Two other girls had signed up to go on the trip, so the four of us started doing scheduled training hikes in the spring. The time seemed to fly as we talked and laughed. Though I made it through each hike easily, I still had a constant, nagging fear of the BIG one. Altitude sickness, broken bones, unforeseen illness…it all still applied. And it all made me nauseous.
I continued preparing, and thought that if I talked to enough people about my fears, they’d subside.
I was wrong.
“Yep—I got altitude sickness one time. Had to be carried off the mountain.”
“Oh yeah…that can be fatal, you know…altitude sickness.”
“Snake bites…now that’s a thing you really can’t help once it happens. Just pray that help gets to you soon.”
I stopped talking to people.
I thought that maybe I could lightly test my stamina by doing a big, steep hike. “King of the Mountain”, the trail is named. Francesca hiked it the day before I did, and she warned me that there were several “downed trees” covering the trail in spots. She said it slowed her down a bit. I imagined a few logs and twigs and general debris strewn about the trail. No problem, I thought.
I stomped out on that trail like a boss..ready to take on the biggest hike I’d done yet. “No music”, I’d told myself. I’d left my headphones at home. For the first time, it was just me and the forest.
Have you ever seen a downed tree?
Clearly, I hadn’t. It’s basically like the forest threw up in the middle of the trail and there’s no one around to clean it up. When I encountered the first one, I thought I’d come upon some minor natural disaster. The mess and tangle of trunk and limbs and needles and squirrels was waist-high. My first idea was to pack it in for the day. “Clearly, this trail is not prepared for people to travel upon,” I reasoned.
But Francesca had made it, hadn’t she? Just the day before, in fact.
I’m no pioneer, people. Rarely do I have the courage to set foot where no one else (or few) have. I figure there’s a good reason no one’s been “first”, and I’m not interested in taking that title along with its risks. Had Francesca not traversed the entire trail the day before (AND made it home to email me about the it), I would’ve turned back without a second thought and felt as though I had a very handy excuse for not hiking it that day.
So often, this is my life. I want to do great and meaningful things; I want to grow and change and discover. I want to live a daringly bold life in Christ. But when obstacles come? When things get hard? When it’s all too much and I can’t handle the unexpected? I doubt my ability to get through, and I turn back. I throw my hands in the air and give up. I’ve got so many excuses.
However, I’ve also got the Church.
That one – her 3 year old son is dying, and she’s still hanging onto Jesus. That one – his past is heartbreaking, but it doesn’t haunt him…he’s free from it in Christ. That one – she battles depression daily, and yet does not lose hope in her Savior. That one – she’s tired and weary and worn, and yet, fueled by Jesus Christ, she seeks out ways to serve the hurting around her. These people, they aren’t afraid of the downed trees. They are climbing through and up and over, grasping their Savior’s hand all the way. Hiking or living life next to people like this…like Francesca…it reminds us of the truth: God is with us. He is for us. And with Him, we can make it through anything.
We’ve all got downed trees in the road of life…massive tangles of messes…some of which are our making, some of which are not. We can turn back when we encounter them. We can quit. We can choose that the bottom of the hill is comfortable, easy to handle, and much more suited to our abilities. So we can run from our problems, our challenges, our opportunities; and we can simply spend our lives walking in comfortable little circles at the bottom of the hill. This is what I do so often. I won’t take that risk; I won’t try that thing; I won’t have that conversation; I won’t let go of this thing in my life. I’m too afraid. I’ll take the safety at the bottom, and pretend like there aren’t views and flowers and victory and complete brilliance at the top.
Or we can take hold of our God, who made those mountains (AND allowed those trees to land right smack in our path), and climb on. And we can look around to see others doing the same, and we can climb together. I was emboldened by the thought of brave Francesca…she made it. Her email to me had not said, “Ash, don’t go. You’re not gonna be able to handle this one.” Nope. She knew I could do it. You and I weren’t meant to walk the road of life alone. The church…the community of believers…exists to encourage, equip, and build us up and spur us onward.
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” – Hebrews 10:23-25
We don’t lose hope when we encounter the tangled mess before us, because He who promised to deliver His people through it all (Psalm 50:15) is faithful to His word. We climb on, and are encouraged by others who are climbing alongside us. And then we, too, get to encourage the ones we find struggling amidst the branches. This is church.
And so, I started praying that God would get me through, and I slowly began stepping my way through and up and over and under the mess of that tree. I couldn’t see where the path would appear again, but I knew that it would if I just kept going in that one direction. At one point, I had to remove my pack and throw it over the trunk so that I wouldn’t be tossed off balance as I climbed over. I got scratched and tripped, my heart racing. But all the while, I thought of Francesca, and I thought of Jesus, and I kept going.
And I made it to the other side, where the trail was clear and smooth again.
You know what? Just getting through that first downed tree made climbing over the rest so much quicker and easier. Each successive one posed an interesting, sometimes fun, challenge. And each one conquered boosted my confidence and made me feel like I really did belong out there. I really could do this.
If you don’t have a church family, please consider finding one.
Church isn’t about good people trying to get better. It’s about the fact that we’re all hiking the trail of life together, and God knows we need the encouragement of others making it through. Until we are at home with Him, we will need one another to speak His words audibly in our ears:
“You are not in this alone.”
“God loves you and will never leave you.”
“God gives strength to the weary.”
“God is near to the brokenhearted.”
“Your Father catches your tears in a bottle”
“He has given you everything you need for life and godliness. You can do this.”
“God has good plans for you.”
“God has forgiven you. Leave it behind…hike onward.”
“I made it through that. God got me through. He’ll get you through, too.”
Please also consider your role in the family of believers. You’re on a unique journey yourself. God has given you a specific purpose in the body of Christ, just like your fingers and lungs and eyes have their specific roles to benefit the body. Your experience will be used by Him to strengthen and embolden others who come upon their downed trees and wonder if they’ll make it through. We were made to need you; and you were made to need us.
Let’s hike together, shall we?