I don’t remember how old I was – 13, 14, 15, 16 – let’s just say I was a teenager. I was on a backpacking trip with my Pathfinder group, all of us good friends, together since we were in Girl Guides. We were hiking the Skyline Trail in the Rocky Mountains near Jasper, a trail almost entirely above the tree line and notorious for bad weather, even in the summer. And sure enough: on day two of our three-day trip we got caught in a freak snowstorm – in August. Thick and wet and heavy, the snow came down hard, relentless. We arrived at the campsite where we were scheduled to stay that second night late in the afternoon, it was very grey and we were cold and hungry. That day we’d climbed up the Little Shovel Pass, and walked the ridge of the Maligne mountain Range, which is to say that our spindly teenage legs were spent. Our narrow bodies hunched under the weight of all that wet that seeped into our packs. And our leaders had a bad feeling. If we stopped and set up our tents we could wake up snowed in, we might even lose sight of the trail. Better to add another entire day’s worth of walking, they said, and complete the final leg of the trip now, rather than risk it, they decided.
There was nothing pleasant about those final miles. They called on a capacity we thought we had exhausted, on a determination we didn’t think we had in us. Snow hit our faces and melted and trickled, cold, down our necks and backs. Our feet squished in boots long water-logged. Now, of course, we got through it. I’m sitting here talking to you today, but what interests me is how? What bolstered us? What empowered us? Our only saving grace, as I look back on the experience now, was our decision to sing. We sang as we left that campground and we didn’t stop until we reached the parking lot and the welcome sight of our car. It’s such a corny image, I know, so cheesy, so saccharine, a group of Girl Guides, singing while hiking through the snow. But the effect was real and powerful. We sang pop anthems, campfire rallies, call and response chants. What we were singing helped us to feel something that wasn’t actually, at that moment, real for us. When we were feeling weak we were filled with the powerful voices of those who had already risen and come through the other side of an experience. That’s what I’m seeing today in John’s story about Jesus’ appearance to Thomas. There is power in the testimony of a Risen One, power in the voice of someone who has lived through and come out from the other side of an experience, who can give hope to someone who is still caught in the sudden storm or walking the long, hard, path – which is all of us, at certain points in our lives.
All of us will live through seasons and circumstances that feel like getting caught in a sudden storm, seasons and circumstances that feel like walking a long, hard, path. And when we’re right in one of those seasons it can be hard to believe that we might feel anything other than what we’re feeling. When we’re moving through an experience it can be hard to feel that there might be a “next” for us, an end, a new beginning. Yesterday I was talking with Susie, a woman in our congregation whose husband died last summer. She gave me permission to share some of our conversation. “It’s hard enough just to wake up and get through each day in the best of times,” she said. “But now,” and then she trailed off. I think this is some of what Thomas is feeling when he says to the other disciples, “unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” The seasons and circumstances of our suffering are entirely personal, but universal is worry and the doubt: is it actually possible to feel something different from what we’re currently feeling? Will this path that I’m walking ever end? Do I have it in me to make it through? What if I can’t handle another mile – especially in this weather?
This fall I rediscovered a love of country music. I grew up with a music-loving dad who exposed us to all sorts of genres – eclectic mix tapes, Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen, Dire Straights, Bruce Cockburn, Bach. He once took us to see a Rolling Stones concert on Imax. And mixed in with all the Rock, the Classical, the Blues was a good helping of country, maybe Southern folk music is a better way to describe it – Bonnie Raitt, Steve Earle, Iris Dement, the Dixie Chicks. I can still see the cover of a Dolly Parton album my parents had in their collection, on it not one, not two, but three identical Dolly’s, mugging for the camera in platform heels, light blue denim bell bottoms, flashy red tight shirts, platinum blond hair.
This past fall and winter country music – and Dolly Parton especially – became the soundtrack I lived to. I was going through a hard time, walking a long, hard, path, so to speak. I had a lot on my plate: three kids, work, school, and my husband was gone, he was working in the US for eight months. And so I developed this little routine. I’d get home from work and turn on Spotify as I started prepping dinner, I’d listen to “Dolly Parton: Live from London,” Dolly Parton’s “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” the albums “Jolene,” “9 to 5 and Odd Jobs,” “Straight talk.” What got me through “a long dark night,” so to speak, was listening to Dolly sing that she could “see the light of a clear blue morning.” When you are walking a long, hard, path, a witness who can tell you that there is an end of the road, a finish line, a feeling other than what you’re feeling, is a powerful and empowering force. A witness helps us to see what isn’t yet real for us: that suffering is something we can and will move through, that a new day will dawn, that we will not always be living what we’re living right now.
Peace comes through the Presence of the Risen Ones in our lives, those people who have come through experiences of suffering and witness to us: “Put your finger here, see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe;” those people who remind us that we are an Easter people and that we believe in an Easter God, a God who brings new beginnings out of endings, life from our deaths.
If you are in the middle of walking a hard path right now, if you’ve been caught up in a sudden storm, may peace be with you. May you see in Jesus’ hands and side in this story the spiritual truth that the Holy One, the Spirit of Life, the Source of Love is at work to bring transformation out of your every trauma. And if you are at the other end of struggle, if you have come through, if you are one of the Risen Ones, show your hands and your side to someone still out walking, show your healing but show your scars too. Hard paths are an inescapable part of life, but so is the transformation that comes from walking them. We are not alone. We believe in a God who has created and is creating, right now, all the time, in your life, in my life, right here, and all over the world.