Onward and Upward
I lost all track of time. Was it one o’clock in the morning? Was it four? I watched, detached, as one foot dragged itself past the other. Both slipped half a step back in black sand stretching up farther than I cared to know; grains here and there flashed silver under a moon so close I could nearly touch it. Slightly dazed from the hour and the altitude, I mentally pushed the numbness from my fingers, ignored the wheeze of frosted breath from my clearly annoyed lungs, and took another stumbling half-step. Slipping back again, my tired eyes caught the shadow of boulders looming in my rippled path and I remembered I paid money for this.
A few days earlier, my view had been drastically different. The base of Mt. Kilimanjaro is like a rain forest. Green is generously splayed on every surface and a light mist sticks to your hair and clothes. The mountain itself rises gently out of storybook Africa and disappears behind cotton clouds slung low. Each day we welcomed a new ecosystem as we hiked upward, the landscape shifting from green to brown to dusty granite. When day was over, the stars were brilliant, leaving almost no room for night in its own sky. When day began, thick clouds spread beneath us, obscuring the worlds we had passed through before we slept.
Four days we climbed, feet tiring, backs tightening, red blood cells straining to adjust to the change in atmosphere. On the eve of the fourth day, we abandoned our tents for rough wooden bunks at Kibo Hut, the last vestige of comfort before the summit climb. We were sent to bed at five and set our alarms for eleven, knowing the end would begin at midnight.
And so began my stumbling half steps up moonlit mountain dunes. They say the red-eye climb has something to do with oxygen and sunlight, but I think it’s so the whole experience feels like a bad dream. There were promises of lovely views at the top, of the world and Africa bathed in sunrise, but every draining step made “lovely” less and less appealing. Teammates retched on the side of the mountain; one or two abandoned the enterprise all together. I asked myself more than once what I was doing and why, but the crisp night sky ignored my blue-lipped queries for meaning. I plodded through it anyway.
I don’t remember much of that summit climb. I remember the shifting sand, the heavy steps, the overwhelming moon. I remember the cold and the shadows and friends turning back just several dozen strides from the top. The rest of it runs together into cold, dark, memory mush.
Piercing through the mush of that struggle, however, is a vision of gold-dipped whisps of glory, of heaven melted and poured out. I remember vividly the gathering of morning from the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. “Lovely” had no meaning in the face of such splendor. It was a sunrise that left me breathless.
What took four days and one long night to climb up, took only two days to climb down. The decline used muscles in my legs I never knew were there. Each one emphatically introduced itself to me during the descent; by the time I had reached rain forest a sharp tendon chorus of complaints accompanied every footfall. The following three days were spent biting back whimpers and shuffling from any wall surface with a handrail to a chair.
Four days up, two days down, and recovery for at least a week was the price I paid for thirty minutes at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
I realize now that my life tends to follow the same pattern. Days are spent either straining toward a goal or looking back on goals met. My soul tires and my heart tightens as I struggle to make some sort of difference. Glimpses of glory when the difference is seen and a dream actually meets reality are few and far between. Afterwards there usually rises a chorus of one kind of complaint or another, and I wonder what I am doing and why.
I often find myself in the habit of thinking those before and after days don’t count; that I only have to be my best when my best is already shining through. I’m tempted to believe that basking in the light of sunrise is all that matters, that the in-between days are inconsequential, and that moments at the top are what life is all about.
As precious as those gold-dipped times are, though, we spend most of our lives in the “in-between” days. They are the days that we won’t ever look back on and remember; the days that melt into memory mush. It can be easy in the light of shifting circumstances, changing landscapes, and the general push of pressing on to think that our choices on those days don’t matter. That God is only interested in how we perform on special occasions and high holy days.
The problem is, he doesn’t really give us that option. Time-dependent words like “sometimes or occasionally” are very rarely used in the Bible, and “if you feel like it” doesn’t occur at all. A hard climb seems to be no excuse for giving up. When God talks about himself he uses all sorts of timeless superlatives, like “always” and “never” and “forever.”
“I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20)
“I will never leave you or forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)
“My salvation will last forever, my righteousness will never fail.” (Isaiah 51:6)
God has no “in-between” days when it comes to loving me. He promises to be with me all the way up the mountain, all the way down, and in every breath-caught moment on top. His presence is closer than my own skin through every landscape of my life, even on days when there are no mountains in sight at all. Whether I feel green and good or black and cold, he is there. My in-between days are just as filled with His presence as the momentous ones. Every day is a gift. Every day matters.
And so, although each day may have a different function—working towards something, achieving a goal, recovering from a struggle—every day is equally important, equally filled with God’s presence, equally a building block of eternity. I am accountable for my steps, whether they lead up or down, or are stilled by rare breathless moments of beauty.
In the midst of my struggles to climb, I am reminded that if I keep at it and don’t give up, I will be rewarded with a glimpse of glory. Those glimpses carry me through the in-between days and give me the courage to keep stretching. There’s always more than just “lovely” waiting at the top. There’s heaven, melted and poured out. That alone is worth the climb.
Life in the in-between days can be plagued with weariness, apathy, and a desire to stay put. As leaders, we must look to our identity as followers (of Christ) to press on. How do we keep going when we want to stop?
Remember that it’s Important. God wouldn’t call us to do things He doesn’t really care about. The people and opportunities in our lives are for a purpose, for their good or ours, or both. It’s not my job to know why God is asking me to do something—it’s my job to do it. When I want to drop someone or something God has placed in my hands, I close my eyes and whisper, “It’s important,” then I have the strength to pick it up again.
Look Around You. Our lives may seem difficult to us, but looking from our own problems onto those of others changes our perspective. Loneliness and weariness are not confined to our mountains alone. Turning to others and living out the tasks of love (giving, listening, serving, sharing) may not always be convenient, but people are always worth the effort.
Look Up. In the end, it’s not our strength that gets us anywhere, it’s God’s. If He is the Vine and we are the branches, His strength flows through us (not from us) and accomplishes the tasks He has laid out for us. When I lift my foot to step, He makes me fly. I must only be willing to step.
Written by Heather Bradley