Chapter 17- The Guests

From the journal of Sunday, June 8, 2008, while on the trail from D.C. to Pittsburgh while memorizing the gospel of John.

Early morning.  The proprietor has said that there is always a breeze up here in the campground, even in a hot spell.  He is right; the branches of the oaks are lightly rustling in the warm air.  We are camping just west of the Savage Mountain ridge in high country.  The Eastern Continental Divide wanders through here, maybe even under our picnic table.  The two ponds lying in the nearby fields are in ambiguous territory.  Does the ground beneath them drain into the Mississippi or the Atlantic?

The frogs that make their home in the ponds could care less.  They need to more concerned about their survival with the barred owl making forays out of the neighboring forest.   My bird book says barred owls don’t like to be seen by people, but she is less cautious and has been hovering around the mostly empty campground in the evening.  Perhaps the frogs rimming the ponds are too tempting since, we are told, there are owlets in a nest that need feeding.  Last evening we found her hunting perch by listening to the fierce squawking of robins sounding the alarm for all smaller birds to take cover.  The owl stoically ignored them while concentrating on watching for a meal.  But the crows refused to receive their guest into the campground.  When their protest annoyingly became too raucous, she moved to another perch twenty yards away.  By following the direction of the robins’ commotion from tree to tree, we took several pictures of the owl with our telephoto lens.  She has never allowed us to stand near her watch post long before she has lifted her solid body and slipped into the woods.  Sometimes we can hear a distant “Who cooks for you….who-o-o?” and know the owl is still in the area, but far enough away that the robin mob and the photographers have given up.

Another camp song is offered by the veery who gives a concert every dusk.  His melancholy, double-tone flute call circles and drops through the branches like drifting leaves.   But this Sunday morning,  I have decided that it is the wood pewee who has the most persistent and pestering call of all.  He visits the tree behind our camper.  Beginning before dawn today, he has started his “pee-a-wee,” repeating it over and over and over again.  Pee-a-wee…the thin whistle song slides up.  Pee-wee…it slides back down.  It is the first thing I hear as I cling to a sleepy dream on the edges of my mind.  Pee-wee.  I don’t want to get up yet and pull the covers over my head.  Pee-a-wee…peewee.  It reminds me of my children’s whining when they were little.  The inflection is the same: “Are we there yet?…I’m bored…Are we there yet?….”  With the wood pewee’s insistence, I finally climb out of bed and into reluctant wakefulness.

Sabbatical Sundays are so different from my “other” life.  I have been thinking how this time away has given me a chance to know who I am again.  I have time this morning, with the wood pewee’s accompaniment,  to open the map on a sheer whim of curiosity.  I trace the Yukon River, whose headwaters we saw last month, and see how it wanders north through British Columbia and Alaska before emptying into the Bering Sea.  It feels like honoring God on this sabbath day simply to take time to know more about this wild river. I imagine going there someday.

Sabbatical Sundays are also different because I don’t have to use my public speaking voice to worship. When I visit a congregation, I can worship with my reclaimed, soft-volume voice (unlike the pewee).  A few weeks ago, with the sabbatical half over, we had a wonderful “midway-through” picnic at a park near the canal trail.  People from the congregation traveled in vans, laden with food.  It rained torrentially, and we felt like we were swimming when we ventured from under the picnic shelter, but it was so good to be with them.  I love them dearly.  And yet, I was uncomfortably aware of the public persona settling down on me, speaking loudly so everyone could hear, organizing conversation, doing the work of making connections that pastors automatically do instead of sitting down at a picnic table and observing.  Once a few years ago, a person accused me of being  insincere when I greeted people at the door at the end of worship.  The accusation has stung, puzzled and lingered.  Now I wonder: who is the real me?  Do all of us have a “public” side that we shed for a “down-time” side?    Is there an inevitable split between work and relaxation.  Is one side “fake” and the other “genuine”?  I am called as a pastor, and the  “public voice” is an inevitable part of the job description.   Would it be more healthy and genuine if this softer spoken pastor could be set free into the public workplace more frequently?   I do not have answers to those questions this morning.

Instead, I drive into town to find a worship service, glad to be a quiet participant and not a leader.  I find a Lutheran church and slip into the pew with a greeting or two, familiar hymns, good message.  But on the way back home, I decide that once again I am a sinner.  There is nothing surprising about that, of course, but I realize that when I met people in worship today, I was more interested in telling them about myself and what I was doing in town rather than finding out about them.  Wouldn’t it have been much more interesting to ask about their town?  Their congregation?  Why they like living here in the highlands?  What they like to do?  No, instead, I wait for them to ask the guest about herself so that I can tell them about walking the trail and memorizing John.  “Wow” should be their admiring, appropriate response.  What hubris on my part!

But I also have discovered throughout the sabbatical while visiting churches, that people, including pastors, aren’t too interested in those visitors who are only passing through.  These guests won’t be joining the church or putting significant money in the plate.  They are not useful in that they are here now and gone in the next hour.   I can tell this by the way questions fizzle out and eyes drift away from me when they realize there is no chance I will return.  Granted, this is a tourist town, and maybe there is weariness with the numbers passing through.  But I don’t think of myself as a tourist; I am a pilgrim on a journey;  I am a sister needing prayer on the way.  Instead I am learning how a pilgrim is made anonymous by the drifting gaze of others.  The worst part is realizing that I, too, have been guilty, when I knew the guests would never be back, of not pursuing conversations, of quickly going on to the next person. What opportunities I have missed!   What hubris again!

Back at camp the wood pewee is still singing.  He is the only bird in the vicinity, in fact, making noise at this noon hour, although he does sound slightly less energetic in the heat of the day.  I wonder if he ever stops to catch a fly, which I have read is the ultimate pewee fast food.  But it is the Spirit’s persistent nudging that is also waking me up—belatedly.  Perhaps being a walking pilgrim is changing me for the better if I am learning to value someone, even though they are a temporary guest and passing only briefly through my sphere of responsibility.  If I become more alert to this, I may become a more genuine person in a truly Christ-like sense.

Jesus said:  “Whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me, receives the one who sent me.”  John 13: 20