Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Of Destinations and Foolish Consistencies

Life is a journey, not a destination.
-          Ralph Waldo Emerson

The only teachings of Emerson that I remember from my American Literature studies years ago are the one quoted above and this gem from “Self Reliance.”
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,
adored by little statesmen, and philosophers and divines.

Earlier this year, I was laying out a sermon series for this fall.  The goal of the series was to encourage and equip folks to more deeply experience the means of grace by challenging folks to move beyond their regular routines in prayer, service, and study of scripture.

One evening, I was struggling to find a metaphor for the sermon series while walking my dog on Powerline Trail in Anchorage.  My usual turn-around point, Volunteer Bridge, was approaching.  Volunteer Bridge is about 2 ½ miles from the parking lot, making a 5-mile roundtrip hike; just right for my schedule.  As I neared the bridge I noticed a sign Scout (my hiking companion Lab/Great Pyrenees) I walked by a sign I’d walked by dozens of times before.  It read: Hidden Lake – 2 miles.

Hidden Lake…folks had been telling me for several years about this lake located in a cirque just 2 miles beyond my usual turn-around point.  Hmm…why hadn’t I gone up and discovered this little lake that can only be viewed when you’re nearly upon it?  I’d talked to plenty of folks who’d made the hike.  They had seen it…experienced it.  But, it meant more time…more energy…some planning.  There is a big difference between a 5-mile hike on a gentle slope verses a 9-mile hike, 4 miles of which are climbing/descending a steep mountain trail.  For me to actually experience what others had, I had to make some changes: allot more time and maybe, no definitely, get in better shape were the first to pop into mind.  But…seeing Hidden Lake became a sort of obsession.

And…a metaphor was born.  We hike these spiritual trails of prayer, worship, service, stewardship, scripture and others.  But, over time, we develop safe turn-around points.  To travel beyond these points means change…re-allotment of time and levels of commitment.

By the end of the summer I was ready to take the hike to Hidden Lake.  After waiting a week for a break in our August rains, I was blessed with a sunny morning to take the hike. 

I wish I could tell you that my first sight of Hidden Lake was life altering, inspiring and held meaning beyond words.  I wish I could tell you that.  I can’t.  After 4 ½ miles of hiking – 2 of which were quite steep and muddy – I arrived at the cloudy, rainy cirque containing Hidden Lake.  Alaska has some views which both take your breath away and leave you wordless.  This, in my opinion, was not one of them.  I was breathless only because of the climb and the words I came up with weren’t necessarily the ones you hear when someone views Denali for the first time.

So, I expressed my disappointment to Scout, took a few pictures and headed down the mountain.  Thinking that I’d not only wasted my time preparing for the hike, but I’d also blown my primary metaphor for the sermon series to pieces with only 3 weeks to spare, I was let down.  When I got home and started sharing the story with my wife I realized she was more interested in the journey than the destination.  I told her about the time we encountered a flooded bog where the trail disappeared and how Scout found the most efficient alternate route.  And, when he refused to cross a creek at a point I considered logical and ran a few hundred yards showing me a place where I could both stay dry and cross it.  In other words, I was so fixated on the destination, the real blessing of the journey had escaped me.

I’ve known people who have read the Bible focused on the destination: Revelation 22:21 – the last verse.  Those folks rarely, if ever, do it again.  I’ve known folks who have read the Bible focused on the journey – those with whom they read – how these stories parallel stories in our own lives – and, how these words seem to ‘come to life’ from time to time.  These spiritual hikers keep climbing. 

I’ve come to the conclusion that “bottom-line-the-meaning-is-in-the-destination” thinking is a foolish consistency.  It is a hobgoblin making trouble in our hearts and our churches by robbing us of the joy of lives woven together on spiritual paths of service, prayer and witness.  However, bottom line figures and destination-thinking make for easy statistical reporting.  Journeys and their meanings, on the other hand, are not easily quantifiable.  I fear that in the part of the Body of Christ I call home, the United Methodist Church, we may be sacrificing journey for destination for that very reason: it is quantifiable.  We seem obsessed with numbers while journey-stories and journey-questions arising from those with whom we hike are lost in the process.  A foolish consistency, indeed. 

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