Leaving the Trail
by Jason Hobbs, LCSW, MDiv
There came a time recently where I had to step “off the trail” for a bit. As strange as it sounds, stepping “off the trail,” for me, meant going into the woods to hike a trail.
As has been the case for many of us, the last few months have been a swirl of “pandemic” school with the changes for us and for our children, the ways in which work has changed, concerns around vulnerable extended family, and the alterations in the weekly cycle of church.
Each of these steps, small and large, bring a bit of stress with them. What felt familiar now seems strange and different. All these small adjustments have accumulated to a life abundant with changes.
Sometimes the best next step we can take in life is to give ourselves some space from that life. So when the opportunity came to “take a hike,” I did just that.
And as I did, I remembered that for many spiritual seekers, remaining engaged with life meant having time away from that life. The first model is Jesus going to the wilderness just after His baptism and ahead of His public ministry. But there is also story after story of the desert fathers and mothers who went to the wilderness to be closer to God’s voice.
In this time of stress and anxiety, we too would do well to find some time to “go to the wilderness.”
Going to the wilderness calls us to what is real, tangible.
The gifts of God are bread and wine, tangible elements that one can taste and see. Much of what causes us stress and anxiety is “what ifs” and the way in which our minds imagine a possible, dread-full future. We can get so far ahead of ourselves in our own minds that our bodies begin to experience this “not yet but maybe” in the form of our heart racing, chest tightening, stomach-dropping.
When we go on a walk, when we hike that trail, we note every footstep one at a time. We remind ourselves that this step is real and I can only take that step. The step behind me is done. The step in front of me is yet to be taken. Our journey with God is similar in that even if we have an idea about the destination, we can only take one step at a time with God. When we try to force a faster pace or get caught in our goals, we lose sight of what God might have in store for us on that journey.
You cannot always see around the corner, but you trust the trail that you are on.
A wonderful part about a marked trail is that someone else has been this way before. People before you cut a mark in a tree and painted a color to let you know you were headed the right way. Or perhaps there is gravel or just the clearing of brush that lets you know that this is a well-worn path.
Similarly, we can go back and read the monastics like John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila. The gospel accounts show the way that Jesus walked with the disciples. They show us the hills and valleys, the places where we eat and rest, and at times the more challenging parts of that journey. And we are reminded that all those points along the way are blessed.
There are times where the trail opens and you see something you would not have unless you had gotten away.
On my most recent hike with my wife, we chose a route to the bottom instead of the more popular trek to the top. The trail had its own ups and downs. A shushing sound got louder as we hiked. Eventually, the trail opened to over 400 feet of falling water.
In our lives, there are certainly times when we may be unsure of how far this trail will take us. And there is sadness and conflict, but we take it step by step, trusting those who have been this way before, that this trail will lead us to wonders that we would not have seen unless we took that first step.
When we come back from the wilderness, we are different.
In Luke, Jesus retreats and returns, retreats and returns. Sometimes this is a journey across the water. Other times, Jesus goes to the mountain to pray. I have no doubt that these times of retreat were essential to the ministry of Jesus.
I know for myself as a therapist and for those of us who are in formal ministry, times of retreat and return enable us to be better people out in the world and in our work. The wilderness is not a place we retreat to forever, but it can be a necessary place of renewal and revisioning.
So “step off the trail” soon to reconnect to God and to this life!
Stepping into the “wilderness” or “retreat” does not have to be a trip to a large waterfall; a time apart can be a small section of your day, a moment with a friend, a cup of coffee or tea, a walk alone. Whatever this “wilderness” is for you, I urge you to find that time to be present, to leave all the worry about the future and the anxieties that live there. Relinquish regret and the way we can go back in time and relive mistakes or embarrassments.
Settle into a moment or a day of retreat, remembering what is real in each breath and in each step. Notice what God has for you in that moment. And then gently return, perhaps more grace-fully, to what this next part of life is bringing to you.
A clinical social worker in private practice, Jason Hobbs spends most of his time working with children, adolescents, and adults. He is co-author with his wife of When Anxiety Strikes: Help and Hope for Managing Your Storm (Kregel, Fall 2020).
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