Sabbath on the Golden Staircase

Athletic ability has never been one of my defining identities. By the end of my 8th grade track season, I did make it over all the hurdles and finish ahead of someone else, but this is hardly triumph. During college, I managed to ride my bicycle nearly the whole way across Nebraska, motivated primarily by my stubborn determination to keep up with my stubborn middle-aged father; if Dad could do it, surely I could make it. Which is to say: hiking for 20 days in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains did not seem an obvious way for me to spend Sabbath time.

But, then, my life has been full of twists and quirks. I, a child raised without even water guns in the house and a veteran of the Nevada Desert Experience’s protests at the Nuclear Test Site in Nevada, am married to an Army Reservist. During his recent second deployment to Iraq, he started talking more about his desire to spend some serious time backpacking in the Sierras. I loved the idea of time in the mountains to counterbalance his time in war—I’d support just about any constructive way of tending to his mental health and was thrilled he’d choose something so beautiful. The only problem is that I hated the idea of more time apart. The only solution was to come along for the hike.

This is how I ended up with plenty of time to ponder the winding trails to mountain passes; our time on the John Muir Trail offered up somewhere around 45,000 of ascent over the 233 miles we hiked.

I found that, especially as I neared high passes, my tendency is to carry a song with me; alongside each labored breath came notes and words. Early in the hike (though he’s absent from my iTunes playlist) Slim Shady hiked with me. I have no good excuse for this—perhaps I was buoyed by his cocky confidence. Somewhere mid-hike, it occurred to me that I could make a holier choice. Connecting to those Psalms of Ascent, as if my mountain trail were the path to Jerusalem, I began to put my mind to lyrics praising and seeking after God. I liked the shift I felt taking place in my whole being. (I also liked the muscle strength and lung capacity I was building.)

On day 13, after pleasant, easy hiking through river valleys and a leisurely stop at a warm rock next to a pleasant pool, we were confronted with a mountain to climb. Looking up the rocks to where we imagined our night’s destination must be, I could not perceive how there was space for us in the rugged, vertical rocks. Later, I discovered this section of the trail is known as the “Golden Staircase;” one of the last portions of trail to be completed, it required artful engineering and a lot of dynamite. The trail wound artfully through troughs and ledges, tucking itself into the granite. Even more shocking, it took us through damp areas overgrown with ferns as well as dry, barren expanses of rock. Impressed by the artistry of the trail design, dizzied by the view back down, I was started to discover something wild: the winding switchbacks on the trail looked just like the path of the labyrinth that’s carved into the concrete back home at my church.

Aside from the difference in physical exertion, my time on that pass wasn’t so different from my labyrinth walks. Twists and circles help free me from my fixed orientation, loosening me up for new possibilities. When I’m tempted by the illusion that I’ve nearly arrived at the destination, suddenly the path leads me back out to edge from which I can see that I still have a journey ahead of me. Just when I’ve finally stopped guessing that the end is just around the next turn, I find myself in the center—at the pass—from which I can see clearly.

After repeated days of hiking over mountains, my attitude shifted, too: the frustration of the relentless repetition of ups and downs softened into a pleasant rhythm. Going over the mountain to see the other side of the mountain, it turns out, is a fine thing to do.

I took my hike at the beginning of year nine in both my pastoral ministry and my appointment as associate pastor to this congregation—two years overdue, if we take biblical patterns seriously, for sabbatical renewal. I’m also not commenting on how I passed the other five weeks of “renewal leave” I was afforded this summer. But I am not writing to beat myself up for being slow in taking Sabbath seriously.

My denomination’s habit in annual clergy evaluation is to talk less about Sabbath and more about self-care—a terminology shift that tempts me to think it’s all about me. One of the things my husband and I both loved about our time backpacking is that our personal needs were relatively minor. Beyond sources of fresh water and a place to spread our sleeping bags, we carried most of what we needed in our ultra-light packs. We planned on hiking a certain distance each day—a distance that required far fewer hours of hiking than there were hours of daylight. There wasn’t much point in giving our minds over to distant worries; with no phones or internet access, no newspapers or books, there wasn’t much to do about it, anyhow. We watched out for each other, and had plenty of time to spend absorbing beauty—a pristine, rugged, rare beauty that screamed stories of God’s amazing handiwork. Each of us attempted to capture some of our experience in words and pictures, but mostly we just enjoyed the moments.

Hiking helped me care for myself in a number of ways, certainly including my physical health; the trek was a satisfying accomplishment and I loved how strong and fit I felt by the trail’s end. Hiking was also good care for my marriage. Having as great an expanse of time with my husband as we’ve ever had, doing something we both enjoy, taking pleasure in silence as well as shared conversations, was precious. Hiking was also amazingly good for my connection with God.

It was also good for me to return to work, discovering a number of unexpected blessings that would not have been possible if I had been around. While a part of me is disappointed to know that the church rolled on without me, it is a fabulous reminder to keep perspective. As Wendell Berry taught me in his Sabbath poems, the wondrous work of grace happens by a power other than our own; seeds don’t turn to tomatoes while we’re hard at work tilling the soil.

Now, it sit at my desk in the busy church office, staring at a computer screen and puzzling about this Sunday’s sermon. Where I used to tuck bits of prayerful time in between conference calls, drop-in visitors and Advent hymn selections, this year I’m determined to do things backwards and upside down. (Mary would approve, don’t you think?) My hope is that I can remember the twists of the trail, appreciate the distractions as opportunities to see from a new perspective, and, all the while, keep God’s song on my breath.

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