Updated: Jul 28, 2020
Sometimes you just have to go for a walk...a long, hard, up-hill walk. Its not just that you need to get out of your own house, it's that you need to get out of your own head. Sometimes you need more than just a fresh environment; you need a fresh perspective.
I’ve been feeling that need again. Maybe the craving isn't as strong as it was the last time, but it is calling to me once again. It was several years ago that I took a day-hike that proved to be a life changing, spiritually renewing experience! The time I learned that a TRIAL in life can sometimes turn into a TRAIL. Recently I came across the notes I wrote about it. Here's the story of my little "Hike of Hope."
The events of the previous months had accumulated into a smothering burden when I decided I had to get alone somewhere. The warm May morning was calling to me. So, I explained to my wife that I was going on a hike and would be gone the rest of the day.
I grabbed an old black backpack from the closet and loaded it with a few things I might need for my afternoon journey. The pack more closely resembled a book bag with shoulder straps than a true hikers pack, but it would carry all I needed for the day—a couple of bottles of water, a bag of trail-mix, binoculars, my bible, and a notebook just in case God should want to give me some word of inspiration. I tossed it in the back of the van and headed toward Pierre Marquette State Park.
The forty five minute drive to the park above Grafton, Illinois was a journey in itself. Driving the Great River Road is a tourist destination for bikers, eagle watchers and followers of the legend of the Great Piasa Bird. The mighty Mississippi River was flowing southward just outside my window as I headed north. I was beginning to feel that today would not be an ordinary day; and I needed anything other than ordinary. I needed God to speak.
My inner struggles and my acute sense of need were enhancing every image around me as I drove along. I saw an eagle flying above the cliffs that were casting their shadows on the road ahead of me, and he seemed to be calling me to come up higher. My soul longed to somehow join the majestic bird in flight above the troubles of this world. Effortlessly soaring above it all.
As I refocused my eyes on the road ahead of me, another distraction caught my attention. I was now driving parallel with a tugboat chugging along in the great river beside me, pushing his long load of barges upstream, against the current. This image seemed to be more descriptive of my present frame of mind and it pulled me back to the reality of how I was really feeling. I was pushing a heavy load upstream against the current.
How had I allowed these ordinary and common problems to become such a mountainous burden? Haven’t other people gone through job changes, relocation and transitions in life? Haven't many other people faced sickness and hard times? Yes they have. And I have had previous transitions and trials as well. So why was I allowing this transition to become a trial of faith and a war within?When I made the decisions that led me here I was sure that God was mapping the highway to a Divine appointment with destiny! Everything would be great, right? Nearer to family and friends, and a new adventure in life and ministry--and God miraculously providing all the way! But that was months ago. That was before the twists and turns and dead ends. That was before my wife's mounting health problems. And that was before the days of confusion. What was the purpose? Where were the miracles? Where was God?
I passed through the quaint little river town of Grafton, with its fish-stands and shops and glanced up to the cliff where the impressive Terra Point resort was perched. Only two months earlier our kids had gone together to buy an overnight getaway for my wife and I at the height of her recent battle with sickness. It was a very thoughtful (and expensive) gift from the kids, but LaDona was too sick and in too much pain to enjoy it. The Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) had come on her so suddenly and unexpectedly. We had flown to Montana to preach for two weeks and she was perfectly healthy and energetic. The symptoms started only a couple of days before our return flight; but within a week of being home she was almost completely immobile. The fierce systemic disease then attacked her vital organs—heart, lungs, liver—and everything started shutting down. Fear rushed in. There was the spiral into the nightmare of the unknown. Doctors visits, test after test, hospitalization, more tests, and the mounting medical bills. The one night escape to Terra Point was the calm before the storm.
I finally arrived at Pierre Marquette State Park and went into the visitor center to get a map of the hiking trails. There were color-coded lines on the map designating 3 levels of hiking challenge: easy, moderately difficult, and very difficult. Seeing that I wasn’t exactly in the best physical condition I eliminate the trails labeled very difficult; however, an easy little ½ hour stroll wasn’t what I had in mind either. The yellow trail was moderately difficult so I chose it. I retrieved my backpack, locked the van and followed the signs to the trail.
As I worked my arms through the straps of the backpack, I became aware again of the weight of the world that was already upon my shoulders. A hope weakly shined into my soul that possibly I could leave the heavy burden somewhere on the hill that I was about to climb. And so began my memorable journey.
At first the “yellow” trail was extremely easy; a flat, widely cleared path through the forest that was only a few yards from the bank of the Mississippi. It was quickly becoming a rather warm spring day, but I was so glad to be out here by myself to work through some of my questions and doubts. That’s when I started noticing the bugs.
Gnats and mosquitoes were suddenly swarming around my face—I should have known that in the low lands near the river they would be bad. I didn’t even think to bring any bug repellent! It seemed that they were attacking me as their only opportunity to be fed that day. I swatted at them unsuccessfully as they buzzed around my ears and my eyes. The continuous buzz was offending my desire for solitude and quiet reflection! The trail took a little upwards turn and I was beginning to perspire a little, which seemed to draw more insects. It was in this part of the hike that I had my first revelation that this would in fact be a day of spiritual experiences.
It came to me like a whispered voice in the midst of the irritating noise of pesky insects, how much they resembled the thoughts of my mind these past few weeks. My mind had become like a beehive with a thousand thoughts flying in and out and buzzing around all the time. It was this continuous swarm of doubts, fears, questions, and complaints that was really driving me crazy. I needed relief from them. This negativity had to stop! I swatted, and sweated and climbed on.
Finally I seemed to emerge from the mosquito infested wet lands to a part of the trail that was very quiet and peaceful. A deer ran across the trail just ahead of me. Huge boulders were bulging up from the ground and from the mountain on my right so the trail zigzagged between them. The rocks also provided a place to sit and rest. I pulled out the trail map and studied the features that lay ahead. The map showed three “scenic overlooks”—the first one appeared to be at the farthest point before the trail started circling back. I decided that if I could make it to that first overlook, I would sit there and pray and read my Bible. Maybe there I could get through to God or He would get through to me.
The trail was beginning to challenge the muscles in my legs as it became steeper and narrower. The heat of the day was pulling out the sweat while my lungs were struggling for oxygen. But I kept climbing. I pressed on toward that place designated as my meeting place with God. My anticipation pulled me on. Finally I came upon a place that looked like it might be the overlook. It had an old wooden observation deck that was almost dilapidated. The trees and bushes had grown up around it leaving only a small “window” of a view on the river below. It sure wasn’t the inspirational setting I was anticipating. There wasn’t even a bench to sit on. I couldn’t believe that this could be called a scenic overlook! Now I had to make a choice: either keep hiking forward or go back down the hill to the car. Despite my frustration, I chose to go forward. The disappointment was creeping over me like the unanswered prayers I had recently prayed.
The map had shown three scenic overlooks and the first one was now behind me. The trail had taken a noticeable uphill shift. The climb was becoming more strenuous but it wasn’t very far to the next overlook. I reached it with renewed expectation that maybe the higher elevation would provide a better view. Maybe I would be able to see the convergence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers for which this park was famous. Disappointment once again. It was slightly better than the last spot, but not much. I wiped the sweat and shook my head at the thoughts racing through my mind. Why does life have to be like this? You try your hardest to make the right choices, you step out, and you press on only to be met with disappointments. Things just don’t work out the way you expect; your faith is shredded. Why even try?
I noticed the sun was getting lower in the sky and I would have to keep moving if I was going to finish the trail before dark. I took a swig of water, threw the pack up on my shoulder and pushed on toward the third and last viewing spot.
Suddenly the trail opened up to a clearing on a large grassy knoll. I was above the tree line and the scene opened up before me like waking up from a dream. The realization that I could now look out as far as the eye could see was breathtaking! There below me was the convergence of the two big blue rivers. Beyond them were freshly plowed farm fields laid out like a patch-work quilt all the way to the rolling hills on the horizon. The setting sun was reflecting off the water and illuminating little towns across the scene. It was stunning!
I approached the railing on the observation deck in awe. Then I leaned against the post and prayed out loud:
“Oh God, is this what deliverance looks like? Is this what it is like when you fight through the swarms of haunting and discouraging thoughts and you push past the disappointments of life and you keep climbing even when you don’t feel like it… until you finally find that place where everything comes into view? The plan and purposes of God become clear and beautiful like this scene spread out before me? Oh God is this what hope is like?”
If there was anything at all that I learned that day (and I do feel now that there were several personal lessons that I learned) it is this: sometimes when you are at your lowest, weakest and most exhausted point in life, amazing things can happen. Regardless of your doubts and fears and inward struggles, if you don’t quit or give up or go back…it will happen. When you least expect it, miracles burst forth on the horizon.
Your hardest TRIAL may actually turn into a TRAIL to new possibilities! Your present problem may be a trail to the presence and purpose of God.