This past week I had the pleasure of transitioning from writing a bit about what it means to be "a voice calling out in the wilderness" to finding myself in the midst of an always awe-inspiring wilderness with 15 other very human voices, and one other Voice that spoke more quietly but no less powerfully, and in whom we "live and move and have our being." (Acts 17:28).
Each year about this time my friend Jerry and I take a group of young people (and usually a couple of others a little older) backpacking for about 5 days through the Sierras -- starting in Tuolumne Meadows, and making our way to Yosemite Valley, covering somewhere between 24 and 32 miles (depending on whether or not you count a side trip to the top of Half-Dome and back).
While the experience of backpacking through Yosemite National Park is rich and rewarding in its own right, one of the things that distinguishes this trip from other backpacking trips is that the backpacking itself is actually secondary to the purpose of the trip.
Instead of seeing how much ground we can cover in as short a time as possible, we limit our mileage most days to about 5 miles or so, and try to keep the trip from feeling too pushed or rushed. This means that we usually arrive at our next campsite shortly after lunch, leaving lots of "down time" to actually enjoy where we are as well as the people we are with.
On some days, we stop along the way for about an hour, set our packs aside, and enjoy some quiet alone time with God (which provides an opportunity to read, reflect, journal, pray, or just be still and listen).
Each evening we gather together to talk about the day, sharing the kinds of things that surfaced for us during our quiet times or in the midst of the other things we noticed along the way. Over the years I have increasingly come to appreciate the way that God speaks both through the quiet reflective moments when alone, and through listening to what others have to share.
Some of the things I heard this week as I listened to this particular configuration of voices were:
We are not human doings, we are human beings -- loved and created in God's image. We often feel alone, but it is not because we are not surrounded by God's presence, or even the willingness of others to be in relationship with us, but often rather because of our own distractedness and drivenness which tends to isolate us from others, or at least keep our encounters fairly superficial.
Amazement that for one week we lived with only what we could carry with us, and not only did we survive, we experienced a sense of satisfaction and joy. Accumulating, possessing, managing and craving more "stuff" seemed to somehow have faded into the background, and it felt good to have it there.
We got to know people we did not know well, or perhaps even at all, and discovered that we really liked them and enjoyed being together.
We noticed how quickly we developed a sense of community and connection with other backpackers that we met along the way. We discovered that, regardless of what country we came from, our age, or any number of factors that might distinguish us or make us somehow different from each other, because we shared the same experience and were committed to the same kind of journey, that we had much to talk about and share . . . and we did so with surprising energy and eagerness, often walking away encouraged and inspired from our encounters.
We discovered the sense of satisfaction that comes from sharing a little water with those we met who had run out, or giving directions to those who were traveling but were unsure of their direction or the trail they were on. Sharing with someone about how to get to a place where we had been, and learning from them about where we were going was both helpful and meaningful.
Perhaps, most importantly, we discovered that, if we were willing to be intentional about paying attention, there is a larger, quieter, gentler, more powerful Voice that speaks in the background and sometimes through so many of the other voices that too often we miss when we are in other settings . . . A Voice that goes way beyond conveying information to something more like deepening an awareness.
And finally we heard from each other a sense of longing for the voices, and the Voice not to be stilled, drowned out, minimized or quieted when we returned to the patterns of life that are saturated with many other voices speaking with other intents and agendas.