Joy recently began writing a blog. I couldn’t be more proud. Her honest words and depth almost always bring on exhausting tears, but at the same time it’s been a wonderful thing for me to read and for her to write. I know her more intimately thanks to this. I guess the internet is good for something.
Also, for those who aren’t part of our Facebook universe, Joy is pregnant for the third time in 2011! We are very excited, yet scared silly. Crazy. I didn’t realize how frightened I was until my best friend called and said, “So I hear Joy is pregnant? Saw it on Facebook.” I hadn’t told anyone but my immediate family. Not even my best friend. (Sorry Ben.)
So, I went to Arkansas for a solo-backpacking trip over Thanksgiving. Yes, it was a difficult decision to leave my wife and my parents for the holiday, and forgoing the culinary riches and football that make Thanksgiving pure gluttonous bliss was hard too. I wouldn’t have gone without Joy’s blessing, and I’m grateful for her willingness to let me go. The lessons I learned on the trail were priceless.
The plan was to finish a 26.8-mile loop in 3-4 days. This included topping 9 mountains, crossing the Little Missouri River 6 times, and 16 creek crossings, all while carrying a 40-pound pack. I had never done a solo trip of more than one night, so the stakes were high. And it didn’t help that I was attempting what my guidebook called, “the most difficult trail in Arkansas” while in the worst physical condition of my life.
Torrential down pouring rain and flood warnings changed my plans shortly before leaving, forcing me to take on the most difficult part of the trail first – the mountains – in an attempt to let the water level of the river drop before the many crossings that lay ahead. Day one was good and I finished 5.6 miles in 5 hours while crossing four mountains. Day two proved a little more difficult. In 7 hours on the trail I covered the next two mountains on the map, trudged through low lying marsh for 3 miles, and waded through fast-moving water in my first river crossing. Seven miles were conquered on day two, and my pace was good to finish on time.
Day three started with a very wide river crossing, depth just over my knees, and by noon I had knocked out four more miles. (For those counting, that’s 16.6 miles in 48 hours. Not too shabby.) I was only a mile from a large recreation area where I was going to stop for lunch when disaster struck. This location was a big milestone, because the final 9 miles after that were pretty flat, but coming down the mountain into the park I turned my right ankle.
Luckily I met a very nice retired couple in the park who gave me a ride back to my car. It was a bitter-sweet ending. I REALLY wanted to finish, but solo backpacking is all about safety and caution. Had I ventured into the final 9 miles on a bummed ankle, who knows what would have happened.
So there’s the physical part of the story. Now to the important part. Since finding out about Maggie’s condition a year ago I’ve become pretty numb. I stopped feeling. I stopped letting myself feel. I simply quit listening to my brain/heart and quit taking care of myself emotionally. Whenever my thoughts began, I turned on the tv or grabbed my phone to pacify myself. Very unhealthy. When I planed this trip I knew I needed to get away to a place where that wasn’t possible.
When I got back Joy asked me, “Why did you have to plan this trip 2 months in advance and drive to Arkansas to turn off your cell phone and the tv?” And the truth is, the trip was a bribe. It was the only way I could convince myself to do it. In the same way my sister bribes her kids with dessert if they eat their vegetables, I needed the lure of the wilderness to let myself be quiet and listen to God.
By the morning of day two, I began to hear it. It starting with the pain in my body, through which God reminded me how poorly I take care of myself physically. By the afternoon I realized how little I do to take care of myself spiritually, and by proxy how poorly I take care of my family in the same way. By night number two I was sitting in the dark nearly in tears as I thought about how much I depend on people to fulfill me emotionally. I’m a wreck.
God spoke clearly to me. He pointed out what I already knew was there in a painful, yet helpful way. This is what finally opened my eyes to what the last year in my life has been.
I believe with all that is in me that God wants to work in us through our pain and discomfort. Transformation isn’t easy, and too many of Jesus’ parables make this clear. (The prodigal son, the vine and the branches, etc.) Comfort is the enemy of growth. We know this is true physically. A man (like me) who sits in the recliner nearly every waking hour he isn’t at work only becomes weaker. I now know this to be so true spiritually. We must place ourselves in uncomfortable places to be used by our Father.
God placed a burden on my heart four years ago about the laziness of many of today’s churches and those who call themselves christians. I’m talking about groups of people who are satisfied with going through the motions of doing what they know while being critical of anyone who doesn’t; the man who calls himself a Christian while never being Christ-like to the world; the person who sees a pornographer trapped in sin and condemns him as less than man, while gossiping to their friend about him on the phone. I believe this inability to get out of the comfortable and into the mess breeds worship that God considers a clanging cymbal or a noisy gong. It’s annoying to him.
My failure to take care of myself has made me the man I just spoke of. While my heart desires to do what I know God wants, my efforts are weak. Simply put, I am broken. I want to spend time with the hurting and the broken. I want to stand up for the weary and trampled. But right now, I’m one of them.
So there you have it. This is what God put on my heart in the wilderness. I stood on a mountaintop in the dark on night two with Elijah in mind. It was Thanksgiving and I was alone. My daughter is dead, my life is a mess, and I stood there asking God what to do. There wasn’t a massive storm or fire, but there was a gently breeze. I spent the rest of the evening in my tent trying to sleep through all of these thoughts, but it didn’t happen. It was a restless night. God answered my prayer with a storm of thoughts. Now I’ve got to figure out how to put it into action.