By the Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
December 24, 2007 (Christmas Eve)
Read: Luke 1:1-20
Heidi Neumark tells of her ride down Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon.
Before my 11-year-old son Hans and I could begin a trip down the Grand Canyon on mule back, I had to sign documents indicating that I understood that the National Parks Service did not guarantee the safety of any participant and was not responsible for any injury, major or minor, brain damage or death, that might result from our journey. I had to state that we had no known serious health problems or heart conditions and that I was not pregnant.
These admonitions were repeated during an orientation session that was geared to weed out the weak-kneed. “If you are afraid of heights, have recently had open-heart surgery [someone in the previous week did and neglected to mention it before passing out], or are prone to whining–get out now and get your money back. If you are not willing to hit the thick-skinned mule with your crop [we were told to call it a “motivator”] in order to keep him within a yard of the next mule–get out now and get your money back.
“If you are not willing to drink your water on command and get hosed down halfway through to prevent heat exhaustion and dehydration–get out now and get your money back. If the switchback turns, where you will find yourself hanging over a 6,000-foot drop, will make you dizzy or upset–get out now and get your money back.”
We were instructed on how to sit, how to hold our motivator–let it dangle from the wrist like a bracelet until you need it–and how to brake the mule. When the mules stop, “They should face outward toward the canyon’s edge. This is desirable because if a mule is spooked, its instinct is to back up. You want to make sure your mule backs up away from the drop rather than into it.” Indeed. We were not to get on or off the mule by ourselves. If any problem should arise, we were to cry “Help!” and our guide would respond. “If you cannot follow directions–get out now and get your money back.”
Bright Angel Trail was far narrower than I had imagined. Because there was no room for both a person and a mule to pass, hikers were warned to stand back against the canyon wall and let our mules pass. Hikers were warned not to move suddenly and spook the mules. I was also surprised by the roughness of the trail. The way was often both deeply pitted and stony. The mules seemed surefooted, but how sure could one be? At certain points, for reasons unclear to me, Blackjack, (my mule) hesitated. At such moments I was supposed to apply the motivator, but I wondered at the wisdom of hitting an animal who might be hesitating for good reason. I hoped our guide wouldn’t look back and notice my disobedience. The mule in front of us never seemed to hesitate and kept closer to the cliffwall.
Why didn’t Blackjack do this? Blackjack plodded right along the very edge of the cliff, less than an inch between his hoof and thin air. “No one has been lost in 90 years,” the guide promised. “The mules know what they are doing and so do I.” This was comforting–to an extent. But can’t a mule have an occasional off day? There was very little margin for error here, and in Blackjack’s case, no margin. Nevertheless, I was eventually drawn away from my focus on the edge. After all, we had not embarked on this trip to spend it staring at mule hooves tamping down the red dust. We did it to see a wonder that was wrought over a million millenniums, one that traced our planet’s history in multihued waves of stone, towering mountains eroded to their roots, and shifting continental plates squeezing valleys toward the clouds. The top rim of the Grand Canyon bears the trace of ancient waters–the fossils of shells, coral and worms that once lived at the bottom of the sea.
Somewhere in the midst of the grandeur, I thought of Mary on her way to Bethlehem. Once she’d said yes to the angel, she signed on for a trip with no way out. No chance to “get out now” and get her money back. True, she wasn’t traveling down the Grand Canyon, but Mary’s journey was just as uncomfortable. She traveled on the edge, where injury and death are likely eventualities.
Why do you think I shared that story? Aren’t we all on a strange journey, one that we call life. Don’t we, many times, feel as if we are just on the edge of a cliff with a 6,000 foot drop? Don’t we experience stony trails?
And yet we ride on, in a world that offers no guarantees and plenty of risk … entrusting our days to the stubborn, plodding mules of duty that bear us forward–or is it the promise of our guide?–“I know this path. I have gone before you. Just listen to me. You’ll make it.” Our guide is Jesus Christ and he is there for us. He came into this world as one of us and died for all of us. So let us lift our eyes from the footsteps in the dust and trust that God is indeed with us. Focus on the miracle of Christ in our midst and rejoice in spring flowers studding a desert plain spread before us: “yellow starbursts inside white primroses, magenta blooms of beavertail cactus, pale orange petals on the mariposa lilies fluttering in the wind, and ruddy stalks of Indian paintbrush–each one magnifying the Lord and echoing around the canyon walls”.
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. – John 1:5 Amen.
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