How beautiful on the mountains

IMG_3598I had a feeling that my hike along the Appalachian Trail would bring experiences I could never foretell.

As it turns out, expecting the unexpected is the only thing I got right about my little adventure.

The plan, my plan, was to spend 10 days in the solitude of north Georgia where I would carry a 35-pound backpack all the way to the North Carolina state line and beyond.

In the Bible, the book of Proverbs says that a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.

I finally know what that means.

The motivations were pure. Or so I thought. I wanted to honor the father and sister I lost to cancer. I desired time alone in the wilderness to confront my lingering grief. I wanted the quiet of a solitary stroll so I could listen for God’s whisper in the hopes that He might guide me toward my true purpose.

Somehow, I allowed selfish ambitions to get in the way. Without realizing it, I made my trip all about what I could accomplish and what I could endure. I planned hikes of 10 and 15 miles over challenging terrain. When my wife voiced her wise objections, I stubbornly claimed my tattered 58-year-old  body could endure the stress, the rain, and freezing cold without complaint.

I needed a little humbling. A lot of humbling, actually.

God was there to provide.

My pride took a ferocious hit on the very first day. As it turns out, just getting to the start of the famous Appalachian Trail is a struggle. The trailhead is at the top of Springer Mountain. That’s an 8-mile climb from the Amicalola Falls Lodge. I was an aching, breathless mess before I left my first footprint on the AT. I had another three miles to tread before reaching my first campsite. It was all I could do to eat a few bites of dinner on that first day before collapsing into my sleeping bag.

The next day was even harder. My backpack pulled me left, right, and a lot of backward as I stumbled over Sassafras Mountain. I’d done a poor job of stuffing food, clothes, tent, and the rest of my survival needs into a borrowed pack. Angels named Don, Keith, and Davis volunteered to push, pull, shove, tighten, and somehow relieve the pain in my shoulders. Unfortunately, my new friends lacked the ability to make me 30-years younger.

By day three, I was broken.

God and His amazing mountainous creation had thoroughly humbled me. My walk was no longer about making it 10 days or 100 miles. It was about surviving one more step. I’m not as tough as I thought, not as brave as I thought, and the north Georgia mountains were more than willing to deliver that message. It was then and only then, when my mind was no longer cluttered with selfish infatuations, that God spoke.

And I listened.

God taught me that you can find beauty where it doesn’t seem to exist. During a cold, wet climb up Blood Mountain, I fell in love with a rock. You heard me. It wasn’t even an attractive rock, but a bland, jagged bolder emerging from the mud. As the lactic acid building in my legs worked to convince me I would never reach the top of that mountain, there it was. It was as if God placed His slick, dirty creation in just the right spot. God knew I needed a breather even when I didn’t. For several minutes (I didn’t count how long) I sat there on my rock with the rain pouring off of my hat. I must have looked like a complete lunatic. That rock was a haven. It was cold jagged comfort. It was as welcoming as a couch in front of a warm fire. It remains, in my mind, a hunk of rugged, grimy, wilderness beauty.

At the top of Blood Mountain, I joined other hikers for a moment of respite inside of a drafty shelter. Protected from the rain, we were all equal parts fatigue, filth, and famished. Some of those gathered were the energetic youth who’d sprinted past me as I sat on my rock. There were experienced hikers with the best equipment money could buy. There was also one unusually joyful man who was woefully unprepared in his denim jeans, leather jacket, and steel-toed boots. He looked like a fresh baked biscuit as steam wafted from his head and shoulders, and we all had a good chuckle over this unusual sight. In that group were the fit, the unfit, the well prepared, and the spontaneously ill-prepared. It didn’t matter. In that setting, we were unified in our joy, our exhaustion, and the challenge of the trail.

The hike gave me the opportunity to spend hours in conversation with God. He helped me resolve lingering issues over the death of my father. There were words I should have spoken long before painkillers and the evils of cancer left my father still and mute. Through prayer, God assured me that He is taking care of my dad and that I shouldn’t stress. God and I still have more to discuss in that regard, but I know now that He is listening to my concerns. I am no longer a man of quick, superficial prayer to begin and end each day. I know the joy and comfort that comes when you pray without ceasing.

Ultimately, a journey that was supposed to take me to the North Carolina foothills instead ended after 5 days and 50 miles. I have many reasons for leaving the trail early, but let’s just leave it that the terrain, the weather, and my aging body got the better of me. Besides, it was never supposed to be about miles. It was about my relationship with God, one that is now better than ever. I found peace in a steep climb. I found comfort in an ice cold rain. In a slippery rock, I found a friend. I discovered that God doesn’t care if I’m a news reporter, a writer, or a professional race walker (never going to happen). He just wants me to allow Him to lead the way. He wants me to find joy in the struggle.

Had I walked 100 miles, 200, or 2000 miles, this journey was never going to end on the Appalachian Trail.

God has humbled me.

He’s in the lead now, where He belongs, and I want Him to stay there no matter how far we walk, no matter how steep the climb.

 

 
“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” — Isaiah 52:7

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Into the woods

Screenshot 2018-02-28 at 4.52.31 AMA few thoughts before I trade my pillow for rocks and tree roots:

There are several reasons why I picked early March for my solo jaunt along the Appalachian Trail. I didn’t carefully consider all I would miss. I am a college basketball junkie. March is prime time for the sport. I will have no possible way of keeping up with some of the most important games of the season. Unless that is, there is a bear or two with the ESPN app.

My wife made sure to have me read an article on how to avoid snake bites, and what to do if skin does happen to meet fang. There are no hospitals along the Appalachian Trail, and an ambulance would have one heck of a time climbing Blood Mountain. The article advises the victim of a snake bite to remain calm and move away from the snake. I’m not sure how calm I would be, but I’m certainly not going to move toward any snake angry enough to bite me.

For the last month, most of my hikes and walks around town have been accomplished with 35-pounds strapped to my back. For 10 days, I will give my whole world a piggyback ride over steep hill and stream, and I want to be prepared. This has drawn a few curious stares, especially when I rambled down to the neighborhood creek to practice my water purification techniques. I’m glad my wife talked me out of sleeping in the front yard.

There are only a couple of things that concern me about this venture, and one of them is keeping my meals from furry thieves. While camping along the trail, I will have to hang my food supply away from the black bear population. I have 50-feet of rope and absolutely no idea how to tie it. You see, I’m no Boy Scout. If somehow I manage to fake my way into an adequate slip knot, I’ve got to make sure my food bag is dangling in just the right position so a bear can’t reach it from the ground or the tree. I might as well just notify Yogi that there’s a nice plump picnic basket waiting for him.

I’ve taken a peek at the extended weather forecast for the days I’ll spend in the mountains, and it appears somewhat daunting. There is a mention of rain hanging over half of the days I will spend hiking and sleeping out in the elements. There is even talk of snow. Yep. Nighttime temperatures, if the forecast holds, will be in the 30s. My next step is to review the limited wardrobe I plan to carry. Unfortunately, there’s no room in my backpack for a space heater.

My wife is already fully aware that when she picks me up at the end of this venture, I will smell like the hot, rancid center of a landfill. I will not shower for a week-and-a-half. The closest I’ll come to bathing is a quick, daily rub down with a baby wipe. I won’t shave either, but that’s not much of an issue. There are 13-year-olds who will wake up this morning with more facial hair than I can grow in a month. The only thing that will look like a beard will be the cloud of flies following me.

One final thought–

I have absolutely no idea what I’ll encounter between Springer Mountain, Georgia, and the hills of North Carolina. I’m sure there are surprises waiting, and I really hope there are. I want to emphasize the purpose of my trip. It’s a little complicated, but then again, it has a rather simple core. I need to spend some time where it’s just me and God. I need the silence of the night so I can hear His voice. I need peaceful days away from phones and traffic noise so I can focus on His message. I’m dedicating my trip to the memory of my father and my sister and the loss that is still quite heavy. But it is God who will blaze the trail, lift my feet when they’re heavy, and warm me when the ground is soft with snow.

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!”– Isaiah 52:7

 

Listen to the atheist

bill maherBill Maher is not a fan of religion or Christians.

In fact, Maher thoroughly enjoys launching barbs at the church and those who occupy it. We are lemmings. We’re hypocrites. We are misguided, brain damaged fools.

How ironic that this devoted atheist has delivered one of the most poignant lessons on following Jesus.

Now, some will question why I give any credence to a comedian who often uses vulgarity to express his contempt for religion. Bill Maher is funny. Even when my faith is the butt of his jokes, I still find him humerous. He’s intelligent. He’s insightful. And sometimes, he’s dead on when it comes to Christians and the teachings of Jesus.

Sometimes, as Bill so eagerly points out, Christians don’t listen to Jesus.

“Christians have been lawyering the Bible to try to figure out how ‘love thy neighbor’ can mean ‘hate thy neighbor,’” says Bill.

I watch Bill Maher videos on Youtube. A lot. He challenges my faith, forces me to think, pray, and study. He encourages me to formulate answers to the tough questions he aims toward believers. Ultimately, my faith grows stronger. That’s not Bill’s intent. It is the result.

On his show Real Time with Bill Maher, the comedian talked in 2011 about our nation’s reaction to the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. Maher referred to the elimination of the al-Qaeda leader as “capping thine enemy.”

“Non-violence was kinda Jesus’ thing,” Maher points out. “To not follow that would be like joining Greenpeace and hating whales.”

Osama Bin Laden was behind a vicious and deadly attack on our country. He was, without question, an enemy of America.

Jesus told us to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek.

Yikes.

I would never suggest, and I don’t think Maher would either, that our nation’s leaders should have allowed Bin Laden to skate. No way. What Maher says to me is that, as a Christian, I should not revel in the death of an enemy. Not when my savior is telling me to do just the opposite.

Turn the other cheek.

Loving your enemy isn’t easy, particularly when it comes to the evil of a Bin Laden. Jesus never suggested it would be easy. He also didn’t provide an asterisk that gives us an out for certain enemies. Nope. Love your neighbor. Love your enemy.

Maher goes on.

Love your neighbor.

“It’s in that book you hold up when you scream at gay people,” Maher reminds us.

It happens. In our city. There are well known examples of Christians, church members, gathering to mock and condemn participants in Atlanta’s gay pride parade.

“You’re not Christ followers,” Maher says of such Christians. “You’re just fans.”

Ouch.

Bill Maher knows how to go for the Achilles heel. But he’s right. For me, and apparently for Bill Maher, any debate about the Bible and homosexuality should always end with the commandment Jesus placed right behind loving God.

“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

“All of the law and Prophets hang on these commandments.”

Those are the words of Jesus.

Maher calls it hypocrisy when we claim to follow Jesus, only to judge and condemn. I’m guilty of it. I don’t always love my neighbor. I’m sometimes judgemental, often resentful. I’m not sure that’s being hypocritical. I’m just flawed. I don’t try to use the Bible to justify my brokenness. Instead, I reach for God’s forgiveness, and the commandments of Jesus.

Love your neighbor.

I don’t know if Bill Maher loves his neighbor. The spears he aims at Christians don’t feel much like love. I don’t know if he loves his enemies. Bill Maher is not a Christian. He seems to have a healthy respect for the teachings of Jesus, but he doesn’t claim to be a follower.

“I’m a non-Christian,” he says. “Just like most Christians.”

Okay, I don’t buy into his claim that MOST Christians abandon the loving commandment of our savior. The majority of Christians I know do understand the need to extend compassion and understanding even when it may be difficult or confusing. Forgiving someone who has wronged you is never simple. It is right.

Bill Maher can be quite harsh. He insults and mocks, derides and offends. He can be quite smarmy and irritating. Christians are not his only targets, although lampooning religion seems to bring him his greatest joy. I guess, as Christians, we could consider him an enemy.

We know what Jesus said about that.

Bill Maher knows. And he’s an atheist.

 

What the Grinch forgot to tell us

recite-10xeq49Perhaps Christmas means a little bit more.

I love the Grinch. I love his yearly television transformation from grumpy misanthrop into loving apologist. On top of Mt. Crumpit, he welcomes the enlightenment of Christmas without gifts. He understands that there’s more. A whole lot more.

And then…

He gleefully returns the gifts. The story ends as he slices the roast beast and joyously claims the gizzard.

He never fills us in on the more.

Our neighborhood has a contest each Christmas that determines the families with the best outdoor light displays. One of the categories is Most Religious. This year, there were exactly two neighbors with decorations focused on the birth of Jesus. Two.

It’s kind of like having a birthday party, and neglecting to invite the birthday boy.

My own light display is lacking. Every year, we go full Griswold. We have an inflatable snowman, a blow up Santa, reindeer, snowflakes, candy canes, and enough lights to serve as a Georgia Power Christmas bonus. There is no Jesus. No wise men. Mary is noticeably absent. Joseph wasn’t invited.

Some of my best childhood memories are of our family trips to Mema’s to share in our holiday anticipation. I would fidget my way through Christmas Eve church services, then try my best to grab a quick five or six winks so Santa could do his stuff. By 9 a.m., the living room floor was hip deep in wrapping paper. By noon, everything new was old again. By the 26th, we were looking forward to the next Christmas.

God has been talking to me this year. Loudly. Firmly.

It started with my daughter’s engagement. She and her fiance allowed that Santa just might not be a part of their children’s Christmases. He was raised celebrating the birth of Christ, not 40% off. At first, I was heartbroken. And then…

One of the youth directors at our church asked me to help lead a class for college students. The title of the lessons says it all.

Christmas: It’s not our birthday.

Then, today, with no knowledge of the struggle I’ve been facing, a friend forwarded me an article written by journalist Kristen Powers. Once an atheist, the Fox News contributor writes about her transformation and how Christianity “ruined” her love of Christmas. Her newfound love of Christ supplanted her childhood adoration for the pile under the tree.

She’s invited Jesus back to His birthday party.

Now, I’m not here to kill Santa. I don’t want to put the big man on trial. Santa represents joy. He represents the spirit of sacrifice for the sake of others. But it’s time for Santa to take a backseat to a baby.

Christmas is about Jesus. It’s about a dirt poor infant born in an uncomfortable place in an uncomfortable situation. It’s about the greatest man ever to walk this earth, who taught us how to give without standing in line at Kohl’s. He taught us about love, unconditional and abundant. Jesus arrived on this earth to command that we love all others, even if they’re big, green, hairy, and hateful.

The Grinch didn’t change all on his own. He changed because of the love and attention offered by a child. Most of the Whos found the Grinch frightening and repugnant. The very characteristics others found repulsive, Cindy Lou Who found appealing. She kissed his dirty warm cheek, and the Grinch was reborn.

Funny. Jesus has a special love for the weak and downtrodden. He looks at the worst in all of us, and finds a reason to give us acceptance and compassion. Our sins, no matter how green or hairy, are instantly forgiven.

What a gift. Why on earth do we need anything else?

Santa is magical. But magic is an illusion. The gift of Christ is so real that I can feel it every time I fail and He instantly grants me grace. I feel it when I’m overwhelmed with stress, and a few moments of prayer lifts my burdens and sends it crashing into a landfill, the very same trash heap that is filled with last year’s Christmas toys. Jesus is not invisible. He’s there in the smile I wear. He’s in the hug I offer those in need. He’s in the meals I will deliver to shut-ins this Christmas Eve.

Christmas is changing for me. Perhaps it should have happened a long time ago. I’m not evicting Santa, but from now on, Jesus is driving the sleigh.

Jesus is the “something more” that the Grinch was talking about.

It’s his birthday. Let’s invite him to the party.

Bulletproof

recite-by751uGuns don’t kill people.

Hate kills people.

I am a follower of Christ. Jesus provided me with very straightforward instructions when it comes to my relationship with others. He wants me to love. Everyone. He asks me to love even those who don’t love me back. It’s not always easy. Still, I don’t think you have to be a Christian to understand that love is better than hate.

And yet…

Every day, it seems, I read where hate can claim another victory. Death leads to debate. Some are convinced more guns will end the violence. Others insist on new laws that further restrict our ability to obtain weapons. In between, there is a giant void that we fill with mean-spirited dissent. Disrespect. Insults. Our opinions come loaded with gunpowder and a fuse.

An article with President Obama’s reaction to the recent mass killings in California included a comment section.

“I hate that man,” wrote one who disagreed with the president’s stance.

How can we expect others to love us when we can’t even love and respect each other?

It’s no longer just acceptable to hate. It’s become chic. It’s now vogue to express your rancor in a pithy 140 characters and a biting hashtag. In my grandmother’s day, you didn’t talk about someone unless you had something nice to say. Nowadays, you need to whittle your insults into an original sharp jab or it’s just not worth the space on Facebook.

Our issues don’t end with guns. We can eliminate every Ruger, Remington, Magnum, Kalashnikov, and Daisy Red Rider under the sun. If the hate lives on, we’ve still got a major problem. You load a gun with bullets. Hate pulls the trigger.

Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.

Jesus said it. In days like this, it’s hard to comprehend. Not only did the guy in the Humvee cut me off, he extended an extra long finger when I tapped the horn. Love him? There’s no asterisk in the Bible that provides an exception for the neighbor with political views that aren’t in line with mine. I mean, he’s always insisting he’s right, and there’s no question that I’m right. It gets even more complicated when we’re talking about organizations with plastic explosives and master plans. Love your enemy. Jesus said it. Not me.

It sure is a lot easier to hate.

It can be so comfortable. You slip into it like a nice warm sweat suit. Your neighbors are doing it. So are the people in the next town, and the next.

Someone has got to be brave enough to go against the grain.

Oh, how Pollyanna of you, Jerry. So, you’re going to bring down ISIS with a hug? Well, not exactly. I don’t have the power to eliminate that kind of white hot hate.

But I can respect my neighbor even when we disagree. I can get to know someone who might be perfectly kind and loving, rather than make judgments from afar based on their skin color or their last name. I can acknowledge that my upbringing and experiences help mold my outlook, and that a neighbor with different experiences is going to have a different view of life. It doesn’t make them a bad person. It makes them different, yet still lovable.

I’m not focused on gun control. My focus is on hate control, and I’m starting with me. Every time I wave a fist at a bad driver, it does damage. Every snarky remark, every haughty political declaration, every time I refuse to offer the forgiveness and understanding that could turn an enemy into a friend, I help spread the hurt. Every act of hate adds more fertilizer to what is already a bumper crop of wickedness.

Wouldn’t it be great if the world were filled with guns, and no one wanted to use them? What if they just sat there, gathering dust?

Yes, it’s a Pollyanna view that I have. Such a pipe dream. So unrealistic. You probably disagree and believe me to be a complete fool.

That’s fine.

I love you.