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“Who wants to skip church next Sunday?” I ask my little congregation in Nevada City.

No one dares an answer. I think they’re still getting to know their chaplain-turned-pastor-again.

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“Let’s take a hooky-hike instead,” I suggest.

I hear only squeaky pews until a church council member suggests we could do both hike and church.

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“That’s a good compromise,” I admit.

“Why a hike?” someone asks.

“I want to test a theory.”

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More squeaks from the padded pews.

“I often hear that God can be worshiped anywhere — on a golf course, a beach, or a mountainside.”

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For a moment, they seem to look for an answer in the hymnal racks.

“I think we should road-test the theory on a nearby trailhead.”

Our church sits on the in-between. A one-hour car ride east ascends 6,000 feet toward the Nevada border, skating the Lake Tahoe shoreline. An hour west takes us into the flat land of our state capital. Add another hour and we’re crossing the Golden Gate.

This is California Gold Country, dotted with boulders, crisscrossing streams and miles of mines. More gold came out of these hills than any other California county. 

Hiking choices are infinite among the melody of leaf maples, dogwoods and Douglas firs. The Douglas creates a noble, upright growth with lush needles that form a beautiful downward sweeping canopy. This is not the California of palm trees, endless beaches and deserts.

So a few hours before the next Sunday worship, our group of hikers navigates curvy rural roads, pushing east of Nevada City ontoBanner Mountain. We park in a small lot adjacent to the popular Cascade Trail.

We choose this trail because the county website promises our fit, 65+ age group “an almost level walk along a peaceful canal through a forest. At 3,200 feet elevation, it is a bit higher and cooler than many local trails.”

During the hour-long hike, our group detects God in many places. Some discover the divine in each other as they converse, laugh and see each other in ways they don’t notice pew-side.

A few hear woodpeckers telling knock-knock jokes on a Douglas fir. Our trail crosses the Woodpecker Wildlife Preserve named for the birds found in the area such as pileated, downy, hairy and red-breasted sap suckers.

A few congregants lag behind to examine plants like the bleeding hearts, while others search for Shelton’s violet, the spottedcoralroot orchid, and the more common American trail plant

We stop on a small canal bridge where I revisit a game invented by Winnie-the-Pooh called Poohsticks. I tell each player to drop a stick on the upstream side of a bridge and the one whose stick first appears on the downstream side is the winner.

Having raised four kids, I’m an experienced player. I win two out of three.

Unsure if the game is churchy enough, I pause a few minutes down trail and gather an impromptu glee club to sing “How Great Thou Art.”

A single mountain biker and a hiking couple patiently pause while we sing,

Oh Lord, my God, When I in awesome wonder

Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made.

I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,

Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee,

How great Thou art, how great Thou art.

A half hour later, we begin our drive down the mountain to rejoin other congregants for church.

It’s Father’s Day, so I follow the instructions of Psalm 100:2 to “bring the gift of laughter” by challenging them to tell their best dad jokes. We follow the Psalmist order of worship as we converse a few minutes, sing, open our Bibles and pray.

Then I preach a little, but my words aren’t nearly as profound as the “words” the hikers heard that morning. We all knew of God’s many cathedrals but we are blessed to have visited one of them today.

The words that conclude Psalm 100 seem profoundly true to us now. “For God is sheer beauty.” (v.5).

Chaplain Norris Burkes began his chaplain career with both the active-duty Air Force and the Air National Guard until his retirement in 2014. He later served as a board-certified healthcare chaplain at Sutter Memorial, Kaiser, Methodist and Mather VA hospitals and continues to work with area Hospice. His column is syndicated to more than 35 accredited news outlets. Read past columns at www.thechaplain.net.

*Views expressed in published guest commentaries are those of the author or submitting organization and do not necessarily represent those of Folsom Times or All Town Media, LLC. 

Norris Burkes
Author: Norris Burkes