Well, church. I have a bit of a confession—something I need to unburden myself of. Being in a place for a while now with views of such beautiful mountains, all these peaks people hope to climb and summit, and all of these beautiful trails through stunning terrain, I am filled with a sense of…well…guilt. Because…I don’t like to hike.
I have not spent any time hiking Mt. Hood. I have not even spent any time wishing I could be hiking Mt. Hood. It’s true, a part of me always wanted to be a hiker. I wanted the gear. I wanted the rugged exterior of a hiker. And let’s be honest, I would take the well-defined calves, too. But trapesing around those paths, wondering where we’re supposed to be ending up, it just never held a lot of excitement for me. This probably wasn’t an accident. Hiking and I don’t have a great history together.
If you ever want to get a chuckle out of my brother-in-law, you can ask him to tell you the story of the time he so generously guided my sister and I to one of the most beautiful meadows I’ve ever seen. It was at the base of Mount Rainier in Washington and it was filled with flowing wild grasses, beautiful wild flowers, and views of all of the surrounding landscape. Really, it was a beautiful sight. We had a picnic there and then we headed home, back down the mountain. Somehow, the decline of our descent was really painful on one of my knees that I was nursing from an injury. I was trying everything: walking sideways, jogging down the mountain, anything that would lessen the pain.
And in my mounting discomfort, I may have said something like this: “I did not sign on for this!” And he may have said something like this: “Hahahahahahahahah.”
I wasn’t carrying much with me on that hike—maybe a backpack with some water and sandwiches—but it couldn’t have been much more than that. Nothing like we see on the backs of real hikers around these parts. Some of the packs we see hikers manage are real beasts. They’re packed tight and filled with the gear they’re going to need to traverse the expanses spreading out before them. And topping off the whole look is a smile that says, “I don’t know exactly where I’m going, but I’ve got everything I need to get there.” It’s kind of sweet. It’s kind of beautiful, really. I really do wish I could love hiking.
And a lot of people do love hiking.
In fact, something has been happening recently in the hiking world—something kind of alarming, really. Many of you may know that Portland is not far from part of what is called the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT, that’s what those in the know call it, is made up of many, many smaller trails, hikes, byways, and other paths through the backcountry wilderness across the Western part of the U.S, spaning a 2,600-mile route through California, Oregon, Washington, and a short bit into Canada. Hikers hoping to complete the entire trail or significant portions of it are called through-hikers. And those through-hikers who complete the trail are members of the 2,600-Mile Club.
This is a club that, for many years, had a small number of members. To give you an idea of how small, in 1986 four people completed the trail and joined the club. But something has been happening.
In 2013, just under three hundred people completed the PCT. That’s already a huge increase from our four people in 1986. But after 2013 the number of people completing the trail started to spike. In 2016, seven hundred people finished the trail. The numbers aren’t in yet for 2017.
There are opinions about why this is happening. One opinion is that the parts of the trail that were so hard to navigate because they were frozen or blocked by the usual snowfall are now navigable due to less and less snowfall and warmer and warmer temperatures over the past few years. And this may be part of the story.
I suspect that a bigger part of the story has a lot to do with the release of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2012 and its selection for Oprah’s Book Club. In her memoir, Strayed talks about what led her to the trail, how she navigated it, and what she learned about herself on the trail. In one chapter she describes one of the most important stops she makes on her journey. It’s at the famous (among hikers) Kennedy Meadows Campground.
Kennedy Meadows is located about seven hundred miles into the hike. It’s the first place along the grueling trek where people can stop, rest, restock their food supply, be fed a cooked meal, grab a beer, meet and talk with other people. And the talking with other people might be more important than we really know. Spending all of that time alone, or seeing another person here or there, is isolating for lots of hikers. But when you come into Kennedy Meadows, many hikers tell the story of receiving a round of applause from the other hikers camping there. They catch up with the fellow hikers they’ve met along the way, and they compare notes and strategies before heading back on the trail. Being nearby so many people helps hikers to reacquaint themselves not only with other people, but with their own sense of…well…personal hygiene. Being in the backcountry for weeks, not surprisingly, leads to some less than ideal conditions for personal cleanliness. But luckily the South Fork Kern River is nearby.
Hikers swarm to the banks of this little river when they arrive. They drop the weight of the packs they’re carrying. They peel away the layers of sweaty, smelly clothes, and often enter the water in their skivvies, or less, to wash away the layers of grime and dirt that they’ve been carrying for 700 miles. We can all be assured, after hiking 700 miles through the desert highlands, modesty is not the first thing on the mind of these hikers. After a dip in the river, and getting fed some real food, many hikers then turn their attention to the work of continuing on the trail.
One of the ways hikers help each other along the way is called the hiker free box located on the porch of the Kennedy Meadows General Store. In it, hikers find all kinds of things that they can take for free with them on their hike. But, the things people leave are not offerings they make from the heart for the good of their fellow hikers. No, the hiker free box is filled with things that other hikers thought they needed, but they discovered that they didn’t. Cosmetics, certain foods hikers are completely sick of eating, extra books—these are often what a hiker finds in the hiker free box, things that are taking up too much space in their pack and weighing them down. And not everyone fills the hiker free box with unneeded items willingly.
In some cases, people need help to discover they are carrying more than they need. Cheryl Strayed describes her own experience of being assisted by a fellow through hiker along this process. Along her way she met a father/son duo hiking the trail. Both Eagle Scouts, donning military crew cuts, and openly devoted to the God of their own understanding, the father of the duo, Albert, offered to help Cheryl consider her packing strategy.
He said, “‘All right, then. Here’s what I want you to do: pack up that thing just like you’re about to hike out of here for this next stretch of trail and we’ll go from there.’… I went to work, integrating the new with the old, feeling as if I were taking a test that I was bound to fail. When I was done, Albert returned and methodically unpacked my pack. He placed each item in one of two piles—one to go back into my pack, another to go into the now-empty resupply box that I could either mail home or leave in the PCT hiker free box on the porch of the Kennedy Meadows General Store for others to plunder.”
When Cheryl was done, she repacked her pack with only the pile that made the cut for the rest of the trip.
She writes, “I turned and leaned into Monster, threading my arms into the straps [Monster was the nickname Cheryl had for her backpack]. ‘So let’s see if it made a difference,’ I said, and buckled it on. When I lifted it from the table, I was amazed at how light it felt, even fully loaded with my new ice axe and fresh supply of eleven days’ worth of food. I beamed at Albert. ‘Thank you.’ He chuckled in response, shaking his head.”
You may think you need it, but maybe you don’t.
Sometimes I wonder what it is about hiking that I don’t like. It could be the mosquitoes. It could be the lack of facilities in the woods. I suspect it could even be the memory of my brother-in-law’s great delight at my whining. I’m sure these don’t help. But there’s something more going on, I have come to believe.
When we are hiking it’s almost always on a path. And it is usually a path that other people made, complete with color-coded flares telling me where to go. It can feel a little like cheating. It can feel like looking at what someone else wants me to see and taking the path they laid out—like there is no choice. And maybe that sense comes from something deeper than we can really know or be aware of.
How many times have we found ourselves on a path that we know is not the one we should be taking? Or maybe we don’t know it’s not the right path, but we get a sense of discomfort along the way. Maybe it’s a career. That job starts asking for a little more time and maybe a little more flexibility with our morals. Maybe it’s a relationship. How we are relating to someone starts turning us into a person we never thought we would be. Or maybe it’s a habit. Something we’re doing starts taking us to places we never thought we would see.
It might feel like we’re on a load of different paths and we’re losing the sense of where we’re heading. But, what Cheryl found on her trek was that the path…is the path. It’s the 2600 miles that everyone is going to walk—some for part of it, and a few for all of it. What made the difference was choosing what to be free of. What made the difference was choosing what to carry with her. What made all the difference was choice…that and having some help.
We all make choices every single day, and most of them are probably good choices. We weigh options, maybe in business, and in the spirit of sound financial principles, we make a choice. We consider our relationships, and in the spirit of friendship or in the spirit of love, we act accordingly. We look at how we are spending our time and our habits, and in the spirit of convenience, we keep doing things we know aren’t great for us. We choose in the spirit of all kind of things. But in so many of these choices, we miss the spirit that matters: the Spirit of Life.
Many of us here have felt how powerful it is to sing our doxology together. The testimonies we hear on many Sundays talk of the power singing this song together holds. It moves many of us to tears. And singing about the Spirit of Life makes sense since singing is essentially controlled breathing, and spirit and breath both share the same Greek root: pneuma. One translator describes the relationship like this: “Breath; the spirit which, like the wind, is invisible, immaterial, and powerful.”
There is power in choosing to be part of the lives of others. There is power in choosing to make a larger and larger part of our own lives the work of loving others. The power in these choices is that they are choices that add no weight to what we carry on our paths. In fact, as we let people know us more deeply and share with them what we are carrying. For so many of us, for so long as any of us has been living, the choice to help others, to love others, and to let others help us, and to love us, to let them share the load we are carrying, that is the very Spirit of our Lives, the very breath of our existence.
A true friend, a true church, a true family, whether given or chosen, calls out to say, take a load off, and put the load right on me. I know that for some, the term Spirit of Life sounds like a placeholder for other words of reverence. But it is so much more.
It is at the heart of what Mary Oliver promises is essential.
“To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.”
See, part of the Spirit of Life is knowing we are mortal like our loved ones—it is holding those people close to us. And it is all the wonder, all the mystery, all the pain, and all the very stuff of love that comes with letting them go.
Many of us here, I dare say, all of us here, know what this takes. We know what it takes from us. We have lived the truth of letting loved ones go. This truth lies at the center of what it means to be a church together. When we welcome the Spirit of Life against our mortal bones, we know what we are signing on for. And the Spirit of our Lives responds. It says, “Put the load right on me.”
We have all climbed so many hills. And we have all carried so much to the top of those hills to get there. Then in times when we are starting down the mountains of our lives we’ve climbed, and the path back down starts getting more painful than we can bear, and we cry out, or we scream, “I did not sign on for this,” that whisper, that breath you hear in your ear or in your heart might be the Spirit of Life laughing along with you—not making fun of the suffering you’re feeling, but more like a friend who has been there before and laughs with understanding, like a community who comes together to support one of its own and laughs with the joy of sharing time together, or like a brother who knows the way down the mountain and that in spite of your whining, you’re going to be OK.
And our shared path takes us always down the hill, until we arrive safe at the shores of the cooling river in the valley. We all carry our own monsters on our backs for a while. We all trod the same dusty path to get here, but our laden journey pauses at the banks of the river, and we jump in.
The water is calm and cool. It washes over us, washes past us, and clears away the dust and the grime of the journey. There is nothing wrong with lingering there, laughing, splashing, and playing in the waters together. We feel so light, so free. It’s almost as if, with just enough breath in our lungs, we could float away with the current, glimpsing at what we lay down on the bank of our river fading, fading far into the distance.
We may think we need it, but maybe we don’t.
And may it ever be so. Amen.
 Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, New York: Random House (2013), 106.
 Strayed, 107.
 Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study New Testament, Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers (1991).
 Mary Oliver, “In Blackwater Woods.”