Well I have been off trail for a month. About time I got something up on this website. I have been writing, preparing to be keynote speaker for Southwestern Washington Lutheran Women’s Convention on October 12.
I decided to put that talk up on this site in installments. (Speaking for 1 hr, 15 minutes is a lot of words.) The format is to talk a while and then have people turn to their neighbor and share where this talk is leading them. Perhaps some of my followers on this site will find this interesting too.
Some of the illustrations are trail stories. Some are other life experiences. I am speaking as a hiker, mom and pastor. Some of this may make its way into my next book.
When I was asked to be the speaker, I wondered what I should talk about. Yes, I am an old long distance hiker, and yes, I did write a book about that. But it didn’t seem appropriate to just brag about where I have hiked, although I can certainly talk for hours about hiking. The topic was up to me. Well, one of the major threads in my next book I will write is fear. So, fear it is, or more precisely, questions about fear and fearing not.
Since I am a pastor and you are Lutherans, let’s start with the 23rd Psalm is probably the most well-known passage in the Bible, if only because it is so often read at funerals.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou annointest my head with oil, my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.”
Is that Psalm only for our life’s end? Our funerals? Or is it for our living?
For today, let’s hold on to those center verses of the 23rd Psalm: “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow off death, I fear no evil for thou art with me.” That is a very big claim. Can we live that? What does living that look like? For me or for you.
I stumbled into this topic partly because one of the most commonly asked questions about my trekking has always been, “Aren’t you afraid of the bears?” Well, I have certainly seen bears. I respect bears. They are bigger than me. They are strong and have teeth and claws. I probably would lose a fight. But I have never had to fight either Black or Grizzly Bear.
The short answer in my relationship with bears is that they live in the wilderness. I just visit. It is up to me to learn about them and to be a good visitor. Most black bear don’t want to be around humans, unless they are habituated to know that hikers carry food, It is my job to keep my food away from them. And to make noise, even yell to let bears know I am there and not surprise them in their home. And good bears generally run away. The two I saw last month in Colorado did just that. Grizzlies are not quite so predictable. But the two grizzlies I saw in Montana while I was singing at the top of my lungs, didn’t even look at me. Like most long-distance hikers I am thrilled to see big game and I have seen cougar, black and grizzly bear, moose, deer, elk, porcupine, racoon, badgers, coyotes, fox, marmots, lynx, martins, squirrels, chipmunks, pikas, mice, rattlesnakes, lots of creatures who actually live in the wilderness. I have been happy to share the wilderness with them.
I really don’t consider the wilderness to be the valley of the shadow of death. Quite the opposite, the wilderness is filled with life. Wilderness trails are safer than you might imagine if you are not a hiker. One does need to learn about the wilderness and wilderness skills, to know something about what to do and how to act in the wilderness.
There are dangers and challenges in the wilderness. The weather can kill you. Hypothermia, snow and ice, floods, tornados and earthquakes happen. You can be killed by rock-slide or an avalanche or a falling tree you happen to be under. I could come to harm in the wilderness. Wilderness creatures and the forces of nature are amazing and wonderful, and also, potentially, dangerous.
Yet, there are generally less than 2 fatalities from bears per year in the Continental United States and thousands of fatalities from cars. Once, when I said that at one of my hiking presentations, someone popped up and said, “Yes, but we’re used to cars.” Hiking a long trail is taking a risk. So is getting behind the wheel of a car. Learning about how to do either is recommended.
Pastor Mark Johnson, my pastor now that I am retired, once asked in a sermon, why does God keep sending angels who say, Fear not. Or Don’t be afraid.?” I loved the answer someone in the congregation gave. “Because we are so blinkin’ afraid of everything.”
So, are we never supposed to be afraid? Is fear always bad?
We all are afraid of some things. Bears and lions and Tigers, Oh my. Amos 3:8 says “The lion has roared. Who will not be afraid?”
Fear can be a good thing because being afraid can keep us from danger and keep us safe. It can also rule our lives and keep us from living the full and abundant lives God gives to us.
Life is a dangerous sport. We are born into this world and, our innate growth processes put us in danger. Children move. Even natural development is dangerous.
When my daughter was learning to walk, we lived in a house in Texas with no carpet. She learned to pull herself up to furniture and the dishwasher; but when she tried to go away on her own, she fell and bashed those nice sharp baby teeth through her lip. That made her slow to learn to walk independently. She feared having that happen again. Fortunately, growth and development are powerful forces that overcame her fear. That bad experience slowed her for a while, but she did learn to walk and to dance and now she chases her own 8 children, rather well.
When we learn to walk as children, we learn to take risks. Walking is essentially a continual process of losing our balance, almost falling and catching our balance again with each step we take. You can see that process if you watch a child learning to walk. You can see that we have difficulty with that process as we age. And along the way in between the time we are babies and we are aged, we have a lot of opportunity to take risks and to catch our balance in living. Fear can keep us safe. We fear putting our hands in fire, and fear can hinder our living, like keeping my daughter from walking, for a while.
I want you to think for a minute about your own lives and think of at least a couple of examples of fear keeping you safe and a couple of examples of fear that hinders your living. I want you to turn to your neighbor or to a couple of neighbors near you and share what you are afraid of – speak those fears out loud: two fears that keep you safe and two fears that hinder your living.