A week ago, I woke up in my sleeping bag on the ground in Paria Canyon, snug between nine other people I had just met and looking up at the rising sun glowing red on the canyon walls. I was out on a 6-day hike with an organization called Renewal in the Wilderness. My own life had been something of a metaphorical wilderness of late, and renewal in the midst of that sounded like something I needed. Even more, non-metaphorical wilderness is where I go to experience rest and renewal most deeply. This trip did not disappoint.
Every day we hiked a few miles, not hard and not fast but at a pace that allowed for deep conversation. We stopped somewhere for a picnic lunch and then shouldered our packs once more. We hiked a few more miles and made camp near a spring or in an open patch of sand. We sat around a camp stove together for the most luxurious dinners and then talked until the stars were bright. There was time for reflection and prayer, long moments of silence, a day of solitude amidst the community. We laughed deeply, breathed deeply, and shared life together for a week.
I left the canyon genuinely renewed. Wilderness has intrinsic properties of renewal for me, but this trip added a new dimension. I had received a feast in this wilderness: a feast of love, encouragement, comfort, human connection. Indeed, I had received care. Those of us in ministry tend to take care of others. We can’t help it; it’s in our DNA. We even enjoy it. But we are also prone to refuse care ourselves. Like doctors, we make the worst patients. I don’t know why others refuse care, but I know that I tend to assume I’m an imposition or a burden. My needs make me selfish. Or I believe that everyone else’s needs are more important than my own, so I can wait until I’m at the front of the triage line (it doesn’t occur to me that I never actually make it to the front). Or I assume that I need to be useful in order to be accepted. Or I just see the needs of the people in front of me and simply can’t help myself. I have to minister.
In the canyon, eight of us, all in caring professions and predisposed to take care of others before ourselves, entered into an unspoken agreement to allow ourselves to be taken care of by one another and by our two guides. At one point I even asked our guide if I could be helpful, and he replied with an impish smile, “I’d prefer if you weren’t.” Being taken care of didn’t mean that we sat around eating chocolates while our guides did all the work; wilderness trips are by nature and necessity participatory ventures requiring every person’s full presence. What it did mean is that if someone offered me a cup of hot water for hot chocolate, I accepted rather than protest that I hadn’t had a chance to contribute my share of the water yet. It meant that I asked (and tried not to feel guilty about asking) to sleep in the middle of our line at night because it was cold and I am small. It meant that when someone asked what I was thinking, I answered and did not immediately turn the conversation to the questioner. I allowed myself to be listened to instead of trying only to listen.
What resulted was a most magnificent dance. We all received care and all cared for each other. Sure, we also received a little extra care from our guides, but that’s the goal of Renewal in the Wilderness, to take care of those who care. That dance was every bit as stunning as the landscape, and because of it I am returning renewed. I have a deeper reservoir from which to draw for others, but that’s not the point. Turns out one reason to bother taking care of myself, or letting others care for me, is because God loves me too. God desires my health and well-being for my own sake, because I am part of the creation God is redeeming and reconciling. And we cannot fully receive this truth until we allow ourselves to receive.
It took a week-long immersion in care and Sabbath rest for this truth to break into my reality, but there are all kinds of opportunities to live in this reality at home. It’s never too late to start caring for yourself, but seminary is an excellent time to begin. While you’re in the midst of learning to care for everyone else, while you’re up to your ears in stress, why not learn to care for yourself? Why not ask your friends to listen when you need to talk? Trust yourself to your community. Why not choose to limit your responsibilities? It turns out it’s okay not to volunteer for everything. Sometimes it’s okay to be silent and let someone else feel responsible. Why not take a day off now and then, or better, take a regular Sabbath day? Or even, if you’re so inclined, take a long walk in the wilderness. Renewal awaits.