REFLECTIONS ON A NEW ZEALAND TREK
A METAPHOR FOR MINISTRY
By Kathi Austin Mahle
UNITED THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
UNITED METHODIST WORSHIP
APRIL 21, 2017
As I opened the Banner, the quarterly publication of St. John’s Abbey, the beautiful picture of a sun-drenched scene and the words from Sirach 42:22 leapt out.
“How beautiful are all God’s works,
delightful to gaze upon and a joy to behold”
Immediately I was transported back to the beauty of the landscapes of the south island of New Zealand! From mountains and waterfalls, lakes and towering glaciers to lush rainforests with a multitude of ferns, and pastures filled with sheep, God’s works filled us with awe and joy! Just three weeks ago Thursday we completed the Milford Sound Track– a 33.5-mile backpacking trek over five days. We traversed through rainforests by rushing rivers and carved-out lakes, over a misty, cloud-shrouded, windblown mountain pass and down the steep, rock-filled other side, ending with a ½ marathon distance hike and a magnificent cruise on the Milford Sound the final day.
This trek was by far the hardest physical thing I have ever done in my life! (Of course at 72 I am not as agile as I once was!)
I had lots of time to think during those five days – wondering if I would make it or succumb right there in the wilderness of New Zealand! But, my body worked ok although slow, and my spirit stayed energized. I am reminded of a chant on a disc I have – “make sacred space and be reminded of who you are – spirit and body.” Truly this was a time of making sacred space and claiming who I was – both spirit and body!
I received Dr. Subramanian’s request to preach when I got home. I decided that this experience was really a great metaphor for ministry. So here goes. Basically gentle, lush green at first, the trek was much like living into the call to ministry and then preparing theologically in seminary – becoming grounded biblically, exploring new avenues of theological interpretation and ways to view the world, and developing spiritual practices in the Wesleyan tradition. Then the trek became increasingly challenging: like the ups and downs of ministry - long parts of fairly flat terrain, then encountering surprises both good and bad along the way and finally finding joy and peace gliding serenely on Milford Sound as it stretches out to the Tasman Sea.
The specifics: Day 1 and 2
Starting out with the easier walking through a lush river valley and enjoying the diversity of creation from the grandeur of great waterfalls to the minute marshy lowland plants all seemed new and exciting. Becoming acquainted with fellow journeyers and learning the routine of the trek is much like ministry in the first years: a time of discovery and challenge – being open to the new things that come along; celebrating the diversity of people on the journey in each new congregation and setting. Learning the ropes of ministry and discovering that I didn’t have all the answers to the hard questions of parishioners and especially confirmands! I learned that people seldom did things as I expected or wanted, but that was ok once I realized that the Holy Spirit was working in their lives as well. Learning the craft of ministry including preaching, the rhythms of ministry and of the liturgical year. During this part of the journey I also learned that I was not alone – as I developed close relationships with colleagues and mentors and discovered new ways of doing ministry to fit the context. I also learned that God was an ever-present companion on the journey as I was stretched and tugged and dared to risk! (Like crossing the many suspension bridges along the Trek)
The assurance of Jeremiah 29.11 has been in the background of my ministry journey: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope!” This verse or a paraphrase keeps me going!
After that very long Day 2 10 mile walk, and each day after, respite came in arriving at an inviting lodge every night, with luscious warm food (already prepared), a glass of wine to relax aching muscles along with a wonderfully warm shower and a good night’s rest on great beds. In ministry we need times of respite. We need to care for ourselves and take time out to renew: each day, regular retreat times, vacation times. We need time to exercise and strengthen the body for the journey. Times to be by ourselvs with God, and times to be with family and friends. We can’t keep going without feeding our souls and our bodies.
This was absolutely the hardest. Up over a mountain pass shrouded in cloudy mist and then down the other side. We are on a journey.
The journey metaphor is not a casual one. It’s an ancient and biblical one. The life of faith is indeed a journey. All journeys have difficult stretches. Skies become dark, the landscape bleak and barren and rocky. We come across new and challenging circumstances that we can’t avoid or control. We never know what lies around the next bend. We take a break for lunch in a warm shelter and then go on. And we wonder if it is worth it or if we are on the right path. Sometimes we can’t really know.
At times ministry is easy and fun, but sometimes it is really, really hard! We encounter situations with families, unexpected death, conflict within the congregation while maybe at the same time you are dealing with hard times in your own family and you think you just can’t cope. We are tired and worn out. We are depressed.
And then the clouds lifted and we were confronted with a clear blue sky and wonderful mountain vistas and stunningly white glaciers. So, too, in ministry we are gifted with insight or a clarifying, supportive word from fellow journeyer and the scene changes and we trudge on down the mountain knowing God is with us!
At some point on this journey, I asked God for a sign – a sign to let me know I was not alone on this ordeal! (which it was by this time!) The sign came in the form of wonderfully enchanting birdcalls. Whenever I needed encouragement, I listened for those wonderful birds calling back and forth – throughout the 33-mile trek. Then at some point climbing up the mountain trail, I realized the birdcalls had stopped. Had God abandoned me? I looked around. We were in alpine terrain! No songbirds could survive up here! I looked down and in this mid-fall time, there were alpine plants still blooming with little white flowers. My heart felt full! Here was another symbol of God’s creative persistent presence!
In this faith journeying in ministry, we need to pay attention to where God shows up. Because God/Jesus/Holy Spirit/Sophia or whatever name we use for the Holy One, does show up in amazingly wonderful ways. Sometimes it is meeting a stranger walking down the street or in the presence of a person who interrupts your well-planned work-day.
Or God shows up in the person who walks/hikes/treks with you, encouraging you. On this very difficult third day, it was my husband Steve, who in almost all – no all – of our 50 years of marriage – never stayed with me on hikes. He was always way ahead of me. He would wait until I caught up and then off he would go again. But not on this trip. He was my encourager, my companion, and my picker up, when I slipped or stumbled with my short legs over those really big rocks! We all need one or two or three people we can count on – whether it be a partner or dear friend or spiritual guide or colleagues who accompany us, most especially during the very hard parts of our ministry journey.
The longest day in miles – 13.5 – ½ a marathon. As the path was basically down hill and relatively flat, I had a chance to note in more detail the rainforest surroundings – identifying good hiding places for the Hobbits since this was their territory after all. But we also were hiking with a group of people who hiked at our speed. We had opportunities to listen to their stories and continue previous conversations while at the same time supporting each other on the trek. Ministry is first and foremost relational and hearing stories are gifts of grace.
I also noted the roots underfoot that needed negotiating. They reminded me of the boundary water portages and then of Rev. Clem Peterson, a mentor in my first appointment. Coming back from a canoe trip, his meditation at the memorial service for a dearly beloved member of Richfield church used the metaphor of the interconnection of roots – in life and in creation. This memory conjured up the interconnections we have in ministry – especially United Methodist ministry. I reflected on all the connections in my ministry and where they have led and nurtured me. This connectional aspect of church historically has been one of our greatest strengths and one that is currently stifling us as we struggle to redefine ourselves as a denomination in light of the calls for biblical inerrancy and disciplinary orthodoxy countered by calls for biblical obedience.
During that marathon-walking day, Steve encouraged us to rest and I said no – we just need to keep on keeping on. And so it is with ministry – we keep on keeping on. This is where the encouragement given to Timothy by his mentor is important. We are all gifted in our ministry. We are called to cultivate and use our God-given gifts. We are called to put them to use in Christ’s ministry in the church context and beyond the walls in community and in the world. To become “real Christians” as Wesley admonished. We are called to practice social holiness in this era of political challenge. We are called to find ways for both lay and clergy together to learn new ways of doing ministry through theological education and the discovery of practical tools so we can live out a faith-based activism.
A morning cruise on the Milford Sound was the culmination of a very arduous trek. That day we had no backpacks. No walking but to the ship. No rocky paths, no obstacles – just smooth sailing. Sometimes in ministry we get those days – sunny skies, calm waters and we rejoice and celebrate! We count our blessings and give thanks for all life. Resurrection life. As Bishop David Bard said in his Easter message to the Michigan Episcopal area: “Resurrection hope and joy are not a denial of difficulty, but rather a trust in the God of Jesus Christ and the power of God’s love to work with and through the difficulty. God’s love is the power of new life. God’s love is stronger than death!” That, my friends, is the good news of Easter! That is the good news of ministry!
Thanks be to God!
Kathi Austin Mahle is Vice Chair on the Board of Trustess at United. Kathi is a retired minister with the United Methodist Church and an alum of Beloit College '67 in Beloit, WI.