Home Again, Home Again

AspensI’m home again after spending a glorious week in the great American Southwest.

You may have heard that Chuck, Joe, and I got kicked out of Zion National Park after the government shutdown last Tuesday, but we didn’t let it ruin our trip.  On a whim we decided to drive toward Monument Valley, and on the way discovered Highway 12 in Utah, which was described to us as “the second most scenic highway in the world” (apparently there is a highway in New Zealand that is even prettier, but that remains to be seen).

The scenery was, literally, breathtaking.  At points the speed limit would drop to 30 miles per hour simply because the people who post such things knew that over the next rise or around the next bend everyone on the road would put on their brakes and gasp at the view.

One night we camped in the desert on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, and sat around a juniper-wood campfire, perfuming the night air with sweet-smelling smoke.

The next day we hiked to the top of a 100-foot waterfall, stripped down to our shorts, and leaped into the pool just above it, gasping at the shock of the cold water.

That night we camped by a lake in an Aspen grove (see photo above) at high elevations, shivering in the chilly air under a sky full of brilliant stars.

The next day, on the advice of a well-meaning stranger, we drove fifty miles on a dirt road toward the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, throwing up a huge cloud of dust, only to find a chain across the road seven miles from our destination.

We never did make it to Monument Valley.

I was hugely disappointed that our Grand Canyon adventure didn’t work out.  Even though I had been to the Canyon earlier this year (for the first time) I hadn’t gotten nearly enough of it.  We had been told by that same well-meaning stranger that we could camp right there on the North Rim, that there was no guardrail there, and that you could walk right up to the edge and look down–for a mile.  He had done it himself, although he confessed that he had crawled on his hands and knees, terrified of heights.  I drove down that dirt road with that vision in my head, as excited as I’ve ever been at what we were about to see.

But, of course, we didn’t get there.

So imagine what a gift of grace it was to look out the window of my airplane on the way home and see–just a few miles below me–the Grand Canyon.  I pressed my face to the window and looked until it had completely disappeared from my view, drinking it in like someone who couldn’t get enough, and who didn’t really want to leave behind all that stunning beauty.

But several hours later I landed in Richmond, Virginia, the place that I live, the place that I love.  And I discovered once again that what they’ve been saying all these years is true.

There’s no place like home.

KOH2RVA: Day 208

big fishI’m back! Back from Graves Mountain Lodge near Shenandoah National Park where I helped to lead a national retreat for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship called “Practicing Resurrection.”

The title is from a poem by Wendell Berry called, “Manifesto: the Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” The closing lines are these:

As soon as the general and the politicos
Can predict the motions of your mind,
Lose it. Leave it as a sign
To mark the false trail, the way
You didn’t go. Be like the fox
Who makes more tracks than necessary,
Some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

I started with the premise that the resurrection life is life at its fullest, and suggested that when we are living life at its fullest our senses are fully engaged. I asked the retreat participants to test that hypothesis during the time we were in the mountains, and to keep records of their sensory experience.

So, we had reports on what it is like to taste apple juice in the morning as if it were a fine wine—inhaling the aroma, swirling it around in the mouth, tasting it on the tongue. A report on what it’s like to hold the rainbow trout you just pulled from a mountain stream, looking at its beautiful colors and feeling the weight of its wet muscle in your hands. A report on what it’s like to struggle to the top of Old Rag Mountain the hard way—on the boulder-strewn Ridge Trail—and be rewarded with the 360-degree view from the top: Virginia spreading out in every direction like a quilt your great-great-great-great-grandmother made.

It was a wonderful retreat. We lived life at its fullest. Our senses were fully engaged. But can I tell you how glad I was to get home to Richmond on Thursday afternoon, and how eager I am to embrace again this city that I love, this place where I live?

I’m not sure how heaven will come to earth today, or how I might help, but I think I will recognize it when it happens. Heaven has come near to me in the last few days. I’ve seen it in the distance, heard its whispers, touched its edges, tasted its flavors and smelled its fragrances.

May it come near to you today, and may you have a part in bringing it near for others.

KOH2RVA: Day 166

DaffodilsI did it.

I took the whole day off yesterday (well, except for that one little posting incident on my blog. But that was force of habit. It could hardly be helped).

And then there was that other thing.

It was a nice, sunny day yesterday—cold, but sunny. So, I decided to pack a picnic lunch and take a walk in the woods. I chose the Northbank/Buttermilk Trail loop which goes from the Boulevard Bridge down along the north bank of the James to the Lee Bridge, and then back up to the Boulevard Bridge along the Buttermilk Trail on the south bank. It’s about a 6.3 mile loop, with lots of ups and downs to keep it interesting.

My first experience of the Buttermilk Trail was in the fall, when the sunlight filtered through the red, yellow, and orange leaves and fell to the ground in leaf-sized patches of gold. It was glorious. Yesterday’s hike was a little more bare, brown, and wintry, but I was surprised by this burst of daffodil blooms (above) at the place where I stopped to shed my jacket.

And there were all those other things to see: a Great Blue Heron gliding to a stop above a tree limb and settling itself there, folding its wings like an umbrella; five Canada Geese diving for something delicious on the muddy bottom of the river, their tail feathers pointing toward the sky; and, to my surprise, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus train, parked on a side track (I kept looking for the extra-large car where they keep the elephants and the extra-tall car where they keep the giraffes, to no avail; that may be only in my imagination).

But here’s that other thing: as I was getting close to the Boulevard Bridge, near the end of my hike, I saw that some careless hiker or biker had dropped a piece of trash on the trail. At first I just muttered under my breath and walked on by. I had seen so much beauty on my hike, and it had done so much to restore my soul. It was like this perfect moment in time I was going to frame and hang on the wall of my memory.

But then somebody threw a piece of trash on it.

I could have just picked it up. I should have. But it didn’t look like the kind of trash you would want to touch with your hands. I had a trash bag in my pack, but I didn’t really want to unbuckle everything, set it down, open the pack, take out the bag, and poke the trash into it with a stick. That seemed like too much trouble, and I was almost to the end of my hike.

So, I kept walking, but as I did I remembered something I’ve said at Richmond’s First Baptist Church over and over again: “How do you bring heaven to earth? It’s simple. Just look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven and then roll up your sleeves and go to work.” Well, that piece of trash on the trail didn’t look like heaven. In fact, I thought, “In heaven there won’t be any trash on the trails.” And so I went back, dropped my pack, and did all those things I had been reluctant to do before.

Now, that seems like a small thing, doesn’t it? I picked up a piece of trash. Big woo. But think about it: if everybody who threw trash down began to pick it up; if everybody who cursed others began to bless others; if everybody who hurt others began to heal others; if everybody who hated their neighbors began to love their neighbors; if everybody who hated God began to love God…heaven would come to earth.

I believe that’s what Jesus was after, really: inviting the whole human race to join him in the redemption of the world God loves rather than its destruction.

Picking up a piece of trash is a tiny thing, but it’s a tiny thing in the right direction.

We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder

Jacob's LadderOn Thursday of last week, my friend Joe Perez and I were hiking up Bear Canyon in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  It’s a beautiful hike, but the trail ascends almost vertically for 2,500 feet.  On the way up I caught myself singing that old spiritual, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.”  It’s got the perfect rhythm for a hike like that—slow and plodding—and the line about “every round goes higher, higher” is not only descriptive, it’s encouraging. 

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
Soldiers of the cross.

Every round goes higher, higher,
Every round goes higher, higher,
Every round goes higher, higher,
Soldiers of the cross.

I sang that much without any trouble, but then realized I didn’t know the next verse.  It was something about “Sinner do you _____ my Jesus,” but was it “love my Jesus” or “know my Jesus”?  I didn’t know, and it didn’t matter, so I began to sing, “Sinner do you know my Jesus,” and then I followed it with, “If you know him why not trust him,” and then, “If you trust him why not serve him.”  I found out later that those aren’t the real lyrics, but as I sang them I thought about how the Christian faith progresses from one level to the next.  You don’t begin by serving Jesus, you begin by hearing something about him.  If you hear enough you might get to know him, and if you get to know him you might begin to trust him.  

The Christian life goes on and on like that if we are faithful about it; every round goes higher, higher.  If we keep on climbing Jacob’s Ladder one day we will get to the top of it, and the view, like my view from the top of Hunter Peak that day, will be breathtaking.

In My Mind I’m Going to Guadalupe

GuadalupeNext month I’m going to Guadalupe Mountains National Park in West Texas to do some hiking with long time backpacking partners Chuck Treadwell and Joe Perez.  Chuck and I have been hiking together for thirty years, spending one week a year in some of the most beautiful places in America.  Joe is a mutual friend from college who has joined the party only in the last six or seven years, but he’s a natural addition.  And while Chuck is actually my brother-in-law, we often drop the “in-law” part.  You don’t do that much hiking together without developing deep and lasting bonds. 

So, on this day off I’m getting my backpack out of storage and dreaming of the mountains.  I’m thinking about being in the desert with my brothers-in-boots and looking up at a night sky studded with stars. 

I’m going to Guadalupe in my mind.