Staying on the Path

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Before my two brothers and I got too old to attempt new outdoor adventures, we decided to hike about 45 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

Our time together began like all such quests – with glorious optimism.

The AT is rugged and beautiful.  It meanders more than 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine through woods and over rocky peaks.

I outfitted myself with everything I thought might be crucial to my hiking success.  We loaded our backpacks with sleeping gear, several days’ worth of food, and generous supplies of water, since the heat index on these July days was going to push 100.

As we began trudging up our first hill, we felt the heaviness of our 30-pound packs.

It wasn’t long before we received subtle reminders that our bodies had changed somewhat from our Boy Scout days.  My younger brother Bruce actually turned 50 on our first day of hiking.  As he progressively melted in the heat, we predicted the headline of the local newspaper: Hiker Who Goes Over the Hill Dies on the Hill. 

I felt confident.  I’m an active year-round walker.  Little did I know that I had blundered on a crucial aspect of preparation.

I had borrowed the backpack that I was carrying.  It had not been professionally fitted to my frame.  I wasn’t worried, though.  How hard could this be?

Within the first hour I realized that the weight I was carrying was unbalanced.  I began to feel like a contortionist, continually making physical adjustments just to go forward.

I began to pitch my weight forward, which put tremendous pressure on my left knee.  By the middle of the second day I was hobbling and in serious trouble. 

I recalled the celebrated expression of horse owners: “No foot, no horse.”  It doesn’t matter what shape the rest of your horse is in.  If it has one bad foot, everything stops.

I started saying to myself, “No foot, no Glenn.”

Finally I came to a halt at one of the places where the Appalachian Trail crosses the park’s main road.  I dropped my backpack.  I couldn’t take another step.  My brothers went on without me. 

Ultimately I was able to hitch a ride with a nice retired couple from Brooklyn, who chauffeured me down the road to our planned stop for the evening. 

For the better part of the next two days, my hike was over.

Jesus had something to say to would-be disciples whose enthusiasm for spiritual journeying outstrips their actual readiness to walk:  “The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).  Or as Eugene Peterson memorably paraphrased that verse in The Message: “There is a part of you that is eager, ready for anything in God.  But there’s another part that is lazy as an old dog sleeping by the fire.”

On a hot summer day I stepped out of my regular existence and tried to excel at a life that required a serious commitment to wilderness hiking. 

I faltered. 

The same thing happens whenever I forget that my spiritual life has to be an actual life.

Walking with God is not an occasional day hike – dropping in from time to time for a mission trip, devotional break, or retreat – after which I go back to my “real” world.  The apostle Paul points us in a different direction: 

“You’ve all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race. Everyone runs; one wins. Run to win. All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. You’re after one that’s gold eternally.  I don’t know about you, but I’m running hard for the finish line. I’m giving it everything I’ve got. No lazy living for me! I’m staying alert and in top condition. I’m not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself” (I Corinthians 9:24-27, The Message).

Have you ever tried to run or walk or even crawl with God, only to see your glorious optimism fade away?

Don’t give up.  Begin again. 

We serve a glorious Savior, one who will make sure we learn how to stay on the path.