Starting a little series (for lack of a better term) about the wisdom I’ve been provided through time spent in the wilderness. God has made metaphors of certain experiences on the trail, camping, and walking among trees and mountains which have created insightful parallels for life at home. These posts are to share those illustrations as I felt they were revealed to me – to “pay it forward” so to speak. I write them not because I think them revelational, but maybe because someone else out there needs these illustrations too. So, perhaps this is for you.
4. nachtwanderung – (noun) German for “night hike.”
I don’t often hike in the dark. I usually tell myself it is too cold or that I’m too tired to rally myself to hike during dark hours. But, today was my last day in the field for my seasonal job – and (already feeling mournfully nostalgic) I was determined to soak up as much trail time as possible. So, I arose before dawn to soak in a bit of last trail time before we headed back down the mountain.
You begin a night hike thrilled by the novelty of it, or at least intrigued. There is something about walking about in the night that feels like breaking a law (a natural law), something that shouldn’t be allowed, this play acting at being a nocturnal creature. But, with headlamp strapped to your forehead it is more than allowed. Energized by the mystery of the landscape when blanketed in darkness, you head out on the trail.
Not too far down the trail, however, the honeymoon phase of excitement wanes briefly. You feel a little less adventurous and a little more timid. After all, your trail is in the wilderness and in the wilderness there are wild things. The silence is beautifully immense, but it causes any small, alternate sound to be screamingly startling – even though it is just the wind, or just your foot breaking a twig as you step on it. You find you are spooked easily. You find you want to turn around at several occasions when you shine your headlamp up trail and see an ill-defined shape that suggests a menacing intent.
But, no. You will not be made afraid. You will not let fear shape the tale of your trail. So, you keep going. And, when you reach that phantom object you embarrassingly discover that it was only a bush or a fallen log – at least no one was there to play witness to the fact. How much of your path you just wasted on worry. What a shame it would have been to turn around.
Your headlamp does give you a good amount of comfort on this journey actually. Even in deep darkness, having this small source of light to give you just enough light onto your path gives you an incredible amount of confidence in your ability to find good footing. You feel quite encouraged about moving forward and onward in the dark.
But, this headlamp can only shine so far on the trail ahead of you, it has limits at how deep it can pierce the darkness. This leaves the drops, turns, and obstacles ahead of you hazily defined at best, and even things in your immediate next-15-feet future is mere impressionism. There is a beauty in that : you are very focused on each step you make, very present in your present. There is a frustration in that : you can’t anticipate much of anything that is coming your way on this trail. Maybe that is good sometimes, because if you could see the elevation gain you’re going to climb up in about 5 minutes walking time…maybe you would turn around now.
In some (if not most) places on this trail, the ground is uneven. This causes you to occasionally lose your footing, and make a quick step to catch yourself. Sometimes, this “almost fall” makes your heart skip a beat, causes you to snap back to attention on the steps you are making, causes you to slow your pace down a bit. Sometimes, the way you catch yourself has a sort of grace to it – for someone like me, this type of moment is the closest I ever get to having a good dance move. Alas, no one there to impress by it.
Eventually, your movement become a sort of lullaby to yourself. You are self-hypnotized into a steady motion, a comforting autopilot. Soothed by the sound of just your feat crunching on the trail, just your rhythmic breathing, and just the nearly silent sound of the rain dropping (if you’re lucky because hiking in the rain is the best sort of hiking there – no contest). Your sight is compromised, so you lean on the familiarity of the senses you have available to you in the dark.
And the whole time, while walking in the darkness, you find a great comfort in knowing that there are people back at camp, that know where you are. That know of the trail you are on, that are rooting for you to find out where it is you are going. They believe you can make it through the dark even when you don’t, they have faith that your trail will be in full light again come dawn, even when you feel uncertain whether dawn will ever return.
This is a treasure you keep, even if you can’t stay with them, even if you can only briefly return to this camp to resupply, or to get a bit of rest before trekking on another dark-shrouded trail. When you are out there on the trail in the dark, feeling lost, feeling afraid, there is a sense of confidence that comes just knowing that they are somewhere back there, championing you. There is an added light on the steps you are taking as you carrying them with you in thought.
The true definition of night should “anytime between sunset and sunrise.” So, depending on when you started your “night” hike and how long you hike, eventually sunrise begins to creep in. The appearance of light is not like turning on a light switch in your house. The light bleeds slowly across the sky, so subtly you hardly notice your surroundings are getting lighter. Eventually, light is just there, all around you, and you’ve forgotten that you have your headlamp on – your aiding light is enveloped in the overabundance of light you now find yourself in. You find it something forgotten when, not so many moments before, it was, very nearly, your singular source of hope.
By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night
This is not an all-too original metaphor I’m drawing here. “Path” or “trail” is often used as a image for our life’s journey. But I was reminded of this even more when hiking in the dark today, because I feel so very much in the dark lately about where I am going and what will lie on the path to that place. Even with a goal in mind (if I had a clearly defined one at this moment), the path is still so dark I feel timid about treading on it. Sometimes it is exciting to launch into the unknown, but sometimes the inability to see more than 15 feet ahead of you, maybe just a few weeks or months into your future, is terrifying. But I don’t want to shape my life based on fear.
And then there is this: God shows up. He provides a “pillar of fire” that is just enough for you to keep traveling in the night, to empower you to keep moving. I’m not saying He gives you a sun-amount of light, I’m saying He gives you enough, if your eyes are open and looking out for it. He will give you a headlamp at least. Most times, God’s “pillar of fire” materializes in a sermon, a quote in a book I’m reading, a poem, or something said by a person in passing that they didn’t realized was a light for me. The words found in any one of those things becomes a “pillar of fire” or an extra battery to my headlamp – I feel I have enough courage to keep traveling.
Your word is a lamp to guide my feet
and a light for my path.
How often I forget this. How often I forget that God has left us His words in the Bible to rely on as light onto our dark paths in life. Full of layers of meaning, of individual meaning, of meaning we did not need the first time we read the verse but we need in spades now. How I often forget to go back and consult His Word to rekindle a “lamp to guide my feet.”
Remembered words, His Word remembered. This comes, for me, in things friends have said about me (compliments I found and still find hard to accept, but equally hard to forget) or to me throughout my life become part of this life path for me now. His guidance and comfort come in these encouragements from “camp” – from “home.” To me, home is where those I love most are. So “home” is a few different geographical places, but they all join as one “home” in my heart. And, as I journey into the dark, I truly find a “light for my path” through the way I have heard God’s Word take voice in conversations and letters from friends and family. Some of those things were said or written long ago, but…oh… how they’ve been written deeply on my heart. How I carry them with me as a light now.
Send me your light and your faithful care,
let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy mountain,
to the place where you dwell.
I find this verse particularly interesting because it is a request for “light” to “lead me.” It is not a request for “light” to “show me everything that is coming.” I often feel like I want to know everything that is coming – every turn, dip, and obstacle in my life’s journey. I want to be ready. But, lately, I feel like I am lying to myself. I have closed my eyes to the reality that knowing too much of what is coming makes me anxious beyond belief. I think I am anxious in “not knowing,” but I am truly my most anxious when I am anticipating too much of what is on the way. May my prayer, instead, be that I get just enough light to “lead me” on my next few steps. May my prayer be for a headlamp.
Equally important, however, is my prayer that I not forget to be thankful of this guiding light when “dawn” arrives. When clarity bleeds over the landscape of my life’s direction so subtly, in imperceptible increments, I don’t want to forget the headlamp light. I want to remember that this light is still shining (since God doesn’t turn off), and it was that which saw me through the darkness.
I want to remember it will be there the next time I venture on a night hike, and share it with you the next time you find yourself trekking in the dark.