“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

– Matthew 25:40 (NRSV)

HOW DO WE TREAT THE LEAST OF THESE?

When my sister was in her early teens and then living with my parents in a distant and poor part of the world, discovered a stray cat. She patted the reluctant cat and earned its trust. Then brought the cat home and pleaded with my parents to keep the cat. My parents, always kind and accepting, welcomed the cat and named it Casey. My sister at this early age showed unique compassion for the disadvantaged, which carried into her adult life. Today, as a professionally trained social worker helps children in distress. The cat that my sister brought home was no ordinary cat. After years of abuse and having to fend for itself in the streets, it was ornery! If you sat on the couch Casey was sleeping under, Casey would reach out and scratch your leg. We would howl and complain. My sister would kindly remind us that she has had a tough life and to forgive her. A reminder of our Christian attitude.

Over time, Casey became a legend in our house. She was known as the unsociable cat. People would come to visit and we had to caution them where to sit. Generally, Casey kept to herself unless her space was invaded. In spite of her unsavory behavior, she always found food placed for her in the morning, she had the freedom to roam the yard and a warm place to sleep every night. She also had a protector, my sister. Casey lived for another ten years, but during this time became part of the fabric of a family, whose lore is still discussed today.

“Jesus makes no distinction about a person based on race, gender, socioeconomic circumstance or locale. All are members of his family without bias in any direction.”

In today’s verse, Jesus reminds us that “all” are part of God’s family. Even the “least of these.” Jesus makes no distinction about a person based on race, gender, socioeconomic circumstance or locale. All are members of his family without bias in any direction. Jesus cares about the person and their hearts. Jesus knows our life circumstances and chooses to help us in spite of our pasts. Jesus knows our hidden terrors and past disappointments. Jesus knows our blind spots and continues to accept us. Jesus is very protective of his flock and cautions us to treat everyone, as he does, equally. He asks us to treat people, as he does, with an awareness of people’s life circumstances.

“Jesus wants us to treat people as if we are talking to Jesus, himself.”

Many times we meet people who are troubled and we turn away. Or we hear about a person from another walk of life and make our judgments without knowing the person. We see people who don’t wear the best clothes, have the latest technology or speak differently, and we judge. We see a homeless person late at night and assume danger. Hidden beneath these non-conforming images are people of Jesus’s family. Jesus wants us to treat people as if we are talking to Jesus, himself. We can do this by ridding ourselves of what we want to see and move to what is there.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

It’s About the Smiles, Not Just the Miles

I saw him sitting at a diner, early one morning in Damascus, Virginia. He hobbled in with a cane and looked defeated. I could tell he was a hiker, he was wearing the rubber clogs we all wear and he hadn’t shaved in a while. His head was down and his eyes had no life. He was defeated.

I said hello and asked how he was doing. He replied, “I am done and going home.” Right there in the diner, he gave up his trek! The previous four days he had hiked over twenty-five miles a day. His goal was to get to Damascus and stay on his timeline. During the downhill stretch into Damascus, he hit some mud and fell on a rock. The fall plus the impact on his body from walking many miles that last four days were the final straws.

I knew telling him, he had just completed the hardest stretch for the next thousand miles wasn’t going to change his mind. I have seen this look before. It’s not just the fall and hard walking, he had no joy. His smiles were gone from chasing miles.

Early on we had been warned about chasing miles, by a former thru-hiker, Steve. He cautioned us to remember why we were hiking. To remember our goals and hike our own hike. Sure there are faster hikers and those that get caught up in imaginary rules. Our hike isn’t their hike or vice versa. This is our journey and our time. Their hike is their hike. Steve’s caution was wise. For this man, maybe forgoing a few miles would have prevented his defeat and allowed him to carry on many more miles.

We had three goals when we started. The first was to stay hiking for six months and visit all fourteen states. The second was to significantly increase our fitness. The third was to discover a simpler life.

To stay on the trail, there has to be joy. There has to be things that make the experience magical. Things like riding a bike alongside the trail on a perfect spring day and going by babbling brooks. Or seeing and being with the wild ponies on Grayson Highland. Or laughing when I went through the famed “Fat Man Squeeze” on top of Whitetop mountain. Or eating chocolate cake and a hotdog at a trailside cafe well before noon. These are the things that bring us joy on the trail. Off the trail, we absorb the life of the many small towns we pass through. There are so many things we have seen and experienced that now are irreplaceable memories. We know more are coming. Steve was right, it’s about the smiles, not the miles.

When we fall behind or have to help a daughter move. We skip the boring segments. We still stay on schedule, but always remember our three goals.

When we started we wanted to get physically fit. In just a few weeks that has happened. We have lost some weight, and we are much stronger. We do the hills and are now stretching our days out to around fifteen miles a day. We always laugh at night, when we look at the App on our iPhone that says we walked forty thousand steps and climbed over 300 floors. This seems unreal and quite humorous. We can now pass other hikers here and there, instead of always being the ones getting passed. We are making progress, but have much more to go with our fitness.

Having a simpler life just happens when you hike this trail and are committed to really disconnecting. We eat, hike and sleep, that’s it. All of our daily logistics center around, where are we sleeping? How are we getting there? Where is the next water stop?

Pretty much that’s our day. In the midst of all this, each day we see the wonders of God’s creation. We meet inspiring people. We visit the towns of rural America. We pat wild ponies. It’s enough for us.

I feel bad for the man who quit. He passed up too many chances to see the Rhododendron’s bloom. He passed by places with meandering streams. He missed the joyful things. He lost the joy that supports us on those days of trouble. He was slowly whittled away by the self-imposed rules that put his head down instead of up.

I could tell he was a good person. He loved his family and especially his three nieces. He is the kind of guy who you could trust. His moral compass was pointed north. He was stripped away by missing the point of being out here. It’s your own hike and your not competing with someone else. It’s about you and doing whatever you can to keep walking. To do this means making sure joy is part of your hike.

This journey is hard some days, much like life. But what would make it harder if we didn’t do those things that give us lasting memories? This doesn’t mean we don’t climb big mountains or try hard every day. It means stopping on a bridge and debating where the trout are in the river. It means hiking within ourselves and walking to the beat of our drummer. Just like in life, it’s hard to be great without joy.

Our Joy comes in looking back at the mountain we just climbed and being amazed that we climbed it to the top. Our joy comes with the people and places we see. It even comes just walking alone in our thoughts.

The smiles create the miles.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

— John 3:8

WINDS OF COINCIDENCE

I met Wendy Paige at Drew Theological School, a tall and powerful black minister, with an up-front spirit. She was exceedingly friendly and enthusiastic, a powerful orator of the Christian faith. She came to me one day to ask about coincidences that were happening in her life. “Do you have them?” she asked. I said, “All the time.” We continued the conversation with her asking how I knew it was God speaking to me through those seeming coincidences. I replied, “I am a math person, so I used the laws of probability to discern. If it happens once it could be a coincidence, but when it happens many times it is the Spirit.” These moments of unusual events were common to both of us.

“The Spirit spoke with her, because she spoke with the Spirit.”

Wendy would pray frequently, and frequently she would get an answer. An answer that was always better than she’d expected. And sometimes an answer that was revealed in a way so unusual that it was startling. Many people would tell her that such an answer was just a coincidence. But the events continued and they filled her faith. Her question to me was more of confirmation; she knew the answer, it was the Spirit. The Spirit spoke with her because she spoke with the Spirit. Her experiences over time overwhelmed the outside world’s knowledge. The physical world could not explain these events, other than to say they were coincidences.

“Jesus says that when we live with the Spirit, we see God at work.”

Jesus, near the end of the dialogue with Nicodemus, explains this phenomenon by comparing it to the wind. Jesus says that when we live with the Spirit, we see God at work. We see God’s influence in our lives. We see that the events of our lives are not just random, but are a well-crafted response to our prayers. We begin to expect them. We begin to see them not as our desired answers, but as reflecting God’s desire for us. They are always unusual and very personal. Answers that only we can recognize. Answers that are so extraordinary and intimate they defy the laws of probability.

“Wendy felt the wind. She felt it because she answered the compelling voice of the Spirit.”

Wendy felt the wind. She felt it because she answered the compelling voice of the Spirit. She prayed and engaged in a spiritual dialogue. A deep and rich dialogue with God. Her heart was ready for answers and they appeared. Maybe through a random Bible verse. Or maybe through an innocent conversation. Or even maybe by an unexpected visitor. They were always unusual, deeply personal, and responsive. They were real for Wendy. The answers connected together over time defied the laws of probability. The coincidences became overwhelmed by math.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

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.

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

— Luke 23:46

COMMENDING OUR SPIRIT TO GOD

James Cash Penney, the founder of the  JCPenney stores, was nearly bankrupt as a result of the 1929 stock market crash. In fact, he had to use his own personal assets to make payroll for a period of time. For nearly thirty years he had built his company from one store in Wyoming to a large chain of fourteen hundred stores. The financial toll weighed heavily on his health, and he eventually checked himself into the Battle Creek Sanitarium. While attending a church service at the sanitarium and after hearing the hymn “God Will Take Care of You,” Penney became a Christian.

“His last years were spent helping others, which was the model for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”

Penney returned to run his business, and after successfully guiding it through the Great Depression and World War II, he left active management of the company. He turned his sights to giving back. He fought for laws to have all stores closed on Sunday. He set up the J. C. Penney Foundation, an organization that supported human rights, community economic empowerment, government accountability, and environmental sustainability. He was one of the founders of 40Plus, an organization that helped those over forty find jobs. His last years were spent helping others, which was the model for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“When we commend our spirit to God, we release our bonds from a life of worries.”

In the Book of Luke Jesus’s last human act was to commend his spirit to God. An act that created a model for others to follow. An act in which we give up our pursuit of earthly gains and turn to helping God and our neighbors. An act that changes our focus. An act that moves our spirit to a different purpose, one of giving. When we commend our spirit to God, we release our bonds from a life of worries. We begin to be able to focus on a different path. Our business lives change from fretting to hopefulness. We change from restless sleep to a passion for waking up. Our step is quicker and our hearts are lighter. We have released ourselves.

“We move to a spirit that keeps life in perspective.”

Penney dropped his worries and realized that a bigger force than himself was involved. He began to understand that business cycles occur here and there. He grew to know that all he could do was work hard. He grew to know that worry was an impediment. As the country recovered, so did his business. The recovery became an afterthought, and after he had safely guided his business home, he moved to a new mission. In all of our lives we will have successes and failures. Some as a result of our efforts and some not. When we commend our spirit to God, we change our perspective from worry to hopefulness and helpfulness. We begin to recognize what we can do better and who the real creator of our success is. We move to a spirit that keeps life in perspective.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Climbing Peaks

We are approaching mile 600 and the big mountains are past us now. While many still exist, they are less numerous and generally smaller. It’s not until we hit New England will the steep climbs reappear. One of the sayings we hear a lot is, “Never decide to quit on a climb.” We certainly are aware of this temptation. Steep five-mile climbs are daunting and test our perseverance.

The toughest climbs are those that range from 2 to 6 in miles length. And it is the grade that counts. For instance, a 5-mile climb that only goes up a 1,000 feet is not too severe and can be handled fairly easily. The grade on this climb averages 2%. However, an ascent of 2.5 miles with an altitude gain of 2,000 feet is very different. The grade averages 16% on this ascent, with parts of the climbing hitting 40%!

During the first 500 miles, many days involved multiple climbs. Some days we ascended over 4,000 feet. Or equal to climbing the Empire State Building close to 4 times in a day. Without a doubt, climbing is the hardest and most discussed part of hiking the Appalachian Trail by hikers.

We plan everything around these ascents. We try to start the day with a big ascent. We plan where we eat or get a water based on the climbs we have to make.

The key to hiking up these big ascents is based on conditioning, weight, leg length and coping. The first three are obvious what is required. The better your physical fitness the easier the climb. Extra Weight with both the backpack and body will slow you down. Leg length is the length of a person’s gait. The longer the gait, the easier to climb. But coping skills are the key to any ascent.

Connie sings hymns when she climbs as her coping mechanism. I pray at the start and break the climb into manageable parts. The first steps are hardest! But as we keep moving it always gets easier. Part of coping is being patient with your pace. In other words, if it’s steep, naturally you will go slower, which is okay. Thinking about how much you have to go is defeating, it’s far better to stay in the moment and not worry about what’s left. Staying focused on what is directly in front of you is critical to coping. Even an inch can climb a mountain.

Hiking poles help a lot. Coordinating your steps with your hiking polls give you the opportunity to also pull yourself forward. Similar to cross country skiing, coordinating your stride and your poles is important. Effectively adding more power to your climb. This takes time and conditioning to learn, but once learned greatly reduces the efforts.

We also use smaller hills to improve our conditioning. For instance, if have a hill that’s less than a one mile climb, we try to keep our pace the same as if we were on a flat stretch. Attacking these smaller climbs in this manner, while exhausting, improves our conditioning for the bigger climbs.

When we first started, it could take us an hour to climb 1 mile on the steepest terrain, with many stops. Today, we can climb at 2 miles an hour and generally not have to take a break.

Pace is an important measurement of conditioning. On flat terrain with few rocks and roots, we can now hike three to four miles in an hour. Our pace slows on the steep climbs not just because of ascent, but also the obstacles, like boulders and roofs. Pace is also affected by the breaks we take as well. Breaks for rest, food and bathroom, slow us down. A good day is anything above two miles an hour. This is the average pace for most hikers.

When we do reach the top, it is surprising how quickly the climb efforts are replaced with a sense of accomplishment. And after 6 weeks of climbing on a regular basis, we quickly recover now. At the top we also quickly forget the struggle of the climb, our breath returns to normal and we move to the next segment of the hike. But always grateful for completing the challenge.

While we are glad the first 500 miles, with the big climbs, are behind us, keeping our climbing conditioning is important for the last 500 miles of this journey. New England is the last 500 miles and has steeper climbs than what we have done. As we move through the flatter part of the trail, we know that each climb is important in preparing us for the mountains of New England.

Climbing is a lot like life and faith. True accomplishments aren’t achieved without effort. We have found the more we climb, the easier it is. Not that the climbs aren’t hard, they are. But we have learned how to cope and the exhaustion doesn’t last as long as the joy is sustained. Our lives are like that as well. This will be something we take away from climbing.

So it is with our faith. We pray more out here and we see the work of God more often. We see it the natural beauty and how connected nature is within itself. We see events that at first seem ordinary, turn into faith messages. We have fewer distractions, which helps us be more immersed and observant. Climbing mirrors this, faith requires an investment that is a sustained effort. The more we look for God, the more we see God.

For us it is in the morning prayer we say at the beginning of each day’s hike. As well as the thankful prayers at meals. Also, with the daily struggles that we pray. We receive and see our answers throughout the day.

Climbing is hard but worth the effort. It makes us stronger. We get to see the wonders of God in person from lofty peaks.

We don’t like to climb, but we have to climb if we want to succeed.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

A MEMORIAL TO RONALD SANCHEZ FROM THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL

Late Friday night on the Appalachian Trail, May 10th, Ronald Sanchez was stabbed and died while trying to stave off an attack by a psychologically impaired man. The attacker’s name is unimportant. In the late hours, after a long hiking day, four people were harassed by this not to be named person, eventually leading to Ronald Sanchez’s death and a woman being left critically wounded.

Importantly, Sanchez was a veteran that suffered from PTSD as a result of serving in Iraq. Ronald had decided to hike the trail this year to help cope with PTSD and his ongoing depression. Known on the trail as a shy man, but exceedingly polite. At home in Oklahoma, he was thought of in the same way.

His sister in an interview reflected on her brother and his attempt to recover from the effects of serving in Iraq. He came home and became divorced. Struggling to try to fit in he joined many sports clubs. He rode his bike with a riding club in his hometown. He was a member of the local Dragon boat team. He participated in local events as a way to overcome his natural shyness.

He was fit and strong for the age of 43. He used athletic activities to break out of his shell and recover from PTSD and depression. His sister stated his death was devastating to those back home in Oklahoma. Having survived a number of stints in Iraq, it is ironic that he met his demise in the country he defended.

While much has been written about the events that led up to his death. We feel that it is more important to recognize who he was as a person and to ask for prayers of comfort for his family and the woman wounded with him. The woman, not yet identified, is going to survive, but likely scarred for life, both physically and emotionally.

We are saddened by this gentle person’s death and in our minds struggling with why this had to happen. It doesn’t add up. So we turn to prayer for his family, his soul and the woman. While we would love to do more, this is the best we can do. Perhaps letting others know more about the victim in some way honors his life. Perhaps creating a few more prayers of comfort for his family and the wounded woman.

It has been harder to hike the last few days knowing about these events. We are a little more suspicious about those we meet. We have reviewed our own self-protection plans. We won’t be sleeping outdoors for a while. We will be wearing the letters R and S to honor Ronald.

We know others of this wonderful hiking community feel the same. For the group of thru-hikers of the class of 2019, the hike has changed. It will be forever remembered by the death of Ronald Sanchez.

Our joy of being surrounded by God’s creation lifts our spirits. Our being part of this wonderful community of hikers, who are gracious and giving of themselves, restores our faith in humanity. Particularly over the last few days, all we have met have shown their goodness. Like a man we met whose trail name is, “The Rev”, his gentle spirit is symbolic of whom you meet out here.

It is still hard reconciling how a gentle and kind man, whose goal in hiking this trail was to recover from the effect of serving his country, died. Our hearts are broken for those he left behind and the woman in recovery.

We know we are supposed to pray and ask that others pray for those who were affected by this tragedy.

We ask that those who know about this tragedy, say a prayer for Ronald and the injured woman, in Jesus’s name.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

“For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life and there are few who find it.”

– Matthew 7:14 (NRSV)

TAKING THE NARROW ROAD

In business and in life, it’s the little things that make a difference. Many of us in business do what we think we should do or are asked. For some reason it doesn’t work out as well as we hoped. Inevitably it takes longer and there are a few more things to do. It is in this spot where we have to decide between quality and quantity.  Do we finish our task because time is telling us to move on or do we dig deeper to resolve those nagging feelings? This spot reminds me of a quote by Orson Welles who said, “The enemy of art is time.” It is here  that we have to decide if we are to move on or eliminate obstacles like time. Great art or great business decisions require quality not quantity. How often do we say, “I can’t do any more” and move on? It is this decision that separates greatness from just being good.

The founders of Airbnb were struggling, they were running out of money and homestays were not coming as they had planned. Everything had been thought out. The website was built and the homeowners discovered. A few customers had caught on, but gaining traction at the rate they had hoped wasn’t occurring. It was here that the founders stepped back to figure out why. They decided to step back and talk to many customers and homeowners to identify how they could get better. They stayed in people’s homes and interviewed customers. The founders manned the helped desk to find out more. What they discovered was that a traveler wants more than just a place to stay. They wanted to experience the city where they were staying. In turn the founders expanded their efforts to create a five-star experience in every stay. They made their site easier, became more accommodating to the home owner and began suggesting places to visit when you arrived at your destination. As we all know the  Airbnb business took off. They tried one more thing, they dug deeper into the customer’s needs and discovered another level. They didn’t quit – they stepped back.

“Through just a little more effort we unlock the solutions to our faith and business lives.”

Jesus implores us both in our faith and business lives to work harder, to take the narrow road. Jesus points to a path that is harder than what we want to do. Like a good coach, Jesus is telling us try just a few more things. Pressing on we discover around a turn a deeper level of understanding. Through just a little more effort we unlock the solutions to our faith and business lives. Instead of just being busy, we become successful. Jesus asks us to dig a little deeper and we find a life we desire.

“Jesus suggests we avoid becoming slaves to our to do lists and focus on what counts and worry about quality.”

For many of us, we are pressed for time. Our to do list piles up if we tarry too long on a project. We are besieged by an endless list of tasks. Jesus suggests we avoid becoming slaves to our to do lists and focus on what counts and worry about quality. Jesus wants us to trade off the trivial for the important, to avoid distractions and not stop until we find the answer that settles our souls. Many times, it is around a corner that looks steep and hard. But when we take the time and find it, life becomes revealed and we are for the moment contented. We no longer feel defeated or harried. We have climbed a long hill. To rephrase Orson Welles quote, “The great enemy of art is time.”

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

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.

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

– Matthew 11:29 (NRSV)

FOLLOWING JESUS TO A NEW IDENTITY

My friend Bill, who left the corporate world to help the poor for the Catholic church in the northwest part of the United States, called me in distress. He had left a well-paying job in the corporate world for two years to help those less fortunate. Upon his return he was finding it hard to find a new job. Many interviewers didn’t understand why he left and many were put off by the fact he was sixty. He kept meeting dead ends in all his searching. Confused by doing good and then being rebuffed had created a crisis in his life. He didn’t need the job for money, he just wanted to belong again.

His self-esteem plummeted and he began to feel worthless. His searching kept leading him to disappointment.

Over the next two years, he searched for a place to work. He prayed on a regular basis. He even went away for a week to a retreat center looking for his answer. He wanted desperately to belong again. His self-esteem plummeted and he began to feel worthless. His searching kept leading him to disappointment.

We talked on a weekly basis at an appointed time and during these, I would often probe him about why a job in his old world was so important. He would reply, because it was his identity. For years he had worked hard to provide for his family and built a wonderful resume. But now he had lost that ability.

He kept waiting for Jesus to answer his prayer of finding him a job.

During these two years, Bill would still help others. In fact, he helped a group of Nuns create a shelter for pregnant women. Many days he put in many hours painting and fixing. Within this community he found acceptance. But not what he wanted, he wanted to go back to his old life. Often times I would tell him how much I admired his caring and giving efforts to others. I would relay to him that when I told his story to other people, they became amazed at his giving nature and life. For two years, this wasn’t enough for Bill. He kept searching and not finding. Eventually, he decided to become an EMT, while he waited for a new job. He kept waiting for Jesus to answer his prayer of finding him a job.

Typical of Bill, he was one of the best students. In spite of some physical limitations he was able to stay up with the younger people in his class. He began to thrive. Many times, I would get a text from him, “I can’t talk tonight, I am going out with my classmates.” I was used to this, as many of the people I help, eventually find their answer and move on to their new life. It is a very familiar process. They search and then they find their answer.

Later, in one of our final conversations, Bill relayed to me that he had prayed for an answer many times. But he kept looking in the wrong spots.

Later, in one of our final conversations, Bill relayed to me that he had prayed for an answer many times. But he kept looking in the wrong spots. The answer to what was his identity, didn’t lie in the old spot of the corporate world, but in helping make the world a better place. Jesus had been answering his prayers, he just hadn’t paid attention.

Jesus asks us to take his yoke. Jesus reminds us that he is “gentle and humble of heart,” and that his yoke is light. How many times do we all pray for something that we want, but Jesus gives us something different. A life plan that soothes our soul and gives us meaning. Many times, it is about following a new path and away from the familiar. A path of uncertainty, but on this path, we become guided by a “Gentle and humble heart.”

Bill is peaceful now and I miss our weekly calls. But I am happy that Bill is on path of giving.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman