When the outside comes inside

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On a November morning with blustering wind, elusive sun, and a spattering of sleet, I headed out for another ten miles along the AT from the Pennsylvania border hiking south.  Along the ridge of South mountain the chilling wind gusts got the better of my windbreaker, and I dug out the down jacket from my day pack.  I wore a bright orange hat in case I was spotted by any turkey hunters, but I only met one person on the trail—a thru-hiker who passed me on his way to Georgia needing to find water soon. The park’s water five miles back had been shut off for the season, and I knew from a previous hike that the water source several miles north of that had been contaminated by a sewage treatment plant.  So I offered him a spare bottle of water, but guidebooks assured him water was ahead.

Other than that brief exchange, it was an eerily lonely walk.  Except for a few undaunted woodpeckers drilling dead trunks and the occasional chickadees calling in more sheltered areas, all life—plant and animal—seemed to have withdrawn into hiding.  I found myself missing the busyness of insects and crawling things, the circling of hungry hawks.  Trees on the high ridge were bare for the most part, skeletons whose life sap was sinking down for the season into thicker trunks and deeper roots.  The constant white noise created by the wind isolated me further, blocking out any familiar noises of tractors harvesting or chainsaws cutting wood in the valley below.  It had only been a month since I had hiked, but a pivotal transition had occurred in that time.  I felt brushed by melancholy regret because I had missed the excitement of hibernation, migration, seeding, shedding and dying; what remained this morning was an empty space open for the howling gale to scrape and scour clean.

Speaking of which, the mountain’s surface was smothered with abandoned leaves—yellow, rich browns, crimson.  In fact, with all the leaf litter it was almost impossible to detect where the trail wound its way through the trees.  I needed to watch constantly where I placed my feet, feel the covered ground surface with my trekking poles, not knowing whether a rock or hollow place lay underneath to turn an ankle or trip a foot.  I frequently paused in the sea of leaves to hunt the next white trail blaze painted on some trunk bark or boulder.  There was no opportunity to ruminate about work or problems.  My concentration had to be focused on the present moment in order to navigate safely to my destination.  I was tired and more than ready to climb into the warm car along an intersecting road where my husband was parked and waiting for me in the mid-afternoon.

This walk, more than any others I did this season, followed me home.  I find myself thinking about it in the midst of busy and at times overwhelming administrative tasks around the office.  I walk to my car in the bitterly cold winds of the last few days and hear the echoes of creaking trees bending their backs to the wind on the mountain.  I find myself praying a blessing for the thru-hiker traversing the ridge above my family’s cabin in southwest Virginia about now.  The recurring memory of this hike, darting in and out of my daily routines, has acted like a reminder to take a deep breath.  But why does this particular November hike, as opposed to the more interesting ones of this year, nag at my thoughts day after day?

Then, two days ago, a friend sent me a link to a poem where I discovered someone put into words what I had experienced but as yet could not articulate.  Now I understand  why images of picking my way along a cold ridge have shadowed my pressured daily routine with some sort of invitation. The poem is “And Is It Not Enough?” by Malcolm Guite.  You can read it (scroll down) or listen to it read by the author here.

These are the words that explain to me the November hike’s persistent hold:

When dusk descends, when branches are unveiled,/ When roots reach deeper than our minds can feel/And ready us for winter with strange calm,/ That I should see the inner tree revealed/ And know its beauty as the bright leaves fall/ And feel its truth within me as I am?

So what’s the hike’s hold on me?  That as our congregation goes through a renewal process, I have shifted my priorities as a pastor from programs to faith conversation, from management to leadership, from membership to discipleship, from “church talk” to Christ talk, from within walls to no walls, from a mindset of scarcity to God’s abundance, from human expectations to God’s offered grace—like shedding old leaves to reveal the truth of a different way of being and leading.  To continue in this direction, I find myself needing to be more strongly rooted and grounded to Christ’s call within me.  This is hard.  The landscape around has changed.  Trusting God in new ways can feel lonely:  Moses, Elijah, even Jesus knew that.  It is not a vision everyone shares in the same way, if at all.

So I am thankful for the words of a wise poet, although the intent behind his words is surely different from how I hear them.  I am thankful for friends and colleagues and spouse who help me traverse this vulnerable landscape.  And I am thankful for that persistent memory of a November hike that refuses to stay outside, but barges inside, uninvited, into my daily routines to remind me to let the leaves fall where they may and stay rooted in the deeper mystery and life of God’s grace.

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Comments

  1. This is such a helpful picture. Thank you. I absolutely love to listen when people communicate the experience of God speaking (which has so many different forms) and the result is a shift of focus, which then changes how we minister. The cool thing, when God speaks, is that it is not something that we quickly forget and move on, but it hangs with us, and over time we see more and more implications of it. Which is the Spirit’s work. Which is why it is poetic that you began by talking about the wind. 🙂

    • Ah, yes, the wind. Which on that hike felt adversarial and uncomfortable at times. But I guess that Spirit feels that way sometimes too, huh? Thanks for pointing that out as the picture unfolds some more.