Monday, September 14, 2009

Learning Discipleship in the Grand Canyon

Sahra Harding, a third-year student at General Theological Seminary from the Diocese of Nebraska, gracioiusly agreed to write this week's post. Sahra shares some of what her experience living and working at the Grand Canyon this summer taught her about discipleship.


This past summer I had the opportunity to work at the Grand Canyon with a program for college students called A Christian Ministers in National Parks. As team leader for 16 undergraduate students who are currently involved with Christian ministry, I led theological discussion and mentored those interested in pursuing the field professionally. We came from different denominations and regions all over the country. For three months, we offered daily sunset worship services along the rim of the Canyon. I also worked for the park in their gift store in customer service, which was a fantastic opportunity for informal ministry. During my two years in seminary in New York city I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be a disciple and uphold the principles of stewardship that are involved with that way of being. Working on a team, honoring God’s creation through regular worship, and sitting among the 180 million year old walls of the canyon taught me a lot about discipleship.

Living at the canyon lit all kinds of fires in my soul this summer. When walking bare foot on the bare earth, I felt the give in the dirt. I could sense the primal relationship we have with the dust, a truth about formation that we are reminded of each Lenten season. It is not the same experience of walking on the concrete, even with rubber soles; this just becomes two more layers of separation between who we are and the earth that created us. Being in constant movement and working to make Christ available to people through constant interaction requires a certain kind of energy. Of all the moments that spurred my growth this summer, both in the community, and when I was alone peering into the canyon, one in particular sticks out in my mind.

My final hike of the summer was to a site called Dripping Springs. This is a very difficult hike, more difficult than I expected. I was limited on time, and more than once I considered just stopping and turning back so that I would not be late for my afternoon obligations. Still, I was convinced I could make it if I just kept going and stopped standing still trying to peer ahead and find the final destination with my eyes, which could not be done, the Springs were that well hidden.

At one point the path changed and became much less clear. I suddenly heard someone yelling. I had not seen anyone on the path since I began walking; it is not a popular hike. I looked up to see a Ranger who was trying to call me back onto the path, which I had veered from without realizing it. She was headed in the opposite direction and had somehow spotted me losing my course. Hikers are frequently warned to not veer from the path because the Canyon is vast and steep and such excursions are often fatal. I worried that she thought I was being deviant. I quickly forgot my worry in the midst of my relief, though, because she gave me back a sense of direction. If she had not appeared right then, I would have surely gotten stuck and lost too much time to continue; I also might have run out of water and in that desert heat this is an ongoing concern. With help, I found the path again and started back up. Soon after she left, however, I lost the path again. I could hear the Springs, but I still could not see them. It seemed like the sound was coming from one direction, so I went that way figuring I didn’t need the path, but the further I went the harder it became to hear it and I soon found myself among a series of boulders that would be extremely difficult to get over. I decided I would have to climb straight up out of the pit and likely head back out of the canyon. It was steep and slippery with cactus everywhere, but I could not figure another way. Fortunately, at the top of the mound, I recognized the path again.

I found myself turning the whole adventure into a symbol for the journey of a disciple. This realization infused me with a sense of how often we try to find our way without consideration for the work that has been done before us for our sake and for the sake of all followers. Perhaps we do things without consideration of the impact it will have on what surrounds us. But the fact of the matter is that we do well to heed the instructions from those before us. We lose nothing in the journey because we are always the pioneer of our own soul. Christ is always waiting to be discovered in our midst, so why not permit ourselves to walk that way and save ourselves from unnecessary thirst?
When I came upon the Springs, the meeting was that much sweeter because I had joined the steps of so many to bring a sacred space into view; the site seemed full from that shared vision that so many diligent hikers had viewed, and now I had seen it too. A stream of water, the vitality of the earth, invited me to cool my face. The planet is not just a resource after all, not just some temporary holding cell for our souls to which we have no influence or connection; it is a living teacher and it speaks to us often. These times of global strain have made it clear to me that we must enter this cosmic conversation with the full force of Christian love and discipleship.