the Bible back in the drawer and walked to the window. The afternoon was fading away into early evening and the lights of the little college town of Hanover were beginning to sporadically come to life. Max came to realize that in running away to work, to school, even to the trail itself, he was trying to get away from that moment and others like it. But memory holds the past even when we try to let it go. The best Max could hope for was to make peace with his parts in the past and live into the new being he was and was becoming.

He picked up his new copy of Gibran and flipped through a few pages, landing on a story called My Soul Preached to Me.

“My soul spoke to me and said, ‘Do not measure time by saying, ‘There was yesterday, and there shall be tomorrow.’

And ere my soul spoke to me, I imagined the Past as an epoch that never returned, and the Future as one that could never be reached.

Now I realize that the present moment contains all time and within it all that can be hoped for, done, and realized.” (Gibran 1960, 30)

It was in the moment that Max was being called to live. It was not in the past where things which have been done cannot be undone, not in the future where things that have not happened are not yet known, but in the now, where the decision can be made to live of rich fullness in faith.

He let the tears flow, releasing a torrent of emotions held in check for nearly five years now. It was cathartic. It was freeing. It was. And in the moment, simply being present with those feelings was enough to let go of them.


References

Bultmann, Rudolph. Primitive Christianity. 17th. Cleveland, OH: William Collins Publishers, 1956.

Gibran, Kahlil. Thoughts and Mediations. New York: Citadel Press, 1960.

 

The Walk: Sharing the Path

Walk 4.2
Image found at Roger Gorey’s Appalachian Trail Hike. For sermon audio, click here.

Max was fourteen miles into a seventeen-mile day with the hope of reaching the Ironmasters Mansion Hostel before four. He had gotten up earlier than usual and skipped his usual lunch break to be in line early early and get a decent room when the hostel opened at five. He was a little past the halfway mark on the Appalachian Trail, somewhere on the outskirts of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the weather was decent for this time of year, around eighty degrees. Back home in Marietta, it would have been sweltering, nineties with excessive humidity but this was okay even if he was outside all day. His goal was within reach, two o’clock in the afternoon and from what he could tell by the mile markers he only had six miles to go.

“Day hikers, am I right?”

Max blinked back to reality from his reverie.  A hiker he had never met had walked up next to him and was nodding at a group of twenty-somethings carrying water bottles and day packs. The guy used his walking stick to point at them. “They have no trail etiquette, you know? Just block the whole trail, while they go on their little afternoon walk.”

Max shrugged, “Long as I get to Ironmasters by four, they can walk the trail backwards.”

“Yeah, well. Still not right,” the guy offered.

Max didn’t like the tone of the guy, a sort of elitist, know-it-all type. He caught up with the group ahead and called out, “On your left,” as he closed on them. The group shifted right, single file and Max tipped his hat and nodded, the other guy following not far behind. Max was hoping that being past the group and now ahead of the guy, The man would either slow down or pass and Max could get back to enjoying his thoughts in silence. No such luck. The guy pulled alongside and introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Mick.”

“I’m Max.” He was hoping Mick would leave it at that but apparently, Mick was in the mood for conversation. He started in on day hikers and why they needed to learn the rules for thru-hikers, proper equipment for the weather, the history of Pennsylvania, and a ridiculous plethora of facts both trivial and mundane. He corrected Max’s stride and told him what gear he should be replacing. He told Max that his shoes were wearing thin and he needed some new ones. He was just about on Max’s last nerve when the trail opened and he saw the roof of the hostel. Max looked at his watch. Ten after four. It would be nearly an hour before check-in. Max found a group of people already lining up, packs unslung and leaning against the wall. Max decided to duck into the restroom and let Mick get in line ahead of him. Hopefully, he would find another person to annoy.

Max stepped out of the restroom to find Mick sitting at the end of the line grumbling to himself. Max was sure this would be the longest hour of his life but he wanted to make sure he got a room so he dropped his pack next to Mick and slumped down on the porch.

Mick leaned over conspiratorially, “The nerve of this guy over here,” he said. “Telling me he doesn’t want to listen to some loud mouth know-it-all. Telling me to shut up, he didn’t want to hear it. It’s rude man, just rude.”

By way of commiseration Max simply offer, “Mmm.”

Mick droned on for the better part of half an hour with Max interjecting the occasional grunt or “Mmmm” or “Uh, huh”. Then came the silence. Max didn’t notice it at first but then he started catching snatches of other conversation and realized that Mick wasn’t talking anymore. He turned to see the other man, previously talking non-stop, staring silently into the trees behind the building.

Max asked, “You okay? You stopped talking.”

“You stopped listening, if you ever were.” With that Mick stood up and walked away, leaving his pack as a placeholder. Just before the doors opened, he showed up again and slung his gear on his shoulder. Max watched him go through the line, get a room, and walk back outside. He got his own room and started out the door to find Mick waiting at the bottom of the stairwell.

“You know if people actually listened, really listened, to what other people were saying, we might get along better.” Mick turned and walked up the stairs not waiting for a response and in his confusion and annoyance, Max didn’t offer one.

Dinner at the Ironmaster was the same every night: pizza, a drink, and fruit or salad. Max pulled off individual pieces of pepperoni, dragging cheese with it and leaving a piece of marinara covered crust on his plate. The conversation with Mick left him feeling irritated. Who was he to Mick anyway? He just met the guy today. It wasn’t like they were lifelong friends who were out here on some bonding expedition. Mick was just some mouthy, irritating person he happened to cross paths with. Getting along with people you knew was one thing, you have to try and maintain relationships for the sake of your own community and sometimes for your own sanity. But nothing said he had to pretend to like someone who was constantly mouthing off and criticizing everything he saw. The only thing they had in common was humanity and Max wasn’t one hundred percent sure of that.

There was little left on the pizza other than a small, amoeba looking glop of cheese, smeared marinara, and what was now a cold, hardening crust.  There was also little left of his anger, the subsiding antagonism being replaced by a cold, empty sort of feeling. Max left the table and went upstairs to find a decent bunk and get in some reading before going to sleep.

As it turned out, there were no top bunks left. With only twenty-eight bunks in the manse, the top ones went fast. He settled for a lower bunk in the corner and stowed his gear underneath the bed. Electronics are scarcely used on the AT given that it’s rare to find a place to charge them. For the most part, Max kept his phone turned off and in a cargo pocket, sporadically taking it out to snap a picture, chronicling something he wanted to remember better. Staying in a hostel afforded him an opening to check emails, download and listen to a podcast, catch up on news from the outside world. Since he had the chance, Max plugged his phone into a wall outlet to charge and decided to listen to the Bible rather than read it this evening.

He closed his eyes and tried to imagine the scene he was listening to from Acts. He tried to imagine James the brother of Jesus, Simon, Peter, Paul, and Barnabas along with a host of other early church leaders, attempting to hash out this disagreement over circumcision and the Jewish Law. He tried to imagine the arguing and wrangling as the Judean believers advocated the teaching and custom of circumcision as given to the Jews by Moses and the others advocated on behalf of the new Gentile brethren who had never dealt with or perhaps even heard of such a custom. If it was like most religious debates, it was probably a heated exchange at times. He remembered the story from Church History about how Saint Nicolaus (the for whom Santa Claus is named) punched the early church father Arius during the Nicene Council a few hundred years after the council he was now hearing about. No one was punched at Jerusalem, however. Yet, the discussion was probably tense at times and the outcome while unanimous on the part of the apostles and elders (the Judeans may or may not have had a seat at the table). The issue didn’t go away overnight, since Paul addresses it several times in his letters and he and other early church leaders probably had to deal with people who would become known as Judaizers, who continued to insist on following the law as Jews, especially circumcision, after becoming followers of Jesus.

Max considered all the cultural / theological clashes of the church in his own lifetime: worship wars over the kind of music played in churches, culture wars over LGBTQI individuals in the church or in church leadership, theological disagreements around hermeneutics or interpretive methods and stances. The list could on but the truth is it seemed like the church was always fighting. And it seemed to be doing so from a place of fear: fear over changing a long-standing tradition, fear over losing someone to hell for an erroneous belief, fear of belonging to a church or denomination that no longer shared your beliefs, fear that we will have either offended God or our fellow man because of our belief. The greatest fear, at least to Max, was the fear of being wrong and having to deal with the consequences on a personal level. What if I should have thought this instead of that? What if I should have accepted this person or denied that one? What if I have it all wrong?

This last thought seemed to resonate with so many situations throughout the history of church, the need to get it right. Whether to protect the souls of the people or the institution or any number of other things, fear often lead to building walls to hide behind or to attack from. While the early church managed to find a place of agreement and reconciliation (at least among the leadership), Max had to lament the current state of things. But what could he do? How could he change the face, the landscape of the greater church? Sure, he could be a minister in a local parish or seek to become an academic, but he would be just one more voice crying out in a wilderness of voices, another instrument in a mad symphony of noise rather than music.

And the truth was, this was not the early church anymore. Centuries of culture, politics, and history have buried the message, the real message beneath interpretations born of fear and control. So, what could he do? The thoughts bounced around the inside his head and eventually he found himself falling asleep, the combination of mental and physical exertion too much to overcome.

Max awoke with a start, forgot where he was in the darkness, and cracked his head on the bunk above him. With whispered apologies, he got out of bed and wandered from the bunk room, down the hallway, and out into the early morning air. It was getting warmer, slightly muggy, but overall quiet. In the stillness, he began to realize the issue last night was a momentary lapse of reasoning. He had forgotten one of the simplest, most fundamental expressions of Christianity and his own faith walk: love God, love neighbor.

All the things that were right about the Christian faith were wrapped up in this phrase that went back to the time of Jesus and before. Max had memorized a few of these expressions,

‘What is hateful to thee, do not do to anyone else: this is the whole law and the rest is commentary.’ – Rabbi Hillel

‘It makes no difference whether one does little or much, so long as one’s heart is fixed on God.’ – Johanen ben Zaccai

‘Whosoever in his dealings and behavior with the creatures is guided by faithfulness is accounted as having fulfilled the whole Torah.’

‘And what does God really require? Love. The second commandment, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ is inseperable from the first, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength’ (Mark 12.28-34) There is no need for formulated definitions.’ (Bultmann 1956, 67)

It all came back to this one simple idea: all the issues of the church, the culture, and the world find their solution in love. If we can love God, Adonai, the divine, however you want to express your understanding of the higher power and we can love one another, we can change what is truly wrong with ourselves and the world around us. The early church found an expression of love for God in Jesus and his teaching and they lost their way, we lost our way, when that expression was lost in politics, doctrines, and institutions. Is having organization and understanding our beliefs necessary? Yes. Do we worship them, no.

As Mick came from his room and began the decent downstairs, Max realized something about all his angst from the previous night. He had no idea where Mick was coming from? Mick brought all sorts of things from his own personal experience to the trail just like we all bring to life. Max had no clue what pain, what hurts, what things might have caused Mick to be the way he was but most likely it had to do with being hurt. Max thought about his own reaction. It was probably brought on by exhaustion. No one thinks clearly when they are wiped out. But more importantly, it became a reminder of what his faith was about, what the early faith was about: Spirit led, Jesus guided worship and love of God and love for those around us. We can’t fix it all, but we can fix what we can fix.

As Mick reached the bottom of the stairs, Max motioned at the kitchen, “Hungry?” It was the little things that would make the difference, the little things like seeing someone as being beloved of God and therefore our neighbor.


References

Augustine, Saint. De Doctrina Christiana. Translated by Edmund Hill O.P. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press of the Focolare, 1996.

Bultmann, Rudolph. Primitive Christianity. 17th. Cleveland, OH: William Collins Publishers, 1956.

Willimon, William H. Acts: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

 

The Walk: Pointing to the Path

The Walk 3.3
For the audio version of this sermon, click here.

One foot in front of the other.

The words had been the mantra of the past hundred miles as Max languished in the summer heat. He was now between the Campbell Shelter and Lambert’s Meadow Shelter, averaging about 15 miles a day now as the hot, mid-June sun filtered through the Virginia pines and poplars. The forty-eighth day of the journey was better than the first for certain, Max was stronger, breathing easier on the trail but he was feeling haggard, worn down. He had misjudged the amount of food he needed when he last restocked and was now having to wait until the next day when he passed through Daleville to resupply and maybe even drop into the Cracker Barrel while he was there. Before that however, he had to get to Lambert’s Meadow some five miles away and get through the night.

Max was running out of water for the day, the hot, humid air taking a toll on him and forcing him to empty his CamelBak faster than he planned. He stopped for a moment and took out his trail map, finding what looked to be a river that ran out of the Carvin’s Cove Resevoir below him in the valley to his right. Up ahead, a part in the underbrush showed a narrow trail off in the direction of the river and Max decided that five miles was too far to go without water in the heat. The trail map seemed to show the river going in the same direction as the trail. Since the trail that led to the river looked to be only a mile or so away, he decided it was worth the detour.

The trail went from narrow to pig trail to occasional spots of dirt in the same direction. Max was beginning to get nervous as he tried to keep one eye on the afternoon sun and the other on the sparse signs leading him along. The underbrush was getting thicker, bushes and vines raking his legs as tried to maintain a direct course toward the water below. A slight embankment began to turn into a cliff as Max found the end of his trail, dropping eight feet down. Max thought about turning back. There was no way to know if there was a way back up the sheer face and onto the trace leading back to the main trail. His watch said it was three o’clock, plenty of time to get water and get to the shelter but only if he found a way back that was close to the trail. Otherwise, he would have to take the chance that he could follow the map and find a trail upriver. His other option was to turn back and hike the now six miles without water.

Max decided he had come too far. He grabbed a vine that hung out over the edge of the embankment and lowered himself over, dropping the other two or maybe three feet. The landing with the heavy pack jarred and left him with a momentary aching in his arms and legs. He looked back toward the goal, got his legs back under him, and dug out the map. According to what he was seeing, he should already be on top of the water, in fact he should have already heard it. He walked on, picking his way along around trees and rocks, the brush becoming increasingly dense in places and thinning out in others. He stopped, listening for the sound of water, and heard the faint sound of something in the distance. Hope was a word he rarely used outside of theological discussions but with a dry water pack and dwindling food the word seemed appropriate. It was growing louder, more distinct, and Max was now undeniably sure he heard…a truck?

A truck? he thought. Going forward another hundred yards led him to the edge of a country blacktop road. To his left was a sign that proclaimed the stretch of road he was standing on was part of Virginia Highway 740. You have got to be kidding me? He didn’t know whether he was going to laugh or cry or scream or all three and by the time he figured it out, he had slung off his pack and thrown it down the road. He did nothing to stop the primal scream from escaping his throat, yelling at everything and nothing. Max shoved his hand into his cargo pocket and jerked the map out crumpling it into a ball as he did. Another look and his mistake was obvious. In his exhaustion and fear of running out of supplies, Max had missed the subtle difference in color between the light grey used for roads and highways and the light blue used for bodies of water. Strings of the most colorful language began to compose themselves in his mind as he gritted his teeth and clenched his fists. It was then that Max heard another vehicle approaching and an older man in a pickup pulled up alongside him. The man looked up the road and saw the pack lying on the ground, the crumpled map in hand, and made a Sherlockian deduction.

“Lost, huh”, the driver said.

Max let out a long breath, nodded his head and replied, “Yeah, lost.”

The man nodded toward the pack, “You a thru-hiker or just doing a stretch?”

“Thru-hiker,” Max answered. “I was running low on food and just about out of water. I thought the reservoir ran into a creek or river or at least that’s the way I read the map.”

The man smiled, “Easy mistake to make when you’re tired.” He jerked a thumb toward the bed of the truck. “Toss your gear in the back and I’ll give you a ride. I was on my way into town over at Daleville.”

No one was playing a banjo in the vicinity so Max grabbed his gear, tossed it in the back of the pickup and got in the cab. The man was mostly quiet and kept to himself, asking Max a few questions about where he from and other expressions of polite conversation. After a short drive, Max found himself at the Daleville Quality Inn across the parking lot from Cracker Barrel. He thanked the man who offered him a bit of simple advice, Next time, just stay on the trail.

Max lay back on the bed in his hotel room and stared mindlessly at Sports Center playing on the television. He was full, having eaten the largest dinner he could find on the menu at Cracker Barrel and planning on dropping in for breakfast before he headed back to the trail tomorrow. He had planned a short day of hiking tomorrow since Outdoor Trails didn’t open until 10:00 and frankly, he could use the rest.

He grabbed his bible from the nightstand, grabbed the ribbon marking his place and started reading. The story was familiar and in this case apropos to the last twenty-four hours. It was the story of Philip and the Ethiopian from Acts where God miraculously places Philip on the highway going out of Jerusalem to meet an Ethiopian official. The Ethiopian is reading from Isaiah, perhaps a scroll he purchased in Jerusalem, something that would been costly at the time. If that is the case, it was a lot of money to spend on something he couldn’t understand. It would be like Max buying a book on advanced calculus when he had problems keeping his checkbook straight. Max read and reread the same few verses repeatedly, trying to truly digest them,

Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you really understand what you are reading?” The man replied, “Without someone to guide me, how could I?” Then he invited Philip to climb up and sit with him.[1]

Philip seemed to have one purpose, one reason for chasing down a carriage on the highway: to be a guide for the Ethiopian. The story points to Philip being the person called to the situation to offer insight on what might have continued to be a confusing book to read. The Ethiopian hears the explanation, which seems to make sense to him and responds to it, asking to be baptized in a body of water along the road, at which point Philip disappears and the Ethiopian goes on his way. According to tradition, this is the Ethiopian that brought what would become a thriving Christianity to central Africa before the Muslims came some six or seven centuries later.

Without someone to guide me. The words rang in his mind, especially after the day he had. If it weren’t for the older man in the pickup, he might still be wandering around trying to find the trail. But it was more than today that Max thought of. All along the journey of faith, he could point to times, places, and people that helped him to shift his direction just enough to find the right way to go. Teachers, friends, family, the list jumbled into his mind, faces of people who had been instrumental in shaping his life up to the very moment he was experiencing now. If truly takes a village to raise and nurture someone, his village was fairly large.

Max noticed a note written in the margins, a quote from a seminary book he assumed, “There are two things which all treatment of Scripture is aiming at: a way to discover what needs to be understood, and a way to put across to others what has been understood.” (Augustine 1996, p.106) In other words, there is something that must be said and there is a way to express the something. For the Ethiopian, Philip was the person to explain the something that he had found while reading Isaiah. Philip came alongside the Ethiopian to point him on the right path, down the right trail. Max thought about the man in the pickup and realized that he was so tired, so mentally and physically wiped out that he never got the man’s name, never asked. Yet, the man had taken him back to the trail, to a place where Max could find his way again.

Really, that was what the story was about, one man helping another find his way. Philip was chosen to be a deacon, literally “one who serves another”, and Philip was living into that by going across the land, preaching the gospel. As he went, he was helping people find their way to a better life in understanding who Jesus was, what Jesus taught, how Jesus died, and what that meant. It was something all Christians were called to do but for Philip, it was a holy calling that his entire life should about showing people the Way. This was the same calling Max answered but it was a calling to not only offer directions but take them as well. Sometimes he would need people to point the way, or at the very least, show him the difference between light grey and light blue on the map.

It was late afternoon, two days later, when Max ran into Chris and the twins at the Fullhardt Knob Shelter. He had spent an extra day and night at the hotel, opting to read the map more carefully and finding that the next shelter after Daleville was a solid fourteen miles and then some. The usual routine came back to him, along with the aches and pains but he was better stocked and had the experience of having been off kilter to put things into perspective. As he settled in for that night after an evening of catching up, Max fell asleep to the sounds of tree frogs and crickets, and the knowledge that sometimes you give directions, sometimes you take them, but you should always stay on, or at least close, to the trail.


References

Augustine, Saint. De Doctrina Christiana. Translated by Edmund Hill O.P. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press of the Focolare, 1996.

Hanson, Paul. Isaiah 40–66 | Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.

Lindsey, F. Duane. “The Career of the Servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12.” Bibliotheca Sacra 139, no. 552 (Oct. 1982): 312-329.

Lindsey, F. Duane. “The Commission of the Servant.” Bibliotheca Sacra, April-June 1982: 129-145.

Palmer, Parker. Let Your Life Speak. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2000.

Willimon, William H. Acts: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.


[1] Acts 8:30-31

The Walk: The Hard Spots

Walk 2.3
For the audio version, click here.

Before leaving on the grand adventure, Max had read up a little about the Appalachian Trail or AT as the diehards called it. Started in the 1920’s, it runs from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katadhin in Maine and took a decade to finish. There are thirty-one trail clubs that maintain the AT using countless volunteers across fourteen states with trail extensions that can be hiked all the way into Canada. Of all the people who attempt it, only 10-15% actually report to the Trail Conservancy that they have ‘thru-hiked’ the trail or made it from one end to the other in a single trek.

One hundred forty-four miles, Max thought to himself, leaning against the rough bark of a loblolly pine. He was ten days on the trail now and starting to get stronger, waking earlier and going longer into the day before stopping. The first few days he only made ten miles a day, getting used to the trail, the heat. The pace was picking up though, and Max found himself clocking in at closer to fourteen or fifteen miles the past few days. He was at Sassafras Gap, a thousand feet higher than where he started at Springer Mountain and what was beginning to feel like a lifetime ago.

The aches in his body were beginning to feel like a part of his normal everyday life. His back hurt for the first hour or so from sleeping flat on wooden slat all night. His shoulders throbbed under the weight of water and supplies. By the end of the day, his feet were on fire. Only the middle of May and already the temperature was climbing well into the eighties during the day and the hundred twenties in his hiking boots or so it seemed. But Max was finding a routine, a daily pattern to stave off the madness and exhaustion. The routine was get his bag in a prime spot in the shelter (for Max as high as possible on the edges), get his water for the next day, make a freeze dried culinary masterpiece, and read until dark, the Bible, one of the other three books he had, or some combination thereof.

This evening he was starting with the obligatory and oft hated tome of the trail, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. ‘Real hikers’ disliked Bryson for any of a number of reasons: because many thru-hikers aspire to writing a novel about their own journey, because Bryson didn’t even hike the whole trail (he only did a “pitiful” 870 miles of it, a good chunk of which was on day hikes, presumably whilst pounding cupcakes and whistling Dixie), and because he was only doing it for the money.[1] Max didn’t really care about that. He found Bryson relatable and funny and saw much of the truth behind the tales of woe and hiking. One of Bryson’s quotes he read that evening was,

“Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception. The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of fellow hikers know. Planetary scale is your little secret.

Life takes on a neat simplicity, too. Time ceases to have any meaning. When it is dark, you go to bed, and when it is light again you get up, and everything in between is just in between. It’s quite wonderful, really.” (Bryson 2006)

Dark was beginning to settle over the trail and others were gathering around the shelter, warming themselves by the fire pit and other necessary chores to end today or begin tomorrow. Max talked briefly with some of them: there was Jason, a college student from Kansas taking a break from his studies to ‘see the world’; Liz, an artist from New York working in Atlanta, who wasn’t sure she wanted to be an artist anymore; Sarah and Stephanie, twins from Virginia taking a break from their family lives to celebrate their thirtieth birthday later that summer; and finally, Chris, a farm hand from Nebraska looking for something else to do with his life. The six of them had been traveling together off and on for the past week, catching up and falling behind one another day in and out. Meeting and getting to know people on the trail was part of the experience, a welcome distraction at the beginning and end of the day.

Max left the tree and wandered up into the loft, the sound of conversation drifting in and out of his ears as he situated elastic band lamp to his forehead. He pulled out the thin line, small print bible he was carrying as well as the reading glasses he was becoming dependent on for reading smaller print books. He found himself perusing the story of Stephen in Acts, the tale of a young man who was chosen as a deacon (literally a servant of the church) for being ‘endowed by the Holy Spirit’ and having ‘exceptional faith.’ Max read along in chapter six of Acts, “Stephen, who stood out among the believers for the way God’s grace was at work in his life and for his exceptional endowment with divine power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.”[2] As the story went on from there, he noted Stephen’s trial and execution by the Jerusalem Council, how Stephen remained a man of the Spirit in the face of great peril and difficulty, how he spoke eloquently of his faith even in the face of death when the writer of Acts records him saying, “Lord Jesus, accept my life!…Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!

The story brought to mind the idea of sacrifice and what it was to really give up something for the greater good of yourself or others. Max switched off the headlamp and stared at the faces of his fellow travelers, gently illuminated by the dying embers against the inkwell blackness of night. Each of them came from somewhere, was going somewhere, and was giving up something to do it. They were giving up on the past, giving up time with their families, giving up a way of life. In some way, each was sacrificing something in order to be on the trail and maybe trying to sacrifice something while they were trekking through the wilderness. Jason and Chris were potentially sacrificing a job; Liz, a way of life; the twins, a summer with family; and Max, what was he sacrificing? What does it look like when one is living a sacrificial life?

He turned the light back on and flipped the pages back to the passage in Acts six and looked over the life of Stephen as recorded there. He read over the two chapters, noting several things that repeated themselves throughout. First off, Stephen had the aid of the Holy Spirit. Every time his name was mentioned, there was some remark about how the Holy Spirit or something divine was at work in his life. Half a dozen times there was a mention of how Stephen was getting divine aid in his life and speech. Max imagined that someone who was that plugged in to the divine must have been pretty comfortable with most everything in their life. He may have been scared by the potential outcome of his trial but Stephen was certainly portrayed as a man whose connection to the Spirit of God probably made sacrificing himself a lot easier.

Sacrifice in this case was a way a life in that Stephen was given over to the presence of God in his life in such a way that nothing, not even the threat of death was enough to deter him from giving himself to God. And that was the definition of sacrifice, literally ‘to make one holy’ or to make one set apart. Stephen was being set apart as a deacon for service and set apart as a martyr in the story for the early church. Max looked at his own life, what was he doing to be made holy or set apart. Sure, he was going into ministry, one way or the other, but lots of people went into ministry and did it for reasons that had nothing to with becoming a person who was given to God to be used in the Kingdom. Sacrifice, true sacrifice would call him not only to choose to live it on the outside but also to be set apart on the inside, a man made holy internally, changed in the fiber of his being, as Stephen was changed by the presence of God. And it would be this presence, this closeness to God, the closeness of Stephen that would change him.

The other thing Max noticed about Stephen was a result of this being set apart: Stephen was a man of ‘exceptional faith’, as the writer of Acts noted. Stephen was reported to have divine power and perform wonders and signs among the people. Sure, the story would point to the Holy Spirit being the source of those abilities and for that matter the one performing the miraculous acts. But it would be Stephen who made himself a vessel for the Spirit by his faithfulness. A quote he remembered said, “…the story of Stephen reminds us practitioners of polite, civil, mentally balanced religion that once there were Christians who quite joyfully parted possessions, family, friends, even life itself in order to remain faithful.” (Willimon 2010, 66) Stephen lived this, losing everything including his life to remain faithful, to be set apart for God.

Max looked up from his reverie to find the others making their way toward the cabin like shelter, open on the front side, allowing a warm breeze to blow through the slightly spaced boards. The fire was dying down, a few bright coals still glowing. The burnt orange was all that Max could see for the moment as his eyes adjusted from the headlamp to the darkness. Behind his eyes a black and white image, still burned into his vision, imprinted across the coals, a single word: sacrifice.

In his mind, Max heard an old song, something that was somewhat popular years ago in his congregation back home:

Find me in the river

Find me on my knees

I’ve walked against the water

Now I’m waiting if You please

We’ve longed to see the roses

But never felt the thorns

And bought our pretty crowns

But never paid the price

 

Find me in the river

Find me there

Find me on my knees

With my soul laid bare

Even though You’re gone

And I’m cracked and dry

Find me in the river

I’m waiting here

 

Find me in the river

Find me on my knees

I’ve walked against the water

Now I’m waiting if You please

We didn’t count on suffering

We didn’t count on pain

But if the blessing’s in the valley

Then in the river we’ll wait

 

Find me in the river

Find me there

Find me on my knees

With my soul laid bare

Even though You’re gone

And I’m cracked and dry

Find me in the river

I’m waiting here[3]


References

Bryson, Bill. A Walk int he Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. New York: Anchor Publishing, 2006.

Delerious? Find Me in the River. Comp. Martin Smith. 1994.

Palmer, Parker. Let Your Life Speak. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2000.

Willimon, William H. Acts: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.


[1] http://www.downthetrail.com/book-reviews/13-bill-bryson-quotes-that-capture-the-appalachian-trail-better-than-your-crappy-journal/

[2] Acts 6:8

[3] (Delerious? 1994)