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.
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.