24 September 2008

Joy in the Journey

I wrote this piece some time ago and just found it this evening at the bottom of a mountainous stack of papers on my desk. Since it will probably be a while before I am able to write a decent post again, I thought I'd give it to you to mull over until then.

Years ago, before kids and a mortgage, my husband Abe and I decided to celebrate our anniversary with a trip out West. The plan was to fly to Portland, Oregon, meet up with some dear friends of ours, then drive down through California to Yosemite National Park. It was the first time I’d traveled to the West coast, and I was eager to see all that I could see. Indeed, we did see many awe-inspiring things that the Midwest, where I was born and raised, lacks.

One of the highlights of our trip (or lowlights, depending on your view of it) was a day excursion our friend, Tim, took us on. Tim is a very fit fellow. He hikes. He’s trim and athletic. My husband had hiked with him extensively in the past, but I confess that I am not much of a hiker—scratch that, I’m not really a hiker at all—so since our marriage, Abe has done little in the way of camping or trekking anything steeper than the nearby bike path. Suffice it to say, we were not at our prime physical peak when Tim suggested we “hike” Mount St. Helens. But again, Abe had been an accomplished outdoorsman, and I am moderately athletic, so we figured Tim had considered our physical limitations and planned accordingly.

Apparently, Tim has a different perception of what is exactly in our comfort zone. The hike up the mountain was far more than we had anticipated—no trouble for Tim, slightly more trouble for Abe, and a whole lot of trouble for me. Oh, it started out easily enough, similar to a challenging trail in a local park, but once we got up past the timber line, things became substantially more difficult. Instead of treading the well-worn trails we’d traversed from the parking lot, we were pulling ourselves up over vertical miles of sharp volcanic rock. It was physically demanding, the day was hot and humid, Tim was climbing full-speed ahead, and I was worn out.

I was mad, frankly, that we’d followed him trustingly into this outing, believing it would be a fun adventure, when in reality, it turned out to be just a lot of work. There were lots of shops and tourist traps I’d rather visit, I concluded, than some treacherous mountain. It was a mountain, for pete’s sake! The only good I could see of it was that we’d come after the volcano had erupted. That meant less mountain to climb.

Sad to say, I did not keep any of these negative comments to myself. No, I was vocal about my discomfort and displeasure, and spoke it loud enough for anyone to hear. You’ve never heard anyone whine the way I did that day. My husband, the lapsed hiker, confided in me that this was the hardest hike he’d ever done in his life, and that if he’d known how difficult the climb would be, he would have suggested to Tim that a different activity might be better, or at the very least, he would have suggested that I stay home. But Abe hadn’t known. So there we were, stuck on what I called “this stupid, stupid mountain,” with seemingly no end in sight.

I whined for hours. Literally. I complained about thirst. Fatigue. Aches and pains. Heat. But still we climbed, higher and higher. I knew that we’d better get to the top to make the trip redeemable in any way, but I was doing my very best not to like it.

Finally, after hours of scrambling over craggy rock and trudging the steep incline of unforgiving, unrelenting volcanic ash, we reached the top. Suddenly, as I looked down into the vast crater at the center of the mountain and out over miles and miles of lush, mountainous terrain, it all seemed worth it. Peering over so much of God’s miraculous and beautiful creation, I was overwhelmed. I couldn’t keep from smiling. I was no longer thirsty or tired; instead, I was renewed and energized. We snapped pictures, savored the moment, felt kinship with our fellow climbers, and chiseled the images into our memories. There was not a complaint or whine to be heard from anyone, even me.

The way down was every bit as difficult, if not more so, and I am embarrassed to admit that I complained about that as well. I was bitter when my husband and Tim went on ahead of me and I lagged behind. I completely forgot about the high I’d felt at the summit. I was back in the whiny pit of despair, firmly planted there until the hike was over.

On the drive back to our friends’ house, though, the arduous trek behind me, I felt exhilarated. I knew this would be a great experience to reflect upon in the years to come, a wonderful story to tell, and an accomplishment I’d savor. Only one thing marred it: the fact that I’d been so whiny and baby-ish the whole time. I wished that I had kept silent about my frustrations and forged ahead bravely. I felt as if I didn’t deserve to have accomplished the summit because my attitude had been so poor. I wanted to do it all over again, but without the complaining spirit.

I knew this experience at Mount St. Helens had to be a metaphor for some other part of life, but at the time, I was not sure what. It is only years later, as I’m now chasing after kids, trying in vain to keep up with laundry, dishes, and bills, trying to stretch every dollar, and struggling to update our “fixer-upper” home, that I see it. So many days, I look at the things around me that I am charged to maintain, and I feel overwhelmed and tired. I resent being stuck in an uphill climb and long for the day when the path shallows and the way gets easier. I think that if someone had told me just how difficult the journey would be, I would have skipped it and gone to some nice shops instead. I spend those days bitter and complaining. Those are dark days.

But the St. Helens climb has a lot to say about living. God has put things in our lives—obstacles, it sometimes seems—for us to conquer and maintain, things like mortgages, families, ministries, and work. So often, we come to resent them for what they become—labor—and miss the joys they bring to our lives as well. We complain and whine about them, thinking instead of how our life could be easier or better. We miss altogether the fact that God has given these things to us as blessings. Is marriage a struggle? Perhaps. But your spouse is God’s gift to you. Do children manage to make us crazy? Occasionally. But children are a blessing. Does your home seem to be crumbling around you? It seems like it sometimes. But it is God’s provision for us.

The point is, we sometimes spend so much time complaining about God’s blessings, we miss the wonderful and miraculous view of his creation and provision. We don’t see the awe-inspiring view of life and its design, we only see our tired feet and aching backs. When we get to heaven, do we want to remember how our complaining and bitterness tarnished the experience? Or do we want to have shouldered on, thankful that God gave us the opportunity to make such an amazing climb? Do we want to be ashamed of our attitude and approach to life in the face of God’s limitless grace and blessing, or do we want to have been appreciative and fruitful? Perhaps instead of resenting the journey, we should seek to find joy in it.

1 comment:

Donna Koehn said...

I really needed this post. Life seems like a treacherous journey right now, with no relief in sight. Your reminder to see God's gifts, blessings, and provisions is just the spanking I needed to quash my (even-if-not-verbalized) complaining spirit. Thanks.