How many of you remember your first writing assignment when you returned to school in the fall being What I Did On My Summer Vacation? Maybe it is one of those tricks my mind plays as I reconstruct memories of growing up, but in that narrative of my childhood that I sometimes try to piece together that essay seemed to be the required writing assignment each and every year. So, as I was on my summer vacation this year, both trying to step away from my day-in, day-out responsibilities here, but also doing some thinking and dreaming and planning and reading so I would be ready for my day-in, day-out responsibilities here, one sermon began to emerge that became linked to those real or imagined childhood essays.
So here it is my back to school sermon after my summer vacation.
Years ago, I got it in my head that one of the things I would like to do someday was to hike the Appalachian Trail from beginning to end. All 2,184 miles of it from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Then, some years later I read Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods which recounted his adventures of hiking the Appalachian Trail and it only made me want to do it more. Well, some say wisdom comes with age.
I have certainly aged.
The wisdom part is up for debate.
But what I have realized is that I am probably not going to hike the Appalachian Trail from beginning to end. I am not sure I would make the 2000+ miles, and it would be even harder to tell you and to convince Shodie that I am going off for my own walk in the woods for the next six or seven months.
But, being just a bit stubborn, instead of giving up on my fantasy completely, I readjusted my goals.
I decided, if not the Appalachian Trail, I would try the Long Trail in Vermont.
It is only 270 miles long, going from Massachusetts to Canada.
And, only 30 days, or so, of hiking instead of seven months.
I can manage that, I thought.
Not all at once, but a section at time.
So, last year I started.
Two and half days and 26 miles with my youngest son which primed the pump for this year.
Five days of hiking. About 65 miles.
But, before I get to the rest of my story and too far astray…
I want to make sure I touch base with the Bible.
If you know Vermont you know it has a lot of mountains.
The Long Trail basically connects those mountains.
Not along some spectacular ridgeline connecting one summit to the next, but up a mountain and then down the other side only to have the trail go up again.
On any number of occasions, as I stood on the trail trying to catch my breath and push resolve into my legs, maybe it would have helped if I had remembered these words from the Bible.
I lift up my eyes to the hills –
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.
God will not let your foot be moved.
The God who keeps you will not slumber.
The One who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper;
The Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day, not the moon my night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil; the Lord will keep your life.
The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in;
from this time on and forevermore. – Psalm 121
What do you think? Would it have helped?
Here is some of what I learned from my walk in the woods this summer.
90% of the Long Trail is rocks and roots and so you hike looking down to make sure of your next step. The last thing you want to do is to be halfway up or down a mountain, 10 or 15 miles from the nearest road, and miss a step and twist your ankle or break your leg. So, you look down to see where you are going. After hiking for a couple of hours only looking down to see at what was two feet in front of my feet I realized, “Here I am. Beautiful day. Outside. Surrounded by forest. In the middle of the Green Mountains of Vermont. Doing what I have dreamed of doing. I should take a moment to look at what is around me.”
And, so I did.
I made it a point for the next four days to be sure I stopped on a regular basis to look up and to look around and to notice where I was.
How often, I wonder, do we live our life looking down.
(You really didn’t think this was ALL going to be about my hike, did you?)
Intent only on where we are going and what we need to do…
To get from here to there;
From this moment to the next;
From this place or stage of our lives to whatever and wherever we think comes next.
We are driven. We are competitive. We are intense.
We are focused on goals for ourselves and for our children.
And, the truth is, too often, we go through life looking down.
I think what we need to do is to stop sometimes and to look up and to look around and to see where we are and to notice for a moment how precious life is and how much we have and how much we have to be grateful for and to allow all that to seep into our heart, mind and soul.
Seep in deep enough that it makes a difference.
Here is another thing I learned…
I was hiking downhill after climbing to the 4000’ summit of Stratton Mountain.
As I was going down I passed a group of hikers who were on their way up.
In an effort to be friendly and encouraging as we passed on the trail, I said to them, “Doesn’t it sometimes feel like it’s all uphill.” To which one of the hikers, who must have been one of the hikers hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, replied, “I learned that in Georgia.”
It’s all uphill.
It isn’t really.
But, most of the trail is either uphill or down.
There were very few portions of my five day hike that were flat and wide and easy to walk.
I think sometimes we live with the misconception that the path of life is or should be wide and flat and easy when it is not.
And then, when it is not, we get upset or complain or call life unfair or rush to blame.
While life is wonderful and awe-inspiring and beautiful and I wouldn’t trade it for the world, I do think we have to work at it.
We have to work at sustaining the relationships which are important to us.
We have to work at raising a family.
We have to work at doing our jobs well.
We have to work at holding onto the values we want to have shape who we are and what we do.
That doesn’t mean that all that is not wonderful and rewarding, but it is not easy.
Those things that we say are most important in our life require attention and investment of time and energy and sometimes REALLY hard work…like making your way up a very long hill.
Finally, because time is running out and by now you are probably getting tired of my stories…
Just one more snippet from my summer adventure.
Shodie was not all that excited that I was planning on hiking for five days by myself. So, one of the “concessions” I made, to make my adventure sound better and for her to worry less, was to buy trekking poles.
“See,” I said, “they will help me on my hike.”
Little did I know.
Remember that 90% of the trail is rocks and roots…and it is all uphill.
Multiple times each day, my trekking poles kept me from falling or from sliding off a rock and twisting my ankle. They went from being something I bought to make Shodie less anxious to essential equipment for my walk in the woods.
Which makes me wonder…
If life…your life and my life…
Is something like my hike this summer, roots and rocks and all uphill…
What helps you to keep your balance?
What do you do that reminds you…
That turns you back towards what you believe to be REALLY important.
Do you take time each day to pray?
Not the pray on the fly type of prayer, but the stop long enough to take a deep breath and to pay attention type of prayer?
Do you say thank you each day? Do you say it 10 times each day?
To your partner or spouse?
To your co-workers or colleagues?
To your children?
To the check out person at the grocery store?
And, do you do something to deepen your faith and to pull it forward into the moment you have to live right now?
Do you read the Bible?
Read a book? Read a blog?
Read the newspaper with it in one hand and the Bible in the other?
Here is what I learned…
If there is nothing there to help you keep your balance, you will fall and it will hurt.
So, there you are…
My back to school sermon.
Some of what I did and what I learned on my summer vacation.