Holy Hiking: Tramping the Path of Disciplined Grace

Hiking through Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline: how to deepen your spiritual walk with God while tramping through simplicity and silence, solitude and service, meditation and prayer and praise.  First written for a reflection at the South Island trip reunion of the Auckland Baptist Tramping Club (www.abtc.net.nz), 15 March 2014.

One of my favourite Christian writers is Richard Foster.  He has a vast knowledge of literature from church history, and a personal closeness to Christ.  It’s a powerful combination.  Friends who’ve met him said he “reeks of godliness”, but is also wickedly funny.  Profound and down to earth.  (Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home was one of my 40 life books.)

When Philip asked me to bring the devotion tonight, I thought of Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline: the Path to Spiritual Growth (1978).  It came 8th in Christianity Today’s “Books of the Century“, with the comment:

After Foster finishes each spiritual discipline, you not only know what it is, why it’s important, and how to do it – you want to do it.

Down the centuries, Christians have practised spiritual disciplines to grow closer to God and more like Christ.  Foster describes them as “the path of disciplined grace” or a “means for receiving God’s grace”.  He stresses they are not an end in themselves or seeking salvation by our own efforts, but they help us to “place our lives before God, so that He may work within us”.

There is no definitive list of these disciplines, but here are Richard Foster’s 12, which form the chapters of his book:

celebration-of-disciplinePart One: the inward disciplines.

Part Two: the outward disciplines.

Part Three: the corporate disciplines.

For comparison, here’s a similar list of 15 from The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (1988) by Dallas Willard:

Disciplines of abstinence:
Solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, sacrifice.

Disciplines of engagement:
Study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, submission.

Many of these practices clash with our culture.  “Solitude is un-American” (Erica Jong).  So are silence and submission, frugality and fasting.  They deny our self-made individualism, our ambitious materialism, our hectic hedonism, our I-want-it-now consumerism.  So Celebration of Discipline begins:

Superficiality is the curse of our age.  The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem.  The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.

The classical Disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths.  They invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm.  They urge us to be the answer to a hollow world.

Don’t we all have this longing for a deeper life?  Richard Foster asks, “Don’t you feel a tug, a yearning to sink down into the silence and solitude of God?”

For me, part of this longing is the call of the wild, the hunger for time outside the shallow city and in the deep outdoors.

“Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls,” says the psalmist (Psalm 42:7).  American philosopher Thoreau spent two years in a forest cabin and wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…  I wanted to live deep.”

That is the purpose of the disciplines – to help us live deep.  And as I looked at these lists, I realised that many of these practices are things I value about tramping.  So here are some ways that I think we can practice such disciplines, and learn to live more deeply, when we sling on our packs and hit the track.

Great things are done when men and mountains meet.
This is not done by jostling in the street.
(William Blake)


Community with simplicity at Poor Pete's Hut, Kahurangi

Community with simplicity at Poor Pete’s Hut, Kahurangi

Most of us have a house full of possessions.  Our lives are cluttered with things we don’t need.

On the trail, it’s just what’s on my back.  And I can feel the burden if I’ve got too much – as Ralph did with his ol’ Mountain Mule pack in the Red Hills last summer!  We sleep under canvas or in a simple hut, with little luxury compared to “normal life”.  Yet aren’t we often happier?

In the woods, Thoreau learnt, “That man is richest, whose pleasures are the cheapest”.

Admiral Richard Byrd lived alone in the Arctic for months and wrote, “A man can live profoundly without masses of things.”

Both of them discovered the truth of Jesus’ words,

“Your life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions.” (Luke 12:15)


Our lives are cluttered, and they are noisy.   There’s often too much racket to hear ourselves think, let alone to hear God speak.  We’re often too busy to realise.

Tramping gives us space.  No cell phone, no TV, no email, no radio – except when certain rugby-addicted members are following a game…

Out in the bush, I often find myself praying, “You restore my soul” (Psalm 22:3).  Early one morning on the Wangapeka Track I was sitting outside with Stan.  The others weren’t up.  There was no wind.  Stan said, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

Without silence, there is no music; there is only noise.  (M. Scott Peck)


Silent solitude over Loch Maree, Fiordland

Silent solitude over Loch Maree, Fiordland

I sometimes like being tail-end Charlie so I can amble along alone in the bush, away from the madding crowd.  As Richard Foster says, “Loneliness is inner emptiness.  Solitude is inner fulfilment.”

I recall nights when my bladder has woken me.  I’m warm and cosy in my sleeping bag and it’s so cold outside.  I lie there arguing with myself, weighing the competing desires…

When bladder has trumped bed, on the way back I sometimes switch off my headlamp.  It’s profoundly still.  Just me and the stars and God.

We are told that Jesus often valued such times:

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.  (Mark 1:35, Luke 5:16)

True solitude is a din of birdsong, seething leaves, whirling colours, or a clamour of tracks in the snow.  (Edward Hoagland)

Prayer and Meditation

The simple, silent solitude makes tramping a great time to pray, and to meditate.

As you walk along the trail you can memorise and ponder a verse of Scripture, repeating it, marinating in God’s Word.  Or walk through a favourite Bible story and imagine yourself in the scene: see and smell every detail, hear Christ’s words to you.  Or you can contemplate God’s book of nature.

Jesus said to consider the birds of the air – how God feeds them, and the lilies of the field – how God clothes them.  (Matthew 6:26-28)  “Consider”, “look at”, “pay attention to” the details of God’s world.  How often do we stop and do that?

Scripture is full of “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones” (Shakespeare).  From practical advice, like “Go to the ant, you sluggard!” (Proverbs 6:6).  To spiritual illustration:

Pleasant Range, Fiordland

As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs after you.  (Psalm 42:1)

When my water bottle has run out with another hot hour uphill still to go, I understand.  Once I’ve quenched my physical thirst, I like to sit and watch a stream splashing over stones, bubbling over pebbles.  You can let it still your soul and satisfy your spirit, or imagine it’s washing you clean, as God’s forgiveness does.

A white-tailed deer drinks
from the creek;
I want to drink God,
deep draughts of God.
(Psalm 42:1, The Message)


Soul Survivor by Paul HawkerSuch times of quiet outdoor reflection can help us find God’s guidance for our lives.  Feeling rudderless in his 40s, New Zealand born Australian Paul Hawker headed to the Tararua ranges.  He wrote an excellent book about his experience, Soul Survivor: a Spiritual Quest through 40 Days and 40 Nights of Mountain Solitude (1998).

Philip in our club was once unsure whether he should continue pastoring, so he went tramping for time with God.  In Hopeless Hut at Nelson Lakes, a tui perched on the windowsill.  It sang, and sang, and sang some more.  With its white throat feathers on a black coat, the tui is called the parson bird, and Philip felt God telling him to keep on preaching.

Many mountaineers in danger have sensed a divine presence guiding them to safety – the “third man” phenomenon.  In the hills, these verses have both a figurative and literal application:

The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord…  Though he fall, he shall not be cast down: for the Lord upholds him with his hand.  (Psalm 37:23-24)


Food and Fellowship

Food and Fellowship

As well as solitude and silence, I enjoy the camaraderie and fellowship of a tramping group.  As we conquer scree slopes and killer climbs, washed-out tracks and mud, we grow closer.

In fact, tramping reminds me of Paul’s illustration:

You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance…
(1 Corinthians 12:27-8)

It’s like a tramping party.  Some have the gift of cooking.  Some plan and organise.  Some read maps and program the GPS so we don’t get lost.  Some oil the cookers when they get stuck and maintain the equipment.  Some have a cheerful spirit that helps us get up those steep hills.  Some have wisdom, giving inspiration and guidance as we plod along.

I’m a fairly self-sufficient chap and I don’t often ask for help.  But I’m also rather light.  It’s good to swallow my pride and hang on to a bigger bloke when crossing rivers!

Tramping reminds us that we need each other.  Many peoples’ different gifts work together for a successful trip.  Like a tramping party,

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. (1 Corinthians 12:12)

Submission and Service

ohau-river-crossingAs a tramping body of Christ, we have many opportunities to practice Paul’s commands.

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21)

Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interest of others.  (Philippians 2:4)

Carry each other’s burdens. (Galatians 6:2)

Maybe that means lifting my focus above my own sore feet or aching shoulders, to notice someone else who can’t walk as fast, or needs a helping hand.  In the club we are blessed with many servant leaders who do just this.

On my first summer tramp, five of us were up on the Matiri Plateau in Kahurangi National Park.  Paul was having difficulties, so Dave slung Paul’s pack on his front and ran down faster than all of us.  That’s shouldering another’s burden!

Every Discipline has its corresponding freedom.  What freedom corresponds to submission?  It is the ability to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way… the freedom to give up our own rights for the good of others. (Richard Foster)

Worship and Celebration

Finally, when we are in the beauty of God’s world in this gorgeous country, with legs that can climb God’s mountains and lungs to breathe God’s clean air and eyes that can take it all in; when we consider all the good gifts God gives us, doesn’t it lift your spirit in praise?  I once spent a night at Arthurs Park in Hallelujah Biv!

sunset-through-treesWorship is our response to the overtures of love from the heart of the Father. (Richard Foster)

On one Mount Owen trip, we stopped for a breather on the way up to Granity Pass Hut.  I remember Warren wandering around under the beech trees and repeating, “Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.”

The trees of the forest will sing for joy. (Psalm 96:12)

My first Easter Sunday with the club was a glorious morning on the tussock tops of the Kaimanawa ranges, gazing over Lake Taupo as we enjoyed Easter eggs together and sang hymns.

The mountains and hills will burst into song. (Isaiah 55:12)

Without joyous celebration to infuse the other Disciplines, we will sooner or later abandon them.  Joy produces energy.  Joy makes us strong.  (Richard Foster)


We all knew tramping was good for both body and soul, and here is even more proof!  I’ve mentioned about two thirds of these books’ spiritual disciplines, and with imagination, you could get the others:

pudding-on-the-trailWe study Scripture in our devotions, and can study people and nature.  Fasting isn’t just total abstinence, but can include giving up luxuries like café lattés or ice cream, as many Catholics do in Lent and we do on the trail.  Foster also suggests fasting from the media or telephone or advertising.  Most of us observe chastity on club trips, though some members have met their future partners!  And perhaps one of our pastors could pitch a tent for confession, with the inner insect mesh as a curtain…

W. H. Murray, deputy leader of the 1951 Everest Expedition, said:

When I think of the huge sums of money spent on that mountain, the vast supplies marshalled for the 13 attempts upon Everest, and the human energies poured out…  I cannot but wish that men might spend with equal ardour on the “Inner Everest” what is so lavishly devoted to the outer.

He is echoing the words of Paul,

Physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things.  (1 Timothy 4:8)

Before our summer tramps, we get prepared.  We cycle or jog or go to the gym to get fit.  We sort our first aid kits and buy new gear.  We patch our tents and wax our boots, print out maps and plan our route.  We don’t all this for its own sake, but so that we can climb higher into the mountains, go deeper into creation.

In the same way, the spiritual disciplines strengthen our spirits and equip our souls, so that we can live deep, and experience a deeper relationship with our Creator that brings a higher joy.

Whether tramping through canyons or trailing through accounts, may we follow God’s path of disciplined grace.  May we spell out his answer to our superficial age.  May we become a deep people.

Celebration of Discipline concludes:

gazing-at-snowy-peaksThe classical Disciplines of the spiritual life beckon us to the Himalayas of the Spirit. Now we stand at timberline awed by the snowy peaks before us. We step out in confidence with our Guide who has blazed the trail and conquered the highest summit.

At times we may become discouraged in our journey.  The peaks, where we would like to be, look so distant.  We are painfully aware of our seemingly endless wandering in the foothills.  But when we look back we see that progress has been made and in that we rejoice.

The apostle Paul knew that he had many heights yet to conquer.  Rather than being discouraged, however, he was challenged to “press on towards the goal for the price of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 3:14).  The same challenge is ours today.

Richard Foster doesn’t have a large online presence, but here are a few links I found:

An audio interview where he summarises Celebration of Discipline: Part One, Part Two.

A video clip on the discipline of simplicity: Part One, Part Two, Part Three.

And here he introduces his latest book, Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer:

If you enjoyed this reflection on tramping spirituality, you might like these sermons with tramping themes:

All photos in this post are my own.