In the early years of our time in Colorado, we learned many lessons about the wilderness, some of them painful. One important lesson we learned is that most storms come across the divide from the west, so when you are hiking on the eastern slope, you cannot see storms until they come across the divide. Hence, you had better prepare for the journey, because you won’t see bad weather coming.
We were taught to always plan to summit by noon, so you can get back down to treeline before the thunderstorms roll in. Getting caught in a lightning storm above treeline is more of a thrill than most people want. Those climbing Long’s Peak, the only 14,000-foot peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, depart the trailhead at 3 a.m. so they can be off the top before 2 p.m.
Rob Bell, in his first Nooma video, “Rain,” talks about the storms in our lives. He counts how many times in the scripture people cry out to God in pain. He points out that Jesus did not say “if” the storms come, but “when” the storms come. The video goes on in a powerful way to show how God holds us close through the storms. I saw a church sign that captured it this way: God did not promise us a smooth passage, just a safe landing. Yet we are still surprised when the storms come.
One morning, we set off on a hike up to Isabelle Glacier, in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. It was a beautiful, cloudless morning as we ascended the trail. We moved well above treeline (11,000+ feet) and stopped to have lunch at a small lake below the glacier. We noticed clouds appearing before noon, but we weren’t too worried. We had lightweight rain jackets in our packs.
When the wind picked up, the clouds started stacking. Our mountain guide, Beverly Gholson, would use lingo from her mountaineering buddies to forecast the conditions. “They’re just scudding,” she would say about the clouds, “but if they start stacking, we better get below treeline, because it’s no fun up here when the lightning comes.”
So, as the clouds started stacking, we packed up and started back down the trail. Trouble is, we had at least four miles back to the trailhead. Within thirty minutes, thunder started rolling in along with wind, rain and this frozen precipitation called graupel stinging the backs of our necks. We got out our jackets and within ten minutes it was pouring rain. We quickly learned the difference between water resistant (meaning it keeps you dry for five minutes in the pouring rain, then gives up) and waterproof. We covered the last 3 miles of the trail in less than an hour, but it was a miserable hour. The temperature dropped from mid-60’s to low-40’s, and we understood how people could die of hyperthermia out in the wild even when the temperature never gets below freezing.
When we got back to the car, we said, “Never again.” We headed to REI to secure what we needed to make sure we were prepared next time. Now, whenever we go into the wilderness, we carry plenty of water, food, a first aid kit, waterproof rain jacket and pants, gloves, knit cap, and an extra fleece for warmth. All this stuff makes up a pack over 20 pounds, which slows us a bit. Often, hikers pass by wearing sandals or tennis shoes and carrying no gear or water. We wish them well and keep trudging, thinking of that extra weight as our “storm insurance.” Slow, but relentless.
A few weeks ago, we embarked on a six-mile circle route in Rocky Mountain National Park. As the rain and graupel started, we were two miles from completing our circuit. No problem. We put on our gear, and merrily went on our way, hurrying as lightning and thunder increased our sense of urgency. We passed over a dozen people cowering under trees trying to stay dry (not a good strategy in a lightning storm), and gave thanks for lessons learned.
As I began my journey into church leadership, I was totally unprepared for the storms. And, like my wilderness experience, I never saw them coming. At that time, in my church, there was no strong correlation between a deep spiritual life and an invitation to join the church Council leadership. Being a good Lutheran, I had never developed the disciplines of prayer and bible study. No one challenged me to discipleship until I heard Mike Foss speak about his book, “Power Surge.” But that didn’t stop me from being nominated to leadership in our church.
So, when my first serious thunderstorm blew in, I was stunned. I was trying to do good for the church, and suddenly I found myself under attack. What was most stunning was the attack came from people I had counted as friends, from within my own church community. I never believed in the devil until I saw him at work within my own church. I was blown away.
A few years later, when I was asked to become President of my congregation, I was a little more prepared. We had sickness at the core of our church, and a culture of avoidance and keeping people happy that had not allowed us to deal with conflict in a healthy manner. So, things had festered for years. I pledged to change that culture, and to move to a place of health in our staff and leadership.
I told my wife at the beginning of my term that I expected to come under attack before my term was complete. Yet, when it happened ten months later, I was once again stunned by the vicious, personal nature of the attacks. It took me months to regain the wind and start moving again. I began to understand the somewhat cynical saying I had heard around our church, “Let no good deed go unpunished.”
I have come to believe in the concept of spiritual warfare. I heard it said recently that many Christians have not grown spiritually since their teenage years. I think that as long as we live our lives as milquetoast Christians, going to church and not rocking the boat, the evil one leaves us alone. I think his best tactic is for us to believe he doesn’t even exist. Hence, the 80 percent of our churches that are on a plateau or in decline don’t need much attention, because they don’t engage in much spiritual warfare. Worship wars, maybe, but not spiritual warfare.
When we begin to take the Word seriously, to engage in discernment about gifts and calling, to move off the dime and really do something for Christ and the Kingdom, watch out. Attacks will come. So, how do we prepare?
In Ephesians 6:10-18, Paul writes:
Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.
As I spend time in the Word, I find it strengthens me for the difficult times. I learn more of Jesus’ nature as I drink from the living water of scripture. I am better able to live the servant leadership to which he calls us. Time in meditation allows me to better grasp the lessons that God wants me to learn from the difficult times. And, in my time of prayer, I’ve learned to pray for people in the situations that are tormenting me at the moment. Often the still, small voice leads me to act in ways I would not have been able to do on my own. Fasting provides clarity of thought that I rarely experience otherwise. Focusing on the suffering Jesus experienced, although blameless, helps me see that any unfair suffering I encounter is insignificant in comparison.
All in all, practicing the spiritual disciplines gives us the energy, persistence and perseverance to endure the difficult times, the storms of our lives. Through tests and trials, our faith is strengthened. God promises us He will accompany us. He gives us strength to survive anything that comes our way. However, we cannot hear or believe these promises if we don’t spend time listening to His word and the still, small voice of His Spirit that comes when we make time for quiet reflection. So, put on the armor of God, and it will prepare you and give you courage for any difficulties you may face.
See a related article, Slow but Relentless here.