The value of trials – lessons from just below St. Helen’s summmit

Stuff happens.  Job loss.  Marriage challenges.  Parenting that wearies you to the bone.  Accidents.  Health.  Money.  Wendell Berry says,

“By expenditure of hope,
Intelligence and work,
You think you have it fixed;
It is unfixed by rule”

Life happens and it’s the unexpected turns that reveal what we’re made of.  This is a priceless gift, because if we’re teachable, we’ll adapt, adjust, and come back stronger.  Here’s what I mean:

The alarm goes off at 3AM and it doesn’t take long to finish loading the car.  Backpacks are ready.  Breakfast is a couple of power bars and a banana eaten on the way to the trailhead.  We walk silently, with headlamps lighting the way, for the first hour and change.  Slowly, light begins to triumph over darkness, just as we rise above treeline, greeted with north looking vistas of our goal.  We shed some clothes, eat a bit more and continue on – step by step – higher as the final stars disappear.

The weather is perfect; cloudless, windless, neither too hot nor cold.  All the conditions seem right for the top.

And yet, the top is farther away than we know, or want to believe.  There’s stark and stunning beauty all around us, every step gradually altering the nuances of landscape, as we ascend.  Everything’s working fine, mostly, except for two problems.

First, the snowshoes are inadequate for the steep section near the top.  As the terrain steepened near the top, snowshoes were the wrong way to go; we needed crampons to kick step our way up.  The equipment decision, made at the comfort of the dining room table, was a bad one.

Second, we’re spent just as we reach the hardest part.  Of course, this is the way of it in mountaineering, and often in life too.  Mountains have this funny way of getting steeper just before the summit – after you’ve used all the glycogen, or whatever it is, in your muscles; after all the thick air is gone, leaving you sucking the stuff that lacks oxygen; after all the laziness of the approach trail.  We’re in our fifties, so there’s a sense in which we feel good about being here at all.  But our goal wasn’t to get “almost there”.  And yet we find ourselves looking up at another 800 feet our so, the steepest part, lacking both the equipment and energy to get us there safely.  So, down we go.

Premature descent is, in my mind, never a lose.  Just being out in God’s good creation is gift enough, and always a win, and the more so as we grow older.  Coming up just short, though, is always a learning opportunity.  And this case, there are lessons learned that apply to all of life.

We all need tests.  We think we know what we’re made of, and because of this it’s easy to sit at the table, read the guidebook, look at the map and say, “I can do this”, the words rolling off my tongue with confidence, like I know.   The mountain, though, is the realt test – judge and jury all wrapped up together.  This is the way of it in all life.  We think we’re generous until money’s tight.  We think we love others, until they’re hard to love, or it costs us something.  We think we’re patient with people, until our blood sugar’s low and we’re caught in traffic.  We think we secure, until we overhear what someone’s saying about us.  Trials and tests reveal the stuff of which we’re made.  They’re the red pill, the truth, the exposure to reality we all need if we’re going to grow.

Some people prefer illusion, maybe all of us at times.  Thank God life has a way of stripping the fantasy veneer off to show us what we’re made of.  Mountains do that.  So do lots of things… if we’re willing to learn.

We all need endurance.  If the mountain was both teacher and test, Helen would have returned my test with the following written across the top:  “You think jogging 3 miles twice a week will get you to the top?  Think again.  The kind of endurance you need for me (and all my volcanic friends) comes at a higher price.  Why don’t you work on that and come back again when you’re really ready.”   The letter the Hebrews reminds all of us that we need endurance, which is the capacity to keep going, and going, and going on further still, because you have reserves that you only need for the steepest parts.

Life does, after all, have steep parts:  marriages get steep – so does parenting; and money; and health; and vocation.  If you’ve trained for forest trials you’ll do great on forest trials.  What happens, though, when treeline ends and the air gets thin?  You’ll quit.  That’s why developing habits of intimacy with Christ through a rule of life and spiritual disciplines is so vital.  The disciplines are to life, what working out is to mountaineering:  not always pleasant, but surely vital for the steepest parts.

Pay attention to wise elders.  Those who have gone before us are from a different generation and so at some superficial level, they’re easy to dismiss because of their dress, music, and constant retrospective language.  Keep listening though.  They know things.  The guidebook said, “as this is a climb to over 8300 feet on steep snow…crampons are recommended”  Ha!  What does he know?

Something, apparently.  And because I didn’t pay attention, the steepest part presented a choice:  high risk, or inaccessible.  We chose the latter, of course, because life’s about so much more than summits.  Still, the fact that it was there in print and I blew it off so easily bothers me.

We live in a culture that’s made an idol out of individualism, and as a result, we seem to be reinventing ourselves from the ground up with each new generation.  We lack rites of passage, whereby the torch of wisdom is passed intentionally from one generation to the next.  The results are tragic, especially among men, as seen in incarceration rates, porn addiction, academic stagnation, and so much, as is well documented here.  We need mentors, elders, rites of passage (maybe some trips up to the summit?) so that people can learn where they fit in the world, and know what tools they have to navigate the waters of adulthood.  This need is only growing, and I’m presently researching how to bring about a resurgence in rites of passage for all ages, along with mentoring relationships.

Conclusion.  We felt great about what we did.  We also felt a bit chastened.  But as I drove away, I took one last look at the mountain in the mirror, realizing that I’d learned some needed lessons and said, “thanks for revelation Helen.  I’ll see you again soon.” 

the whole St Helen’s photo set can be seen here.

 

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.


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