Most days now I find myself venturing into a senior living community where I serve as chaplain. In my responsibilities there, I have the tremendously fulfilling responsibility to minister to each of the 120 residents who call this facility their home. One of those residents is a spry 88-year-old lady who is not more than five feet in height. Every day I meet this lady (let’s call her Patricia) on her way out of the building for her daily walk. As she prepares to go outside for her walk, she is carrying a portable oxygen unit strapped to her back. She always wears a jacket, even when it is warm outside, and for the sake of keeping her balance, she has a pair of trekking polos, one in each hand.
The very first time I encountered Pat going out for her walk and equipped in this way, her trekking poles brought back memories of hiking in the Smoky Mountains. Twice a year for about 10 years, I was privileged to spend a few days on top of the world. I accompanied several pastor friends on what became a twice annual backpacking adventure in that beautiful national park on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina.
When you hike on the back country trails of the Smokies — or any wilderness trail, for that matter — carrying the right equipment will make your journey a whole lot simpler and easier. Two of the most essential ingredients in that journey are trekking poles, one in each hand. For the uninitiated, trekking poles are telescoping poles which are adjustable to the height of the one using them to aid in keeping your balance and negotiating often difficult and tricky mountain trails. With one in each hand, it does not take long to discover that they can hold you up when you lose your footing, they can help you pull yourself up in tight circumstances, and they can keep you from sliding down the side of the mountain when you lose your balance.
As a now-experienced backpacking hiker, I can testify to the fact that hiking up a mountain trail is a lot different from driving down a four-lane or two-lane highway. The path is often quite narrow with all sorts of natural hazards, which seem to be put there just to trip you up. The trails are often uneven, or sloping in one direction or the other, and filled with rocks and tree roots and stumps, and sometimes even water.
Those trekking poles, whether manufactured or natural wood-hewn sticks, are almost essential accessories for an individual carrying a heavy backpack up the trail. For a mountain trail hiker to use trekking poles in wilderness hiking is a lot like a golfer using a putter to lean on when he (she) leans over to pick up the ball out of the cup. The putter helps the golfer keep his balance and allows him to complete the task without falling. So, too, the trekking poles help the hiker negotiate the variances in the trails and allow him to keep his balance without falling. Even if he does stumble, the poles will help him to maintain his vertical stance on the trail.
Why would I be talking about trekking poles now? Aren’t there more important issues to think about, issues like Veterans Day or the economy or some other controversial subject? The answer in a word is yes – and no.
Trekking poles in a word are a parable. A parable is a story, similar to the ones that Jesus told, which often can be understood on two levels: the obvious, and then the deeper level. The parable of the trekking poles is simple: For a man or woman of God who wishes to make progress down the trail of life, one of the most important aspects of the journey is keeping your balance. The trails we encounter are filled with obstacles which, if we are not careful, will cause us to stumble, to fall, or at best, to look back and wish for the good old days.
If you recall, that is exactly what happened to Moses and the people of Israel as they were leaving Egypt and encountered that giant obstacle called the Red Sea. The people grumbled and complained and wanted to go back to the slavery they experienced in the land of Goshen. The enemy of our souls would like nothing better than to cause us to stumble and fall or even tumble off the trail and never get back on. But God’s design is for us to maintain our balance, and we do that by making sure that we are properly equipped for the journey.
Our equipment for the spiritual journey is diverse, but one of the main ingredients, which will keep us from falling, is the Word of God. God’s Word is what we lean on to keep our balance. God’s Word is what will keep us from falling or faltering when we seem to have weak knees. It is more than something to just adorn our coffee tables or our bookshelves. It is only helpful when used and used properly.
Folks, if you desire to be a true hiker for Jesus, if you want to be someone who is progressing along the trails of life toward that spiritual mountaintop, then it is of utmost importance to not only have the right equipment in your possession, but also to use it, to hide it in your heart so that it is readily available. That means spend time with God every day in his Word, the Bible. Read it. Study it. Memorize it. And regularly recall it when you are in trouble.
If you do, I can tell you it is well worth the effort. The view from the top is fantastic.
Chuck Tabor is a religion columnist for The Times-Gazette and a former Hillsboro area pastor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.