To everyone who sees it, it appears to be just an ordinary stick – an almost dead branch from a tree. How it could carry so much meaning to me and to a group of kids still surprises me. What started out as a perfectly innocent and normal action for me ended up as a story that was told and retold many times over the summer of 1993. For me and for our group, “the stick” took on much meaning. The story lives on, and incredibly enough, so does the stick. One look over my fireplace will attest to that. There it is mounted. It looks like an ordinary branch off a tree. But it means so much more …
Our group had planned a Sunday morning hike at Oak Mountain State Park as part of our preparation for our journey to World Youth Day in Denver. We had been expecting a thirteen mile hike in Denver as part of the pilgrimage to our campsite, so we felt a little preparation was in order. Our leader, Karen, promised this would be an easy hike, only six miles or so. Six miles!! It did not sound so easy to me. Nonetheless, we had a large and energetic group gathering at the foot of the trail. The skies were overcast and threatened rain. But we were ready – backpacks loaded, hearts full, and anxious to get started.
As we waited for the last of our group to arrive, I wandered over to some fallen trees and broke off a branch to be used as a hiking stick. I was not really much of an outdoorsman, but when I hiked, I always liked having a stick along. I guess it made me feel like I was a mountain man or something. As I came back to the group, I got the expected harassment from the kids: “Hey, Ron, you going to carry that stick with you the whole way? Man, your arms are going to be tired.” “I guess the old man has to have a walking stick!” “Hope you don’t trip over your stick, Ron!”
Ignoring the barbs of my so-called “Brothers in Christ,” and armed with my trusty stick, I headed for the trail. Before we began, Karen led us in prayer. We were reminded that our hike should remind us of our life’s journey. We were asked to think not only of life’s physical journey, but our own spiritual journey as well.
It did not take long on this journey to learn that I was very happy to have my hiking stick. Karen’s idea of an easy six mile hike was not the same as mine or any of the other old-timers in the group. Most of our hike seemed to be straight uphill and were it not for the assistance of my stick, I would have struggled even more. It soon became apparent that we were in for a long day.
One of my fellow adults slipped and fell. No harm was done other than a little embarrassment. “Glad I have my stick,” I thought to myself. As we trudged along, the stick had led me along – moving branches, digging into the ground to give me footing, helping me pull myself up the hills.
Finally, after hours of walking, we reached a plateau of sorts. Here we stopped and rested. Karen reminded us that life, at times, is difficult. How good it feels when you get past those hard times. Though we had traveled only a couple of miles, it seemed like much more. Karen was so right. As we felt the cool breeze blowing through the trees and looked at the beautiful view from atop the mountain, the difficult hike to this point seemed to be fading from memory a bit. It was as if the difficult journey made us all appreciate our beautiful surroundings even more. It was truly a special moment.
We were promised the rest of the hike would be much easier – basically downhill. Just like life, we were over the hump – for awhile, anyway. As I moved rapidly down the trail, I realized Karen was right. We were moving right along and it was much, much easier. Something just did not feel right to me though. I felt as if I had left something behind. I realized I had left my walking stick at our resting spot. It was not really necessary to have it now, but I had already grown attached to it. So, I backtracked and retrieved the stick.
The rest of the hike was fairly uneventful and quite a bit more pleasant than the first part. We finally reached our destination and sat down for our long-awaited lunch. It was mid-afternoon by now, and we were all more than ready for our slightly dented peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It had been a long and difficult hike, but it was fun, and the group had enjoyed it in spite of its difficulty.
As we prepared to leave, a young man came up and asked for our help. His wife had fallen and injured her ankle, and he was not sure where he was on the trail. Of course, we were willing to help. Karen and I led him to the end of the trail where he called for help.
As we returned to our group, we met them on the path on their way out. I asked my wife, “Did you get my stick?” Unfortunately, she had not. I wanted to go look for it, but it was late and we had to get our group home. How could the stick mean so much to me? I was not sure, but I felt disappointed that I did not have my stick as a souvenir of the occasion.
As we gathered at the end of the trail, I looked on the ground and there it was. At that moment, I knew “the stick” was special indeed, and I gathered it up like a long lost friend. I was to learn later that one of our college students on the hike had picked up my stick and carried it for me. I thought about the hike and the stick many times that week and planned to share my story with the youth at our next meeting.
I retold the story – recalling how I had been kidded for having the stick to begin with; how the stick had helped me over the difficult parts of the trail; how, when the going got easy, I forgot about my stick; how I felt something was missing without the stick; and, finally, how the stick appeared at the end of the trail. I then asked the group what the stick symbolized. Their answer was Jesus, and this was true. In our spiritual journey of life, it is Jesus we should turn to when times are hard. It is Jesus we forget about when things are going well. Jesus should be the One we lean on during our life.
For me, however, I told them the stick represented all of them – the youth group. It represented our friends – the ones Jesus gave us to help us along the physical journey of life. Many times we are ridiculed for the friends we choose. They may not be pretty enough or smart enough and often we are questioned as to why we chose them – just as I was with the stick. But if we stand by our friends, they will be there for us in times of need. We can lean on them, just as I leaned on the stick. There are those times in life when things are going well. We’re on a roll – life is good to us. Those are the times we forget about our friends. For the moment, we do not need them. But things will never feel just right without our true friends. Sometimes, we, too, have to backtrack to pick up our friends where we last left them. Sometimes we just plain forget about our friends. We get too busy – too much to do; more important things going on. Somehow – and we may not even know how – our friends will still be there for us. We just have to stop and look around, and there they are.
So, as the group listened attentively, I proclaimed “the stick” to be the symbol of our youth group. It became a symbol of the friends we make, the adults who care, the church we love, and the God who watches over us. “The stick” began to take on an almost legendary state as the story was told over and over to younger children, and to those who had missed class that week.
I vowed to take the stick on every step of our journey in preparation for Denver. I even said I would take it to Denver for World Youth Day. But that was months off. For now, the stick stood in the corner, leaning against the wall, waiting for the day when I would need it once again.