Chapter 1: The Celia daypack

From my journal about the pilgrimage…  

Summer, 2007
Grantham, PA        

The coming sabbatical has a vague, abstract aura about it that hardly feels like reality.  Until today.  Suddenly it becomes more tangible with the arrival of the box delivered by a brown truck with ticking blinkers and a fanfare of barking dogs.  I open the package in the kitchen, hesitant about claiming its contents, as if ownership admits this trip is an imminent and serious endeavor. 

First I unwrap a day pack from its plastic.  For years on my walking adventures I have toted my daughter’s cast-off school backpack: a frayed, blue hand-me-down decorated with her magic marker graffiti. A permanent crumb collection of granola bars and dog treats has settled in its dark corners.  It smells like damp leaves and bug spray.  But my back, growing old, has begun to complain about its lack of support, so I needed to investigate  options that would be gentler on my body and more practical for a long trek of 335 miles.  In the catalogue the new “Celia” day pack seemed to meet the requirements. 

I now rather sheepishly pull on this more sophisticated and involved piece of hiking equipment.  I feel its design molding comfortably to my back and notice how the center of gravity shifts with the waist belt.  My husband, Rick, discovers a whole extra compartment under a hidden zipper.  My son, Jon, home for the weekend, is curious as well and offers to break in the pack  on a hike with a friend.  With odd relief I relinquish the “gear” that seems too serious to handle.   Late in the afternoon he returns and shows me a compartment for keys, how the sternum straps slide to adjust, the waterproof cover to slip over the pack when it rains, the way the buckles tighten or loosen to shift the weight when tired muscles ache.  My son, the hiking expert, gives his approval.

But that’s not all in the box.  A while later, overcoming household distractions, or perhaps just  re-gathering determination, I return to the task at hand and pull out a second plastic bag containing folded material patterned with bold turquoise and white daisy-like flowers.  It is my rain jacket: water-proof, breathable, light-weight, complete with a hood and adjustable cuffs.  Apparently previous catalogue shoppers preferred the plain, solid colors and ignored this bright, garden-bedecked item, now at half price for the taking.  I normally am a subdued color personality, especially when attempting to blend into the woods, but my pleasure with a bargain overcame my reticence about flashy outerwear.  At least Rick will be able to spot me quickly in the distance down the trail!
Next I pull out my new rain pants, again lightweight, easy to get into and, this time, unremarkably black.  I wonder: now that I am so prepared to walk in downpour or steady drizzle, what will my dog, Chester, do?  He dislikes rain.  Will I have to walk solo those days?  That is a problem yet to solve.

Finally, I unpackage my new, multi-pocketed, tan trail pants that zip off into shorts.  Clever, huh?  With a zip of a zipper (actually two legs, two zips), I am prepared for whatever change a day could bring: damp to dry, windy to dead still, chilly to stifling.  It looks like I will be walking with full professional convenience. 

This evening Celia leans against the wall in my home office, holding the three soft albums containing chapters of John, ready for a practice hike when I can swing a day off after the hot weather breaks.  There is no more denying that change is afoot.  It is not just that my back pack and clothing have changed; I am the one changing.  I have committed myself to something where I cannot see the end, like a raft pushed out into the river and sucked into the current rushing for rapids.   Folks at church have already sensed a change in me; they have not often seen their pastor so determined to make something happen in spite of objections.    I and many others are working hard in this current to help put things in place for the congregation during my absence, but anxious questions still persist.  Some, worried about how much the sabbatical  might change me, are even predicting I may not return.

I have already started memorizing the first chapter of John’s gospel.  John the baptizer was asked by the religious authorities from Jerusalem, “Who are you?”  (John 1:22)  He was able to be clear about who he was not.  He said he was not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet for whom they were waiting.    “Let us have an answer for those who sent us.   What do you say about yourself?”  The baptizer answered in an obscure way, quoting the old prophet Isaiah, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord.”  What puzzled the religious leaders, but what John the baptizer was certain of, was that  God had called him to this baptizing task, and that his specific assignment was to point out the Messiah when he came.  He baptized people day in and day out, waiting for the time when he would recognize God’s anointed one.

In spite of John the baptizer’s determination and clarity, I have always thought it is a little risky to presume to know exactly what God has called one to do.  What if I am wrong about this venture I’m attempting?  What if I haven’t heard God correctly?  After all, God doesn’t mail us our individual job descriptions, so it isn’t as if I have God’s directions in black and white to show everyone as evidence for what I am doing.  What if I only think that this is good for me and the congregation, but that in reality I have been blinded by my own selfish enthusiasm?   To some I may seem to have determination, but I am much more hesitant to insist that I have John the baptizer’s  God-given clarity.  Perhaps that is why, when I see Celia  standing in the corner, I  feel like I am the raft caught in swift water. 

On the other hand, I know there are times in my life when I have to step out in faith, like Peter stepping on the sea to meet Jesus, believing that if I am wrong, God will still in grace grab hold  and redirect me.  My becoming a pastor in the first place was precisely one of those stepping out times.  Now this walking pilgrimage to learn the Gospel of John is another one.

“What do you say about yourself?” the religious leaders asked. With the Celia day pack nearby, I muster a prayerful answer:

Okay, God, this is what I say about myself.  I believe you have called me to walk with you many miles and learn scripture by heart. Strange as it is, this journey is the way you have given me to point to the Messiah.  But the biggest risk in  this venture is not the physical challenge of  walking so far, but how the walk will change me.  If it doesn’t change me at all, of course, it will have been a big waste of time.  But if it changes me too much, how will I find my way back?  It could be like paddling that raft upstream, attempting to return over the rapids.  

Still unsettled, uncertain, I open my worship book to the time-tested, wise words of Lutheran evening prayer:

    O God, you have called your servants
    to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
    by paths as yet untrodden,
    through perils unknown. 
    Give us faith to go out with good courage,
    not knowing where we go, but only that
    your hand is leading us and your love supporting us;
    through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” 
                           (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 317)


  1. For the few of you who have read these before, I find that sometimes it is important to remember what God has taught me. God is patient, but I imagine God gets weary of delivering the same lecture when God worked so hard on the first time around. As I’ve just passed by the 10th year milepost with my congregation, St. Paul Lutheran, I decided to check out the lessons I learned a few years ago, some (all) of which can carry me through for a few more years.