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One

Last Saturday, I completed my fifth section hike on the PCT.  The Pacific Crest Trail starts at the Mexican border and snakes north near the crest of the Sierras in California and the Cascade mountains of Oregon and Washington.  I hiked the last 61 miles of the trail, from Rainy Pass in the North Cascades to the Canadian border.  Since I didn’t have my passport, I enjoyed an additional 40 miles to the Canyon Creek trail head where my brother and sister picked me up.

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Cutthroat Pass on the first day

Rather than write a day-by-day travelogue as I have done in the past. I plan to reflect on my hike through the selected use of single words.  If you have read any of my blog over the past two years you will note that I have been growing in my practice of mindfulness, being present in the moment.  I carried this practice into the hike and wish to share it here over the next few weeks. One post at a time.

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Pack with tent and trekking poles

One aspect of backpacking that I enjoy is how simple it is.  I carry only what I need for the trail.  I aspire to be a lightweight backpacker with a basic (no-food) pack weight of under 20 pounds.   My basic pack at the start was about 18 pounds with an additional 10 pounds of food and water, for a total of 28 pounds.

I want my writing to be as spare.  So one word (and a couple of pictures) will be my focus each post.

There is one body and one Spirit, . . .  one Lord, . . .  one God and Father of all.  (Eph 4:4-6)

Pasayten Wilderness

New Hike Begins

Today I once again strap on my backpack and walk a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail.   This summer I am doing the far northern section of the trail in Washington, near the Canadian border.  I will be starting at Rainy Pass in the North Cascade National Park but most of my hiking will be in the Pasayten Wilderness.   This will wrap up my hiking of the PCT in Washington.

Pasayten Wilderness

Pasayten Wilderness in Northern Washington

As in years past I will post pictures and reflections when I return.  My intentions on this solo hike will be to use it as an opportunity for contemplation and meditative walking.   I plan to hike about 65 miles so I will have time to slow down and be still.  I’ll let you know how it went.

If you are curious how past years went, here are some of my posts from previous hikes.

My 2014 hike in Southern Washington starts here 

My 2013 hike in Central Washington starts here

My one attempt at a backpacking cooking show is here

The joy of the Lord is our strength. Nehemiah 8:10

Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Bremerton, WA

Broken and Unbroken Promises

I have been neglecting my blog for several months for no good reason.  Recently I was contacted by the congregation where I was confirmed, Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Bremerton, WA.  They are celebrating their 70th anniversary this fall and was seeking stories from former congregation members.  My confirmation experience became a kind of crossroads in my spiritual life so I will share it here as well.

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Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Bremerton, WA

Pastor Orville Crawford was my 9th grade confirmation teacher and our class of about twenty boisterous teenagers met most Wednesday evenings in the basement of Emmanuel. We struggled to memorized Luther’s Small Catechism. Being a good student, I struggled less than others. God had given me a sharp mind that grabbed new concepts quickly. I was also active in the small Sunday afternoon Luther League activities, so Pastor Crawford knew me well.

In the spring, as our Confirmation Sunday drew near, Pastor Crawford had a concern. At that time, communion was restricted to confirmed members and thus our first communion would come the Sunday following our confirmation. We were to receive communion as a class, sitting together in the front of the church, just as we would do on our confirmation Sunday. Pastor Crawford was concerned that not all the class would be present for the first communion because it would fall on Memorial Day Week-end that year. So he asked me, “John, how many of your confirmation classmates will be there for the First Communion?” I had no idea, so I said, “I don’t know, but you can count on me being there!” I remember how confident my promise was to him.

Our confirmation Sunday went smoothly. I was very excited to confess my faith in Jesus Christ and become an active member of the congregation. However, that afternoon some friends approached me about going on a backpack trip the next week-end into the Olympic Mountains. It would be my first such trip. I was torn. I remembered my promise to Pastor Crawford, but also wanted to try backpacking. My parents said it was my decision, since I had completed confirmation. With only a brief hesitation, I decided to go backpacking.

Lower Lena Lake

Lower Lena Lake where we camped. It rained most of the week-end.

When I returned I discovered that I was the only member of my confirmation class not present for the first communion Sunday!

Yet when I next came to worship Pastor Crawford did not chastise or judge me. He simply welcomed me to the Lord’s Table, delighted that I was there. I felt loved and forgiven.

What I learned from that experience is that God’s Grace is not about what promises I make to God, but about God’s promises to us. I might make lofty promises to God or God’s people, only to discover that I fail to keep them. Yet God does not hold that against me. God is always willing to welcome me in love. Jesus promises to forgive and heal us. “This is my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.” Also as an ordained pastor, I have worked to follow Pastor Crawford’s example of grace and hospitality.

The ironic thing is I learned to love backpacking as a member of Emmanuel’s Luther League.  Every summer during high school we made a long hike in Olympic National Park. That love (along with the love of God) continues with me as I prepare to return to the PCT in Washington next week.

Breath Focus

This post is the fourth in a series focusing on my path to Christian Mindfulness. The series starts here.

At the second class of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) we were introduced to a simple form of meditation.  We sat on a yoga pillow or chair in an upright position, keeping our body in a relaxed but vertical position.  The instructor gently directed us to close our eyes and to focus on our breathing. We kept a non-judgmental focus as we breathed in and out, simply observing how each breath felt and where we experienced it.  I noticed my attention focusing on my nostrils as each breath passed in and out of my body.  (Afterwards I observed that this kept my observation safely near my “head” since this is my place of security.)

With the instructor’s gentle guidance I was able to stay focused.  However, as her vocal instructions became fewer and fewer, my mind tended to drift away on wandering thoughts, “Am I doing this correctly?”  “I did this once before in CPE, and it was different.”  “Will this work when I go home?”

I was instructed that each time I noticed my mind wandering away to return my attention with gentle compassion to my breath.  This was a frequent occurrence since I found my mind wandering off on some tangent ever few breathes.  The instructor had warned us that no matter how many times our mind wanders, simple let go of the thought, idea or feeling  and bring our attention back to our breath.  I remembered the struggle I had had on the PCT, where my mind kept shifting to various thought streams. The solution was to consistently and gently return to the moment. Patience and perseverance were critical components.

Our homework each week was to practice this meditation every day, slowly expanding the amount of time we invested in meditation.  By the end of the 10 week class, I was able to meditate for 30 minutes, though I continue to have wandering thoughts that distract me. I continue to patiently bring my attention back to my breath (or my sacred word.)

I thought of my mediation practice as a new form of prayer.  Later that summer I would discover centering prayer that closely resembles this form of breath meditation.

Jon Kabat Zin, the principle founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Class, offers a guided meditation exercise at this link 

Next post: The Key Ingredients for Meditation

 

 

 

Homework: The Body Scan

This post is the third in a series focusing on my path to Christian Mindfulness.  The series starts here.

Our homework for the first week of MBSR was to do a daily “body scan.”  This was a guided meditation exercise in which I laid on the floor on my back.  I listened to a thirty minute audio recording during which my instructor systematically guided me through my body, focusing my attention on different parts.  She started with my feet and with a gently voice helped me observe any tension and/or sensation occurring there.  She gave me visualization cues to help my feet relax.  Then she moved on to my legs and through the rest of my body.

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The corpse pose in yoga is useful for the body scan

The process was relaxing and peaceful. I remember having a similar experience in my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) class in seminary decades ago.  My CPE supervisor was active in meditation and he led us in a similar exercise each Friday afternoon.  That pleasant memory reassured me that scanning my body was a healthy and life-giving form of prayer.

As a Christian I have experienced a love/hate relationship with my body.  My Christian belief sees the goodness of God’s creating human bodies, including my own.  I was taught and still believe that God chose to become a human being in Jesus Christ (John 1:14) and that my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 3:16).   Yet my Christian heritage also has elements that negate or de-emphasize the body, seeing it as corrupt and evil.  My sinful appetites (the lust of the flesh, I John 2:16) are centered in my body.  I was taught that my body was not to be trusted, since it was weak and prone to sin.

Growing up, I  learned to live mostly in my head. I was a bright child intellectually and grasp new ideas and concepts quickly.  I received most of my affirmation from being a good student, which also focused my attention on the thoughts and ideas revolving in my head and less on my body.  I was not much of an athlete, so my body did not receive much consideration growing up.  I was a gangling naïve nerd that basically ignored my body.

iStock_000016821441SmallThat began to change when I began to train for my first marathon in 1999.  As I ran I learned a lot about my body (what ached, what thrived) and became more familiar with it.  Yet even my running seemed to be in my head.  Running friends shared how running helped them calm their minds and relieved their stress.  My running rarely did that.

As I continued to practice the body scan meditation, I discovered tension that rested in my shoulders, as if I were carrying the load of the world’s troubles. I often fell asleep, showing me how tired I was. I explored the knot or ache that sat in the bottom of my stomach and how often I ate for emotional reasons.  My body was trying to tell me something, but I was so busy living in my thoughts that I rarely listen. Now I was learning to listen.  My home work was starting to lead me home.

In what ways do you listen to your body?

Stop and Ask for Directions

This is the second in a series of posts on my path to Christian mindfulness practices.  The series started here.

Mountaintops were not the only places I recognized my run-away mind.  I remember getting trapped in catastrophe-thinking-patterns after some criticism at church.   My sermon hadn’t gone well, I made some flub leading worship, or too few people showed up for new member class.  My thought pattern would devolve into a revolving rant that “I was worthless” or “I am a terrible pastor.”  Occasionally I recognized the untruth in these thoughts, yet I struggled to let them go.  I would pray asking for God’s help, but at times prayer only added power to the whole destructive thought pattern.

In 2013 my life hit bottom.  For a variety of reasons, I separated from my wife.  I moved into the farmhouse owned by the church where I was serving at the time.  My wife and I started marriage counseling shortly afterwards and I started visiting with another pastoral counselor for myself.  Though we both wanted the marriage to work, we each had our turf to protect. I was lost and uncertain what path to take.

Then one day, after describing my mini-tantrum over a broken mailbox, our marriage counselor mentioned that I might benefit from a Mindful Based Stress Reduction Class.  By God’s grace that suggestion stuck with me as my answer to prayer.  I went on-line, found where a class was being offered locally and registered.  What did I have to lose?  Like a driver hopeless lost without a phone or map, I figured I needed to stop and ask for directions.

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The text book of MBSR

The Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class started on a Monday morning in March of 2014.  I entered the storefront yoga studio to discover I was the only male in the class of fourteen.  The instructor welcomed us and led us through a meditative body scan. What I immediately appreciated was that the class was not a series of lectures, but actual practices that engaged our body, mind and spirit.  The piece of wisdom that stood out that morning was the instructor’s insistence to practice the various exercises and meditation daily, whether one felt like it or not.  The benefits would not be instantaneous, but if we practiced over the ten weeks we would see benefits in our lives.  I made the decision to practice daily and trust that the Spirit of God would work.  I was not disappointed.

 Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding.Proverbs 3:13 

Next time: some of the lessons I learned through the MBSR class.