October 18, 2008

“How will we know when we reach the top?” asked my climbing partner, Rich, as he struggled to catch his breath in the rarefied, high mountain atmosphere.
At first I thought it was a strange question. But after a few moments of reflection it seemed much more like a reasonable inquiry. My nephew and I were hiking in the Colorado Rockies, attempting to reach the 13,223 foot summit of Mount Audubon. After struggling for hours on the steep, rocky trail we were both exhausted and ready to turn back. To make matters worse, the weather was deteriorating rapidly and threatening clouds began closing in on the mountain. Being completely exposed on the face of the mountain during a thunderstorm was indeed a very precarious predicament. Perhaps it was time to declare we had both reached the peak of our endurance, congratulate ourselves for how far we had come, and head back down to the safety of the forest below. But something made us reluctant to give up so easily. Perhaps it was the thrill of adventure, the challenge of a near-impossible goal, or the encouragement we provided each other. Whatever the reason, we decided not to turn back, not yet anyway.
“We’ll know we’re at the top when there’s no way to go but down,” I responded as we searched for a low place in the rocks in which to hunker down and wait out the storm. No sooner had we settled into a small hollow amongst a few huge boulders than the sky opened up and it began to hail. Fortunately the hail was fairly small in diameter and the storm blew over rather quickly. But now it was getting late in the day and we were still a long way from the summit. Taking the opportunity provided by the storm to rest and eat our lunch, we took stock of our position and planned what to do next.
Consulting a topographical map of the area I had fortunately brought along, I estimated we were about 500 feet below and a half mile from the top of a ridge that should afford us some excellent views if we could manage to reach it. The summit itself still loomed over 1200 feet above us.
“Let’s at least try to make it up to the top of the ridgeline so we can catch a view of the other side,” suggested Rich.
Feeling refreshed by our storm-induced pit-stop and energized by fueling up on a ham sandwich and some raisins (lightly seasoned with a few hailstones), I eagerly agreed. “Let’s go for it,” I shouted lifting my pack upon my weary shoulders and stepping back onto the trail. But that half mile was among the toughest I’ve ever hiked. When we finally reached the top of the ridge we were both totally exhausted. Yet, after taking a few pictures and enjoying the spectacular views, we both turned our eyes toward the summit.
“Is that all the farther it is to the top?” asked Rich.
“What you’re looking at is probably what’s known as a false summit,” I replied. “According to the map we still have another 700 feet to go. I doubt if we can see the true summit from here.”
“What if we just went straight up the mountain rather than following the trail,” asked my climbing companion reluctant to quit when we were this close to victory. “Wouldn’t that make the distance shorter?”
At this point on the mountain the trail consisted mostly of piles of rocks spaced about thirty feet apart. There simply was no dirt left to make any sort of path. Once again consulting my map I showed Rich the contour lines which revealed the elevation levels. When the lines are closer together it shows the slope to be much steeper. Going off the trail definitely meant a far more difficult climb.
“If we continue we’re far better off sticking to whatever remains of the trail,” I explained. “Going straight up the mountain takes us into some pretty steep cliffs. We certainly don’t want to get into a situation where we have to turn around and go back down for awhile searching for a better route to the summit. Every step we have to go downhill is another step we have to recover in order to reach the top.”
“Do you think we have enough time to make it all the way?” asked Rich, and then he added, “I don’t think I could feel much worse than I do now. If I’m going to be miserable I might as well have a victory to show for it.”
“We’d better hurry if we want to make it back down to our car before it gets dark,” I answered checking my watch. “But I’m game if you are.”
After emptying our packs of any nonessential items in order to lighten the load, we set off again. It’s difficult to explain how grueling the climb was from this point. Our own fatigue and muscle soreness coupled with the lack of oxygen at this altitude made every step a test of endurance. Yet we pressed on, determined to reach the top. Step…rest…breathe…step…rest…breathe. We scrambled over several false summits before the climb finally leveled out and we reached the point where the only way to go was down.
“Welcome to the top of the world!” I exclaimed. “I can’t believe we actually made it.”
The view was glorious! It seemed like we could see forever. The air was thin but wonderfully pure and perfumed with the sweet fragrance of success. For a precious few minutes we were in heaven looking down upon a polluted world from our mountain top thrones perched high above all the anxiety, corruption, sin, anger, and violence so prevalent in the world below. But alas, time was fleeting and we were forced to retreat from heaven and return to the real world. By the time we made it back to our car it was completely dark and we were completely spent. Yet we were both thrilled that we had not turned back before we reached the top. In spite of our pain and exhaustion we had persevered. Weariness is sweet when it is born out of victory.
The kingdom of God is filled with weary pilgrims who have turned back from pursuing the summit. What are the reasons for their failure? Perhaps they have been attempting to climb alone without the encouraging companionship of other Christians. “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” – Hebrews 10:24-25.
Some exhausted climbers may have their backpacks crammed full of nonessential items and the burdens may be too heavy for them to carry. They need to learn to lighten the load. “…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles…” Others have simply run out of energy and turned back before they reached the summit. Or the storms of this life have left them feeling discouraged and defeated. “…and let us run with perseverance…” Others may have strayed from the trail thinking they knew a better route to the top only to discover their chosen path was too steep and they had to turn back. “…the race marked out for us…” And still others have lost sight of the goal, settling instead for false summits. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” – Hebrews 12:1-3.
The message, my climbing partners, is not to give up. As long as there is another step higher than where we currently stand our climb is not yet finished. For the Christian there is no retirement in this life. But we must remember not to attempt this ascent on our own. We need to consult our trail map (God’s Word) regularly lest we stray from the course. We also need to daily check our backpacks to see if we are carrying any sins. “Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false.” – Psalm 24:3-4. And when the storms of life threaten to blow us off the mountain we need to hunker down in the hollow of His hands and rest in the shelter of His love.
When the sun shines again it is time to resume climbing, step after step after step, with our eyes fixed squarely on the summit, never turning back, always straining toward the top. “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 3:12-14.
How will we know when we have reached the top? The answer should be obvious. We will know we have reached the summit when there’s no way to go but down. That is the day when the trail will level out and we will find ourselves standing on top of the world surrounded by His glory. Visions of this polluted world will vanish beneath us and we truly will be able to see for all eternity. We will inhale deeply the purified air of heaven perfumed by the sweet fragrance of the breath of God. And we will take one last step, into His loving arms and into a joyous victory celebration that will never end. Until that day we must continue to climb, step by step, persevering over every obstacle, always gaining altitude, ever moving heavenward, never turning back, without thought of retiring, without settling for failure, with our eyes set squarely on the goal, straining toward the top, pressing on toward the summit. We may certainly at times suffer from fatigue and exhaustion, but weariness is sweet when it leads to victory!

Bill, a child of God, still climbing

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