One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years. In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal. In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a different way. These entries will help to describe that experience – the sermons return in September.
I started thinking about the idea of a Sabbatical experience two years ago. I began the work of planning it about 11 months ago. I got really serious about six months ago, and designed our route, signed the contracts for our RV and began to book campsites. One of the interesting features about our travel schedule is that it requires us to cross the Continental Divide at least two times. A continental divide is a line of demarcation indicating where water will flow across a continent – it’s a division where the precipitation that falls on one side of the line winds up in one ocean (say, the Pacific Ocean) or another (say, the Atlantic Ocean). For most of the United States, that divide runs along the crest of the Rocky Mountains.
Which means that back in November when I was planning this route, I drew up a route that would have us ascending the mountains at least twice as we began and will end this sojourn in Salt Lake City, Utah. I consulted all the best guides; I did my research, and the itinerary I drew up called for us to leave the eastern side of Rocky Mountain National Park on the morning of June 26 and drive up and over the crest of the divide and exit the western gate of the park. It made sense. It was a lot of driving to get from the eastern gate of the Rocky Mountains to Dinosaur National Monument in Utah in one day, but it was only about 300 miles. I could do it.
Except for the fact that it snowed like crazy in the Rocky Mountains the weekend prior to our arrival. We showed up at the east gate and were informed that the Trail Ridge Road – the only road connecting east and west in the park – was impassable due to a heavy snow accumulation. This route, rising to 12,183 feet (3713 meters), is the highest continuous paved highway in the USA.
Well, doesn’t that just beat all? I’m in the tail end of a well-planned and meticulously organized travel plan, and the ONE ROAD I absolutely need is closed. I stood in line at the Park Ranger’s desk and asked about the likelihood of the road opening up in time for me to make the rest of my journey. Believe it or not, he seemed unimpressed with my meticulous planning. Even after I explained that I was The Reverend Dave Carver and I had a tight program to keep, he pretty much said, “Well, let’s keep your eyes on the sign boards and hope.”
All of my plans for this trip had boiled down to whether the weather would clear and the crews would be able to dig out the road. There was nothing I could do but to watch and hope.
As I did, I thought about a dear friend of mine who is engaged in the fight of her life with a deadly illness. She could tell me something about having plans interrupted by icy blasts and drifts that make progress seem unattainable. I thought about another friend, whose dreams for the future seemed to disappear when her child died. I remembered my own condition in the months leading up to this journey – some of the situations over which I have felt powerless to change and yet over which I worried a great deal. As I considered the foolishness of my complaining about the weather, I was driven to prayer for those whose only options all day are to watch, and hope, and pray.
It was not the spiritual discipline I’d planned for myself this week of Sabbatical, but it was an important and holy work nonetheless. We stayed in the area of the park that was accessible to us, and then less than 24 hours before I “needed it”, the road was indeed opened. As silly as that may sound, it gave me hope for those situations that I named above. I want to sing to my friends, “There is a way through!” It may seem impassible or impossible now, but sometimes watching and hoping and praying lead us to a new experience of, and gratitude for, the journey.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not equating my ability to drive a powerful vehicle on a mountain road with someone else’s battle with a deadly illness or the depths of grief. I’m saying that my circumstances led me to a deeper awareness of the situations in which my friends have found themselves, and for that I’m most grateful.
I made it to the top of the Rockies this morning – it was hard to breathe, and the snow was deep. As we wandered into a section of tundra atop the mountain, I recalled a poem that has meant a great deal to me in times where I wondered whether my plans were all shot to hell. It’s called “Resurrection”, and it’s written by Mary Ann Bernard. It reads as follows:
Long, long, long ago;
Way before this winter’s snow
First fell upon these weathered fields;
I used to sit and watch and feel
And dream of how the spring would be,
When through the winter’s stormy sea
She’d raise her green and growing head,
Her warmth would resurrect the dead.
Long before this winter’s snow
I dreamt of this day’s sunny glow
And thought somehow my pain would pass
With winter’s pain, and peace like grass
Would simply grow. The pain’s not gone.
It’s still as cold and hard and long
As lonely pain has ever been,
It cuts so deep and far within.
Long before this winter’s snow
I ran from pain, looked high and low
For some fast way to get around
Its hurt and cold. I’d have found,
If I had looked at what was there,
That things don’t follow fast or fair.
That life goes on, and times do change,
And grass does grow despite life’s pains.
Long before this winter’s snow
I thought that this day’s sunny glow,
The smiling children and growing things
And flowers bright were brought by spring.
Now, I know the sun does shine,
That children smile, and from the dark, cold, grime
A flower comes. It groans, yet sings,
And through its pain, its peace begins.
Most of you are reading this in the summertime. I invite you to think about those of your friends who are snowed under today, and find a way to watch, hope, and pray for them.