One autumn, during my early high school days, our church youth group piled into a van and headed north to scale Mount Monadnock, a New Hampshire beauty which stands an impressive 3165 feet tall, much of it rock. While I was accustomed to outdoor ambles, nature walks, and occasionally skiing down mountains, I had never before climbed up anything larger than a hill.
Our youth leader warned, at great length, about the need to mentally and physically prepare for this daunting excursion. I half listened. How hard could this really be?
Unsurprisingly, I was appallingly unprepared. After twenty minutes of climbing, my attempts to appear relaxed and casual were proving difficult, at best. Fifteen-year-old pride kept me in the middle of the group, and sheer determination not to fall behind led to an adrenaline rush. My lungs were exhausted, and instead of pacing myself, I basically ran up the rocky mountainside, shocked at the sharp slope and level of difficulty. My legs were screaming in despair.
A friend’s shoelace eventually came untied, and I was relieved for an excuse to pause. I chugged my water, parched, and now wished that I had taken this whole trip more seriously. Climbing a mountain, especially a rocky one like this, was no small endeavor.
The biggest surprise for me, however, was the false summit. I had not previously even known such a thing existed, but when I breathlessly told my experienced, mountain-climbing friend: Finally…I can see the top! she only grinned and shook her head.
Almost a third of the way, though! she cheered. I was crushed. It appeared that we were on the cusp of reaching the peak, but she was right. The journey had only begun.
Bleak reality set it, and I decided that if I was to survive, something needed to change. So rather than focusing on the monster of a mountain before me, I turned my gaze to the narrow path at my feet, and to the beauty of the surrounding trees and wildlife. As I continued to climb, I was now free to delight in simple pleasures: pudgy chipmunks nibbling nuts, squirrels scampering, the slant of sunlight sparkling through the swaying trees, and songbirds trilling. Nothing around me had actually changed, but everything about my journey had. I was paying attention.
I then recalled my happy school days back in second grade, and our weekly nature walks. Our teacher had told us to take our time, and to enjoy the beauty of being outside. We hunted for rare lady-slipper flowers, which we were not allowed to touch, but were encouraged to admire. Our teacher modeled how to carefully flip wet stones in order to catch tiny newts as they scrambled to escape. We studied their shape and texture before freeing them to their natural habitat. Butterflies fluttered along our path, and we sketched their bright and varied colors and patterns. We delighted in gathering autumn leave samples, burnt crimson and orange, placing them in small paper bags to study later. It was an invigorating weekly event. Inhaling fresh air while exploring the beauty of God’s creation was deeply satisfying.
This Mount Monadnock climb was obviously more strenuous than a simple nature hike, but when I slowed down and noticed my surroundings, my perspective changed. I could do this hard thing with a happy heart.
But there was a gaping hole in my approach, a missing component I had neglected. At first I had been focused on the arduous climb, and mere survival. Then I became consumed by the beauty near the path. I had quite forgotten the entire purpose of this exhausting, dangerous, and beautiful journey: the destination itself.
As we finally neared the peak the air turned frigid. I plucked a sweatshirt from my backpack, and quickly slipped it over my head. Ten more paces, and I had arrived.
Stepping upward through the clearing, I halted, gasping and speechless.
So this was why people willingly scaled mountains across the world.
It was utterly majestic.
I sat down on a rock, and promptly forgot about that difficult trek up: the hazardous climb, the stumbling, the thirst, the discouragement, the ache in my legs, the burning in my lungs. I also forgot the pleasurable moments of my ascent.
The glory of this peak superseded everything.
The foliage burned brightly, the sun warmed our upturned faces despite the chilly breeze, and I became miniscule in the scope of God’s world. Our group gazed at the miles that spread before us. This view felt eternal; and flung everything into proper perspective: God is the ruler, and we are his creation.
I was perched on a boulder near the heavens, and the magnificence of God was beautifully undeniable: his power and perfection engulfed me. As exposed as we were to the elements, the cliffs, and the danger, I instinctively knew, as a Christian, that I was both created and cradled by the Creator.
Our youth leader began to sing the Doxology, and I saw a tear slip down his face. God’s glory was spread before us; our hearts were pierced.
In that moment, my longing for God grew. I had tasted his holiness on Mount Monadnock.
We are warned about mountain top experiences, and the dangers they present.
And I get it.
In this life, we must eventually descend the mountain.
We are also admonished to enjoy the journey. See the beauty. Squeeze the goodness out of life.
I have discovered, that I am actually traveling two simultaneous roads: First is the narrow, daily path: family, church, work, chores, responsibilities. These are good and holy and sanctifying. Yet there is often a weightiness as we walk through our numbered days. These moments are certainly to be savored, and often enjoyed, yet such attitudes are hard-won. Crushing pain is always interwoven with our pleasures.
The second road is invisible: our mental, upward, soul-longing for God as we anticipate our heavenly home. The unspeakable joy that awaits us forever. As we stumble along the narrow path, let us look higher, bringing to mind the imperishable treasure, now hidden, while continually pursuing the heart of God though our earthly obedience. Eternity spent with Christ must steer our daily pursuits.
Enjoy the journey as it is a gift from God, but remember: we were created for more.
This is the way to suffer well, Christians: reminding ourselves that God has a grand purpose in our sorrows of sickness, tragedy, financial ruin, relational aches, and loneliness. Things we would never choose, as we are not God. He knit us together in secret and designed us for eternity, and no earthly terror may ever separate us from his love.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.