Faith's Payoff
by Eric Alan
November 14, 2020 - 8:16am

Trails have living soul, as much as any human or other wild creature. Paths develop spirit over time as travelers walk them. So it’s my prayer as well as my pause, to seek insight via trails new to me. It’s become my Sunday practice to take a day of rest through outdoor exploration. It’s a practice of faith as much as any spiritual service.


On the Sunday morning that’s the first of November, the turning oaks call me south. It hasn’t been the best year for fall color, at home, as summer wildfire smoke curled and tainted many maple leaves, sending many too quickly from green to brown and down. The tougher oak leaves have persisted with less apparent damage, and in their spiky way are progressing through their creative color palette. The oak savannas an hour away hold particular promise of artful color and open views. I’ve passed by one trailhead there for years without stopping, always driven to somewhere else. This is the day to change that at last, my intuitive voice says.


My faith in this voice is tested before I even reach the trailhead. Just before my highway exit I see disaster looming. An arriving array of flashing lights warns me that I’ve converged with fresh trauma. From my southbound lane I see that the northbound highway is completely blocked by a new, fancy pickup truck towing an equally ostentatious travel trailer, jackknifed and on their sides. I crawl past as the first responders race up to the shattered windows. The ones inside remain invisible. It saddens me deeply: not only the heartache of lives instantly broken, but of other drivers’ frustration, many likely thinking of their own inconvenience in the massive line of stalled traffic. The disconnects between us in our private rolling vehicles are not what Henry Ford and his compatriots intended to invent.


I’m still shaken when I reach the trailhead, so I sit in my motionless car to breathe into calm. I ready myself for hiking, until I see trailhead signs that again give me pause. This is a preserve for the rare white-tailed deer, aimed to protect their habitat—except during hunting season, apparently, which this now is. Marked collection buckets for deer teeth newly churn my stomach. I get out of the car to read more posted signs, which inform me that the current week is reserved for youth to hunt, with “any legal weapon.” Teenagers and guns are a combination I wish to avoid about as much as, say, whiskey and blindfolded drag racing. Also, the views are not as I’d imagined: dense fog shrouds everything. Has my intuitive voice misled me?


An ancient golden retriever appears by my car just then, with a different perspective. He’s clearly thrilled to be there, despite his arthritic limping, failing fur and hind-leg tumors. He wags the news: What a great morning! I look up to see that his equally ancient owner is feeling the same way. Even with his cane, the old man doesn’t look like he could get much farther than the outhouse, which I suspect he has to visit frequently. But he smiles as much as his dog does, and I watch with amazement as they disappear together up the trail’s steep incline, showing no concern about armed adolescents with poor decision-making skills. Wordlessly, they beckon me to follow, and because of their ease and faith, I do.


Fog is beautiful, I soon recall. It weaves mystery into the trees. It’s enfolding and sheltering in its own soft way. I begin to lose my cares in the skeletal shapes of oak branches, the silent privacy of the fog. An occasional hint of dim sun disk reminds me that invisible is not gone. The old man and dog outpace me up the hill, as I stop to photograph more often than the dog stops to sniff. There are no gunshots.


A few miles later, high on the ridges, I meet the old man and dog again as they turn to come back down, at a trail junction that is obviously their familiar destination. They reappear out of the fog like an apparition.


“I did the first half,” the old man says with a smile. “You do the second half.”


“It’s my shift now. I’ve got this,” I reply. “But I was hoping to get out of the fog.”


“You’ll get there,” he says, confidently pointing with his cane toward a place to which he hasn’t traveled today. “It’s surely right up ahead.”


His faith is knowing and justified. As suddenly as an insight, sunshine arrives at the next hill crest. I break through into brilliant views of ridges extending a hundred miles in all directions. I’m in awe. Magnificence is everywhere. Faith’s payoff has arrived.


Yes, this parallels the results of the uncharted life trail I’ve walked for sixty-one sweaty years, and of the equally uncharted trails others have faithfully walked for ages. That our faith is most needed when it seems least justified is a view countless others have observed in their own foggy times. I need to frequently restate my awareness of that truth, lest it disappear like the dim sun, under pressure from the chaos of the world. But I have seen that truth manifest in many forms: relationship after almost giving up on love; work that turned to true purpose after years of struggle and loss; leadership emerging from absence; health emerging from illness. Progress is slow and often invisible. It must be trusted within hard work’s continuance. But fog frequently dissipates suddenly, usually after climbing one more hill after almost giving up.


Faith’s payoff is not assured. Some paths end in accidents or injustice. Yet most often when we follow the trails of faith, in love and in service, eventually we outlast or transcend what currently restricts our limited grey view.


Even when our personal trails end painfully, faith’s payoff may be in how our pain serves the healing of others. No guarantee of that either. But I do have renewed faith, as I walk that trail down on what is now a sunny Sunday afternoon. Fog has again receded, in deference to the higher power of beauty and brilliance. Another trail’s sacred spirit offers inspiration again.

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