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)

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