The photos shuffling on the display of my computer are of the Gros Ventre Wilderness near Jackson, Wyoming. During the summer of 2018, my youngest son and I, along with a handful of other fathers and their sons, set-out into that remote part of the American West for an 8-day adventure of vigorous hiking.
While the mountainous vistas are worth every step, such trips are not without tense moments and uncertainty. Weather, terrain, injury, illness, and mental fortitude are ever-present variables. During our 24-hour drive to the trailhead, our group pondered some important questions: Would the trail be navigable? Would there be good places to camp near a potable water source? Would the snow pack cause us to re-route and lengthen our hike or send us bushwhacking? What do we do if a bear eats our food, and did we bring the bear spray?
Our concerns were not unfounded. We encountered snow. We detoured. But there were no bears. More serious and unexpected, however, was our encounter with illness. As the days passed, one of our teammates became weak and exceptionally tired, struggling more and more with the rigor of uphill climbs. To assist, we lightened his load by dispersing items in his pack among the group. This continued until he walked packless, clutching only a small bottle of water. Still, his body wearied toward delirium and heat stroke. We stopped and rested often. Fully spent on our final day, our sweat-drenched friend groaned as he sat hunched over a scraggly Western Pine, and wept. We wept, too. And prayed. As we baked in an arid, sun-soaked valley, miles from our exit, a new dimension was demanded from our fraternity.
That hiking experience is not unlike the Christian life. The journey of faithful living is arduous, unpredictable, and shouldn’t be done alone. Yet in our current culture of rugged individualism, we might be lulled toward habits that isolate and behaviors that exacerbate a prideful disposition of, “I’ve got this!” And this individualism can seep into our spiritual practices. How? For me, I’m very content with quiet mornings of coffee, reading from Scripture and another book (or two), a bit of conversational prayer, and some writing. Just God and me and the stillness of the pre-dawn morning. While this solitary practice has merit, if I neglect to supplement my peace and quiet with face-to-face interactions, I’ll be spiritually under-developed and relationally malnourished.
Referring to the collective of professing Christians, Jamie Smith said, “Conversion is joining this caravan, not setting out alone.” (On The Road With Saint Augustine, 51) More importantly, Scripture commands us to make togetherness a priority. (Heb 10:24-25) It is in our gathering that we apply salve to wounds and reorient those who’ve strayed. We support and carry those who are weak. We encourage, edify, celebrate, and grieve — together.
In his book, Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen said: “The Church is not an institution forcing us to follow its rules. It is a community of people inviting us to still our hunger and thirst at its tables.” (88-89) From time to time, each of us will be desperate and tired, mustering our last bits of courage to take one more step. When those moments come, we need each other.
In my previous post I challenged us to consider our “doings” — our involvements, behaviors, and activities that determine who we are becoming. I’ve been meditating on my “doing” this past week as part of the Advent season. For the second week of Advent, I’m going to consider how my desire for introverted independence tugs me toward seclusion. I’ll be evaluating the balance of time alone with time in community.
How about you? Are you wandering alone? Are you regularly engaged with like-minded people of faith? Do you have friends who both challenge and support you? Do you consistently give of yourself and your resources for the good of others?
To finish the story, we made it out of the Gros Ventre. It required patience, humility, empathy, encouragement, and of course God’s kind providence. Looking back, it was a privilege to pace with our hurting friend during that intense and painful episode. He couldn’t have done it without us.
As people of faith, we’re members of a glorious caravan. We journey together. This day, let’s encourage one another to walk by faith, trusting the One who gives us hope through His birth, death, and resurrection — our traveling companion, Jesus Christ.
A Prayer Against Isolation
Friend and Brother, our Lord Jesus Christ,
Pioneer on the path to glory;
Invade my realm of detached independence,
amend my affections with desire for your people.
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
(Hebrews 10:24–25, NIV)