Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Treasure Map to Nowhere

This past weekend was a weekend of firsts.  Kim and I spent the day on Saturday completing a 10 mile training hike, which is the longest distance I've gone in a single day and is also the distance that I plan to travel each day during Hike4Hope.  It was also the first time that I carried a full load (just under 50lbs).  Up until this point, I had completed shorter hikes with about 3/4 of my load.  For this 10 mile hike, we decided to hike from the Hamburg Reservoir to the Pinnacle on Blue Mountain and back, making a short stop at Pulpit Rock, and checking out a few side trails along the way.  The ascent to Pulpit Rock was quite pleasant.  We began around 9:30am and temperatures were very good for walking.
The trail along this section, while offering several switchbacks, was also fairly wide, and we were pleasantly surprised to find it to be relatively free of rocks.  As we neared Pulpit rock, the conditions of the trail began to turn to what we have come to expect of the trail in Pennsylvania.  We clambered through a boulderfield and continued a little further before coming to the brilliant vista offered at Pulpit Rock.  We decided this would be a great spot to take a pack break and enjoy our surroundings for a brief time.  We quietly and contemplatively sat on the edge of the cliff admiring the beauty of God's creation.  I could have stayed there all day, were we not on a mission to complete the 10 miles before sunset.

The next two miles took a great deal of mental toughness.  Those two miles felt like four.  The ruggedness of the terrain was discouraging not to mention physically taxing.  As we crossed another boulderfield, we came upon the logs pictured below and began discussing how hiking is sometimes like following a treasure map...a treasure map to nowhere.  When you are deep in the woods, walled in by trees and rocks with no one else around you, you often begin to wonder just where you are going and why.  You think, "Why am I putting myself through this?"  "What's the point of walking across all of these rocks?"  "Where is the X that marks the spot, that makes the journey worthwhile?"
Sometimes, like this past Saturday, the X that marks the spot is found when the ridge opens up and you have a clear view for miles of land around you.  At other times, you finish a hike having had no spectacular views.  Instead, the most spectacular thing you might have seen are the ankle-twisting, boot-breaking rocks on which you've spent hours treading.  Believe it or not, the rocks do have a pretty neat history of their own, but compared to the vistas that you hope for on every hike, they can seem a bit dull.  So what do we do when we are following a treasure map to nowhere?  We keep going.  We press on to finish the race set before us.  We step back and realize that if life were only made up of the spectacular vistas, we would not have as great an appreciation for them when we encounter them.  The thing that makes the vistas so incredible is the element of surprise.
Imagine scaling piles of scree and talus amid the never-ending green curtain of the forest, wondering if this is all there is to look forward to.  Then, all of a sudden, you are hit by the sunlight as you step out onto a ledge that emerges from the trees out of nowhere, allowing you to see for miles around.  There are no words to express what you are feeling... awe comes close, but it's so much more than that.  These moments, these spiritual highs, are what propel us on-wards.  They provide encouragement that we need to carry on completing Christ's mission here on earth.  But we can't stay out on the overlook forever, no matter how much we would like to.  There is work to be done, so we learn to use these vistas for strength and encouragement as we return to the work that has been set aside for us.  We draw on those vista experiences to bring others into the fold.

The vista experiences, I find, often come when we need them most; just prior to a trial or difficult time, or immediately following one.  The second half of our journey on Saturday, was no exception.  We had taken a nice break for lunch at the pinnacle, trying hard not to let the entertaining, albeit rambunctious antics of the scout troop of 13-year-old's spoil the peaceful atmosphere that we craved.  After dishearteningly witnessing several violations of leave no trace principles, we decided it was time for us to begin our return journey.  As we got up to leave, we realized that we were already beginning to feel the effects of our hike.  Our feet and knees were sore and my shoulders were aching from adjusting to the increased weight of my pack.  What made things most difficult in beginning the return, was we knew that we had two miles of rugged terrain ahead before we reached Pulpit Rock.  For two hours we walked on, silent for much of this part of the journey.  Occasionally, we greeted and passed by some fellow hikers who were on their way north to take in the astounding views of the Pinnacle.  We looked for landmarks that we recognized from the morning to help spur ourselves on, saying things to one-another like, "Hey I remember that rock.  We're not too far from the boulderfield now!" Or, following the theme of Lord of the Rings (which so often permeates our conversation) jokingly expressing how "going south somehow seems like walking downhill." We looked for anything that we could use to keep our spirits high, knowing that reaching Pulpit Rock meant that we could have a brief respite and an opportunity to admire the scenery again.

At Pulpit Rock, we took our break and mentally prepared for the descent to the Hamburg Reservoir. We had been walking for over 6 hours and had completed approximately 8 miles of our journey.  We had two more miles to go on sore and tired legs. We knew we had one more boulderfield to traverse, and a good bit of down-hill hiking before we would reach our final destination.  These last two miles were the most mentally taxing of the day.  We were nearing the end, yet it took an incredible amount of energy to keep on walking.

Over the course of the day, we talked about many things, often times making references to Lord of the Rings as is our usual custom; but on our descent back to the Hamburg Reservoir, we discussed how blessed we were to be out hiking on that gorgeous Saturday afternoon.  We not only saw beautiful vistas, but observed many of God's creations.  Ferns were covering the forest floor, sweet azaleas were in bloom, a butterfly perched on a branch, and we were even lucky enough to observe a Scarlet Tanager in the canopy of the trees. We were out, completing a task that for many is impossible, and for others would be compulsory in order for them to survive.  As we walked, I thought about the innumerable people in the world who would have to walk 10 miles or more just to get to a water source, only to fill their containers and have to walk 10 miles back with the heavy water that surely carries waterborne illness.  I thought of countless others who like Nathan and Bennett would not be able to complete our day's task because of the ruggedness of the terrain.  As we discussed the blessing that it was to be voluntarily hiking on the A.T., our aches and pains from 6 + hours of walking had no hold on us.  We drew upon the blessings and completed our 10 mile adventure in under 8 hours time, thankful that we had no run-ins with any slithering creatures, suffered no injuries, and grateful for the opportunity afforded to us to embark on such and incredible journey.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Testing & Preparation - 40 Days

The number 40 holds great significance in Biblical context:  
  • Noah experienced 40 days and nights of rainfall
  • Moses spent 40 years in Egypt and another 40 years in the desert prior to being called to lead his people out of slavery
  • Israel ate Manna for 40 years
  • Moses was with God for 40 days and nights on the mountain, on two separate occasions
  • Spies searched the land of Canaan for 40 days
  • Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years
  • 40 stripes was the maximum whipping penalty
  • Othniel, Deborah and Barak, Eli and Gideon all served as judges for 40 years
  • Goliath presented himself to Israel for 40 days
  • Saul reigned for 40 years
  • David reigned for 40 years
  • The holy place in the temple was 40 cubits long
  • Solomon reigned for 40 years
  • Elijah fasted for 40 days and nights
  • Ezekiel laid on his right side for 40 days
  • Jonah warned Nineveh of its impending destruction for 40 days
  • Jesus fasted & was tempted 40 days and nights prior to beginning his public ministry
  • Jesus remained on earth for 40 days following his resurrection

In all of these instances, the number 40 indicates a period of preparation, testing, trial, probation or indicates the time period of a generation.  These periods of testing often end with a period of restoration, revival or renewal.  

I am now 40 days from the beginning of my Hike4Hope journey.  In many ways, I feel as though I've been on this journey for some time already, but I believe that these last 40 days hold great significance.  These last 40 days are sure to be a time of preparation and of testing.  As I make final preparations for the hike in terms of equipment, training, etc... I will also be continuing to prepare mentally and spiritually for the road ahead. God is surely at work,  making and molding me into who He wants me to be, giving me the strength and tools that I need to complete the journey ahead. 


This time is sure to be one of spiritual warfare.  As the time nears for my departure, Satan will do all in his power to place stumbling blocks in my path to keep me from following the callng that God placed on my heart.  Fear, anxiety, busyness, and a variety of distractions are all likely weapons that he will use to throw me off track.  Fortunately, I have a perfect model to follow in Jesus Christ, to combat this spiritual warfare.  Jesus' answers to temptation and trial are to find nourishment in the Word of God, to humbly revere God, and to worship and serve him in all that we think, say and do.  

I am confident that God will use this time of testing to fulfill His purposes in my life and in the lives of those around me.  It is through these times of testing that we often learn to trust and rely on God, and it is in these times when our wills begin to align more with God's will. Mark Schultz's song, "40 days," captures the essence of the wilderness experiences.  When we feel that we are farthest from God, that's when we will find him and come to trust him more fully.

Lord, Your ways are not my own
But I trust you
Lord, you say, "You are not alone,
For I am with you"

But there are times, like now, when you can't be found...

And it's like 40 days out in the desert
Feeling like I'm lost forever
And crying out for You
But in these 40 days I'm going to seek You
With my heart because I believe You
Have brought me to this place
These 40 days


Since receiving this call to action last October, God has been working in my life to prepare me (mind, body, spirit) for the road ahead.  One of the most difficult lessons that I've been learning is that of trust. Trusting with reckless abandon is so unnatural for me, and that is exactly what He is asking of me; to trust Him with all that I have and with all that I am. Really, it's the same thing that he asks of every Christian. Much of the time, our pride obscures our vision, making it difficult for us to see our trust issues. Over and over God has proven his trustworthiness,  yet over and over again I have pridefully refused to trust Him. It is a difficult lesson, and one that I will spend the entirety of my life learning. I have found, over these past months,  that the more time I spend immersed in the Word, the easier and more natural it is to trust. This then is the key to the 40 days ahead: to dive into the Word and sit at the feet of the Master, fixing my gaze upon Him and learning from Him in every circumstance.

In preparation for this hike,  God has also given me a tremendous support system.  My family and friends have been extremely helpful and supportive these past months. A phenomenal team of passionate women have also teamed up with me and have been instrumental in helping to prepare me for the road ahead. I can honestly say that without them, I never would have made it to this 40 day mark. They have been so encouraging and helpful; constantly thinking of ways to bring Progeria into the spotlight and stirring others to take action, and also helping me to plan the hike itself. They have been and continue to be such a blessing to me, and as I make my final preparations,  I can rest assured, knowing that they're in my corner offering their prayers and support.  

As I think on the 40 days ahead I am drawn to Deuteronomy 8, and am reminded that the same God who led the Israelites into the Promised Land, leads us still, providing for our every need.  Without Him, we are lost, blind and lame sheep, meandering through a wilderness that we cannot hope to navigate on our own.

Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you.
Observe the commands of the Lord your God, walking in obedience to him and revering him. For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley,vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.
10 When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. 11 Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. 12 Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, 13 and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied,14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 15 He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. 16 He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. 17 You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hand produced this wealth for me.” 18 But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.
19 If you ever forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. 20 Like the nations the Lord destroyed before you, so you will be destroyed for not obeying the Lord your God.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Songs for the Journey

In the fast-paced society that we live in, we are constantly looking for the quick fix - the immediate fulfillment of our wants and needs.  In fact, for many, it is borderline obsession. "If we can't get it fast, it's not worthwhile, right?"  I'm sad to say that the same can often times be said of our faith journeys.  We look for the short list of things that we can do to grow closer to God; things like being a good person and going to church on Sunday, perhaps attending a weekly Bible study or doing service projects.  None of these things are bad, mind you; indeed they are all very good, and I would argue that they are an integral part of our faith journeys.  But when we lose interest, when the Good News loses it's novelty, what happens then?  God desires more of us than our seeking a "quick-fix" religion. To be a disciple is to be an apprentice to our master, Jesus.  As Friedrich Nietzsche so profoundly puts it, discipleship is a "long obedience in the same direction."

Let's think on that for a minute.... A Long Obedience in the Same Direction....

That phrase certainly gives me pause as I think about all of the things that I want to accomplish right now and consider all of the times that I was impatient today, but what exactly does it mean?  Eugene Peterson helps us to examine ourselves and find the answer.

In his book which utilizes the aforementioned phrase as it's title, Peterson shares with us the tools that the ancient Israelite people used as they traveled along on their faith journeys.  As modern pilgrims, we can utilize these same tools as we learn to grow in worship, service, joy, work, happiness, humility, community and blessing.  These precious gems are found in the fifteen chapters following Psalm 119, and are given the heading "Songs (Psalms) of Ascent."  Many scholars believe that the Psalms of Ascent were sung by pilgrims on their way UP, to worship in Jerusalem during the festival times.  These Psalms relate to the Israelites and to us on multiple planes (physical, spiritual, emotional), but at the heart of them is the theme of returning (looking UP) to God and the restoration of fellowship with Him.  These Psalms remind us of who we are, who God is, and where we are going.  Our relationship and fellowship are restored through a long obedience in the same direction.

The Psalms of Ascent are amazing in their depth and breadth.  One of my favorite things about the Psalms in general is that they are prayers offered by people like you and me; Not merely lofty praises to a seemingly distant God.  No, these Psalms encounter us where we are, delve into the depths of all human experience and bring us to the God who walks with us every step of the way.  Praise is offered amid suffering, Worship is done in the midst of grief, and Joy is proclaimed in the midst of great sorrow.  The beauty of the Psalms of Ascent is that they show us how to look to God in every circumstance of our lives; in the ups, downs and everywhere in between.  The Psalms of Ascent give us a pattern to follow.  They combine the cheerfulness of a travel song with the practicality of a guidebook and map.

As I've been preparing for my upcoming journey, I have spent a great deal of time pouring over guidebooks and maps.  It has been a long process of learning how to read them and utilize them together, so that I am able to find my way, should I become lost.  There have been several moments on my training hikes, when I have been unsure of where the next step should be or when I have been unsure as to how much distance I've covered.  In those moments, I consult my guidebook and map and can usually make a determination as to where I am.  The brief moments of panic and anxiety are assuaged by the knowledge that I have a tool that can help me to get back on track.  How comforting it is, to know that there is a guidebook and map containing songs and prayers for every season and circumstance of our lives!  These are the songs for the journey of a life worth living; the journey of a long obedience in the same direction.

I encourage you to take some time to read and pray these Psalms (120-134).  May they become for you a guidebook and map as you travel this life, continually pointing you back to God and renewing and restoring your relationship with Him.