Steadiness – A blog from Rachel “Dragonfly” Ahrens

These last few months have changed so many of our worlds so quickly. When I left the call that said our hikes would be canceled, my heart broke. I wanted to crumble, I wanted to fall apart.  So much of what I have lived for, so much of what I felt was right, what I felt I was called to just crumbled in front of my eyes.  Many of us could choose to be bitter. I wanted to be for a very long time, and I still do every once and a while. Everything I had planned and lined up for after school was all on hold. The dream job that I had, up in the air, my plans for after school, up in the air. Everything felt just out of reach.  It does not sound like much, one job, you can always find another one. But it hurt – like I lost a piece of myself that day. This was so much more than a job, so much more than a thru-hike.  I found the chaplaincy the beginning of my sophomore year of undergrad, I applied 2 years before I knew it would even be remotely possible. I invested my life in the Appalachian Trail, the community it creates, and the people it connected. I was going to be a Trail Chaplain, I had never felt more fulfilled in a calling than I did the day I read the job description and tears streamed down my face onto my keyboard because I had not heard anything that fit me more. I longed for the day where I would follow those white blazes all the way from Maine to Georgia. I longed for the day that I truly stepped into my trail name, Dragonfly, and lived out her characteristics. Just as those tears flowed down on my keyboard when I read that job description, they flow again there once more, this time tears of sadness and grief, but my God is still here. He is just as present and steady as he was the day I truly found the trail. As I think about this unexpected new season of life, I ponder upon some metaphors I have in my life right now, I once again was drawn to a blaze, not a white one this time, but a blue one.

In the Appalachian Trail Community, a blue blaze is a spur trail branching off of the Appalachian Trail. Blue blazed trails could lead to a vista, water source, shelter or campground, or some unusual natural feature. Today, this blue blaze marks a trail to a water source.

The metaphor is that of a trail intersection of a blue blazed trail. On the tree you see two blazes, one blue, one white. The blaze indicates the incoming trail, a blue blazed side trail that leads you the winding scenic way around to a water source you did not intend to stop at. This side trail you found yourself upon was not one you wanted to be on, it was further from the trail than you wanted to travel, nor was it the most reliable of water sources. Along the this unexpected trail you see a type of beauty you have never seen before. Stopping for water was necessary for your health, the climb before had been more intense than you imagined, and you have another big climb ahead. This time on the blue blaze trail was you being a steward of your resources, thinking ahead, looking out for yourself, and for those around you. It was the smart choice even though it was not an easy choice to make.

            This metaphor resonates with where I am at personally right now. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has requested hikers postpone all thru-hikes, removed their ridge runners, entire states have shut down shelters or sections, and the chaplaincy has opted to cancel the hikes for 2020 chaplains; a crossroads that was definitely not anticipated a few short months ago. The blue blaze trail appeared suddenly; I had my plans written out meticulously, I knew the direction inside and out, graduate, spend a few months in the community I call home, and then head out to finish up last minute details and start the trail.  Just as one might plan their day on a trail and chose to skip a mediocre water source because there was another more reliable source closer to the trail up ahead, I did not put my focus on this pandemic, or even the possibility of it eliminating the effectiveness of a hike as a trail chaplain. As much as I did not want to stop at this water source, I had to, I was out of water and had to take the less ideal trail to quench that need. The safety and health that stopping for water brings was something I needed more than I needed to hike.

In the need for water I am learning some things about myself, I am seeing new things. I am learning what it means to stop and rest, to just be, what it means to sit faithfully at the Lord’s feet waiting for direction.  I am learning that it is okay to feel and grieve the things you once had. This new water source has taught me to be a steward of my resources, my energy and time, but also the trail. I fought long and hard about what this would mean for my hike even before the final decision was made. Hikers are still out there, and I wanted to be there with them; but the reality is that it is not safe to be out there right now. The trail also needs to heal just as my heart does.

Sometimes, being a steward of something, taking care of those things that are entrusted to you, something so special, means stepping back. Without ridge runners there are few people to enforce trail etiquette and regulations. Being a steward of the trail meant I had to intentionally decide I would not add to the impact and that I would follow the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s recommendations for thru-hikers. It was a heartbreaking decision when I came upon that crossroads but adventuring into the unknown of the blue blazed trail was what was needed, even if I did not know it at first.

I am learning that along this blue blaze sits the character of steadiness. In this journey to becoming my most authentic self, I am learning that as we believe what the word has taught, the gold, the value of our authentic selves is covered layer upon layer with cement until we are completely encased. Each time we rediscover a part of our authentic selfhood, each time we walk faithfully into an unknown season the Lord is calling us to, we chip away pieces of that cement. As the cement breaks away we begin to see imperfections in the gold, remnants of the cement that entangled us. Those blemishes need to be counteracted with steadiness, they need to be buffed with the knowledge that this season is not bigger than we are, that it will not swallow us whole, that we will return; but more importantly that none of it is bigger than the God we serve.

The Lord is my Shephard. I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul.  He guides me along the right paths for his namesake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord, Forever.

These words from the 23rd psalm have always been dear to me, the scripture I cling to time and time again, especially when I need comfort. But this time, they were more than comforting, they were steadying.

Stephen Simpson in his book, “The Leader Who is Hardly Known” defines the concept of steadiness with the story of the runaway horse. There once was a farmer whose horse ran away. All of those around him bemoaned the loss, but the farmer remained steady, even if the absence of the horse meant harder work for him. A week later, the horse returned, bringing four wild horses with him. All those around him rejoiced at the farmer’s good fortune, but the farmer kept an even keel, even if the horses, when broken, would bring him a welcome income. Then one day, while his son was breaking one of the new horses, the horse bucked, and the son fell off and broke his leg. All those around him expressed sorrow at the son’s pain and the farmer’s loss of a worker, but the farmer accepted the accident as the natural course of things. The very next day, the army came through the farmer’s village, taking all young men off to war. The farmer’s son was excused, because he had a broken leg. All the people said that the farmer was very lucky to keep his son, but the farmer’s heart remained calm throughout. While all those around the farmer moved from extreme happiness to extreme sadness and back again, the farmer knew that life was too complex to be explained by any single event. His goal was to keep a light heart, regardless of the events beyond his control.

The words of the Psalm bring me back to this state of steadiness. Whatever the world is throwing at me, joy or trial, I remember that the Lord is my source of steadiness! He is always bringing me to those green pastures, the quiet streams, he restores my soul time and time again. Through this pandemic I am challenged to maintain that level headspace, that steadiness, to endure and press on along the blue blazed trail and to find its hidden beauty.

The blue blazed trail is long and winding. Along its path beauty is found; people are falling in love with writing letters to each other, they are reading books, playing games with their families, going outside, the church is reaching wider than before even without gathering physically. Huge things are happening following this little blue blaze, things that I had never thought would happen. It has shifted my perspective enough to remind me who I am through all of this, to remind me not just of the value of steadiness, but how steady and faithful the Lords is, even when everything you know feels like it was flipped on its head.

            At some point the blue blaze trail will end and I will be reunited with the beloved white blaze once again, a reunion even sweeter than the initial meeting. The length of the journey back is still unknown, but what I do know is however unexpected this trail junction has been, there is a symphony I was missing. I need to spend my life looking for big magic in the mundane, big love in the small moments, steadiness when life feels like you are walking on a suspension bridge. To remain steady and watch that cement chip off, piece by piece until I rediscover my most authentic self – rediscovering Dragonfly.  I challenge you to do the same, rediscover yourself along your blue blazed trail. Look for your inner knower, rediscover the steadiness The Lord brings, because you too will return to your beloved white blaze.