“Blazing But Not Consumed”

I’ve been reading Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Here is how it begins:  

The trees were tall, but I was taller, standing above them on a steep mountain slope in northern California. Moments before, I’d removed my hiking boots and the left one had fallen into those trees, first catapulting into the air when my enormous backpack toppled onto it, then skittering across the gravelly trail and flying over the edge. It bounced off of a rocky outcropping several feet beneath me before disappearing into the forest canopy below, impossible to retrieve. I let out a stunned gasp, though I’d been in the wilderness thirty-eight days and by then I’d come to know that anything could happen and that everything would. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t shocked when it did.

My boot was gone. Actually gone. I clutched its mate to my chest like a baby, though of course it was futile. What is one boot without the other boot? It is nothing.

It is useless, an orphan forevermore, and I could take no mercy on it. It was a big lug of a thing, of genuine heft, a brown leather Raichle boot with a red lace and silver metal fasts. I lifted it high and threw it with all my might and watched it fall into the lush trees and out of my life. I was alone. I was barefoot. I was twenty-six years old and an orphan too. An actual stray, a stranger had observed a couple of weeks before, when I’d told him my name and explained how very loose I was in the world. (Prologue, p. 3-4)

 

The moment when Cheryl Strayed stood bootless and alone in the wilderness reminds me of Moses’ encounter with the fiery bush. Moses is also an “orphan” of sorts, a person alienated from family and community. Around the time of Moses’ birth, his people grew numerous and powerful, so the Egyptian Pharaoh gave the order that all the baby boys of the Hebrew slaves should be thrown into the Nile and drowned. Remember the baby Moses in the basket, floating down the river? Pharaoh’s daughter heard him crying and rescued him. So Moses was raised in the royal court, as an Egyptian. But his mother, watching from afar, came to the Pharaoh’s daughter and offered to be his nurse. Moses’ dual identities clashed when he was a young man. One day, he observed and Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. He grew angry and killed the Egyptian. Realizing his own life was in danger, he ran away from Egypt to live with relatives in the desert. On the day when that strange bush caught Moses’ eye out in the wilderness, he could have simply kept walking. But instead, he chose to turn aside. He stopped. He looked. And then he removed his sandals.Professor Dennis Olsen suggests that reverence may not have been his only motivation.He writes:

[Moses] removing his sandals has a second significance in light of Moses’ earlier self-declaration in Exodus 2:22: “I have been an alien…residing in a foreign land.” Taking off one’s sandals is a gesture in many traditional cultures that is associated with entering not only a worship space but also a home. Thus, here at the foot of the mountain of God, Moses the “alien,” has at last found a true “home.”

(workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=135)

 

After Moses took off his sandals, God told him it would be his job to go to Pharaoh, to free the Israelites from slavery and the Egyptians from their role as oppressors. For Moses, coming home meant turning aside to look and listen for God. It meant accepting the claim that God’s love, justice and freedom made on him. And it meant using his unique identity as both Egyptian and Hebrew to bring about a change that was needed. And yet, home, for Moses, was not a place without struggle. He felt inadequate and unprepared for the role God expected him to play. At first, he refused. He begged God to send someone else. But in the end, God’s spirit burned brighter than Moses’ resistance, fear and self-doubt.

Our scriptures from the New Testament today portray the early Christian community as the spiritual ancestors of Moses, as a people on fire with God. Baptism, the ritual that marks our entrance into a new life in Christ and our belonging to the body that is the church, is not only a matter of water, but also of spirit and fire. On Pentecost, the birth-day of the church, Jesus’ followers are singed by mysterious tongues of spirit-wind-flame. The fire of God is beautiful, intriguing and terrifying;cleansing and purifying, painful but healing.The God of our ancestors and the God of our future is the burning heart within us and all creation.

The question is: will we stop and turn aside for this fire? Will we look and listen? Will we remove our sandals—that is, the gear that protects us and the devices that distract us? Like Moses, we face a world in crisis. Powerful forces set the agenda for profit and growth, not for people and the earth. Profound inequality is today’s version of slavery. Everyone is affected by the damage we are doing to the earth and to our climate, but most especially those who are already poor. We, in the first world, with our extravagant consumption of resources, must also go first in finding ways to live differently with our planet. We can’t leave this transformation in the hands of activists or politicians or corporations: we must all dedicate ourselves to exploring all options, now.

Using less of everything; carefully and efficiently conserving and reusing. Investigating possibilities for renewable energy: from community solar gardens to wind turbine steeples to geothermal wells. Walking, biking, busing and car-sharing. Divesting and investing. Spending time, money and energy in ways that may not make short-term economic sense, but which make ultimate moral and spiritual sense.

On Thursday, our family celebrated a joyous milestone. We traveled to the Hennepin County Courthouse—everyone freshly bathed and nicely dressed, escorted by giddy grandparents. There, we finalized our daughter Alice’s adoption. And we remembered the adoption day of our older daughter, Eliza. At first, it was kind of a dry proceeding; saying and spelling our full names and confirming our birthdates and address. But then the judge asked us questions of substance, questions that reminded me of the moment’s profound meaning. Were we ready to take on the responsibility of being Alice’s parents? Would we love her and nurture her and provide for her needs? Would we accept her disabilities, any we know about and any that may come up in the future? Would we ensure she receives the best education possible? Raising our children is sacred work. Not only for parents, but for all of us who are part of the village that nurtures them.

When we take into account the needs of the next generation, and the next after that, and all the generations to come, we think differently about what matters to us. After Cheryl Strayed lost one boot and pitched the other, she stood barefoot on the trail, miles from civilization in every direction. She writes:

I gazed at my bare and battered feet, with their smattering of remaining toenails. They were ghostly pale to the line a few inches above my ankles, where the wool socks I usually wore ended. My calves above them were muscled and golden and hairy, dusted with dirt and a constellation of bruises and scratches. I’d started walking in the Mojave Desert and didn’t plan to stop until I touched my hand to a bridge that crosses the Columbia River at the Oregon-Washington border with the grandiose name, the Bridge of the Gods. I looked north, in its direction—the very thought of that bridge a beacon to me. I looked south, to where I’d been, to the wild land that had schooled and scorched me, and considered my options. There was only one, I knew. There was always only one. To keep walking. (Prologue, p. 6)

 

With blazing fire and searing spirit, our faith tells us the truth. We are not individuals who consume and compete and dominate. We are members of a sacred inter-related body called creation. We are people who walk on holy ground. We are made to tread humbly, skin to skin, with the earth, and heart to heart with God and each other.