How many times in our lives do we stand at a place where all things seem lost? These times of distress are inevitable and will visit all, both the weak and the mighty.

“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God”

– Matthew 19:24

WHERE ARE OUR HEARTS?

In our modern marketplace we are taught and encouraged that the measure of our success is how much we make. Corporations are rewarded for increasing their earnings per share. We all want our raises and bonuses to be bigger. For many who read this verse in Matthew it appears that Jesus is saying that if you are rich you won’t be able to go to heaven. However, if we use the discipline of historical context, we can see a different message. A message that refers more to where our hearts reside.

“Jesus desires for us to turn our hearts humbly to the purpose of God.”

In ancient Jerusalem there were two gates to enter the city. A large gate where all could pass and a smaller gate used at night to prevent entry by potentially dangerous invaders. The smaller gate was called the “Eye of the Needle.” For camels to get through this gate they had to kneel and be relieved of all their baggage. The camel was the largest beast of burden in ancient Judea, suggesting its purpose in Jesus’s analogy. The act of kneeling is a humbling act. An act of submission or honor, both in the ancient world and today. Jesus desires for us to turn our hearts humbly to the purpose of God.

A writer friend of mine engaged with a well-connected literary figure who signed a contract promising to help my friend get his book published. For a sizeable amount of money from the aspiring writer, the literary figure promised to introduce him to publishing firms. A contract was signed and the literary figure sent off an e-mail to an agent, who replied to the writer with a rejection. From the literary figure’s point of view, an introduction had been made and therefore the money was due. While technically the literary figure had provided the contracted service, he did little more than send a random e-mail to a random agent. The aspiring writer was on the hook to pay the contract fee but had little to show for his money. While everything was done legally according to the contract, the heart of the literary figure was in making money and not in providing substantial help to the writer. His actions were legally correct, but not correct within the context of intention.

“Jesus cautions us to be humble and careful in pursuing wealth…To decide between a short-term gain and being fair with our neighbors. He is saying that when we stand at this crossroads, we should follow a heart that wants to help others.”

In this story lies the point of Jesus’s message. Is our goal to make money regardless of who we affect? The lure of wealth often times puts us in this position, to decide between a short-term gain and being fair with our neighbors. In the marketplace we often stand at this crossroads. Jesus isn’t saying that being rich is bad. He is saying that when we stand at this crossroads, we should follow a heart that wants to help others. Jesus cautions us to be humble and careful in pursuing wealth. He is well aware of the temptation of riches and the delusional effect of wealth. He is advising us that the pursuit of wealth, while intoxicating, can be harmful to our hearts. Are we following the command of Galatians 5:13 to put aside our own worldly desire and instead using what we have to serve others in love?

Earning a living isn’t the issue; where our hearts reside is the issue.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Do we make decisions that are made with a heart that wants to help?

How do we protect our hearts from the delusions of wealth?

How do we stay humble?

MILESTONE ON THE TRAIL

This week we passed two milestones that are important in providing a sense of accomplishment. We left Georgia and entered North Carolina. The first big test of any true hike! Then two days later we got to the 100-mile mark. While small for the entire journey, they are huge for our confidence. By now at least 25% have dropped out. Hitting these marks at least told us we were accomplishing something.

The trail is both hard and eye-opening. For us, the climbs are acts of patience. The younger trail hikers storm up the mountains and we plod along. Walking with measured steps and creating benchmarks to hit on the way up. In doing this we make the 1000 foot or more climbs manageable. Sometimes each tenth of a mile is hard and that is all we can focus on. When we get to the top, we replace patience with joy. Another peak climbed. Each one gives us more confidence.

We are also seeing that life can be very simple. Sometimes our entire day is just walking, setting up our tent, and eating. In this simplicity, we see what is important. Life boils down to food, water, and shelter. But for us to be happy, that is all we need. It is fun to walk with each other, Connie and I alone for most of the day just discussing our daily goals, life, our friends, our daughters and where we are going. The days are simple and fun.

The only thing we get anxious about is where our next water supply will be. Learning to never pass by a stream close to the trail. It takes fifteen minutes to get water. We must filter, put in our electrolytes and make sure we know where the next water source will be.

At each stop, we have to be very disciplined in making sure we leave nothing behind. We always take one final look before we leave. We have heard this is so very important. In fact, we heard about a person losing his tent. Everything we carry we have to use every day.

At night in the camps or shelters, we find people. Sometimes a dozen and sometimes forty, just setting up their tents, having dinner and then socializing. A wonderful community of people who help and provide each other support.

The younger people go faster than us and some do twenty miles in a day. Some are faster than us but walk the same ten to twelve miles a day we do. We are slower, at 65 I can’t walk as fast as the twenty-year-olds, but we walk longer.

When we venture into town, we see a different world. People going to work and living lives. Many very ordinary people just living life. In the trail towns, they care for the thru-hikers.

As thru-hikers, we are very recognizable when we are in town. We wear clogs in town. The men are unshaven. The women wear bandanna’s or scarves on their heads. We all have the same clothes on from yesterday. We buy food for the next few days and rest our legs. We are minor celebrities and the town people accept us and help us.

The stories of faith keep appearing on the trail. On a tough climb this past Sunday we met Pippi Rambo, her trail name. A very large woman in her twenties that walks slowly because of her size. But every day she comes into the camp, maybe a few hours after everyone else, but she arrives.

On top of this mountain, we talked on this Sunday morning. Pippi told us that she was tired of being an inspiration to others. Because of her very large size, people come up to her and tell her she was an inspiration. She doesn’t want that; she just wants to be a thru-hiker. And she is.   Being an inspiration isn’t why she hikes. She wants to be normal and nothing more.

She is a quiet Christian, who recoils at overly zealous evangelicals who told her she must proclaim her faith every day. She is shy and doesn’t want that. She just wants to love God and help others. That is her way of proclaiming, not talking just doing.

I reminded her of the Good Samaritan that Jesus talked about. How two proclaimed pious people walked past an injured man. Even to the point of walking to the other side of the road. Followed by a person from Samaria and a different community, who helped tend to the injured man and provided him with safety. For me this was an example of our Christian attitude, we should have within us, doing versus saying is the essence of faith.

We left her with a closing comment that she was a good person. Typical of Pippi, she said we were as well.

On another morning I sat down with a man for breakfast. He had intended to hike last year. But five days before he was supposed to leave his wife came down with pancreatic cancer. His next nine months were spent nursing his wife, who died this January.

He told me he had seen things with her death that no person should ever have to see. But dutifully he fought alongside her, despite the inevitable.

He was a shaken man; over the horror, he saw and loss of a thirty-five-year companion. As we talked the emotions of that year came out in the stoic man.

Grief is a difficult companion. It knows no appropriate behavior. It let’s go slowly and comes in the nights of life; creating anguish and teardrops. It prevents a life of normalcy and its only purpose is dismay.

But slowly the tears will go away, each drop of anguish replaced by the grace of God. Until that sunny day where memories replace the grief. No one knows the time. But in a perverse way grief will heal him.

We left each other, with me praying in Jesus’ name that he would heal on his thru-hike. Perhaps a place of respite from his awful companion called grief.

We live life in segments and milestones, surrounded for a few days by wonderful people. Then we move on never sure how to say goodbye.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

“Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companions of fools suffer harm.”

– Proverbs 13:20

OLD, BUT WISE FRIENDS

I met Tony Marone very early in my career. While only a year older than me, he possessed the wisdom of someone decades older. At the company where we worked, he was considered a rock star and was often promoted by leadership. Everybody liked Tony, myself included. I worked hard to gain his friendship and over time we became very good friends.

At a casual lunch, I once told him how impressed I was by the fact he had so many people that liked and respected him. He stunned me by replying, “Bruce, I have a lot of acquaintances, but few friends.” I was quick to refute, “It’s not true, everyone wants to know you.” He went on to explain, “Sure they do, but as soon as a cold wind blows most will be gone. If you can count on one hand the friends who will be with you in tough times and give you honest advice, consider yourself lucky.”

Tony’s words seemed dire. I was still young and impressionable. I thought to myself, How can this be true?

Tony was a street wise Catholic from a tough neighborhood. Most of what he got in life he earned on his own. He didn’t go to a top college or have great mentors. His lessons came directly from the streets of New York City. He learned how to survive in a tough environment, quickly figuring out who to trust and who not to trust. He also learned how to influence others. He was always positive and avoided making enemies. But most importantly, he learned to sift through advice and only follow the words of wise people.

THE BOOK OF PROVERBS

The book of Proverbs is one of the “Wisdom Books” in the Bible. It contains the words of advice that God wants us to hear. The thirty-one chapters take only an hour or so to read and are void of long discourses and extensive theology. They contain simple lessons with simple words. Proverbs 13:20 is an example of the practical lessons hidden away in this Old Testament book.

Eventually, we all learn to better discern between the ill-advised and wise counsel we receive. When we need counsel from a wise friend like Tony, we can look to Proverbs. When we read the verses openly and have a desire to learn, they become our friend and trusted advisor. Memorizing Bible verses allows the words to become our anchor during life’s most ferocious winds.

“Memorizing Bible verses allows the words to become our anchor during life’s most ferocious winds.”

ADVICE FROM AN OLD AND WISE FRIEND WHO CARED

Tony went on to have a successful life. He became a CEO of a regional retailer and later started his own business. When the cold November winds of my life blew, I could always call Tony to get his kind and honest advice. It was not always what I hoped to hear; but it was always what I needed to hear.

I learned what Tony meant about good friends as my life unfolded. I would get a lot of advice—some was well-intentioned but lacked candor. Others advice was self-serving and not in my best interest. Then there was other advice that was simply off the mark completely. Tony was a wise friend, whose counsel always demonstrated that he cared about my well-being. I miss Tony, he died a few years ago. But I will always remember his words.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

How do we know whether a person’s advice is good?

How often do we read the wisdom book called Proverbs?

How many friends do we have that will tell us the truth?

More importantly, who can consider us as among that list – their wise friend, the ‘Tony’ of their life?

How many times in our lives do we stand at a place where all things seem lost? These times of distress are inevitable and will visit all, both the weak and the mighty.

“Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.”

– Psalms 73:25

NEW ORIENTATION

In life, it isn’t a question of whether we will become disoriented, but when. We will lose our sense of stability at some point. The world will become confusing, and we’ll struggle to stay remained on our intended path. We will scramble for a purpose, and search for firmer ground. The Book of Psalms can help us regain our footing. The Book of Psalms describes the human condition in a remarkably intimate yet universally relatable way. It is the largest book in the Bible, and took over a thousand years to complete. Famed Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann views the Psalms as each being centered around one of three states of being: orientation, disorientation, and new orientation. Orientation occurs when our world is in harmony. Disorientation occurs when we encounter obstacles and lose our way. New orientation occurs when God reveals to us the mystery of faith and answers our prayers. We always exist in one of these three states.

In Psalm 8 (NRSV), King David asks, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

While this is a statement of praise, it also shows that David is in a state of contentment or orientation.

But in Psalm 13, King David asks, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”

David is clearly in distress at this point, and feels abandoned by God. This is the state of disorientation, the state of a lost soul, overwhelmed by life and circumstances.

Later, though, in the same Psalm, we see a new orientation when David declares, “I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

“In life, it isn’t a question of whether we will become disoriented, but when..The Book of Psalms can help us regain our footing”

Circumstances have changed and David has newly oriented himself. His path—and his world—have been corrected.

Our lives are often disrupted, whether by circumstance or by our own doing. When this happens, we pray. We search. We feel empty and abandoned. Then, suddenly, we find that our prayers have answers. Life makes sense again—we are back on course. The Psalms offer us comfort, reminding us that we are not alone, offering us encouragement and giving us the courage to newly orient ourselves. We are comforted by the intimacy with which we explore our soul’s journey, and we are reminded that God is always with us, speaking to us through the verses of the Psalms.Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. HartmanDo we include Psalms in our daily prayers?

Can we feel how God reaches directly into our hearts through the Psalms?

INTO THE WOODS

We have finished the first 69.2 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Quite an experience being immersed in the woods every day. Every day is hard, educational and very different than living out of the woods. Each day is its own day and each hour has exciting moments.

Each morning, our schedule has us climbing a mountain. Sometimes it is 500 feet over one mile or tougher climbs like 1400 feet in a mile and a half.

We try to walk around ten miles a day, which involves 2500 to 3500 feet in total ascent. At the end of each day, we are tired but grateful for what we have seen and learned.

We have learned to go slow and break the day into four or five segments. Sometimes it’s a two-mile downhill segment. Or perhaps a key vista a few miles out. Doing this makes the ten miles manageable.

We have learned water and food are the number one priority each day. Any time we find a stream, we “Water Up.” This is always an event because we don’t just go to a tap. We first fill up from a stream into a separate container. Then using a filter we drain the water through a filter into a Smart Water bottle. Next, we add electrolytes to replace those we have lost. We drink around 3-4 liters of water each day.

Likewise, food is also fuel for walking. In general, we eat 4000 calories a day. This is spread out over five meals. Breakfast is eaten before we start, usually cold oats or a couple of breakfast bars. Followed about two hours later with enriched biscuits called Belvita biscuits. Lunch usually is another two hours and consists of peanut butter sandwiches or salami and cheese. Followed then in another two hours with a Snicker bar. The commercials are true about Snicker bars, they really boost your energy for the final hills of the day. Dinner is trail mix, which might seem odd. But it is easy to carry and from a small package, you can get 700 calories with a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat.

We have also learned to carry only what you need. We use a bounce box that contains items we will need in the future and forward to our next rest stop a few days later. The weight of a pack is very important from both an exertion point of view and balance. Too much weight and your balance is affected and subjects you to falls.

They tell us we pack our fears. For instance, if you fear running out of food, you will pack too much food. If your fear is being cold, then too many clothes. Fortunately, there are good examples of what a well-packed backpack contains. With this reference you know to only pack 2 sets of clothes, rain gear, and a puffy jacket. Or to pack 2 pounds of food for each day you are going to be between resupply points. In total, keeping your gear to 25 pounds is vital.

We have learned that we can climb 4000-foot peaks. We have learned on those nights that are close to freezing, you keep your entire body in your sleeping bag. We have also learned that of the forty or so items you carry, you must be very disciplined in keeping track of each item. We have learned to be very disciplined in all that we do.

We have learned to go slow and be purposeful. At first, we got dismayed when much younger hikers would go by at a quick pace. But we also were told that can cause injuries by an experienced hiker. Even an inchworm can climb a mountain. He told us to be patient and in a few weeks we will have caught up.

We have also discovered God, not just in nature and our personal circumstances, also in other people. On our fourth day, after a very tough morning and having forgotten our lunch, we came to a parking lot to find a man who was giving away pork soup and coffee.

The weather was horrible that morning, forty mile an hour winds and freezing temperatures. The wind blew so hard that it pelted us with ice crystals that came from tree limbs. In all this, we got to see the magnificent scenery of a grove of trees encased in shimmering white. (The picture from that scene is the image for this blog)

No lunch and being cold, the soup was a welcomed sight.

This is an event is called, “Trail Magic” on the trail. It happens at some road crossings, where local people feed or supply water to hikers. It may be soup or donuts or jugs of water. Bob, the man who provided the soup is called a “Trail Angel.”

Bob, was the first trail angel we met. In 2014 he had been diagnosed with cancer. Concerned with his health and the uncertainty of his condition, he went up into the mountains to pray. He felt that God told him he would be okay. Overwhelmed and in tears, he promised God that he would help hikers as a way to give back.

Bob, was cured. Each weekend during hiker season he hands out trail magic. He is kind and offers a great conversation with his gifts. A man who was saved through his faith that helps others.

On our seventh day, after a very hard climb, we found a summit with incredible views. We had arrived there with a woman called, Coyote. This was her trail name. Thru-Hikers on the Appalachian trail don’t use their real name, but their trail name. Trail names are very personal and tell you something about the person. Names are given out by others or something you give yourself. Coyote was named because each time she summits a peak she howls.

We had spent the previous night camping next to her. During that time we discovered a remarkably happy person with a very fast wit. Coyote came from a modest background, growing up in rural Tennessee. What she had in life was earned in a very hard way.

She had mentioned to us twice she was a cancer survivor. So we probed to find out why she mentioned it. She proceeded to tell us that she had stage 3 cervical cancer when she was 25. After a number of surgeries, she was cured but left infertile.

When she was young, she wanted to have a family. This was her big dream. Now that dream was gone. For the next tens years, she was depressed and suffered from anxiety. She spent these years angry at life, her friends, her husband and especially God.

She started hiking. At first with groups and then herself. On these solo hikes, she talked with God. At first angry and then questioning why this it happened to her. Over time she regained her natural gift of joy. She had found God again. She had a new purpose and it was to live life with purpose and joy.

She is walking the Appalachian trail to discover more about her future. She is grateful for her husband, who stood with her on all those difficult days. I am not sure where her story ends but am thankful for the joy she gave us.

We have learned a lot, but mostly no matter how much we prepare, God is in charge. We find this out each day through events and our lessons.

One of the highlights of our day is our morning prayer. We pray for guidance and thank God.

On the trail, there is a saying, “The trail will provide.” And it does, through God, the trail has provided to us.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Photo by Francesco Gallarotti

We love giving credit to budding photographers to help them gain more exposure.

“And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples.”

– Matthew 9:10

THE COMMON PERSON IS LOVED

I was asked once to help a dying church grow. Over the years, its membership had declined from three hundred congregants to just fifteen. The neighborhood in which the church was located had changed, and down the street, a homeless shelter had popped up. Half of the children in the town went to school hungry. Transients and young thugs appeared on the street corners. The church had begun to lock its doors to prevent theft or vandalism. Its circle of leaders had grown smaller, and those who remained were resistant to change. Slowly, the church had collapsed in on itself.

By the time I arrived to help revive the church, money was low and its leaders and congregants were worn out from their efforts to save their place of worship. I recruited some friends and a recent graduate of divinity school to help out with the cause. As a group, we felt that the mission of the church needed to be to address the needs of the neighborhood’s new population. We collected clothing donations and distributed them through the church.

We began preparing a free breakfast on Sunday mornings and eventually established a soup kitchen that provided free meals throughout each week. My friends prepared the meals in their homes early each morning, and I visited local restaurants to request food donations.

Soon, the pews were filling up each Sunday. Homeless moms with children would come to eat, then stay to attend church. Homeless men with significant substance abuse problems came as well. We became a haven for people who had nowhere else to turn.

Many old parishioners didn’t embrace the change and left, claiming their church had been ruined. They refused to break bread with the new members. Nevertheless, the new congregants loved the new pastor, who made an immediate positive impact on her parishioners.

Those who shunned the church’s new reality would not have met with Jesus’s approval. In fact, Jesus commonly dined with “sinners,” even tax collectors, who were among the most deeply and widely maligned of people. Sinners would approach Jesus to receive guidance and instruction—they desired a different path, but knew not how to find or travel it. They wanted to know how to live up to God’s values. Despite the fact that the religious elite openly criticized Jesus for his behavior, he was steadfast in his love for and acceptance of everyone, no matter the individual’s sins or occupation.

“Jesus didn’t give up on people who wanted a new life. He saw holiness in everyone, regardless of social status, race, or gender”

In reading today’s verse, in the first century, a “sinner” was considered to be anyone who was different from the religious elite. These sinners may have moved away from the values of God, but they might also have just been “common folk” who struggled and toiled to feed, clothe, and care for their families. Because they were perceived to be inferior by the elite, they were viewed as sinners. But, as we know, we are all sinners, even the highest in the social strata. The sinners Jesus broke bread with were just regular people who faced difficult circumstances.

Jesus didn’t give up on people who wanted a new life. He saw holiness in everyone, regardless of social status, race, or gender. He helped all those who wanted to be helped. While many of those he helped had self-inflicted wounds, many simply had challenging lives. But they all shared a common desire—a better life.

Today, the common folk, who are holy in Jesus’s eyes, work in mailrooms, serve food, deliver the paper early in the morning, wash floors late at night, and do what many others won’t. They might not wear the bright new clothes or have the latest iPhones, but are made in the image of God and are holy.Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. HartmanHow do we treat the “common” person?

Do we see what God sees or do we see what society tells us to see?

Can we look all people in the eye and show them care and compassion?

How many times in our lives do we stand at a place where all things seem lost? These times of distress are inevitable and will visit all, both the weak and the mighty.

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

– Matthew 4:23

A LIFE-AFFIRMING ELIXIR

We sometimes spend too much time in our inner castles. Many times in my counseling work, I will confront despair. A client will say, “Why don’t they want me?” or “I had a bad week.” When I probe why people feel this way, I often detect that they have spent most of the week by themselves, reflecting or doing self-analysis. It is hard to be alone, and sometimes we are alone even when we are with people. My clients will confess that they didn’t get much done on their “to do” list, which drove them further into themselves, over analyzing and being overly self-critical.

Jesus would sometimes go off to silent places to pray and meditate. Away from everyone. However, he preferred to be among the people. His ministry was dining with other people, walking to distant towns, curing the sick, or helping an individual with insight. It is moments like these moments that remind us most of Jesus. His ministry was an outward expression to others.

“When we walk among people, we receive an elixir.”

When we walk among people, we receive an elixir. An affirmation of ourselves. When we look someone in the eye and ask “How is your day?” we are affirming that person. An inner moment of joy occurs that tells the person he or she is good and worthy. When we ask and then listen, we hear stories about life. We get to know other people. They can share their dreams and worries with us. They are affirmed because we listened. For a moment they have a voice. We gave them a voice. And the sense of our own joy increases also. Our outward interest in other people provides us energy for our own tasks. When we are with others and listen, we receive.

“God wants us among the people, and we are created to interact with one another.”

People like people who like people. I often say this in my sessions. At first it may appear to be self-serving. But if we are sincere about it, we can create a mutual bond. When Jesus walked among humankind, he knew his mission. To heal, and proclaim the good news, but also simply to be with humankind. Our inner castles are good places to rest and pray, but we can only stay for a while. God wants us among the people, and we are created to interact with one another. Through outward expressions we find healing. Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. HartmanAre we sincere when we say good morning?

Do we ask or do we state?

What is the value of questions?