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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