September 13, 2007

Hiking Alone [matt]

I was raised with the distinct purpose of loving God and mountains. It has always been typical in my family to get a roll of film developed only to discover that at least half of the photos are of Mount Rainier. My family is a family of mountain people.

Adulthood came suddenly, and I realized that I was in a new place with a new mountain; Mount Baker. The issue for me in all of this was that I had a great new mountain to explore, but nobody to join me in my adventures. Sure, there were plenty of people who told me they wanted to go hiking, but few ever seemed to be able to go when I could. So for a long time, I just didn’t go. Instead, I sat at home and twitched like an addict in need of a fix. Finally I cracked. I became a solitary hiker.

Hiking alone is an adventure of its own kind. Finding roads and trails can be an exciting experience in themselves; I have no navigator or second opinion. During the hike, I have nobody to keep pace with, which usually means I spend too much time stopping to admire views, or go too quickly up trails where I could be enjoying the journey. I usually overdo it, going too far and coming home with severe back pain that leaves me bent over in pain for days. And of course there’s the wildlife. One year ago I found myself on the Skyline Divide ridge trail, staring at a black bear. Alone with a bear. There’s really no words for the feeling that arose within me. For the rest of the day, I walked with fear and trembling.

The grandeur of the North Cascades makes this the most beautiful place on the earth, in my opinion. I still invite people into the hills with me, but do love the experience of hiking alone. Standing at the base of Mt. Baker, as I did three days ago, is something that changes you. To stare at this behemoth volcano, with mountain goats literally all around and glaciers on my left and right, is to to glimpse the ineffable. What can you say in the face of such a thing? What can you think? The mind reels, tired legs wobble and my lungs gasp from awe and the crispness of thin air.

No wonder Moses, also a solitary hiker, kept looking for God on the mountaintop. No wonder he chose to look out over the Promised land, and ultimately die, while atop Mount Pigsah.

What better place could he have chosen?

A few years ago Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone, a sociological lament over the American lack of community. It is a realization that community events are disappearing from the Western landscape, being replaced by solitary activity (or no activity at all). As someone who agrees and mourns this loss with Putnam, I feel more than a little hypocritical moving again and again into the mountains, with my only companion being a book and a camera. But to be honest, this probably will not be changing for me. I will continue to hike alone.


For the first time in my life I have stumbled into a spiritual discipline that works in my life; pilgrimage. When I go into the mountains, I find what Robert Brancatelli calls “unmediated contact with the sacred.” I see, hear, feel, touch and smell God. No, I do not believe Nature is God. But I believe God is in and with his creation. The Spirit of Life is moving in the mountains and I want to be in His/Her presence. Yes, God is just as present elsewhere, but sometimes I need to get away to hear Him and have Him remind me of this fact. Paying parking fees, braving bear attacks, getting lost on forest roads; it’s worth it for a moment of peace with the Lord. I invite you to do the same.

I hike alone because that is when I can begin to grasp that I am not alone.

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Have Mercy, Will Travel [justin]

It was God’s Smuggler who first started the fire in Naomi’s heart for China. In the book, Brother Andrew tells his story about smuggling Bibles into communist countries, about the persecuted church, and about discipleship in places where you can’t just tell somebody to pick up the latest Christian commentary at the bookstore. It’s been ten years since Naomi first started learning, crying and praying for China. Her heart has changed over those years, both dwindling in emotional zeal and expanding in maturing wisdom, and in a few days this husband and wife team will be flying to China for a three-month stay. While there, we will be assisting a long term missionary friend, finishing up a TESL certificate, and finding out what God has in store for us.

The past month Naomi and I have been feeling the birth pains of going to China. There is excitement and thrill when thinking of such a grand adventure – that is, until reality hits and preparing for the trip occurs. Passport and visa paper work, training job replacements, airline tickets, making appointments for vaccinations, verifying what our insurance did/did not pay for, and the other million tiny things that you don’t think of till the last moment kept knocking on the door. But our “romantic delusion,” as Naomi puts it, imploded while finishing one single task: packing up our apartment.

Some might think that there is a lovely aestheticism in becoming missionary-like, but for us it was more similar to running a gauntlet. We’ve just celebrated our two-year anniversary and there hasn’t been a time where we were closer to breaking down as a couple. That says a lot especially when compared with the past few years where we had to deal with newlywed issues, the premature death of a mother, and Naomi going back to school while working almost full time.

You see, we, like most Americans, have too much stuff. Stuff is a technical term; it isn’t “junk,” which connotes no practical or sentimental value, but it is not “essential” either, meaning that we actually need it to survive or be content.

Both of us, for one reason or another, hated moving our materialism around. Fighting over what to keep, what to trash, and what to give away was a daily activity that kept building upon the previous round. Part of it was stereotypical boy/girl issues dealing with clothes (especially shoes), but underneath, a big chunk of the fighting had to do with where we were and where we had been with money and having “nice things.”

Naomi, while not poor, grew up not having a lot of money. Shopping at thrift stores and never quite fitting in with the prettier people was the norm. If she did get something nice, it was kept and taken care of for as long as possible; she never knew if she would be able to get another one like it and not getting rid of possessions was considered good stewardship. While that mentality was in Naomi, I had been kicking around the whole burn your TV in your yard ideology. I started to see the wisdom in simplicity and thought that this was a great opportunity for us (but more so her) to get rid of extraneous items. As Tyler Durden from Fight Club once said, “The things you own end up owning you,” and I wasn’t going to let that happen to us. Add to all that our imperfections with control issues, passive-aggressive guilt trips, and self-centeredness, and you have a recipe for relational chaos.

There was a lot I needed to be taught from all the fighting and bickering and walking out on each other. The story in Luke’s Gospel of the widow’s gift was a starting point. While it might have seemed that I was getting rid of more belongings, percentage wise Naomi was making the bigger sacrifice, particularly since she was emotionally connected with some of the items. I had to recognize that just because a few things were superfluous, didn’t mean that everything was. I had fallen into the pendulum swing that the church is famous for, going from one wrong extreme (the blessedness of materialism) to the other (all matter is evil).

The most prominent lesson that came from our relational angst, however, was that of loving your enemy. My favorite professor in college once said that the strongest Biblical argument for not getting a divorce was that Jesus taught and commanded us to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us. It’s hard to admit when a marriage relationship is on the rocks and you feel like you are married to the enemy. Couples usually want everybody to think that their relationship is happy and fine. But the truth of the matter is that the person who brings you the greatest joy is also capable of bringing the greatest pain. A wife’s kisses are the sweetest delight; a husband’s wounds, the most cruel; loneliness is never more vibrant as when it appears between a man and a woman sharing the same bed. There is vulnerability in sincere relationships, none more so than marriage.

But marriage was not designed to stay as a continual boxing match between partners. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but two people admitting they have both done wrong sure does aid in reconciliation. Naomi and I went away for our two-year anniversary, leaving behind the things that still needed to be done so that we could focus on rest and just being with each other. Towards the end of the trip we pulled into a parking lot where Naomi continued to read to me A Severe Mercy by Sheldon VanAuken. She read about the deathly snows and a real life fairy tale relationship that ended in tragedy. We embraced each other, cried, and mourned with love both about the story we heard and the story we were writing out with our own lives, whether beautiful or ugly or both.

While myriad reasons aid in making people adversaries in our lives, it’s only the grace of God that changes an enemy into a beloved. It was the Father’s mercy through His Son that turned enmity into love and as followers of Christ we are called to be peacemakers and extend the mercy we’ve been shown to others.

On the refrigerator at the in-laws house, where Naomi and I are staying before we leave, is a little piece of paper with one of St. Francis of Assisi’s most famous quotes: Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary use words. It is key to remember that the Gospel is more than words. I hope that concept will be burnt into my mind for the next few months as I deal with verbal miscommunication both in a foreign country and in a marriage relationship.

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September 6, 2007

Identity [jenna]

A young guy I once knew from Anacortes--one John Van Deusen--used often to sing a song he'd written, three lines of which have haunted me over and over again.

"You're so damn lovely / Don't give your innocence away / Do you know who you are"

I have thought of those words in reference to children on the reservation I used to visit, to high school students that came through the youth ministry I worked for, to friends that had a bit of a hell-bent to them, and occasionally even looking in the mirror (and without thinking of my looks).

My boyfriend recently wrote "Today, we define adulthood less by the acceptance of responsibility than by self-definition through individual choice ..." He was right. We've all heard that "Nobody really figures out who they are till they're [insert number over 25 here]." The struggle for self-definition rules us, consumes us from adolescence until we have an image we feel good about.

The importance of an understanding of one's identity is real; I will not take issue with that here. What worries me is the terms on which we define ourselves. It has become much more of an image thing, an interest in discovering how our personalities would translate into a fictional character or a celebrity. For instance, I tend to define myself according to the kind of personal description I wrote for my various blog profiles: I write constantly and detest poor spelling. I like books, dogs and chocolate. Expertise: loads of random trivia about the Bible and Harry Potter, wearing the wrong shoes for an outfit, daydreaming. I prefer green to purple and Austen to Steinbeck. You could make a movie about this girl. All you need is a plot.

Those things, while superficial in and of themselves, may at least comment on my nature; they may tell you that I am shy and optimistic and that I value loyalty. But the layers of identity run much deeper than that. Those minute individual descriptions, by themselves, are very lonely things.

A deeper identity involves something more than little narcissistic me. Some of it is relational--I am a daughter, a sister, a girlfriend, a friend. Some of it puts me in touch with great heritage. I am a Christian, an American, a woman.

It is that heritage that seems most missing in our modern self-definitions; it is the loss of tradition that I feel most. As a Christian, for instance, I have two thousand years of particularly rich history--something that could stand to be rather more widely taught. I did not find it until I found the Catholic church. Christianity lived almost entirely inside the Catholic church for the first thousand years until the Orthodox church split off, and mainline Protestantism came several hundred years later. Whether those separations occurred rightly or wrongly--a debate outside the realm of this article--at least the first half of Christian tradition is found in the annals of Catholicism. John Eldredge and Brent Curtis said in The Sacred Romance that "One of the reasons modern evangelicalism feels so thin is because it is merely modern; there is no connection with the thousands of years of saints that have gone before. Our community of memory must include not only saints from down the street, but also those from down the ages. Let us hear the stories of John and Teresa from last week, but also those of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, to name only two." The legacy of the saints is of grace and community, of great faith and of love for Christ and man.

As an American, I am a part of a great tradition as well. We "mutts" of Western civilization tend often to define our heritage as Scottish or French or English or Spanish or Indian--all older countries--but we are American, and that means something. I, personally, hate hearing America demonized by the spoiled great-great-great-grandchildren of men who fought and died to give them freedom--not the freedom to raise hell, but the freedom to choose what is right. It is one thing to criticize politicians, who as men may have little or no moral principle; it is another to badmouth the country itself. We have a great country. It is being gradually destroyed by selfish ambition, lack of respect, and lack of virtue; but most of the time, most of us can still freely choose good without getting jailed for it.

Being a woman might not seem like heritage exactly, but femininity has its own culture--a culture shared with the wives of Jacob and the Virgin Mary, with Esther the queen and Rhoda the servant-girl, with Marilyn Monroe and the heavy, hardly-functional gal pushing a Wal-Mart shopping cart. There is an innate understanding of relationships, a sensitivity to beauty, and common romantic and motherly sensibilities across the world and throughout time. Femininity also gives me my relational roles, for I play all of them as a woman. My ideas, of course, do not go as far as feminism--few ideas have been as hard on womanhood as feminism. And it bears mentioning that masculinity has great traditions of its own, a heritage no less noble than that of woman.

These connections outside of my own individuality, this being a part of something greater than myself, frees up personality to be the decorative accent it ought to be. I like this line of James Thurber's: "Why do you have to be a nonconformist just like everybody else?" Individuality without heritage and tradition is meaningless.

Finally, if my identity is never self-effacing--if love for God and others never takes me outside of myself--then, as 1 Corinthians 13 says:

"... If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing."

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Risk [jessi]

[Definition: exposure to the chance of injury or loss; put oneself in danger; hazard; venture. from Italian Rischio, old It. riscare—to run into danger.]

“It’s perfectly safe,” I told myself. I was standing on a bridge 160 feet above a swiftly flowing, silky green river. “Hundreds of people do this every year.”

I had picked up a small pebble in the unpaved lot; now I took it out of my pocket and tossed it over the side of the bridge, watching it all the way down. Despite my positive self-talk I became firmly convinced, watching that pebble fall, and being unable to see where it landed, that sensible people do not hurl themselves off of bridges. Nevertheless, after neither Bekah nor I would back down first (allowing the other to save face), that is what we did.

What makes a person take that kind of risk? Whether the motivation involves adrenaline, a good Youtube video, or double-dog daring on the part of the coolest person you know, it hardly seems worth trusting an oversized rubber-band to keep body and soul together.

It’s funny how much of life is like bungee jumping for the first time. Maybe you approach major life decisions by sort of scoping out the bridge, analyzing the options and weighing the worst-case scenarios. Finally, you sign the insurance waver—your first step toward surrendering your body to gravity. “Bungee Mike” and his crew strap you into multiple safety harnesses and instruct you very seriously not to fidget with the carabineers, “And whatever you do, don’t grab the rope.” Let go of everything and just step off? You must be crazy.

You do an uncertain sort of dance at the edge: at this point, 160 feet up in the air, you’ve still got a chance to back down. Your big, scary, possibly irrevocably life-changing decision can be put off. All you have to do is swallow your pride, unclench your fists and move away from the ledge. The crowd on the bridge is counting down, but you can still step back into safety…or outward into danger.

Why on earth would you step out? Human beings weren’t made for running knowingly into danger—not this one, anyway. I’m made for books on rainy days, hot soup on rainy nights, flower-picking and hand holding in the springtime, and kissing on a bridge at sunset, not bungee jumping off of one. Remember reading Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in General Psych? Bodily safety is only one higher up on the pyramid from physiological basics like air and food. Humans have a need to feel safe from harm before they can go on to pursue whatever else in life like small comforts, love and acceptance, desires and goals. Jumping off a bridge seems like the exact opposite of that.

But without risk, there is no chance of reward. With bungee-jumping, the payoff was threefold: 1) the adrenaline pumping, knee shaking high that overtook me as I was pulled back onto the platform, 2) bragging rights: let’s be honest—who doesn’t want to be able to drop “last weekend, when I went bungee jumping” into casual conversation, and 3) a sense of accomplishment. This was kind of a mountain conquered for me. I am afraid of heights. Also, I absolutely hate surrendering control in my life.

Sometimes I feel like the stories I read or see at the movies create a false perception of the risk to reward ratio. We like to hear the happy ending stories (both real and fictional) of greatness achieved or gambles that beat the odds. But for every William the Conqueror, there is a Godwinson, and for every Powerball winner there are a million losers. In all areas of life, there is no sure thing.

Sometimes the risk is low—like the odds of me getting hit by my city’s sole transit authority bus while I’m walking to the library this afternoon. Then, sometimes the stakes are much greater, like the risk that comes from relationships. What if I put my heart on the line? The question reminds me of something C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung, and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in a casket or coffin of your own selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.

It would be fabulous if there was a success guarantee out there for me. Something that says, “Our safety rating is 100% -- the rope has never broken.” Why, oh why, can’t real life be like bungee jumping? So with nothing in writing—no assurance of a safe and happy outcome, should I still jump?


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