Faith Works 4-27-13
Returning to where you started (again)
I've warned the congregation where I serve that they need to get used to hearing an excess of sermon illustrations about journey and path and walking and trails and maps and how we are a pilgrim people, living in earthly tents, and so on.
My son and I are part of a backpacking trek this summer, our two crews from a local troop going to Philmont Scout Ranch in this, its 75th anniversary of operation.
On one level, we've been planning this for about two years, but we just got our specific trek assignment, a route covering two of the major peaks in the vast reserve in New Mexico's northeast corner.
We will do 81 miles over our twelve days, starting above a mile high at Base Camp with a pinnacle at Mount Baldy of over 12,400 feet, then back touching at the Tooth of Time. We'll carry our gear, get resupplied twice along the way, but otherwise carry all our gear in thirty to fifty pound packs, water included, packing out what we pack in so the tens of thousands coming to Philmont behind us can enjoy the views, the experience, and nature (plus a few bears) the way we will, as Scouts for 75 years have done so to prepare a way for us.
So the training, building up over the year for this over-50 over-the-hill hiker, is reaching a peak of its own. I'm putting in the mileage that I hope will prepare me for the journey, and reflecting on the mental challenges as well. As an adult member of a Philmont crew, we let the youth navigate and plan (and carry) the main loads, and encourage them to support each other. We adults have to largely keep our mouths shut, but we also have to help the crew deal with the very idea of self-sufficiency, which can be overwhelming at times.
We expect the Scouts to chew up the miles and carry their packs with little or no problem, while we adults expect to consume a fair amount of ibuprofen most mornings. On the other hand, I believe I speak for my fellows when I say we're looking forward to being away from the phones and cells and computers and TV and everything for two weeks, while the Scouts are more than a little unnerved at this prospect.
Last week I offered some of my thoughts about a book coming out this month, "The Little Way of Ruthie Leming" by Rod Dreher, who recently moved back to his childhood hometown after his sister's untimely death from cancer. I admire the emphasis this narrative places on what Rod calls a "Benedictine value" from the "Rule of St. Benedict," one of monasticism's founders, the value of stability. He himself moved in pursuit of his career, many times, and still has a powerful hankering for Paris from time to time, and his message isn't that we all should stay in, or move back to our old hometowns (something many of us these days don't even have if your family moved often in your youth), but that there's a certain connection to place that we need to grow spiritually.
So what to do with the contrast between these two models, these two images of the Christian life? And in fact the same tension is in the metaphors used by other world faith traditions. Are we called to be on a journey towards God, to the Beloved Community, or is the divine call really to finding our place in the City of God, that we should enter the sheepfold and listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd?
The challenge of the earthly life as preparation for the heavenly is that it really has to be seen as both. We do travel through life, in time if not in distance, undergoing change even if we never move from the address we were born at. And the journey of faith is largely a going deeper, within and through the self to a place where the still, small voice can tell us how we are connected already to all and everything around us where we are.
And every journey, as Bilbo Baggins can tell you, is both a road that goes ever on, and is fulfilled when your travels lead you to where you began. The original title of that estimable hobbit's memoir, after all, was "There and Back Again." The journey of faith is always a journey home.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your travels, widely or close to home, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or @Knapsack on Twitter.