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Hermit's Peak

March 29, 2020
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About a lifetime ago, the summer after my Sophomore year of Bible College, I had my first taste of Youth Ministry in a little town in the panhandle of Oklahoma. Tiny Texhoma straddled the borders of Texas and Oklahoma, and was maybe the best place a guy more full of enthusiasm than good sense could have spent that summer. I have great memories of that time, more than 4 decades later.

We went to Church Camp up in the mountains of northern New Mexico, at a place called El Porvineer. It was up a winding road from Las Vegas. Not the famous Las Vegas. Not the one in Nevada. The one in New Mexico. The one not many people know even exists.

It was one of the most beautiful settings I’d ever seen, nestled in the mountains beside a snow-fed stream, with breathtaking views in every direction. We played softball in the meadow and did baptisms in a pond fed by that snow-fed stream. Sins were frozen before they were washed away… It was a gift from God I had no context for real appreciation of at the time. I thought it was cool, but I really didn’t understand just how cool it was until later in my life, as I looked back on it.

One of the features of Camp El Porvineer is Hermit’s Peak. The trail head for climbing it started right behind the dinning hall and zig-zaged all the way to the top. It’s not a 10,000 foot peak, but from the summit, you can look out across the plains and see pretty much all the way to Oklahoma. If you were afraid of heights, you didn’t want to linger there at the top for long.

Every year, there were studly high school boys who would take to the trail at a run with their chest out and chin up. They leaked courage and manliness. I don’t know of anybody who ever finished the trail at a run, though. The air was too thin, and the grade too steep for anybody who hadn’t been in serious training for it. It took more than firm intention and a testosterone overload to finish the trail at a run. Or at a trot. Or, for that matter, walking.

As with most things in life, what mattered on that trail up Hermit’s Peak wasn’t how you started, but how you finished. And really, how long it took you to finish was far less important than the fact that you finished. My friends and I were far from the first to the top, but we had the satisfaction of pounding our chests and grunting and hooting as if we were champions of the climb, simply because we had finished. Our trophy was the view (captured with an Instamatic camera – remember them? Ask your grandma. I wish I could find that picture…) and the thrill of looking back down the trail we had climbed.

But the event wasn’t over when we reached the top. We still had the descent to make. It was easier than the ascent, but it was still a long way to the dinning hall. The gravity assist was very helpful, but the downward journey was still no picnic. That came later, at the chuck wagon by the bonfire.

Thank you for indulging me in a trip up and down the switchbacks of the trail on Hermit’s Peak. Good memories. But there’s actually something there for every member of every family – every husband, every wife, every dad, every mom, every daughter, every son. Everybody. I mentioned it in my revelry about my climb up Hermit’s Peak.

The point’s not how you start, but how you finish. In fact, in lots of cases, not even so much how you finish as that you finish. In so many things in life, it’s not about striding across the finish line looking like a thoroughbred. It’s about just crossing the finish line, even if you have to crawl across.

One of my favorite “finisher” stories is the one about John Stephen Akhwari, an Olympic marathoner from Tanzania. In the 1968 Olympics, held in Mexico City, Akhwari cramped severely (because of the altitude) before the half-way mark in the 26.2 miles of the marathon course. That would have stopped many runners. But he pushed through. Later in the race, as he was jockeying for position, he was bumped awkwardly by a runner and fell to the pavement, badly wounding and dislocating his knee. If cramps would have stopped many runners, a dislocated knee would have stopped most. But Akhwari continued to hobble on. He finished in 3:25:27, almost exactly 1hr 5mins after the Ethiopian winner. By the time he came to the finishing line, his knee bandaged and bleeding, there were only a few people left in the stadium, and the sun had set. 

As powerful and heroic as the story of his finish was, what he said about it is what’s most powerful to me. “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race;” he said, “they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”

This Coronavirus thing is a marathon. It’s a climb with a thousand switchbacks. The 15 days of quarantine and isolation aren’t the marathon, though, my friends. They’re an elongated start of the whole thing. There will be months of adjustment and recovery on many levels once we get through this initial season of response. The finish line is a long way out there.

We’ll get through it, and I believe we’ll come through it better than many thought we would. We’re learning so much about ourselves and our systems that will make us more agile and able in the future. It’s not overly optimistic to see the good that will come of this horrible thing.

But realistically, the damage we sustain as individuals, families, communities and a country, not even accounting for the context of the whole world that’s been rocked by this thing, will be bigger and deeper than I’ve experienced in my lifetime.

We’ve started pretty well. Our leaders have engaged with the problem in a reasoned and effective way. Although politicians on both sides of the partisan isle will always see political leverage in every crisis, public servants have stepped up to lead the way through this frightening season. And a country of obstinate and independent people have come together with amazing solidarity to follow their lead. I’m very grateful for this.

But this is the start line, not the finish line. We’re starting pretty well. But the finish is more important than the start.

My question here isn’t about how the country will finish. It’s about how you and I, as individuals, will finish. How will we cross the finish line? If I have to crawl across, I’ll crawl. But I don’t want to give up when I cramp up. I don’t want to give up when I’m knocked down. I don’t want to give up when things get more than simply inconvenient (which is what 98.3% of us are feeling right now). I want to stay the course. I want to somehow get across the finish line. How I look when I cross isn’t the point. That I get across it is.

For me, I know of only one way to get across the finish line. It’s by the power of the One Who has promised to give me everything I need to get across. It’s in the promise the Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippian Christians 20 centuries ago. “I can do all things,” he wrote, “through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)

If all I have to meet this challenge of endless switchbacks is my own effort and energy, I’m toast. And though you may be stronger and more mature than me, you’ll be toast, too, if that’s what you’re counting on.

The good news is that it isn’t about our effort and energy, only. It’s about the infinite and unspeakable power of Christ Who strengthens us.

Interestingly, Paul wrote these words in his letter to the Philippians while he was in a Roman prison. He wasn’t sipping on a fruit drink under an umbrella on the Mediterranean. Roman prison weren’t happy places. They were dank and dirty and neglected. It’s in that context of discomfort and what would have made me hopeless and helpless that the Apostle wrote this affirmation.

So if you’re starting to cramp up and getting really tired of the switchbacks and rugged marathon trail, remind yourself of the truth of the promise in this little verse you can memorize in half a minute. Reach out for the strength of Christ and finish, even if you have to crawl across the finish line.

From → Marriage, Parenting

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