One of my favorite books of the last decade is Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. I still remember discovering the book sitting on a shelf in a cabin we were visiting in the North Georgia mountains shortly before moving to Laurens. I read a few pages, was intrigued, went home and bought my own copy.
If you have read the book or seen the subsequent movie with the same name then you know it is the story of Bryson’s attempt as an average guy to hike a significant portion of the Appalachian Trail which stretches from Georgia to Maine. At the same time, Bryson is also on a quest as a writer and journalist to learn as much as he can about the history of the trail and the lives of those who have traveled its path over the years.
My favorite character in the book only appears for a few pages in one of the early chapters. His name is Wes Wisson. Wes is not a hiker, but, rather a fellow in the Metro Atlanta area who has created a unique side business for himself. Wes runs a personal shuttle service that picks people up from the Atlanta airport, the closest major airport to the southern start of the trail, and transports them to the trailhead at Springer Mountain in North Georgia.
In the book, as Wes talks about his experiences over the years, some fascinating statistics come out. Each year in the Spring, about 2,000 hikers start the roughly 5 to 8 month journey from North Georgia to Maine in an attempt to complete the entire Appalachian Trail. But, only about 10 percent actually finish. Half of the hikers don’t even make it a third of the way which would be into central Virginia. Twenty five percent don’t event make it to the next state which is North Carolina. And, twenty percent don’t last the first week. When Wes, the shuttle driver, is asked in the book why so many people start the journey but bail out so quickly, he doesn’t hesitate. In essence, he says, they all quit for virtually the same reason. It isn’t what they expected. (I used the website readitforward.com, “A Walk In the Woods” to help quickly summarize this portion of the book.
I believe you can take that interview with Wes Wisson, shuttle drive from the Atlanta Airport to the Appalachian trail, and apply it directly to the Christian life. The Christian life is a journey; it is a long hike. It is not a 5 to 8 month journey but rather a journey that makes up the bulk of most of our lives depending on when we made our profession of faith and began to follow Jesus.
The question for all of us in the end is our willingness and determination to stay on the journey and to keep following the path when things inevitably don’t turn out the way we expected. That is why I love our passage for today so much. It is the story of two of Jesus’ followers, one named Cleopas and the other an unnamed follower who is likely either Cleopas’ spouse or friend. They are in a hard place. It is Easter Sunday afternoon and they have witnessed Jesus’ death three days before. They don’t know what’s next. Their life is full of grief. Yet, while the 11 remaining disciples apparently lock themselves up behind closed doors, these two followers walk. And, as they put one foot in front of the other, Jesus appears and begins to walk with them. As you well know, by the end of the story, their sadness has turned to joy, their uncertainty has turned to hope, their purpose is rediscovered and they march back to Jerusalem to share the good news of Jesus’ aliveness.
When I read this, I can’t help but think of Isaiah 40:31, “but those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.”
Those who trust in the Lord keep the faith, continue to walk, no matter what.
I don’t know if you have every thought about it, but, there a lot of symbols of Christianity that we all resonate with and immediately connect to the life of faith. Of course, at the top of the list is the cross and the empty tomb. These are the ultimate signs of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But, there is also the shepherd’s staff; the Lord as our shepherd. The manager; a reminder of Jesus’ humble birth. The fish; a reminder of the feeding of the 5,000 and our call to be fishers of men. The cross and crown and cross and globe; reminders of a savior who is a crucified King and Christ for the world. And of course today we have celebrated the symbol of water; the cleansing of our sins and the mark of our baptism. And, on and on the list goes.
But for me, another, often overlooked is that the outline of a foot. For some, this reminds them of the old footprint poem. For me, it is the symbol of the life of faith as a journey, the call to keep walking, to keep putting one foot in front of the other in trust and obedience, no matter what, even when things are not turning out as we expected.
For if we keep walking, as on the Road to Emmaus, the good Lord will eventually join us and we will find the capacity to run and not grow weary. And, if we keep walking, we like the two on the Road to Emmaus will find ourselves in those profound moments with God where suddenly our walking turns into soaring like eagles in the midst of the power of resurrection. It will happen, but, we must keep to the path and resist the temptation to sit down or to quit and go home.
And so I say to you for the last time, after 9 years, keep walking and keep trusting that the Lord is with you even when you don’t recognize him. Have the courage to believe that soon and very soon our walking will again turn to running and in those glorious moments lead to soaring like eagles. Amen and Amen.