This month marks 5 years (5 years!!!) since we moved out of the quiet suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and into the new reality of cross-cultural ministry. I remember starting out on our journey and feeling like I was taking my first steps onto a big, tall mountain. The adventure was thrilling and the climb surely seemed possible. God felt so close, like He was breathing there right beside me. So many days He still does, and the adventure is still thrilling.
But sometimes the climbing gets rough, and we reach places that we just can’t pass. Things like the death of a parent, a cancer diagnosis, or a tragic accident. These impassable places knock the breath right out of us and bring us to our knees.
Or maybe the slow deaths are the ones that leave us gasping for breath along the trail. The personality conflicts and unmet expectations, the children that don’t quite fit in, the ministry burnout and the endless language learning.
The weight of ministry pushes down hard like two hands pressing on our backs. Somehow our training just didn’t prepare us for how our hearts would break for these people and for this place.
The mountain climb no longer seems possible.
A few weeks ago our family climbed the Santa Ana volcano. Our children were giddy as we started the climb through cool woods. They raced ahead of us up and down the path, running around us and playing. They laughed and shouted and it was such an adventure.
The path began to wind in and around trees and rocks. Our son stumbled, surprised, onto the path. His knees were dirty and he got right up but his mood slightly changed. He was no longer running and giddy.
We walked up and up and the sun beat down hard and hot through the trees. Dust swirled around our feet and the stones got bigger. Back and forth and up and down and we began to sweat. Our footsteps were light in the cool of the trees, but each step grew heavier out in the sun.
Jon led us on higher and higher up the mountain. Soon lava rocks and boulders made it hard to see what was just ahead. We had to be cautious, watch our step, and shade our eyes from the sun. Our son fell behind.
“Daddy? Daddy!” A small voice echoed through the trees and rocks. “Daddy? Where are you? I think I hear you, but I can’t see you!”
The answer came, “Hey buddy, I’m right here. Stay on the path and follow my voice. Can you hear me?”
“Yes Daddy, but just barely.” My brave boy soldiered on and what started as fear soon became a game. Around each bend he would call out again, “Daddy? Daddy? Where are you?”
“Here I am, keep climbing, follow my voice. Can you hear me?”
“Yes Daddy, just barely.”
On and on it went up the mountain and over the rocks and through the dust. My boy kept climbing following his daddy’s voice, even though he could barely hear it. But as long as he heard his dad, he knew his way.
But soon a barely-there voice just wasn’t enough. My son grew tired, he tripped and he fell. But this time he didn’t want to get up. The trail was hard, the sun was hot, and the dust was thick.
So his Daddy stopped and picked him up and held his hand. Together they climbed the hardest parts. The parts that were stoney ashes left years ago by a volcanic explosion. The parts that were last steps through a barren wasteland where nothing grew, and sulfur still swirled. The ashes made the rocks treacherous but my son was renewed by his father’s side and began to yearn more and more for the summit.
Together they reached it. It was worth the struggle and uncertainty along the way. They saw a turquoise lake, and they took in the sight of stretching green fields. Distant mountains and deep blue skies opened up before them and it was beautiful.
So many days I feel just like my son. I am on a trail that twists and winds. Sometimes it is cool and lovely, but sometimes it feels like I am just lost and dusty. I call out in a feeble voice.
“Father…Father, where are you?”
It’s almost like I hear His voice, like it’s just barely there. It is just loud enough to keep my foot on the path, and to show me the way. But I still trip and fall, narrowly missing crevices and drop-offs.
There are moments that I cross into the wastelands of my journey. Those moments are dark and gray and tears choke out the joy and I am scrambling just to gain my footing, just to take a step. The top of that mountain looks so far away.
But God is there too and He grabs my hand and He reminds me that the wasteland is not forever. This scrambling, this striving, this loss is not forever. There is something coming. There is something to hope for, and it is a world with no teenagers forced into prositution, no addictions, no cruelty, no stillborn babies, no devastating disease, no children abused, no poverty, no war, no broken hearts, and no more death.
One day the struggle will be worth it, and the only thing that will matter is that I followed His voice and took His hand. We will climb together, my Father and I, and He will show me that world above the wasteland where all is new, and all is whole, and it will be beautiful.
That day is coming and I hope and year for that summit. But for today there is work to be done, so I hike the trail and follow His voice even when I can just barely hear it.