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 house is officially on the market.
I finished my last project at the little yellow house which was patching up holes in the plaster walls, painting, and concealing the memories that had been etched on the walls. The baby room’s lavender walls are now stark white—a blank slate prepped for a new memories.
Future owners won’t know that we painted almost every square inch of the place. Then, painted it again. Or, that we landscaped the backyard and I got a rash from poison ivy once a month during the summer—that a cherry tree almost fell on me after it was struck by lightning. We remodeled the bathroom, which is where we discovered that our lives would be remodeled by a child. And then, another. When we arrived we walked on sub-flooring, but we put down new hardwood floor, and later taught Eden how to walk on it.
The house was a beautiful mistake—my wife and I didn’t expect to sign the papers for a small, yellow house in West Asheville at the ripe age of thirty. But I went on personal leave from the United Methodist Church.
Our denomination operates with an itinerant system, as clergy persons are sent to congregations by a bishop and cabinet—usually too frequently. Churches afford pastors parsonages, and increasingly housing allowances, until you’re sent to serve elsewhere. We’re in ministry for an undisclosed period, called to put down roots but remain ready to pull them up and replant them elsewhere. The pitfall of itinerancy is the temptation to put the roots in vase of water and not the soil—to become a tourist or treat each place like a layover. This is unfaithful, I know, but you can only give out so many pieces of your heart before it starts to thicken.
We place ourselves in the tradition of Jesus who travelled from place to place or sent out the seventy-two to be in mission. But even Jesus remained in one geographic area, Galilee, and spent the first thirty years of his life incarnated in a particular community. Or, maybe it’s fashioned after Paul who rarely stayed in a solitary place for more than a couple months. Though, Paul wasn’t knocked off his horse by a bishop and then told where to be in mission.
We ignore that the Hebrew narrative isn’t centered on just the calling of a people, but also a specific calling to a place—a land flowing with milk and honey—to finally belong and call home.
“If you don't know where you are,” says Wendell Berry, “you don't know who you are.” This is true theologically, too, and it’s docetic to say otherwise. One can’t understand Jesus without understanding his place, Israel. But many of us are placeless. Our nostalgia for home is so deep that old houses are fashionable. We install shiplap and paint furniture only to beat it up to give it a faux, lived-in history. We're longing for a place to belong. Urbanologists cite that the first question young adults meeting one another ask is “Where do you live?” We no longer ask, “What do you do?” “The 20th-century American dream was to move out and move up; the 21st-century dream seems to be to put down deeper roots.” Place is as essential to our identity, even Christian identity, as vocation. And for some folks, their place is a vocation.
There’s been a sense of displacement in my life since graduating high school, or even longer, like many children of baby boomers. Walter Bruegemann says that there is a different between space and place. A geographical area is a space until we give it a story, and it’s then that it becomes a place. An identity has been established across generations, who have shaped the place and been shaped by it. There is history and memory. If this is true, then most of my life has been spent in spaces, as I sought to understand and become incarnate in the places of others.
I spent my entire childhood in a little town outside of Savannah, Georgia; we only moved once and I'm very grateful for the sacrifices my parents made to give us stability. But neither of my parents hailed from the south. We spoke without an accent and didn’t eat grits or cornbread. We couldn’t walk through a church yard and see gravestones that shared our last name. I didn’t value the land for the sake of the hours and sweat that our grandparents poured into the soil. When I left, though I missed it, I knew that I probably wouldn’t go back there to start a family and raise kids. And I didn’t. Neither did my two siblings.
I (naively) thought this might change when we bought a house. It could be an answer for our innate longing for community and a commitment to the work of building a neighborhood. The place we entered and put down roots could signify more than a commodity from the church as a container for souls and disciples. And so we began to make an effort to learn something about belonging and community. To learn the rhythms of the place—when the dogwoods should bloom or when it's safe to stick a tomato plant in the ground. It was the good slow work of planting a tree—we would stay long enough for it to bear fruit and taste the goodness of a place.
But it was a fool’s errand.
Just over three years later, the little yellow house is on the market for a whole slew of reasons: change of ministerial appointment, growing family, a hot market and the lure of paying off our student loans. Such is the nature of my vocation, a transient culture, and economics.
We live in a parsonage a few miles away, but I feel less attached. The expiration date of our time in this place is palpable. Our rootedness was all an illusion. The reality as a United Methodist pastor is that every place will have an expiration date.
And this is why it’s hard to sell the little, yellow house. It’s not that it’s particularly nice. Or, spacious. It’s not even the memories of holding Eden’s hand through the bars of her crib as she fell asleep. But it’s the realization that we’re continuing the cycle of generational displacement and the fear that my kids (or me) will never have a place to belong.
We had a small window of time between rain showers to get our hands in the dirt and deliver the plants to their forever home—soil that would give them ample space to plant their roots.
This is the first year that Eden can participate in our garden. And by participate, I mean that she will make the whole enterprise more difficult. Gardening with a two year old sounds romantic, or maybe it doesn’t. Either way, we gave her a shovel and told her to get her hands dirty because this is how we learn to become human beings—Adam, from the dirt, or adamah. My own dad tolerated the muddy boots, squashed plants, endless questions, and hampering hands when we were children, and I will do the same with mine.
Norman Wirzba, one of my professors at Duke, calls gardening a form of catechesis, or instruction about becoming humans. Or, it’s Wendell Berry who says that gardening is a habit of the mind, though I’m not sure where it’s written. When we start to play in the dirt, we are reminded that we are made from it, created to serve it, and remain dependent on it for our survival. One day we’ll return to it. "For dust you are and to dust you will return." Gardening is not utilitarian for my family. We only have a few plants that will not produce enough fruit to justify the labor and headaches, not to mention the expense.
It’s the beginning of a long lesson in discipline, patience, and attention.
I grabbed a hoe and Eden grabbed a small, plastic rake to start to break up the soil and remove the weeds. There’s already a lesson here—deep care must be taken to provide the best conditions for something to grow strong and produce fruit. Weeds grow effortlessly, while it takes tremendous care and attention to nurture something delicious. If you don’t tend to your life, your soul, the next time you turn around it might be full of briars.
Our collaborative labor didn’t last long; she took two or three swipes at the ground before discerning that ‘this is hard.’ It was humid from the morning’s rainfall and obvious that it would be much easier to drive two miles to Ingles and get a perfectly round, red tomato. Or better yet, we could pinch both sides of a bag of goldfish crackers and pull it open.
Why are we digging in the soil?
I'm afraid that the work won’t get easier. Just wait until a groundhog comes and takes off the top of the plants or the aphids get hungry for a little sap. If it were easier to grow food, then millions wouldn’t go without every day. We learn to thank the hands that care for our daily bread and harvest each fruit—drive it from farm to market. The self-emptying of others keep us full. It’s an act of prayer. Our hands fold in the dirt we offer thanksgiving for the goodness of lives, creation, and our particular place in the world.
As we dug a hole for the first plant, I accidentally struck an earth worm with the shovel. It began wiggling and writhing around in the dirt, much like I had pulled a fishing hook through it. I picked up the worm, held it, invited her to touch it. This was traumatic. She took off toward the opposite end of the yard. It’s hard to look at suffering. We'd rather pretend that our food doesn't have to die--that we won't suffer or die. You can ignore this inconvenient fact at the supermarket, but on the farm you become an active participant in life and death. The worm may live, but countless other microorganisms will die. As my professor said, “How do we become worthy of receiving another’s death?”
We place the plants in the dirt, which is Eden’s favorite part of the whole experiment. She pushed the mound of dirt closer to the stem, and pated it down. The dirt became wedged in between her fingernails and skin. It is good, even when navigating fungi, infestations, and temperamental heat and rain, because something delicious will emerge. It’s an act of hope. There will be seed, a plant, and then a bell pepper will hang from a stalk in her own backyard. And she may not care for the taste, but she’ll learn about hope—it only takes a seed for new creation to bloom.
When I was a little older than Eden, I planted a green bean plant in a small container and cared for it and watered it all summer. The plant sprouted one bean fruit by the end of the season. But I was the mediator of the whole miraculous process, seed to fruit. I harvested the bean and told my mom that “I wanted to be a seller of green beans.”
Isn’t this our vocation? Our Gardening God brought us forth from the dirt of the ground and we’re called to participate in the miracle of life. We serve the soil and it serves us. We become more human, or more of whom we were intended to be, reflections of God.
Every day we go out and check the plants. “Nothing yet,” I say. “We’re still growing.”