He preached the gospel to me without even knowing it. I was over half-way up the trail to Firebrand Pass in Glacier Park and it had been a long slog. The trail had been steep with more “up” to come. It was covered with overgrown foliage making it hard to see the roots and stones I kept tripping over. The higher I climbed, the harder it was to breath. I was losing my will to keep going even though I knew I was just getting to best part – the view!
I had stopped to sit on a stump to rest and eat a snack when he came down the trail toward me. “How’s it going?” he asked. “Oh, good,” I lied. “Slow but sure.” He didn’t hear the lie. Or maybe he did. For the next thing he said was just what I needed to hear. “Yeah, that’s the way. I try to enjoy every step.” And then he hiked on.
Enjoy every step?! That was not something I was doing. I was suffering each step. Groaning some steps; losing hope on other steps. And stopping every 10 steps to rest. I was tired, frustrated and in pain. I was not enjoying anything.
But not being one to give up, I decided to give it a try and practice enjoying every step. So I started up again, this time slowing down. I focused on the trail and the flowers and the new view each step brought to my eyes. I breathed evenly and with intention instead of gasping and groaning. I stopped worrying about getting to my destination and just tried to enjoy each step.
And it worked – mostly. I started to enjoy every step and the whole hike more fully. And in that way, I reached the top and the sheer awesome beauty of the pass. All because the mountain preacher reminded me about joy.
Joy, at least from a Christian perspective, is not warm, fuzzy, cuddly happiness. Instead, joy is about recognizing Gods blessings and gifts in and around us no matter the circumstances, good or difficult, and being enlivened by their presence – God’s presence – on our journey. Joy is about finding hope, faith and love in and through Christ in the moment, every moment, rather than suffering on a difficult past path or worrying about what future steps may bring. Joy is living and moving through life in God’s beauty and the Spirit’s strength rather than getting stuck in my own stuff.
Not every step I took after my encounter that day was a happy one. In fact, a lot of them were not very happy. They were slow, brutal, hard steps that my own will did not want to take. But even so, I found joy in many of those steps (not all; there were still some grumbles and groans). And finally I was rewarded by the exhilaration of reaching the top of the pass where the view was spectacular and the wind (Spirit?) nearly blew me off my feet.
I learned some things from that hike about the journey we are on now through pandemic, political and social strife, economic difficulties and the suffering of so many people who have been wounded for too long.
First, I learned that this journey is a lot longer than my hike and won’t be completed in a day, week, month or maybe even a year. Life is a journey and not every step is a happy one, or even a joyful one. Yet we must keep plodding forward and yes, even upward. We cannot give up.
Second, we aren’t on the journey alone. My hike had that preacher (and other hikers) who encouraged me along, whether they knew it or not. And as I practiced enjoying every step, I experienced God in each step as well. God steps, walks, struggles, groans and cries with us as we walk our journey in these days. When we step in love with each other, instead of getting in each other’s way, we can find joy in the journey together.
Third, we can choose how we will step on the journey. We can fight or resist every hard step like I was doing before I met my preacher. We can choose to be apathetic or frightened or anxious and just stay home.
We can even try to go backwards, although on life’s journey that just doesn’t work. We can’t go back again except in our minds. Or we can choose to listen to the preacher and hear God’s call to come, to follow, to grow and to love, letting God lead the way. We have the choice to participate in God’s joy, the joy God wants for us, simply by following Christ.
Finally, I remember something I read once from an unknown source: “In this life, we are all walking up the mountain. We can sing as we climb or we can complain about our sore feet. Whichever we choose, we still gotta do the hike. I decided that singing makes a lot more sense.”
Often on life’s journey we get caught up in complaining every step of the way because it’s not going as we want it to or think it should. But singing evokes so much more joy than complaining. So on my hike I started to sing. What did I sing, you may ask? Well, for some reason I chose, “I’m not throwing away my shot!” from the musical Hamilton…over and over and over again. It got old eventually but it did get me up that mountain.
I’m pretty sure the Spirit spoke to me that day through that mountain preacher: “Enjoy every step. For I am with you always, to the end of the age. And in my presence there is joy.” (Matt 28:20; Ps 16:11)
So let’s choose to sing! Yes, quietly, under our breath, behind masks in worship for now. But go ahead and belt something out in your bedroom at home or even on the trail. Because singing just makes more sense!
Blessed and safe Labor Day weekend to you all!
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Bishop Laurie Jungling
Elected June 1, 2019, Laurie is the 5th Bishop of the Montana Synod