Faith Works 7-27-13
The Bible on the trail
In closing this summer series on the Bible as it is read and understood, at least in my Protestant context, I have a very personal coda I'd like to add.
Many of you know I spent a big hunk of June in New Mexico, at Philmont Scout Ranch. This is their 75th year of providing backcountry experiences for groups of Scouts, in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range at the southern end of the Rocky Mountains, east of Taos, NM.
I'd dreamed of going to Philmont since I was a Boy Scout myself, and my two brothers went, but I had the chance to attend a National Jamboree, and was on summer camp staff for ten years, so just never got to go myself.
The Lad knew years ago that he would, with me as his dad, have to become a Scout and earn at least First Class rank, and he would have to go to Philmont . . . so I could go with him. (Anything beyond First Class is up to him!) Well, he earned the needed rank to attend what Scouting calls a "high adventure" experience, and we signed up over a year ago to be part of this crew. Our troop had such a good response we actually took two crews, twelve youth and six adults in total.
When Newark Central was kind enough to consider hiring me last summer as their regular pastor, I had to put a small caveat on the table: next June, I'm going to Philmont. I didn't pretend it had a blessed thing to do with ministry, but simply a life-long dream of mine and a family commitment that was already locked in. They were understanding, which I did and do appreciate.
There's a small ongoing hazard for our congregation in that, the first night at Philmont, we attended chapel services, and I learned that they have a large contingent of volunteer chaplains (Jewish, Catholic, LDS, & Protestant) who come for two or three weeks at a time. "Hmmmm," I said, rubbing my chin. Even then, that prospect sounded delightful.
After our ten days under pack loads, across almost 90 miles of mountainous terrain, up to over 12,000 feet and down through rocky valleys, sleeping on the ground and living without daily showers, the idea still sounded wonderful, even more so with how impressed I was having seen the effects of backcountry adventure and youth leadership at work.
We went to chapel right before our closing campfire on "Philmont Day 12," and truth be told, it was pretty much the same chapel service we attended on the evening of Day One. But I noticed something among the young men sitting alongside me at that service.
We heard the beginning of Psalm 42, speaking of the deer thirsting for water and how that experience is like the soul's desire for God: and they all looked up, intently. They had known thirst of a new sort on the trail, a thirst that might have to wait, that was uncertain of when and where refreshment might come. And they had seen deer, and elk, and bison gathering where the water was fresh and pure.
Then we heard Psalm 95, speaking of of how in God's hand are "the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him." As the other Scouts sitting around the outdoor chapel were courteously attentive, our crews, the only ones present, as it happened that evening, who had been on the trail already, were leaning in, and listening closely, with nodding assent. Because they had, in the previous week, been in an old mine deep within the ground, and looked back to the small speck of light that was the entrance hundreds of yards behind them; the day before that, they had stood on a mountain top, the cold wind blowing sharp and strong, the world stretched out all around.
And it occurred to me that our lives in almost two weeks on the trail, carrying our water and measuring out the journey in terms of where the next spring could be found, clambering atop rocky crags and journeying into miners' workings and learning of ancient geology – in the backcountry, our lives were probably closer to life as lived in Bible times than if we'd spent twelve days in Israel itself today.
Thirst and hunger and heights and depths had taken us closer to the original sense of the stories than any year's worth of preaching could accomplish. And I realized that maybe a little camping & hiking has more to do with understanding scripture than I had anticipated.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what experiences have made the Bible real for you at firstname.lastname@example.org, or @Knapsack on Twitter.