Near the end of one of our five day walks, I was reminded that we could drive the length of the trail in about an hour. Thanks, but my blisters had informed me that a few days prior.
My motto is typically "Why walk when you can drive?" Netflix binges. Another hot take on Twitter. Self-driving cars? Even better.
But if you drive, you’ll never stop to rest. You’ll miss the picturesque rivers, the hidden waterfalls, and dense forests with soaring pines and rhododendron thickets. If you drive, you might not be slow enough, or tired enough, to appreciate what’s around you. For a year, I went every Friday into the woods (this was BK, or before kids, of course) to wander and meander, until like Forest Gump, I’d say, “I’m pretty tired, I guess I’ll go home now.”
Theologian Kosuke Koyama suggests that some things God can teach us only very slowly, at a walking pace. Scripture is a story about people who take small, baby steps over a few thousand years. In the beginning God walked with Adam in the cool of the evening. It’s Moses who notices the burning bush on a stroll up the mountain Horeb. Jesus walks among his people through the countryside, the city, even on water. He attends to the impoverished and down-and-out at a pace slow enough to notice Zacchaeus, the wee little man, up in a tree. He waits three days to be resurrected. But we forget that even bread, which is vital sustenance, takes time to rise.
The prophet Micah tells his people “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” We cross-stitch it on fabric and print it on plastic picture frames. Be merciful, be compassionate. And yet, I’m still struck by this last phrase: walk humbly with God. He could’ve said run. But God says, ‘walk humbly,’ which could also be translated— “walk attentively.” In other words, pay attention. Here’s a question we’d do well to think about: what does it mean to walk attentively with God in a society that wants to run everywhere it goes? Koyama says, “God walks three-miles-an-hour because that’s the speed of our walking and God walks beside us in love…And the speed of love is slow.” A marriage. Not a hot romance.
The Israelites spent forty years lost, walking in the desert with no compass. But God walked with them, teaching them about justice and kindness. Bread—manna—was provided each morning and God told the people to take what they needed and nothing more. While Pharaoh’s economy was structured on wealth and accumulation, the Israelites began the curriculum of redistribution and the common good. God’s people learned how to rest, after spending their lives in an economy that founded their worth on their work—laying bricks and mortar. The ‘school of the soul’ had a course in walking and it taught them compassion.
The point of walking, of course, is to slow down, but that’s too simple. It’s also about justice and kindness. The three are bound together. Justice and mercy only take place when you’re walking humbly with God. Before there is justice and kindness, there is attentiveness and listening—there is walking. Richard Niebuhr says we have to ask, “What is going on?” before we ask “What must we do?” There’s an urgency to our faith—we have the words of life—but we’re not sure how to share it.
I’m convinced that one of the reasons the church is lame is not apathy, but lack of humility and attentiveness. We want do justice and love kindness, but we don’t do the hard work of walking with God and God’s people. Our lives are self centered—we get caught up in our own lives and schedules, moving from one thing to the next, that the needs of our community are part of the blurry background that we race past. Or, maybe it’s the opposite. We throw ourselves at every opportunity and get spread too thin. There’s no staying power.
Walking is a discipline; it takes practice to slow down and become attentive. If we take the time to listen to each others’ stories, share a table with a neighbor, then God will guide us toward greater understanding—justice and kindness. Start walking in your neighborhood and you’ll see hurt, pain, and struggle—you’ll notice that one who is out of firewood, or the woman who needs her gutters cleaned, or the man who hasn’t had a visitor in months. Then, start walking further toward the outskirts of the neighborhood, seeking out the very people you understand least. I most often change my mind, and the way I live, after I've tried to walk in another's shoes. It's the best way to start taking steps in a new direction.
Saint Augustine says, “Solvitur ambulando.” It means, “it is solved by walking.” “Well,” you might be wondering, “what needs to be solved?” And that’s it...if you don’t know what needs to be solved, then you better start walking.
Thirty miles, scarce water, four 6,000 foot peaks, one of the most difficult trails in North Carolina. Two nights. Or, a perfect through-hike for a group of first timers.
My wife and I, along with two best buddies from Durham, hiked the Art Loeb Trail a few years back. The trail follows the Davidson River, ascends Pilot Mountain, cuts over to the peaks in Black Balsam, shoots down through the Shining Rock Wilderness, and then descends Cold Mountain into the Daniel Boone Scout Camp. One review of the trail notes, “If you are a glutton for punishment you will enjoy every steep step.”
Turns out we weren’t.
On the first night we were so tired that we set up camp in the middle of the trail, which is generally frowned upon in the outdoors world. We’ll talk about the bear bags another time. The thirty pounds on my back were heavier than I imagined and the thirty miles ascending and descending peaks were more grueling than I envisioned. Not to mention that the rain that never stopped falling; we traversed drenched trails, in water-logged socks, sleeping in moist bags. But I hear the views are beautiful. I mean, don’t ask me, because I wouldn’t know. The dense clouds and fog stole that from us.
We discovered the reason Shining Rock is called a wilderness. Only a few miles away from our vehicles and mere hours away from beer and pizza, we got lost. The white blazes had eroded or were concealed by brush. Maybe there weren’t any altogether. We stared at the map for hours, took a few steps, and stared a little more. The worst part of being lost wasn’t the flash of fear that we’d end up on the evening news or that we’d run out of water and get seriously hurt. But it was the frustration that we were living out of control. The time-table we devised and the vision we shared for this great adventure had to be discarded. We had to improvise—and each step brought with it the nagging anxiety that we weren’t going the right direction.
When I was a kid I trampled through the neighborhood woods with no destination or purpose. I’d get lost until I’d find something worth discovering. At this point in life I’d rather stay on the trail than get a spider web plastered against my face. I go into the woods with a purpose. I hike to a particular destination, with enough water and fuel for the journey. I turn around and go home. Never step off the well-worn path. And there’s a really good reason to stay on the trail: it keeps you from trampling over precious natural resources while preserving the area for future use. Even moving a rock can cause irreparable damage to time varnished pieces of granite.
It’s also safer. Life is difficult enough without choosing more ambiguity. We can wake up lost having never even left the house. Lose your job. Divorce. A spouse or child. Lose your mind. Fill in the blank. There’s so much wandering in our world. There is a record number of refugees in the world, some 65 million, who are forced into wilderness wandering. Why would we voluntarily choose more wilderness? There’s no GPS system and advanced technology for that kind of lost.
Maybe Jesus is attractive for this reason—he promises our lives a clear destination and boundaries with neat delineations. An end to all of the aimlessness. Christianity, we think, is about the straight and narrow. A lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path. A house built on the rock and the foundness to all of our lostness. A good Christian follows the rules, never veers off into a life of danger or risk. Fine thing, this Christianity, a calm and predictable life within the four walls of the church. The kind of religion that will produce good Americans with good jobs, two kids, and a hefty retirement.
Christians, well, we can’t say much about Christians except they’re the kinds of people who stay on the trail.
It’s supposed to be the opposite, isn’t it?
I grew up in a Methodist church, went to youth group, four years in college, then three years in seminary, and now I’ve entered with work force with a wife and two kids. That sounds remarkably simple. But I didn’t end up where I am because I followed a map. I didn’t create a time-table, put together a packing list, and head out. I was pushed into the forest, one step after another, until I was in so deep that I had no choice but to keep walking. The only compass I could find pointed me to the church. And even then, I was sure the compass was broken.
God said, “Go that way.” And I said, “Where’s the trail? I don’t see the markers, the brush has grown over them.”
This is the story of many—from Moses to Noah to Jonah to the Twelve Disciples. God tells Abram, ‘Put everything in your rucksack and start walking. Go, until I say stop.’ God rarely works predictably. Nor, does God usually take the fastest route from here to there. God takes longer, oftentimes more difficult paths to get something done. Until, finally, God gets of His trail to walk on ours—becoming a poor, migrant Jew who walked the long agonizing path to the cross. The night before he died, Jesus prayed, “Isn’t there another, easier trail?” Nope. But even the most horrific trail ended with healing—salvation and resurrection.
Barbara Brown Taylor says that getting lost is a deliberate practice we should pursue. It reminds us that we aren’t fully in control, nor should we strive to be. God doesn’t promise a life without a little wandering. You will get lost, fall and sprain an ankle. Sometimes you'll get by with manna, just enough to survive. But if God has called, then that means that there’s something out beyond the next mountain peak. There might even be a land flowing with milk and honey, We cut through the forest to find out.
I should mention that we made it out of Art’s hell house. God, who is always faithful, sent us two kids smoking cigarettes and carrying machetes. This was better than nothing, because they would either point us in the right direction or kill us. And either way it would be salvation. We asked for directions and they lifted up their machetes and pointed us back toward the trail. Sometimes angels do smoke tobacco and carry swords.
We descended down Cold Mountain and reached our cars.
The journey was hard, nothing like we planned or would have chosen, but that’s life, isn’t it?
Our director of music recently asked me “what are we doing for Pentecost?” It was a warranted question. I am, after all, the pastor and she always keeps me on task. But I’m at a loss. I’ve tried everything and I’ve yet to crack Pentecost. This day, like the Holy Spirit, is mysterious and hard to package in a box with a nice bow. I’ve asked folks to wear red, which is cute, and we all look like we’re getting ready to tailgate for an NC State game. I’ve ordered a cake and had the congregation gather out on the lawn to celebrate the ‘birthday of the church.’ But no one really wants to eat a glob of sugar before they’ve had their grilled cheese and tomato soup.
There are many sentimental, even creative, ways to celebrate that quaint day when the Spirit erupted like a volcano spewing fire and chaos. On Hawaii’s Big Island, trees are being uprooted, homes are melting, and the whole topography of the landscape will change. On Pentecost, a group of frightened and ill-equipped followers of a charismatic preacher start proclaiming gospel resurrection in the streets. The shape of the world was altered forever.
So what are we doing for Pentecost, pastor? How do you plan to catch this violent wind that ‘blows wherever it pleases’ trap it in our church? How can we speak with tongues of fire and go out to set the world ablaze? Have you discovered a way to capture that dove and lock it in a cage?
Planning Pentecost is about as useful as trying to force a volcano to erupt and then figure out how to make it stop.
But wait! Here’s a new banner and a video I found on youtube.
It’s an incredible weight to bear—to believe that the Spirit’s presence rests on our shoulders. It’s functional atheism, or maybe responsible grace without the grace. And really, it resembles most of the modern philosophy of church growth that there must be a perfect recipe to woo the Spirit into the church. Here’s some foolproof bait to catch the Spirit: put away the pipe organ and get out the guitars. Hire a young pastor who (preferably) wears skinny jeans. A thirty minute message with a few jokes. That should do the trick.
Come Holy Spirit, come.
Meanwhile, as we’re cajoling the Spirit to show up, grace is erupting in the places we least expect—where folks are most afraid or where the world is most hungry for life. God doesn’t need our permission to show up. But maybe God finds more space to move in places that aren’t as comfortable and cozy as our lives.
I pray for the Spirit to come, even though I know that the better prayer is, “Come Ryan Snider, come.” Sure, our bodies will occupy space in a pew, but we’ll fail to stoke the spark in our hearts. Worse even, we won’t bother to adjust our sails when it starts getting a little windy. We’ll walk out the doors into the same unenchanted world, way too leery to go to places like Judea or Samaria and the ends of the earth.
So happy Pentecost! Any Pentecost plans? I have no idea. I hope that we’ll be expectant and hopeful, with eyes to see and ears to hear. Perhaps, there will be a brush of wind or maybe something will catch fire.
But please—don’t forget to wear red. I’ll hang the streamers in the sanctuary. Maybe we’ll find a way to catch the Spirit this time around. Or, maybe we’ll shoot and miss.
But hey, at least it will look like we tried.
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My first house was at the end of a cul-de-sac on a quiet street that was woken up by big wheels and tackle football. It was the late 80s, just before the term helicopter parenting had been coined. According my (romanticized) memory, our street stretched eternally and we were free to roam while our parents remained indoors drinking coffee. We cast lines into the pond and played Super Mario 3 until the sound of crickets called us home and lulled us to sleep. Those years felt like one endless summer, though I suspect it’s because I hadn’t yet started school.
I learned this about neighborhoods: adults may construct the houses and streets, but the children are the ones who take the pavement and brick and build neighborhoods. The laughter in the streets, bicycle bells ringing, and basketballs pounding against the pavement are the sounds of a street birthing a community. My own kid reminds me of this when she drags me into small-talk and play dates. I think this is why Jesus says the kingdom of God belongs to children—they’ve yet to ask the question, “who is my neighbor?” A neighbor is whoever happens to be walking down the street. And if you’re up for a game of hide and seek, then come, let’s be friends.
Fences were curious to me as a child—they were only good as a wall to scale. It's basic psychology, right, that if something is important enough to be enclosed, then it must be significant enough for another to find. These tall wooden planks arranged side by side as soldiers to keep others at bay. It must have been a grown up’s idea. Who cares about property lines, privacy, and protection? The kind of people who read John Locke, that’s who.
In other words, me.
How did this happen?
Every morning a Golden Retriever walks straight into our front lawn and takes a squat. Suddenly, privacy has moved to the top of my dream home wish list and I’ve begun googling “BB guns.” I wasn’t always a curmudgeon who complained about the neighborhood dog. Maybe it was hammered up one plank at a time from wood of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, as innocence was lost. We so quickly change from happy, naive children into hardened and cynical adults in a mistrusting and fearful world. There is creation. There is fall.
The first wall must have been erected in the bedroom that I shared with my older brother. He took masking tape and planted a line right down the middle of the room. At last, He-Man, Skeletor, and GI Joe were safe from little brother’s hands. Then another: don’t go past the stop sign. My siblings and I were hedged in away from places like 37th and Bulloch or Bolton, Lincoln, and Duffy Streets. Another day, a childhood friend called and told me that he wasn’t allowed to play with me anymore because a drug lord threatened our family. My dad later showed me a picture of said drug lord’s collection of assault rifles lined up against a wall in his house. Yikes. The only gang I knew about rode on big wheels.
New walls emerge, others grow taller—around a house, a heart, and a life—as we become cynical, guarded, paranoid, and fearful. The problem is that once you start building them, you might not feel safe until there’s a big, beautiful wall around your entire life. One can never feel too safe. What would this zoo become without its walls? All of these animals need to be in cages for their own good—and ours, too. Let’s impose some more order here, and some more over there. That's better. Now, I can rest with ease.
With so many walls, who has become the prisoner?
I wonder if these partitions are as effective as we hope, or if they make promises that they can’t always keep. In my first neighborhood one of our neighbors had a wooden fence, and to a six-year old boy it might as well have been the Great Wall of China. But the neighboring dog was a terror and we needed to be protected. One day my cat, Rags, well, she became an afternoon snack. I didn’t learn this until college. At the time, my brother and I were told that Rags had run away. Every evening for a week we went looking for her in thickets and holes in the ground. I came home from school one Christmas and asked about Rags. My dad snorted and then broke the news, “She didn’t run away. It was the neighbor’s dog.”
According to the Scriptures, God isn’t crazy about walls. God even takes a sledgehammer to them, starting with the one between earth and heaven. In Jesus’ own body, the walls of difference are broken down and a new humanity is created. He spent his life sitting at a welcome table shattering boundaries between enemies and friends, Jews and Gentiles, clean and unclean. All of this radical hospitality persisted until a group of neighbors turned out to be hostile. He’s put on a cross, enclosed tomb, and the world is protected from subversion. But even the great wall of death was shattered when the stone was rolled away.
It wasn’t the safest way to make a living, but God, as it turns out, isn’t all that worried about ease and protection.
We learn from Jesus that every encounter is potentially harmful—hostility is etymologically built into the word hospitality. You can’t have one without the other. A philosopher, Jacques Derrida, coined the term “hostipitality.” Every encounter with a stranger holds within it potential for hostility. This is true in our lives, in our country, in our hearts. Welcome someone into your house and something might get stolen; let another into your heart and it might get broken. So we hope to strike the right cord between welcome and security, or inclusion and exclusion. But we must decide whether encounters are worth the risk, or whether she are better off closing ourselves off.
Where’s the line?
I follow Jesus because I think he’s the one who might release me from the walls I’ve built and am tempted to construct. He offers forgiveness, which is about tearing down past fences I’ve built—grudges and resentment. Chains are broken and I am free to be the kind of person who sees the other as image of God. He grafts me into the vine and asks me to do the same with my life. Jesus imparts the love that opens up heart and life to create more space at the table for others to take a seat. I’m not sure I’d have the rationale or heart to live this way otherwise.
In the end, Revelation speaks of a holy Jerusalem and its gates will never be shut. People are free to wander in and out of the city, without fear and trepidation. One early theologian said that the end will be like the beginning. I hope he’s talking about the beginning of our lives— that one day we can return to a kind of childhood naïveté. We’ll play all night with no fear of being snatched and the street lights will never flip on because the sun won’t stop shining.
It’s a neighborhood without stop signs and old men telling you to ‘keep off my grass.'
If that's true, it must be heaven.