A couple of weeks ago the Aspen School District had a fall break period of a couple of days. My wife Regina, our son Peter, and I headed to Grand Junction as many do to get some stronger sun and warmth as it had been so cold. We decided to spend some time at the Colorado National Monument. If you have not been, go. It is spectacular and a treasure. The plateaus, monoliths, cliffs, and red rock are striking and awe-inspiring.
Regina arranged well ahead of time for us to meet a guide one morning. I was game and not too apprehensive even though the guide we were meeting was a rock climbing guide. Our guide was not sure what to make of me when I told him, after meeting him, that the last time I was on a cliff, helicopters and a dozen or so mountain rescue members got involved. But that was then and this was now I assured him.
When we had hiked for 30 minutes or so up a canyon with backpacks filled with equipment, our guide said, “We are here.” Looking up at the surrounding sandstone cliffs I asked, “Where is here?” “Up,” he said. “Here? You mean there,” pointing toward the sky. “Yes.” Above us was at least 100 feet of a flat wall pictured on the front of the bulletin.
Soon, after we hiked around some more to the other side of that cliff to set up anchor points, we received instructions, and put on harnesses and helmets. Our son Peter went first followed by Regina. They both made it look easy and when they repelled down, it was apparently my turn.
After running the rope through the harness tie in points and attaching the carabiner to the belay loop, terms I still am learning, I was ready to go. I stood at the base of the cliff. I turned around and asked, “Where do I put my hands and feet?” “Really” I said in response to what the guide told me.
Somehow, someway, I made my way 30 feet or so up the cliff when all of a sudden I yelled, “There is no place to put my hands or my feet.” The guide replied, “Yes there is.” I retorted, “But I feel like a hippopotamus ice skating; this is not possible.” “Yes it is,” he said. “Look for tiny places to put just part of one foot and places to pull yourself up with your fingertips.”
Somehow, someway, I continued. About half way up, with cut hands and bloody knees as I was dumb enough to wear shorts, the guide yelled out, “Take a break.” “Where?” I asked. “Where you are; just lean back.” I won’t repeat what I whispered to myself.
Anyway, I did what I was told. I relaxed and leaned back from the cliff securely held by the rope. And as I did so, I looked down to see where I had come from, up to see how far I had to go, and all around to take in the view. I felt very blessed and asked myself, “How many people get to hang off a cliff today, voluntarily?”
After a few minutes, I continued climbing upward, falling now and then, but quickly caught by the rope. Eventually I made my way to the top, exhaled, and took in the glorious view of the canyon and the ants of Regina, Peter, and the guide below. Soon I repelled down planting my feet firmly on the ground. I was met with cheers.
Whether or not you have rock climbed with ropes, I was yet again reminded that day about what trusting God is all about when challenges abound. Hopefully not carrying this metaphor too far, we all have cliffs to go up. They are as varied as there are people, but we all have them. It can seem impossible at times to scale what we need to move through. It can indeed seem that there is no place to put our hands or feet and there is nothing to grab a hold of. We all go through this.
But we have a guide. We have God. And God is completely trustworthy. Even when it seems impossible, our feelings don’t determine what God can and cannot do. Even when it feels that God is nowhere to be found, our feelings, once again, don’t determine God’s presence. We’ve got to trust God. We have got to find those places to put our hands and our feet with God’s guidance.
And whether or not we realize it or accept it, there are people around us as we make our way. People to encourage us. There are always people around even if those we thought we could depend on don’t show up, others will if we reach out. And just as it is important to pause when we are in the middle of a cliff climb to rest, and to see where we have been and what is ahead, the same is true of those passages in which there are mighty challenges.
I’ve been thinking back to some of my cliffs. Parents dying. Friends dying. Illnesses that people I love have to endure. Times of incapacity due to serious injury. Struggling children. People I love whose time is limited. Not knowing what the future held with this and that. The cliffs I’ve been through over the decades as a pastor.
Cliffs, we all have had them, have them, and will have them. But Jesus’ message, God’s message to each of us is precisely the same. Make the decision to trust the guide and climb. Make the decision to move forward. Make the decision to pause and reflect. Make the decision to emote and share feelings with God. Make the decision to grit your teeth and trust.
And one final thing that is so important. Whenever we are not on a cliff, let us all take the time, make the intentional effort, to reach out in concrete ways to those who are on the ropes. Let us encourage them, applaud each movement they make, love them, grit our teeth and trust God on their behalf, when they are not in a place in which they are able to do so.
Sometimes it is our turn to trust. At others, it is our time to trust on behalf of others. But regardless, a theme that runs throughout the Bible and an invitation from God that runs throughout our lives is clear. Our guide is not going to let us go regardless of what cliff we are on and attempting to climb.