Me, You, and We

Whatever you think you know about me—forget it.

There’s far more than me than that. I am an immensely complex person who defies being put in any box, who resists any stereotype, who refuses to be what you expect me to be.

I am a pastor—but not that kind of pastor. I am a Baptist—but not that kind of Baptist. I am a husband—but I am not like other husbands. I am a father—but like no other father you have known. Same for my other roles as brother, uncle, boss, mentor, friend, and more. I don’t fit in your box.

I am me.

I am me and no one else. And the minute you forget it, you will be surprised, let down, or angry. You may feel betrayed, affirmed, or perplexed. But it’s not my fault. I didn’t put me in a box. I didn’t put me in a pigeonhole. I didn’t limit who I could be. You did.

But you know what else. All the same could (and should) be said for you too. My difference isn’t that I am different but how I am different. Because you are different too, and your difference is different than mine.

Talk myself in a circle yet? Probably.

But so much conflict, so much hate, so much misunderstanding and miscommunication seems to come from the fact that we do not allow other people to be more than we know. I am no more the pastor who has gone before me than I am the boyfriend my wife had previous to our meeting. Those people are not me and I am not them, though my relationships may be colored by those that were before.

Same thing with you. You may remind me of someone else—and therefore I am tempted to treat you as such. But you are not them; they are not you. We are each unique creations of our God. We are each unique manifestations of the Divine Image.

If only we could understand that. If only we could treat each other as the unique creations they are, then maybe we could know peace.

Still going in circles? Me too. But together—and apart—we will put one foot in front of another and live into God’s peaceable kingdom. So I hope.

 

Formed

Scripture: Jeremiah 18:1-11

 

My Artistic Genius

Whatever gifts I have received, art is not one of them. But it was not always so—I don’t think.

Way back in elementary school, my artistic masterpieces were good enough that my art teacher entered them in regional competitions, and once I even won an award of some significance.

Monet produced impressionistic landscapes with his paints. Michelangelo released his sculpted figures from blocks of marble. Frank Lloyd Wright revolutionized the arcitectural world with his steel-and concrete structures.

My gift to the world was the clay ashtray.

I can’t help but chuckle now to think of all the ashtrays produced in elementary schools over the years. To think of the outcry these days if an elementary school art teacher advised such a project. The world has sure changed……

But I digress. Back to my masterpieces. It didn’t matter that my parents did not smoke. These were not the kind of vulgar ashtrays that you would actually use. These……were art. They deserved to live on a pedestal in your living room where guests could “Ooh!” and “Ahh!” over their magnificent splendor.

Like any great artist, my genius was continually evolving—and so did my art. My earliest phase of ashtray artistry has been called my “Green Period,” on account of my fascination with that particular hue. Pieces produced during this period consisted predominately of clay rolled flat into a mostly-circular shape, which was then placed over a bowl and allowed to dry some so the edges curled up. After firing, these were painted the brightest, purest green I could achieve, which I imagined was the precise color of the dinosaurs.

My art evolved into what next is called my “Black Period,” which was a dark time in my life. The basic form of the ashtray remained the same as my earlier, happier Green Period, but I began experimenting with pressing various materials into the clay to give it depth and texture. I also began ripping the edges of the clay and leaving them torn—symbolic, certainly, of something just out of reach. I abandoned dinosaur green, and began painting the ashtrays darker colors: black, brown, violet, indigo—sometimes all at once.

But after a time, I found I could not continue in this darkness, so I abandoned my craft and spent 12 years in South America searching for the source of the Amazon River, before I emerged with a new ashtray form—one never before considered. Returning to my elementary school, I worked my clay with renewed fury, rolling it into the longest, thinnest line of clay anyone had seen. And then I began.

I wound my clay into a pile of coils, shaped one end into the head of a cobra, and—and this shows my genius—did it all so that there was a tail end too. I invented: the snake ashtray. After firing, it was decorated with a lifelike pattern of browns and blacks that reminded me of the snakes I fought off during my time in the Amazon.

My masterpiece was complete. It was perfect. It was so beautiful that sinners would go blind if they looked upon it.

Maybe I’ve started exaggerating just a wee bit. But it was the piece that won the award in the regional art competition. And it still sits in my mother’s china cabinet, even today.

What all this proves (really) is that I don’t know squat about potters and clay, except for what I have read in books or have seen other people do. But given my biblical and theological training, and given some guidance from the Holy Spirit, I hope I might still contribute something of interest this morning.

To increase those chances, I actually want to look at these words of Jeremiah in three different ways, to refute some bad interpretation you might have been subjected to, and to challenge you to experience this text in a new way. All in all, an average week, perhaps……

Evil Potter

If I reach back in time to the little fundamentalist church I grew up in, and if I can hear echoes of a sermon on Jeremiah 18, then what I hear goes something like this:

God is the potter. We are the clay.

If we don’t change our behavior, God will smash us down remake us.

Resistance is futile.

So if you want to make a decision to follow Jesus, please come forward during the following hymn……

Reading Jeremiah 18 like this makes God sound a bit like some invading alien king trying to squash a rebellion among the human slaves.

It also reminds me of a “knock, knock” joke spin-off I saw recently (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2013/09/divine-protection.html):

Knock, knock!
Who’s there?
It’s Jesus, let me in…
Why?
I have to save you.
From what?
From what I’m gonna do to you if you don’t let me in!

It’s funny. And it’s tragic. Because there are so many in our world who think of God just this way. They have been taught that the reason you want to go to heaven is to avoid hell. The reason you attend worship at church is because God’s self-esteem is so low that if you don’t, God will smite you down with righteous fury.

The Jesus and God described by these people are not trying to save the world out of love. It sounds more like a protection racket.

If you don’t cough up, well, Lew here might have a little accident with your car, or your house, or your little girl. And then Mr. Big wouldn’t be able to do nothin’ for you. He doesn’t mean nothing by it, he likes you, see, but if you don’t show him a little respect, you can’t expect him to trouble himself with your worries, OK? Me and Vinnie’ll be by tomorrow, and you will have that little donation ready.

There’s a lot of problems with an interpretation of Jeremiah 18 that makes God into a mobster. I hope that you can see that enough I don’t have to spell it out for you. But if you have some questions, PLEASE do ask and I’ll be glad to talk about it—just the two of us.

I hope it will be enough to simply state that it is love and not domination that motivates God’s action. As we read in John 3:16-17, it is because of God’s love that God sent Jesus into the world, and that love brings salvation rather than condemnation. As we read in 1John 4:10-11, it is through Jesus’ sacrifice—an act of love—that we can know love, and thus become love to each other.

Mold Me & Make Me

This right emphasis on God’s love as a primary motivator of God’s action has lead to another way of looking at the text. Remember, it is the same story—But look what happens when we emphasize a different part. Over the last couple decades we have focused the clay rather than the potter, an interpretation that finds its basis in v.6. And it goes like this:

We are the clay on God’s potter’s wheel.

In God’s great love and mercy, God does not give up on us. Even when we fail to become what God desires us to be, God keeps working on us, shaping us, reinventing us until we become what God desires.

In contrast to the “Evil Potter” interpretation, this one is both supported by the text itself and consistent with the way God is depicted in the Bible. From the earliest stories of Genesis to the latest vision of Revelation, God is reaching out to us, ever persistent, ever insistent that love conquers all. When we fall and fail—even killing our fellow humans—God pursues us with forgiveness and is unwilling to relinquish God’s relationship with us. There is nothing we can do to stop God from loving us.

But we can resist. And we certainly do. Like that lump of clay that thwarts the designs of the potter, we resist being shaped according to God’s intentions for us. God has given us this amazing thing called “free will,” in which we find tremendous freedom of choice. God has even taken the greatest risk of all time in doing this, because wrapped up in “free will” is the ability to even choose to reject God’s love.

We Baptists believe that this “free will” thing is of such importance to God, that we have made it a cornerstone of the way we approach faith as well. We testify that faith is not faith without a conscious choice, and that means a person must be of a certain age and development before being able to make that choice. We also have vehemently defended the freedom of other religions to practice their faiths because we believe no one can be compelled to become a follower of Jesus—each must be free to choose, without pressure from government or society.

Clay and potter. Potter and clay. In this interpretation, this is a story about our spiritual formation. God is shaping us, and even when we resist, God does not give up. So we sing in the old hymn:

Have thine own way, Lord! Have thine own way!
Thou art the potter, I am the clay.
Mold me and make me after thy will,
while I am waiting, yielded and still.

And so we pray:

Change my heart oh God, Make it ever true.
Change my heart oh God, May I be like You.
You are the potter, I am the clay,
Mold me and make me, This is what I pray.
Change my heart oh God……

Ashtrays, Take II

To continue my point, allow me the indulgence of returning to my earlier illustration of my own illustrious career as a potter. When I (as a child) sat down with a cube of clay, it was going to end up being an ashtray. It really didn’t matter how dry or wet the clay was, whether it was coarse clay from the ground or fine clay from an art supply store. These things affected how the clay could be worked, and even the specific form the ashtray ended up taking. Some ended up bulky and small; others thin and fine like china—OK, not fine like china, but certainly delicate. But they were all ashtrays.

I think it is similar with God. We may work against God’s intentions for shaping us, but the clay will be shaped into something desired by God and useful for God’s purposes. God’s plan that I be an ashtray has never wavered; but I have certainly affected what kind of astray I might be.

I don’t know about you, but I find great encouragement in this persistence of God’s—that God keeps trying no matter how stubbornly I refuse to comply with God’s experienced hand. And I recognize that I am not yet done being shaped. As another song from my youth proclaimed:

Kids under construction—Maybe the paint is still wet.
Kids under construction—The Lord may not be finished yet.

Clay as God’s Plans

This is all a wonderful picture of God’s love and faithfulness, and certainly an inspired (and biblically supported) interpretation. It is a reading I hold dear to my own heart—a heart which remains “under construction.” But it may not be the only reading intended in this text—or even the dominant one.

You see, when we turn a closer eye toward this parable, we realize that God changes this parable mid-telling. At first (in v.6), God suggests the clay is ancient Israel. But as we read on, the clay is identified as something else in verses 7-11. In these verses, the clay is not symbolic of ancient Israel. As we read in v.11, God identifies himself as the potter and states that God’s intentions are what are being reshaped: “Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you.”

The clay, God suggests in these verses, is not the people of God. The clay is God’s plan. The clay is God’s desire. The clay is God’s intentions for God’s people.

And here is where it gets sticky for us. Because the Hebrew says quite clearly that God will change God’s mind based on how people act. Listen again to vv. 7-10:

At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it.

And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.

Yesterday, Today, Forever?

Wait, what? At one moment God says God is going to do something and the next “changes God’s mind” and decides not to do it? What about “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever”?

Well, the short answer is “Yes, God changes God’s mind—at least if we believe what the Bible says, here and in many other places.” And that verse in Hebrews 13 will mostly have to wait for another day for a complete unpacking.

What Jeremiah and God tell us here is that the destiny of any nation may be reversed, a fact testified to in our Bible. For example, the nation of Assyria was one of the most brutal and violent in the world up to its time. Its name struck terror in the hearts of those who heard it, for it was a wicked and evil place and they slapped people with fishes—at least in one movie version. They were so bad that even God’s prophet Jonah didn’t want to have to go. But go he did, eventually, and they repented. So God reshaped God’s intentions for them, having determined the judgment was no longer necessary.

Similarly, ancient Israel, to whom Jeremiah finds himself speaking, had a bright future—once upon a time. They were going to be God’s people—a light to the nations. They would be blessed, and God would render justice out of Jerusalem for all of time. The lineage of David would continue unbroken on the throne of Israel forever and ever. But in response to their unfaithfulness, God reshaped God’s intentions for them. God changes God’s mind. They would be carted off to exile, transformed into slaves, and be dispossessed of everything they knew and loved.

But if I may be so bold as to suggest, the fact that God changes God’s mind should not surprise us. Nor should we see it in conflict with Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

Without getting into the context of that verse (that’s another sermon for another day), I think the perceived conflict for us is one of scope and perspective. What I mean is that if we focus on God’s intended judgment, then it makes it look like God is doing something radically different when God stays God’s hand and does not execute that judgment. When we focus on judgment, we think God’s plan is the judgment. But God’s plan is not judgment but salvation. God’s plan—as we read in John 3:17—is not condemnation but love. Judgment is only a means to an end.

That end—God’s ultimate desires for all of creation—is unchanging. From the first breath of creation to the Last Day, God’s ultimate desires remain the same: yesterday, today, and forever. God takes the long view. And therefore the means may change while God’s ultimate desire—God’s plan if you will—stays the same.

God’s Dance Party

In this, God invites us—in our free will—to a dance of sorts. We act, and God responds. God shows us a glimpse of what is coming, and we either change or suffer the consequences. And through it all, God continually shapes and reshapes God’s intentions for us, adapting and responding to our choices, using God’s endless creativity to discover new ways of molding God’s intentions for us so that we will ultimately fit in God’s new creation.

There should be some hope we find here as well, for in this reading we see that God’s “grand design” for us and creation has not changed, and that God is eternally persistent and infinitely creative in bringing us there. God is shaping and reshaping all of creation in order to guide us toward choosing God’s future rather than our own. At no point does the Potter throw away her stubborn clay, nor does God throw away any hope for us. Instead, the Potter will continue to work and rework the clay, as God beckons us with God’s love and grace.

Invitation

But don’t take my word for it: I’m just an ashtray—or I will be some day. But with God working the clay of my life, with God’s infinite creativity and endless persistence, I know that one day I might be the greatest ashtray ever. Not the prettiest, obviously. Not the most delicate, certainly. Not the strongest, without a doubt. But the perfect instrument for catching the ashes of lives burned by this world and holding them in God’s love. One day, by God’s love and grace, I will be fully formed.

It is with the same love and grace that I beckon you this morning as well. I believe God has been shaping your life, so that you would choose to be right here, right now. So you would experience worship this morning, and so you would hear these words of life. I believe God has been shaping your life, so you would learn that God loves you and desires good things for you. So you would know that God is here, in the trenches, with dirty hands, clay smeared on his forehead, working to make something beautiful out of your life. I believe God has been shaping your life, so you too might believe in God’s tomorrow, today. And so you might discover your purpose and form as well.

If you feel God pulling at your heart this morning, please come forward during our closing hymn. And please don’t delay. Not because God is eager to zap you for your unfaithfulness, but because God is eager to shape new possibilities for your life—new hopes and new dreams. Because God has never given up on your becoming what God has always dreamed you can be. And God can’t wait for you to start learning just who that is.

Welcome

Scripture: Luke 14:1, 7-14

 

I Have a Dream

August 28—just days ago—was the 50th anniversary of the most famous speech of the civil rights movement. The speech was originally titled “Normalcy, Never Again,” and hundreds of thousands listened enraptured as Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Near the end of his speech which dared to dream of justice and freedom, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted from the crowd: “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”

At this point, Martin King stopped delivering his prepared speech and started preaching, reaching back to parts of a sermon he had delivered some months before. “I have a dream,” he said. And he dreamed his dream with us. He dreamed of social enemies transformed into friends. He dreamed of places deserted of justice turned into oases. He dreamed of valleys lifted up, of mountains made low, of rough places made plain, of crooked places made straight. He dreamed of the glory of the Lord revealed to all.

Martin King’s dream originates in the dream God dreams with us in Isaiah’s book—a dream of restoration, peace, justice, and love. It is a dream that God continues to dream with us and for us. It is a dream that Jesus dreams too.

And it is a dream that begins with hospitality.

Butterfly Effect

It is hard to hate those you know. This adage has been proven true, but its converse is also disturbingly revealing in our world. The fact that there is so much hate proves how little we know of one another. The world is so broken. So violent. So wanting. The need of our world—and yes even our little town—is so vast that we are easily overwhelmed. We know it is broken and something needs done. We might even want to work toward its healing. But our limited resources are but tear drops in the ocean of need.

But I believe our global problems have local origins. I believe if we treat the local source of our world’s illness, we can heal the whole world. And the medicine we must use to treat this illness is hospitality.

Hospitality is key to everything. Somewhere along the way we stopped being neighbors. And then we forgot how to be neighbors. And then the world came apart.

Used to be front porches were gathering places. Kids played in front yards. We knew those who lived around us, and we looked after each other.

But something happened. I don’t know what. But we rearranged our lives and closed ourselves off to our neighbors. We decided it was dangerous to have the kids play in the front yard, so we moved them to the back. And in order to protect them from the unknown dangers of the world, we built tall privacy fences that completely enclosed their play spaces. With the advent of garage door openers, we stopped even using our front doors, entering and departing through the garage. And, of course, because of our fear someone would steal our things, those garage doors were closed all the time, whether we were home or not.

We became afraid. We wanted to protect our families. So we closed ourselves off. Our friends became limited to our work friends or our church friends—but rarely our neighbors. So we travelled from island of safety to island of safety, never really engaging those around us.

But you know what happens when you don’t know your neighbors? Among other things, you lose perspective. Because those at church or work are people who are likely similar to yourself—they might have same hobbies, or the same political party affiliation, or the same religious background, or the same musical interests, or the same ethnicity, or the same place on the economic ladder. And so we become more and more homogeneous—more and more the same as we surround ourselves with others just like us.

Few things are more dangeorus than a lack of diversity. You see, when everyone you know thinks a certain way, then it is obvious that anyone with a differing opinion is just wrong. It is easy to be against something—even aggressively so—when you don’t know anyone on the other side. Being neighborly—showing hospitality—used to correct against that, but not anymore.

Now, our neighborhoods, communities, states, nations, and world are more divided than ever. Everyone is polarized. No one believes in diplomacy, hospitality, or even decency because our whole world has become “us vs. them.” It’s not about being human, showing kindness, or practicing hospitality—it is about winning, and winning at any cost.

Parables

“I have a dream,” Jesus declares in today’s scripture reading, “of a kingdom characterized by humility rather than humiliation.”

“I have a dream,” Jesus proclaims for all to hear, “of a kingdom characterized by kindness rather than compensation.”

When you are invited to dinner (Jesus says), don’t assume you are the honored guest. Assume everyone else is more important of a guest than you are. In doing so, you give your host the chance to honor you rather than doing it all yourself. After all, there might be someone there more important to the host, and it is humiliating to be knocked off your own pedestal like that. If you think too much of yourself you will be ashamed. But the only consequence to humility is that it gives others the chance to honor you.

But more than that (Jesus says): When you throw a party, don’t invite other people who throw parties. Don’t invite your friends, your family, your coworkers, your church friends, or anyone else like you. If you invite them, they’ll probably invite you to their next shindig, and that is all the reward you will get from it. But if you invite people who cannot repay you—the poor, the physically disabled, those suffering from mental illness—then it is God who will reward you.

When Jesus teaches in parables, he is almost always telling us something about the Kingdom of God. That means these parables are instructions for our now and future lives as citizens of that Kingdom. After all, Jesus says, the Kingdom is both now and not yet.

These parables, then, are vital pieces of instruction for those of us who would follow Jesus. Their message speaks to hospitality. And though you may not have heard many sermons preached on it, hospitality is one of the key defining characteristics of followers of Jesus. Not surprisingly, hospitality is to be a defining characteristic of all followers of God as well.

OT Hospitality

God’s call to hospitality is rooted in the reality that we are not at home in this world. For ancient Israel, this involved a reminder that their ancestors were strangers in a foreign land. “You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt,” Exodus 23:9 reads. And so God, through the Law and the Prophets, builds this identity into a commitment to hospitality—a radical display of welcome beyond anything the world has ever known.

Since you were a stranger in this world, show hospitality to all.

NT Hospitality

Fast forward to the NT. And Jesus has been busy preaching the Kingdom of God. He teaches mostly through parables like those we are reading today, which illuminate rather than obfuscate his scandalous message of grace. The powers that be conspire to have Jesus arrested and killed because of this message, this message of hospitality and grace.

Across the board, Jesus instructs his followers to practice an arms-wide-open kind of welcome, which he models in the company he keeps: sinners, IRS agents, women, lawyers, prostitutes, the poor, the down-and-out, the nowhere-to-go, the fallen-between-the-cracks, the no-hope-for-tomorrow. The reason we practice such hospitality is because when we are born again, we become citizens of the Kingdom of God, and Jesus states quite clearly in John 18:36 that “My kingdom is not of this world.”

Hospitality in Hymnody

We are merely travelers passing through this world. We know this, as Christians. We cannot NOT know it; it’s in so many of our hymns:

This world is not my home I’m just a-passing through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore

Or how about:

I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger
I’m traveling through this world of woe
Yet there’s no sickness, toil nor danger
In that bright land to which I go
I’m going there to see my mother/father
I’m going there no more to roam
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home

Or one of my favorite hymns:

We are pilgrims on a journey.
We are trav’lers on the road.
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load.

I will hold the Christ-light for you
In the night time of your fear.
I will hold my hand out to you;
Speak the peace you long to hear.

I will weep when you are weeping.
When you laugh, I’ll laugh with you.
I will share your joy and sorrow
‘Til we’ve seen this journey through.

Will you let me be your servant?
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I might have the grace
To let you be my servant, too.

This hymn hits on a key to hospitality: it is not only in the giving but also the receiving. In other words, we also benefit from the hospitality of others. We are forever intertwined—giver and recipient—locked in an embrace of God’s love.

But we have let even our church communities become focused on something other than the welcome of God’s love and grace. We have forgotten our first love—the hospitality God extends to us and invites us to extend to others. And we have become something entirely less honest.

These parables strike us like flint because they remind us that the Christian life is not about posturing or posing. The church is not a place to pretend we are better or more than we are. It is not a competition in being good.

In fact, posturing is the antithesis of hospitality. The House of God is not a place where we come to pretend we are as perfect as is God. It is a place where we bear our wounds to the Wounded Healer and to one another. There is no room for ego, control, or selfishness. It is a place to plea for mercy and to offer forgiveness. To share in tears of both joy and sadness. To admit failure and experience acceptance. It is a place where the Kingdom of God should be most directly lived out. It should be a place where all experience welcome. It should be a place where we are—as that hymn pleas—Christ to one another.

It begins and ends with hospitality.

Larry & Bud

Some years ago, I was working on a research project that took me to Atlanta for a month. I was staying with friends, but was basically alone and working too much, so while talking to my wife on the phone, she suggested I go hiking.

The place I ended up choosing was Amicalola Falls in north Georgia, known throughout the region for its beautiful waterfalls. It was further than I wanted to go, but oh well, I’ll get up early.

I woke up that Saturday morning at ten. My alarm had failed, and I overslept—neither of which had happened in the previous two weeks. But not to be deterred, I grabbed my stuff and headed out.

I’ve done this hiking-backpacking thing enough to know a thing or two, so I made sure my wife knew my route and had a set time to call search-and-rescue if she hadn’t heard from me. I had plenty of food and water in my pack, along with maps, compass, a multitool, and anything else I might need for a day hike.

Despite my preparations though, my going was difficult. I had consulted a topographical map, but I was still not prepared for the ruggedness of the trail, and I ended up climbing the equivalent of 2500 vertical feet instead of only 900. But my biggest challenge was myself. I forget I’m not as young as I used to be, that I don’t do this regularly anymore, and that I still have to drive almost two hours in order to get to a bed for the night. Though the trail was harder than I thought, I still felt strong. So pushed a little further.

But eventually, my knees began to ache. One knee and calf started having these spasms, so I’d have to stop and stretch. I did not, as would have been prudent, turn around, acknowledging my lack of conditioning. In my stubbornness, I forged on, determined to get as far as possible in the time allotted. By my turnaround time, though, I was in real pain. And I realized that pain would make me much slower on the return trip. But all I could do was plod on.

Before long, I realized I was praying. At first I was praying to make it to the car before dark; before long I was praying to make it to the car that night. Eventually, I was even calculating the benefits of sleeping on the trail. And of course, whereas my cell phone signal had been so strong while going up the mountain, now I couldn’t ever get a call to connect. It started raining, and of course I didn’t have any rain gear. Minutes turned to moments, moments turned to hours.

Then, after hours of isolation, I saw someone. A couple people, actually. Fumbling with my map, I estimated I was less than two miles from the park. Almost home. After another ten minutes of hiking, I was met by a dog. Looking around, I quickly located the dog’s owner, an older man sitting up ahead on the trail. I greeted the dog (his name was “Bud”), and continued up the trail toward the fellow. So close to home, I planned to simply say “hi” and move along, but something didn’t seem right. The man was breathing quite heavily. A quick glance at his pack and clothes told me everything I needed to stop what I was doing: a new pack, stuffed to the point of breaking; new water bottle, almost empty; new jacket, heavy shoes—these are all signs of someone who is on their first backpacking excursion.

His name was Larry. Larry said he was ok, but he couldn’t get his dog Bud to eat. As we talked, I learned that Larry had retired a couple years ago. He hadn’t been coping well since leaving his job, and he always dreamed of hiking on the Appalachian Trail. For the last two years, he had saved, researched, and planned this trip. His brother drove him and Bud from Texas and dropped them off that very morning to begin their trip. The problem was that Bud, like many animals, gets a bit funny when he travels and doesn’t eat much. When embarking on a trip like this, a couple days without food could be deadly. After repeated attempts to get Bud to eat, Larry decided his dream trip would have to wait—he needed to get Bud off the trail until he was better.

By the time I met them, Larry and Bud had already hiked four miles further than he had planned. The campsite they had picked out earlier in the day did not have a water source. Larry was stressed, dehydrated, and hopeless. I tried to give him some water, but he refused, despite being out himself. He didn’t need food; he had enough of that for weeks. He was simply trying to get off the trail, to call his brother.

But I did have a phone. Not that I’d been successful in using it over the last hours. And here we were, pinched in a valley, but it was worth another try. And as fate would have it, now there was a very strong signal. At my insistence, Larry eventually took my phone and dug out the number. His brother answered right away, even though he didn’t recognize the number. Larry’s brother had been driving all day and was already in Louisiana, but he immediately committed to returning for Larry & Bud. It would just take him another day. After the call, Larry was definitely in better spirits.

We were both heading the same way, so I thought I’d walk a ways with Larry and Bud. Larry wasn’t much of a talker, and he was pretty winded most of the time, so we didn’t talk a lot while we walked. Every fifty yards or so, Larry stopped to catch his breath, and tell me to go on, he’d be ok. Eventually, Larry even let me share my water with him and Bud. But at each break, Larry insisted I shouldn’t let him hold me up.

Truth is, I didn’t need Larry to remind me time was slipping by. I was acutely aware of the fact that we were traveling at slower than one-third my previous pace. I kept trying to estimate our location on the trail and our pace, so I could determine when I would make it back to the car. My phone decided not to work for me again, so I wasn’t sure whether I could get back to the car before my wife would call search-and-rescue. Time seemed to speed by as we crawled down the trail.

Then BOOM. I heard a car door slam shut. Scanning through the trees, I caught a glimpse of a car driving by. There was a parking lot ahead, the one where the trail began.

I stayed with Larry until we got within about a quarter mile of the trailhead. We were meeting people every minute or two now, so I knew he would make it back and have any assistance he might need.

We shook hands one more time and parted ways. As soon as I got out of sight, I quickened my step to my original pace. Or rather, I tried to obtain my original pace. Speeding up, I felt every mile I had traversed. I felt the tension and soreness in my knees, hips, thighs, calves, ankles, back, and feet. Whereas before, the pain had become numbing, the last two hours at a slower pace allowed me to regain feeling in my lower extremities, which was not a good thing. To make matters worse, I realized this was the parking area at the top of the falls; I had parked another mile south in the lower parking lot. Pardon the cliche, but I was not out of the woods quite yet.

I did make it back to the car in time to prevent the deployment of a search-and-rescue team. I even had fifteen whole minutes of daylight remaining. All the way to the car, I kept thinking about Larry and Bud. You see, while I regretted the time I lost walking with Larry, I knew it was the right thing to do. When I met him, he was in trouble; had I or someone else not taken the time to help him, I don’t know what shape he would have been in when he finally made it out, or even if he would have made it out without a stretcher.

But then I had an epiphany. I realize how much I benefitted from Larry. When I met Larry, I was in bad shape. For over an hour, I had been paying close attention to a tendon in my knee, wondering if I would have any more notice than the pain I was experiencing before it snapped. When I passed a clearing, where others had camped in times gone by, I had to convince myself to continue past, to not stop for the night, even though I was ill-equipped for an overnight excursion and I could not reach April on my phone. I had plenty of food, like Larry, and water. But like Larry, I had already pushed my body beyond what it was capable of doing. It was only a matter of time before something broke, or something shut down.

You see, had I not slowed down to help Larry, I don’t know that I would have made it back to the car that night. I don’t know how badly I might have injured myself by going further and faster than I was capable. I realized that, unwittingly, Larry had taken care of me in the same way I thought I was taking care of Larry. I realized, that by showing hospitality to someone else, I probably saved myself in the process.

And I just can’t help but think that’s the way it always works. Maybe, if we can just start being neighbors to each other again, if we can start practicing hospitality again, we might just save our world and ourselves in the process. It’s a dream anyway.

Will you let me be your servant?
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I might have the grace
To let you be my servant, too.