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Down by the Riverside


     July 21, 2017. Ed and I were hiking the Garden Wall section of the Highline Trail at Glacier National Park in Montana.  

     And I was terrified.

     I had not known until that moment just how afraid of heights I was. This was Rockies high, an altitude of 6,647 feet at the trailhead at Logan Pass.

     It didn't help that that we had come to the hiking trail via an early-morning drive on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a narrow, twisting two-lane road that winds over passes and curves between jagged cliffs as it crosses the Continental Divide. The shoulder of the road falls away precipitously on either side. I took little sips of the scenery as we drove, trying to appreciate it, but the heights, the drop-offs, and tight turns frightened me.

     It didn't help that I felt shaky, jacked up on caffeine, having slept badly the night before, kept awake by campground noises and anxiety about this day's hike. 
     It didn't help that when we arrived at the Logan Pass Visitor Center and opened the car doors, we were buffeted by a strong, cold wind. I hunched my shoulders and huddled in the leeward side of the door.

     Ed did not understand my hesitation. Being "steady Ed," calm and unflappable in any outdoor setting, he has spent many hikes waiting for me to step gingerly down a steep slope or shuffle toward the edge of a cliff. I remembered a time at Colorado National Monument some years before when we were hiking on bare rock that sloped down to a boulder-studded canyon far below us. Fear had prickled up and down my spine. Ed said encouragingly, "You can do this. Your boots will hold you up."

      I glared at him.

     At least it had been warm and sunny when we'd hiked in Colorado. This was neither. I zipped my heavy fleece up to my chin and tightened the drawstring on the hood of my rain jacket. Heaving a sigh, I stepped away from the car.

     We set out on the trail. When we got to the Garden Wall, I almost stopped. One writer describes this section of the trail as "the famous ledge with the reputation for terrifying those with a fear of heights." The ledge, which hangs like a shelf in the Garden Wall, is only four to six feet wide. Beyond the ledge is a sheer, one-hundred-foot drop-off to the Going-to-the-Sun Road below. "This segment lasts for only 3/10 of a mile," the writer adds helpfully, "but may seem forever if you have a fear of heights. Fortunately, the National Park Service has installed a hand cable along this stretch of the trail. Don't let this [challenge] deter you, as this is one of the most scenic trails in America."

     I did not use the hand cable. I had that much pride. And we'd brought our hiking poles. Keeping close as I could to the wall, I recited my own mantra: "Four points touching the ground: two poles and two strong boots." Whenever fear rose, I listened to the click of the poles and felt the earth beneath my soles.

     When other hikers blew past us, young and fit and confident, I said to them in my mind, "Pffft." And some other curses. But I kept on hiking.

     I also tried the technique of thought replacement. When fears about heights or bears (that, too) arose in my mind, I thought of our oldest daughter, seven months pregnant, and I prayed for her baby, whom I had nicknamed Blueberry. This will be the most prayed-for baby in the world, I thought, at least during our two weeks of hiking at Glacier.

     Another hiker passed us. "Pffft," I said. Out loud.

     We finally made it to our destination, Haystack Pass, 3.6 miles from the Visitor Center, and an elevation gain of 377 feet. The hike from Logan Pass to Haystack had been more than "scenic"—it was spectacular.

     We stood eye-level with enormous jutting peaks draped with fields of snow.  Waterfalls cascaded down steep green slopes or over rock slabs in tiered ledges or across jumbled stones. And the wildflowers! Blue, pink, yellow, white, purple, and orange flowers grew out of every crevasse and spread across the gravelly slopes. Fireweed, mountain lily, mountain gentian, rosy paintbrush, red columbine, angelica aster. Every turn of the trail showed us a different peak or different view of the same peaks—Mt. Cannon, Mt. Oberlin, Heaven's Peak. It was a garden planted by God.

     I actually enjoyed the descent back to Logan Pass, taking in the views and stepping with some confidence. Columbian ground squirrels scampered away from the path and hoary marmots whistled at us from recesses in the rock. We saw fresh bear scat on the trail, but no bear, which was fine with me. My anger at Ed and the other hikers dissipated with my sense of accomplishment. I did it! I did it!

     The sun came out and the air warmed as we drove back toward the campground. We swung into the parking lot at the Red Rock Overlook alongside Upper Macdonald Creek where swirling whitewater plunges into a deep turquoise pool. Shedding our heavy fleece, we climbed out on the rocks beside the creek, took off our boots, and put our aching feet into the cold water. I breathed deeply of the fir-scented air.

     As we sat, we watched a ten-year-old boy jump over and over again from the rocks into the pool. After each jump, he would surface, whooping, and fling his blond hair back and forth, sending droplets of water in a wide, sunlit arc around his body. Behind him were the mountains and the bright blue sky.

     "I want to do that," I said to Ed.

     "It will be cold," he warned.

     "Yeah," I said, "maybe I've had enough adventure for one day."

     I did not jump into the pool that particular day. But today, some five years later, I'm collecting rejection slips for my latest book, which feels much like hitting cold water, over and over again. With three unpublished books already stacked in my closet, I worry that this one won't get published either.

     Author Julia Cameron says that all artists have to deal with fear: "The fear of not being good enough. The fear of not finishing. The fear of failure and of success."

     Cameron says that "there is only one cure for fear. That cure is love." Love for yourself and love for what you are doing. You may not know the outcome, but all you can do is take the next step.

     What Cameron says is true for any human endeavor—starting a business, building a program, agreeing to leadership, creating a work of art, taking the risk of love. Cameron goes on to quote the American naturalist John Burroughs: "Leap, and the net will appear." *

     Whatever leap you are trying to make, I hope you can find some of the courage and joy of that ten-year-old boy.


"Perfect love casts out fear." – 1 John 4:18 (NRSV)

Playlist: "Rocky Mountain High," John Denver, Rocky Mountain High, 1972.

*Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, 1992.

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     Some people may wonder why I speak so passionately and poetically about the natural world, yet do not speak in the same way about the church that was my life as a pastor for more than 35 years.

     Well, the woods never hurt me.

     And the church? Let's just say it's complicated.

     Apart from atrocities committed by the church through the ages—wars, crusades, inquisitions, and executions—I can think of too many times when people who called themselves Christians did physical or emotional damage to me or someone I love. Like the people who say that God considers my lesbian daughter an "abomination." Like the people who cheat their workers of fair wages on Friday and sing hymns on Sunday. Or Christian pastors who sexually abuse children, like my father abused me and other young women in the churches he served.

     It's enough to make you weep.

     And, I can think of too many times when I, a professed Christian, did damage to someone else. A vengeful act. A self-righteous remark. A turning away from someone who needed my succor or support. A hoarding of my wealth while someone else suffered want. When, by my silence, I allowed others to believe I condoned acts of bullying or injustice.

     There are prayers of confession, of course, for such sins of commission and omission, prayers that I learned from the church, which at its simplest, is a group of people who try to follow Jesus.

     Accounts of Jesus' life show that he never hurt anyone. He started out by proclaiming that God loved all people, but especially the poor and the hungry and the broken and people who'd messed up their lives. Religious leaders were so incensed that God might be lavishing love on persons they considered unacceptable that eventually these same leaders used the Roman government to secure a death sentence for Jesus.

     And Jesus had never hurt anyone.

     Nor would he let his followers hurt anyone in his name. When certain villages turned them away, and Jesus's followers wanted to call down fire from heaven on their ungrateful heads, Jesus simply said, "Move on." When the members of his inner circle tried to out-maneuver each other to achieve greater honor, Jesus reprimanded them. When the soldiers finally came for Jesus, and his right-hand man, Peter, drew his weapon, Jesus said, "Put away your sword." 

     Jesus never hurt anyone.

     Now that didn't mean Jesus was always nice. He called his opponents terrible names, notably, "a brood of vipers" and "whitewashed tombs full of dead men's bones," because of their hypocrisy. Jesus hated hypocrisy. (See paragraphs three and four above.) Jesus said that the very people these religious leaders were condemning would get into heaven before they did. 

     Yikes. It's hard to escape the conclusion that I am more like the religious leaders than the people they condemned. I'm a pastor, after all. 

     Which is enough to send me fleeing back to the woods. There is even a movement called Wild Church comprised of people who've had enough of what they call "indoor church." They do their worshipping out of doors. And, many, many other people have just quietly left the church I served for so long. Maybe they call themselves "spiritual, but not religious." Maybe they continue to do good in the world, righting wrongs or caring for people who need care, in the name of no particular god at all.

     So what do I do in the woods? Well, here's the funny part. Besides admiring the trees and dabbling my hand in the river and complimenting the wildflowers on how good they look today, I pray. I pray. Which sends me back to church, because, for better or worse, church is where I learned to do it first.

     I also have to say that some of the kindest, most generous, most self-sacrificing people are people I've met at church. Who have found the strength to care patiently for a parent with dementia year after year after year. Who travel around the country in their RVs to shore up walls or repair roofs or build homes for people who cannot afford it. Who decorate the church hall with rainbow streamers and black curtains and a disco ball, throwing a gala for LGBTQ teens so they will know that God loves them. At church I have met wounded people who have forgiven others terrible transgressions and simply moved on with their lives. 

     How do they do that? They say it's because of what Jesus has done for them.

     I was never prouder to be a United Methodist (my brand of Christian) than when thousands of us went to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina to muck out flooded houses and help rebuild. Supporting the volunteer work crews were the prayers and money of people in the pews back home.

     I also remember when members of my former church raised $5,500 in one month to purchase mosquito nets and to dig clean-water wells for people in Liberia whom they'd never met so that the children and the old people would not be blinded by malaria or die of dysentery. 

     Of course, the church has no monopoly on good people. Or bad people, for that matter. When I used to complain to my husband, an engineering manager, about some churchly idiocy I had witnessed, he would say, "It's no different where I work." Then he would mutter something about "adults behaving badly." People are people everywhere.

     So, what should I do? Choir practice has started again. We sit up front on the stage during worship services, and I don't know if I have the wherewithal to face a whole roomful of church people looking back at me week after week. And yet these are my people. Their faces are my own.  

     What should I do?

     I could ask you to meet me in the woods and consider how the leaf-strewn path opens before us. Or we could meet at church, since Jesus called people like us, flawed and noble, into his circle of friends. The apostle Paul went so far as to call us the body of Christ—as indispensable to Jesus and to each other as eyes or ears, hands or feet. 

     If, some Sunday morning, I should sit with you in a grove of glowing maple trees, or watch with you how sunlight slants through a stained glass window, it would be the same trembling luminescence that shines through both. The light within us and beyond.

     Come. I'll meet you there.


Scripture: "We, who are many, are one body in Christ… If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it." –Romans 12;5, 1 Corinthians 12:26 (NRSV)

Playlist: "Holy Now," Peter Mayer, Million Year Mind, 1999.

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