Bears, Snakes, and Ticks; Oh My!

We are finally deep in the Shenandoah’s. A long-awaited visit to what many say is the prettiest part of the Appalachian Trail. The long stretch of Virginia is almost done. A place we will miss, with Its wild ponies, fields filled with cattle, it’s a lush green canopy and majestic views from places like Mcafee’s knob. On we march towards more of God’s grandeur and places, we have lived.

The wildlife we see surprises us every day. We see hawks soaring along the ridges. We pass by deer grazing in the woods. But we always alert for black bears, snakes, and ticks. They are the worrisome companions on the trail.

We have not seen any bears. We have heard then in the dark underbrush when we walked past. Black bears snort when they are startled, which is the sound we heard. It is distinctive and loud when they snort. Our good friend Mike encountered one while walking in Tennessee. He came around a corner and surprised a black bear just 10 yards away. He stopped and backed up slowly. The bear-sized him up and ran off. Another person we met, had his food bag opened up in the middle of the night, forcing him to break camp and walk 12 miles to Damascus in the dark. The bear meant no harm, just wanted his food.

Black bears are very shy and generally run away at the sight of humans. Attacks are very rare, about once a year in all of North America. Most of the attacks occur in northern Canada or in Alaska. Most of the human and bear interactions occur because of bears looking for food at campsites late at night. To prevent these hikers hang their food bag in a tree that has a branch 20 feet off the ground and 4 feet away from the trunk. It is quite a sight watching the hikers throw a rock with a rope attached to create the line necessary to hang the food bag. Everything that is food, used food wrappers and even toothpaste goes in the bag. Bears have a very strong sense of smell and are attracted to these smells. Apparently, they love chocolate! Doing food bag hanging prevents bears from stealing food and becoming habituated to human food. Bears that become habituated can become pests and sometimes dangerous.

While we haven’t seen a bear out here, surprisingly we have seen many while living in Asheville.  One morning while walking to Starbucks near downtown, I saw a bear wandering the streets. He spotted me after I saw him first, which made him quickly turn around and disappear. We often see bears while we are driving and have seen them playing in our backyard.

While bears are shy, they sometimes will stand their ground. In those cases, we have been given directions by the forest service as to what to do. First, do not run away, but back away slowly. If you are with a group, stand together, as bears have very poor eyesight and the group will appear larger. If alone, make yourself look bigger, raise your arms while slowly backing away.  There has only been 1 bear attack on the Appalachian Trail, but plenty of encounters. Our friend Steve, a former thru-hiker, says that he saw a dozen or so during his hike, but never was able to take a picture because they ran away to fast.

By not practicing safe food storage, hikers actually do harm to the bears. As they get used to finding food, they become habituated to human food. Making them more comfortable around hikers. In turn more aggressive and potentially having them being relocated or worse, destroyed.

Snakes pose a bigger problem, as most days we see one. They usually are sunning themselves on the trail and can be hard to spot amongst the branches on the trail. The most common snake we see is the common Garter snake. But we have had to walk around a couple of Rattlesnakes. Generally, they remain docile if we don’t approach to close and give them a wide berth. There are also Copperheads as well. They are less common and are principally found in the south. Being careful with snakes is important because we often see them miles from a road and getting bit would create a delay in getting proper medical treatment. Most encounters by us and fellow hikers are uneventful, as the snakes will only attack if they feel threatened. We always walk with our head down, helping us look for them, so as not to step on or scare the snake.

Ticks are the biggest problem for hikers, especially the further north we hike. It is inevitable that one will land on a hiker. So it is important to get them off quickly and coat clothing will a bug repellent called Permethrin. Each night we inspect ourselves for ticks. The ticks can carry Lyme disease and if not properly treated can cause serious medical problems. If you ask the hikers, this is their biggest fear. Statistically, ticks are the biggest threat, not bears or snakes.

Surprisingly, we crossed paths with a young male deer. The deer wasn’t alarmed at seeing us and stayed on the trail eating leaves. Despite our protestations, the deer wouldn’t move. No amount of noise could change his mind. After fifteen minutes or so, I carefully walked around him, closely followed by Connie. The deer, kept a close eye on us as we walked by, but showed no fear or anxiety. Later, I researched this behavior and found that with male deers this is not that uncommon. Hmmm, a new discovery found on a rainy day in Virginia.

We enjoy seeing wildlife. We have seen a Snapping Turtle surprisingly far from water. It bravely stuck its head out as we approached and was clearly not going to move. After a moment or two of looking at it, we walked safely around, wondering how and why it was at three thousand feet above sea level and far from water. We have seen a baby fawn with a broken front leg stumbling, leaving us sad and with no way to help. Later, we told a park employee of the situation and the exact location, hoping they could help.

Every day is filled with birds singing and whistling. A symphony of sounds filling the air. The chirping is ever present. Sometimes when we whistle, we think they whistle back.

There are always bugs that crawl and fly. The flying bugs sometimes bite, leaving us every day with a few welts. As time has moved on they become less annoying, as we have become resigned to their presence. We have bug nets when they get too bad. But we have gotten used to these unwanted guests.

Almost every day we see animals out here, we try to avoid disturbing them. Our only intent is to see and enjoy. It is their world we are visiting, we are guests. They add to our joy and the lessons we learn.

 

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

The Appalachian Trail by the Numbers

There are some very interesting and amazing facts about the Appalachian trail. The trail was completed in 1938 and is considered America’s original long trail. Myron Avery was the principal driving force in its completion. His vision for the trail was for people to have access to a wilderness hike and to visit the many towns on its route. Today three million people walk on the trail each year; day hikers represent the largest group, section hikers who stay out for a couple of days to a couple of weeks are the next largest group, the smallest group are the 4 thousand who attempt a thru-hike and only one thousand or so complete the hike each year.

Each day the average thru-hiker completes more than a half marathon and climbs the equivalent of the Empire State Building, two to three times.

The trail is twenty-two hundred miles long. Totally climbing over its length is equivalent to submitting Mount Everest sixteen times or climbing a total of 87 miles. Every day climbs are the focal point. We try to schedule meals, rest and water breaks around the climbs. It is always best to climb early or when you have momentum. Climbing after a rest is hard, as lactic acid has settled in, creating lethargy.

The average time it takes to complete the hike is 165 days. We are on a 180-day schedule. Driving this average down are the elite hikers, who will complete the trek in under 120 days.

The average age of a thru-hiker is 27. Only one percent of people who thru-hike are over 65. By now we see less and less older hikers. When we stay at hostels it is very rare to see anyone our age. Plus most people we meet now are thin.

The highest point on the trail is Clingmans Dome in the Great Smokies at 6,643 feet. The lowest point is in New York State at 124 feet. From North Carolina to New England, it is rare to be above 4,000 feet. New England’s mountains are not as high as those in North Carolina, but because of the weather is far more challenging. On average, the tree line in New England is around 4,000 feet. Both Maine and New Hampshire have a number of peaks that are above the tree level line. In fact, New Hampshire has a stretch of above treeline hiking that is 13 miles long. Exposure to weather above the tree line is dangerous and the trail is very rocky.

The trail is maintained by 31 volunteer organizations, who put in 10,000 days of work every year. Without these volunteers, the trail wouldn’t exist. All of us that are hiking always make it a point to say thank you to any and all volunteers.

The trail is well marked and contains 165,000 2 inch by 6 inch white blazes painted on trees, rocks and road signs. Because of this, we don’t need a compass. The white blazes are painted so that you should always be able to see one. We have gotten lost twice, in both cases we figured it out quickly and after we backtracked we saw it was our mistake. We try to look for a white blaze frequently so that when we don’t see one, we check our map.

The average hiker burns 5,500 calories a day. Staying fueled is hard and requires a lot of thought. Each hiker develops their own unique system to eat. However, the average hiker still loses 30 pounds in 6 months. A thru-hiker goes through 4-5 pairs of shoes. We are on our second pair. Rocks do the most damage. Plus most hikers gain a size or two. My feet have gone from a size 10 to almost 12.

The trail crosses a road on average every four miles and shelters are placed on average every 8 miles apart. We are never far away from civilization. Plus there are almost always parking areas on the bigger roads. Allowing for day hikes and not having to camp out. You can hike most of the trail by just doing day hikes.

Only 25% of thru-hikers complete hiking in all 14 states in any year. More than half drop out in the first 500 miles. Those that make it to Damascus, Virginia (mile 470) have a 50 percent chance of completion. Those that do drop out after Damascus, drop because they experienced what they came to the trail to find. Some drop out because they ran out of money. Others get mentally tired of the monotony of hiking 15-20 miles every day. The people who drop out before Damascus are usually injuries or find that the hike wasn’t what they were looking for.

We are now in the Shenandoah’s and looking ahead to finishing Virginia. Ahead of us lies bigger towns than the ones we visited in the south. For us, this means more familiar places, near where have lived or visited.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

“So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

— Genesis 1:27

IMAGO DEI

George  was raised in a wealthy home and went to Harvard. Instead of studying economics or business, he pursued a path of social advocacy. He eventually graduated with a master’s in Social Work. From there, with his wife, he started an organization called Street Squash, a program that provided inner city youth with access to college. The sport of squash was used to add an advantageous credit for the young people when applying to college, but it was not the primary focus of Street Squash. The students were provided with a place to go after school and study. They had tutors and visited college campuses. The goal was to create access for a segment of our population that needed a head start. George could have been a great investment banker, but chose instead a life of helping.

From his kitchen table George built an organization that has sent thousands of youth to college. And he has helped in the establishment of fourteen other programs throughout the country.   The graduation rate of students from these programs is substantially higher than national statistics. The youth from Street Squash achieve an almost 90 percent graduation rate. Without Street Squash, their chances were 15 percent. George only sees goals. He only sees that the youth are people. He knew that squash gave the students athletic content for their college résumés, and he knew Squash would help him with fund-raising.

“George reflects the Imago Dei, and his life focus is on helping, not labeling.”

Today’s verse comes from the book of Genesis and reflects the earliest statement from God on how humankind is viewed. We are all made in the image of God. Theologians call this Imago Dei. In today’s world of labeling from all corners,  people like George gets lost in the din of noise about racism, liberalism, conservatism, misogyny, and all the other labels we use to describe one another. Our news media encourages labeling because it increases viewership, which in turn increases revenue. All at the expense of the imago Dei. I know George and wish he was better known by others. George reflects the imago Dei, and his life focus is on helping, not labeling.

“There are no differences or labels from one to another when we think of people as images of God.”

In this time of great divide between all the various factions, it is important for us to reflect on what God means with the image of God. There are no differences or labels from one to another when we think of people as images of God. When we label, we diminish the intent of God. The solution to this great divide is turning back to God’s original intent and away from the commercialization of labels.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

How do we see people when we first meet them?

What does the imago Dei look like?

How do we feel when we are labeled?

“So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!

(2nd Corinthians 5:17 NRSV)

LEAVING THE PAST BEHIND

A client of mine had a very personal self-inflicted catastrophe. After living a life that was driven to pursue power, money and fame, he took a step too far. As he achieved more and more, he began to cut corners in all aspects of his life. He began to see his friends and family as a way to get what he wanted and ignored their human value. He had become trapped in the lure of power and took the fateful step that went to far. Exposed by sin as an impostor, he began the process of re-evaluating his life and began the long road back. He turned to Jesus and accepted the yoke of being born again.

He changed his priorities. He began to work to provide for his family and not for himself. He re-entered the church and began to be a person of service. He relearned the values of “loving his neighbor.” He came home to be with his family and avoided late night meetings. With these changes he received forgiveness from those close to him. While the climb back was hard and uneven, he persisted and stay riveted on the values of Jesus. In our meetings, I noticed he had one hard step left to climb, he had to forgive himself.

“The Apostle Paul tells us that when we fully turn to a life with Jesus we become a new person or creation.”

In today’s verse attributed the Apostle Paul, we see the term new creation. The Apostle Paul tells us that when we fully turn to a life with Jesus we become a new person or creation. Our priorities change and we change. Life is new. It is not that we don’t have to pay for the consequences of our past, but the past no longer defines who we are. When we reconcile with God and our neighbor, we are forgiven. However, the hardest person to forgive for our past is ourselves. We drift back and fall into despair when we think about our past. We question who we are and become embarrassed at what we have done. We can’t release ourselves from our past.

“It is in the present, as a new creation with the Lord, that Jesus wants us to reside.”

For my client his hardest critic was himself. He tried to over achieve in his new life to escape his past. Every error in judgement brought on harsh self-criticism. He couldn’t forgive himself and tried to outrun his past. He over helped and over apologized. He hadn’t released himself, in spite of the renewed acceptance from friends, family and Jesus. He couldn’t move away from the regret of his past and his recovery wasn’t complete. Each journey he took to review his past brought horror and self-loathing. Eventually, he believed the words of Paul and moved forward. Eventually, he accepted the love of his family, friends and Jesus. Eventually he stopped judging himself based on the past and looked to the present. It is in the present, as a new creation with the Lord, that Jesus wants us to reside.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Life Beyond the Trail

We are in the middle of Virginia, the longest state on the Appalachian Trail, covering 550 miles or a quarter of what thru-hikers have to walk. Gone are 6,000-foot peaks, replaced by many miles of relatively flat terrain of walking on ridges. While there are still peaks and challenges like the famed “roller coaster,” the mountains of Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee” are gone. The miles go by quickly now. Our legs are stronger and the terrain is easier.

By now we have noticed that walking the Appalachian Trail is a very different life. It’s greatest hurdle, besides injuries and illness, is getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. And getting used to not having the things of life that create a softer existence. Starbucks isn’t just a short walk away. The lure of TV and games on our electronic devices disappear, replaced by being in the wilderness. A soft warm bed is replaced by sleeping away from home.

Gone are those things that move us away from what our ancestors did on a daily basis. It wasn’t uncommon a few centuries ago to walk twenty miles in a day. The process of getting food wasn’t a visit to a supermarket but could take up an entire day. Simple things we obtain so easily off the trail require much more thought when you are between the lines of the Appalachian Trail.

Modern life offers a life of being comfortable. Seductively luring us into gravitating to the comfortable. We have our routines and not all routines are productive but comfortable. A far cry from setting up camp, making sure everything we need is in our backpacks. Or planning closely a hike that can stretch to fifteen or twenty miles. Thinking through the best source of water for the day. Almost every act between the lines of this trail requires intentional and purposeful thought.

But is also about how we treat others. Everyone we meet out here has a story. They come from many places and each person is special. Not just geographically, but in their life journey. We have miles to walk and taking this time requires effort. So what if we are 15 minutes later than our plan. It’s one of the habits we have to break. Perhaps it’s helping a young woman getting a shuttle to make a plane flight. Perhaps it’s helping a person find water. Perhaps it’s catching up with a person we haven’t seen for a while. There are a lot of warm “hello’s.” These intentional acts of being genuinely hospitable are what we want to bring back. We see the goodness of humanity out here and desire to bring that back outside the lines of the trail.

We know people in our lives that don’t have to hike the Appalachian Trail to learn this lesson. They are both self-motivated and driven by the circumstances of life to lead this life. Whether it’s Geoff and Bern, who both have demanding careers. Or Cathy and David, who are putting children through school and working hard for retirement. Or Lou, who runs three churches and is the Chaplain for multiple first responders. All of our children have lives that require them to get up at dawn and not rest until the evening.

Being purposeful is hard. On the trail, it is easier because you have no choice. There is no escalator to climb a hill or car to drives the miles you need to go.

Out here we have to make a plan and then do it. Halfway through our day, we don’t get the chance to say that’s enough. We have to move on to our endpoint. Obstacles pop every day, but we have to keep moving and they are overcome.

We have to have a constant eye on the weather, this might mean we have to quicken our pace to get away from a thunderstorm or on a sunny day enjoy a moment of the blissful beauty of nature. Every day we have choices and decisions to make.

Of all the things we have learned to this point, this is one of the major points. We debate how and what does this mean when we return to our normal lives? Can we fight off the distractions of a life outside the lines of the trail and stay purposeful?

We discuss this as we walk to create a life plan that makes life more purposeful. We will read about how others have made this transition. For us these discussions will involve items like; being more committed to our faith and neighbors,  figuring out how to be closer to our families and friends, and doing those meaningful things that give us and others joy.

This may mean we never have a house we call home but learning how to call wherever we are home. For me, it means continuing my work of helping others with their faith and daily lives. It also means being more committed to helping great organizations like TMF and UMDF. It means being more selective and deeper in what we work on and not spreading ourselves so thin we can’t really make a lasting impact.

It will mean doing good in all that we can. Avoiding those influences that will create negativity in our lives. With the rawness of walking this trail, we see the importance of this mindset. It is simple out here because you have no other choice.

We know we are so very blessed in our lives; we have both sets of parents in our lives, 4 children, 3 grandchildren, 23 nieces and nephews, 18 brothers and sisters with their spouses, and more friends than we could have hoped for. Focusing on our friends and family is part of living a more intentional life.

Making this all work in a meaningful way is our goal. It’s what we have been learning these last nine weeks. While always remembering, God has been good to us.

Our journey between the lines of the Appalachian Trail has changed from being about the numbers and miles to experiences and smiles. No longer caught up with those things of life that are unimportant.

The journey is what matters.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

“My Father is still working, and I am also working.”

– John 5:17 (NRSV)/p>

THE CEREAL TYCOON

Henry Parsons Crowell, was the founder of Quaker Oats. He lost a lot in the early part of his life. His father died at thirty-six of Tuberculosis. He himself nearly died from the same disease. He wasn’t able to get a high school diploma, because of his father’s death. His first wife died after two and a half years. The first part of his life was hard. By 1885 he had started to have some success in business and bought a company called Quaker Oats. He made one small change to the company. Instead of selling his cereal in large barrels, he introduced the smaller containers we are familiar with today. Soon Quaker Oats became available in grocery stores throughout the country. During the depression of 1893, it served as a staple for many American families.

“If my life can be lived so as to please Him in every way, I’ll be supremely happy”

Soon after, Henry remarried and began to use his faith life to help others. He introduced God into the business world and others tycoons, such as John Rockefeller. He and his wife would travel the country, contributing to many organizations. In some years he would donate to  one-hundred organizations. He is famously quoted as saying, “If my life can be lived so as to please Him in every way, I’ll be supremely happy”. In the last years of his life, Henry was constantly working for the Lord.

“Every action, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, that helps God and humankind is in concert with God.”

Jesus makes a statement about working for God. The back story to the verse is that he has just healed a person on the Sabbath. The religious elite complained mightily and tried to use this activity against Jesus. Jesus’s reply speaks directly to our Christian behavior. He extends our work for God to Sunday. We have our work lives, that we use to pay our bills. From that we should have a Sabbath.  We also have the work of the Lord, which never ceases. Every action, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, that helps God and humankind is in concert with God. We need our rest and we should take it, but not be wedded to legalism, but to the spirit of God.

Henry Crowell died in 1948. He left a large trust. The trustees of this trust have a clear directive, “To carry out the Mr. Crowell’s wishes to honor the Lord who he loved and served during his life on this earth.” Over the years the trustees have kept this wish alive. Each year they issue close to one-hundred and fifty grants, totaling millions of dollars. Well past his death he is still working for the Lord. He was dubbed the Cereal tycoon. A life of riches created by one small change to his business. But also a life that worked endlessly for “the Lord he loved.”

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

“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

“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