As a young boy, my grandmother would often tell me, with her full blown mid-western Michigan accent “pick up your feet.” I would often turn around, look at her, my face becoming flush with embarrassment that I did not in fact “pick up my feet.” It was such stupid advice, common sense. A person cannot walk unless they pick up their feet. I am not sure if I was a lazy walker, wore shoes too big, or as many children was just prone to not watching where I was going, but my grandmother was correct on more than one occasion. I had stumbled many times, in her presence or otherwise, and the stupid, easy, solution to avoid it in the future was “picking up my feet.”
There is nothing like the wisdom of grandparents, and nothing like their passing, and our aging, to make us appreciate their words. Now, at 38 years old, I hear her words echo in my heart, “Nathan, pick up your feet.”
Back then, she was concerned about my physical well-being; today, her words dig a little deeper.
This week, I found myself as many of you have at least once in your life, on a narrow walking trail. It was one of those windy, bumpy, spider web riddled trails that tempt you to question why you made the walk in the first place. I have been on many of these trails, no more than 1-2 feet across, weeds infringing on the path, trees toppled over as their large root systems leave a gaping hole where the path once was. I used to walk them with my grandfather and father. I have walked them with friends. This one, I was walking alone.
This was a new path (here’s an analogy we can all sermonize over), one traveled by many but never by me. I decided to follow this trail because I needed to listen. I am not sure what I was listening for, but I needed to listen.
The path is on the property of a retreat center, a place where intentional space is crafted and fostered in order to provide the silence one needs to hear God. One of the mottos here is: Here God is in the Silence; Hear God in the Silence. The retreat space is replete with holy reminders of an All-Other that seeks to speak to us if we can be still and silent enough to listen. I had suspected earlier in the day that my soul was ready to listen, but I did not expect all I would hear.
I made my way upon the entrance to the path, and followed a steep trail down worn out wooden steps, over rotting supports that provided steps in the dirt, and through bridges slowly deteriorating. The dirt on the path was smooth and soft beneath my feet once I made it to the bottom. It was a rich, dark, top soil, that had been pressed down as smooth as pavement, and giving off a wet, earthy, mossy smell. At one point, I stopped to notice an earthworm that was crawling across the moist earth.
As the trail progressed, I came to a flat bottom just a few feet from the river. The sun was piercing the canopy of the trees, a butterfly had flown across my path, and I could hear birds sing their choruses in the swaying branches. I was almost entranced by the natural beauty of the forest, allowing myself to be lost in its system of life, until my foot hit a familiar obstacle: a root. I noticed that on this part of the trail the path was riddled with roots. With each intentional step, it seemed I had to play hopscotch with the forest root system. Some were large, some small, and some multiple, but none of them were going to move on account of me.
Suddenly I heard my grandmother say, “Nathan, pick up your feet.” A smile came over my countenance. There, in the woods, I stopped. I began to listen.
I heard a still small voice say, “In life, we can be so attentive to the good things of the world, of creation, the good things we are doing, that we can still stumble, even on a path clearly worn and already traveled…a path left for us to follow.”
Roots may be a fact of forest trail exploring but sometimes we wish we could curse them the way Jesus does the fig tree that refused him lunch. The last thing we need is harmless forest foliage to deter our progress.
I was on this trail being intentional about taking in EVERYTHING around me, not wanting to miss the voice of God, but I still had to watch where I was walking! Stumbling along the path of life can happen even as we engage in good things. The lesson was this: never take your eyes off the path, even when you have your eyes rightly on other tasks. There is a destination calling to all of us, but even as we are doing our best to get there, we can still stumble along the journey and prolong our final arrival. There could be a pesky root, sticking up in a well-worn path, waiting to break your toe even as you think you are making a full stride.
The smoothest of trails and most beautiful scenery can still be filled with silent treachery.
After having my moment, my theophany of the root, and I began to press on, thankful that I had allowed myself to be attentive. The path eventually began to wind back up the hill and along-side a small waterfall. I had made my way through the flat surface and its occasional roots without scuffing my shoes or tripping over myself. Now, as I made my way up a small ravine, the roots were larger and more damaging to the path ahead. Some of the path was clearly not a path at all. It was more a less a used to be, washed out path, that was now a hazard for elementary age school children.
I pressed on through the lost trail and noticed something different about the roots.
In the first half of the trail, the roots were hazardous. The roots were rises in the smooth path that led down a steep ravine and through a flat forest bottom. Those roots could have caused me to stumble, fall, and perhaps ruin my best pair of jeans (or worse). But then as I began to walk back up an opposite side of the hill, I noticed I was using the roots as steps. The roots here were still roots; they were still hard objects, jutting out from beneath the soil, but their incidental function was different. These roots were not hazards; these roots were helpers. The path, being severely washed out in places, didn’t have formerly man-made steps, but it did have roots that would become steps. There very things that could have once caused me harm, were now helping me get to my destination. Hegel would call these roots dialectical; I’ll just call them paradoxical grace.
Roots became helpers, coming along side me on the path, acting as stepping stones. These roots allowed me to move forward along the path.
Just two weeks ago, I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church. This was an unanticipated transition for me even a few short months ago, but in January, at the very strong leading of the Holy Spirit, I felt compelled to enter this new path. I was raised in the Nazarene Church, and therefore come from a low church evangelical background. I was dedicated, raised, baptized, educated, and ordained in the Nazarene Church. My roots run deep.
At the pre-confirmation meeting, the Bishop of East Tennessee met with all future confirmands and blessed our presence in this new congregation. He noted that many of us, including himself, come from other rooms in the house of faith. He equally noted, however, that something had brought us all together and was about to make us a part of a deep Anglican tradition: another strong root system. But before we would join, he said, we need to acknowledge and bless your roots wherever and whatever they are. The roots from which you came matter because they had provided grounding heretofore in our lives and they would further function as the foundation upon which this new Anglican tradition would be grafted.
In other words: roots can become obstacles, but they can also provide support for the journey ahead.
At times we may want to curse our roots, or a root system, that would just assume have us fall as have us arrive. At other times, though, we would be stuck in the bottom of some of life’s deepest ravines without the steps provided by our roots.
Roots are powerful extensions of beauty that simultaneously have the power to give life and the power to make a once well-worn path a travel hazard. Where there are deep, muscular roots, prying open a sidewalk or pressing through a forest trail, one is acutely aware that these roots are what they are because they have survived and thrived. By extension, so too has the tree connected with them.
This week, I was walking along a forest trail, uncertain of what I would find or what I would hear. I was trusting that God was here in the silence and that I would hear God in silence. I discovered that the path upon which I stood didn’t just lead me beneath a beautiful forest canopy and through the playground of cardinals and squirrels, but it was indicative of the path upon which I now travel, a path that I will only be able to walk because of my roots.
Thanks be to God. Amen.