In addition to the backpack that I carried on my A.T. trek last June, I was carrying some unnecessary baggage. Being a chronic worrier, by sinful tendency is for my thoughts to revert to what-ifs: time-consuming and energy-depleting concerns about things that may never happen. Of course there were also legitimate concerns for important ministry responsiblities, relationships to be nurtured, people to be helped, big projects to be tackled and real problems to be solved. “Who is adequate for these things?” cried the apostle Paul in (2 Cor. 2:16). Me too.
So as I set out on my solo hike, one big motivation was to seek some quality time alone with God, enjoying the peace and beauty of his creation. The mountains of Southwest Virginia, in the Jefferson National Forest, provided a perfect retreat for this unlikely pilgrim. I had lots of uninterrrupted time to think, to worship and to turn my concerns over to the Lord in prayer.
Try to imagine morning in the mountains. Stillness. Silence. No sounds except the whisper of the breeze stirring the leaves overhead, or raindrops striking the tent, or sometimes the songbirds waking each other. In that environment I began each day with my Bible reading and prayer while still in my sleeping bag. This was followed by the simple pleasure of morning coffee in the coolness of the dawn.
The Lord seemed to impress on me a verse from the Psalms. I thought about it over and over as I hiked along the trail. “This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24). During my week in the mountains several impressions came to me, derived from this text.
“This is the day which the Lord has made.” He made this world and He made it good. Being in the unspoiled wilderness reminded me that “By faith we understand the universe was created at His command,” and “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and “The Lord gives us richly all things to enjoy.” This is true not only of nature but of time. “My times are in your hands,” said the psalmist. Solomon wisely opined, “To every thing there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.”
It occurred to me to confess to God,”This is a day you have made for me. It is all I have. This time and place is all I have. This moment, this beautiful moment of solitude and peace is all I have. I do not have next year, or tomorrow, or even tonight. I do not have the next bend in the trail. I have this moment to take this step forward. I have this time and only this time to live. It really is foolish to worry. Jesus was right about that.”
“Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Okay. This is telling me I have a choice. I am being called to choose optimism over anxiety and self-doubt. I am being called to “rejoice in the Lord always.” When Paul wrote those words, he was a prisoner whose plans for his work had been interrupted by false accusations, beatings, and injustice at the hands of those who should have been upholding the law. Instead of complaining, Paul chose to rejoice in the Lord. My petty anxieties were nothing in comparison to Paul’s troubles.
So I said to the Lord, “Help me to rejoice in You right now.” I believe He answered that simple prayer. I chose to rejoice in the gospel. I found myself thanking the Lord for the indescribable gift of His Son and the salvation he purchased with his death at Calvary. As long as my ipod held out I listened to Handel’s “Messiah,” which is the gospel set to glorious music. I rejoiced in Easter truth, singing along with the choir, spoiling the peace around me: “For as in Adam all die; even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” It was thrilling. The Lord really did help me to rejoice in His salvation!
I got to share the gospel by giving some gospel booklets to some fellow hikers whom I met on the trail. The Lord gave me the privilege of engaging some of them in spiritual conversations. Another answer to prayer.
I rejoiced in the Word. As I hiked I quoted promises from scripture I had memorized. This became another source of joy. For my Bible readings I read and marked and meditated on the gospel of Luke. I was reminded that it is the Word of God which turns doubt into glad rejoicing.
I rejoiced in God’s creation. From the top of Chestnut Ridge (4400 ft elevation), after a long and difficult climb, I had the privilege of seeing the famous valley known as “Burke’s Garden,” a beautiful panorama of Virgina farmland. This breathtaking view is available only to those who are willing to hike to see it. The vast forests of green, the tiny creatures who make surprise appearances, the wildflowers, the deer, the rushing streams all conspired to prompt joyful praise.
I rejoiced in the kindness of strangers, evidence that all people are created in the image of a generous God. Once when I had run out of water, I arrived at a location where I had expected to resupply from a spring. The spring was dry. Fellow hikers came along and shared their water with me.
As I chose to rejoice in God’s work around the world I prayed for all the missionaries I could think of. It was encouraging to remember that God’s Word is not bound and the gospel of Jesus is penetrating spiritual darkness everywhere.
“This is the day…I will rejoice in it.” I have only this day, this moment in time. I should savor it as God’s gift to me. I want to learn to live life in the present. There is “a time to be born and a time to die.” In between are moments which are to be treasured as gifts from God.
A song bubbled to the surface of my memory. It was written back in the fifties by cowboy singer and movie actor named Redd Harper. I believe he was converted to faith in Christ through the ministry of Billy Graham during his famous Los Angeles evangelistic crusade. Here are the words as I remembered them from my childhood and as they came back to me on the Appalachian Trail.
I’m following Jesus one step at a time. I live for the moment in His love divine.
Why think of tomorrow? Just live for today. I’m following Jesus each step of the way.
The pathway is narrow, but He leads me on. I walk in His shadow. My fears are all gone.
My spirit grows stronger each moment, each day; for Jesus is leading each step of the way.
The most difficult parts of the hike were the long uphill climbs with a heavy backpack. When I would stop to catch my breath, I would sometimes look up the steep incline ahead and start to wonder whether I could make it. It was a psychological test as well as a physical one. “I can’t make it. I have too far to go.” That kind of self talk is self defeating. I admit there were times when I had doubts.
Of course the options are getting lost in the woods and maybe dying out there. Or getting sick or hurt and becoming a terrific inconvenience to others. Or going on. Not continuing is not an option.
It didn’t take too long before I learned something important. Instead of looking at the difficult climb ahead, when I stopped to rest I should look back down the trail with a sense of accomplishment for what I had already achieved. Instead of worrying about whether I could make it to the top of he mountain, I should concern myself with the next few steps. “I don’t know for sure what I am capable of doing, but I certainly can take the next step. The Lord gave me the strength to come this far; He’ll help me make it the rest of the way.”
That’s a good life lesson for an unlikely pilgrim. One step at a time.
Pastor Randy Faulkner