Hiking is my newest adventure. Over the years, I have set physical challenges for myself. This is partly for health, partly for fun, but also an act of gratitude. My body is capable of stepping and clambering and climbing, and I am so thankful. I honor it when I use it, even slow and clumsy. I honor the God who created me. And the more I hike, the more sure my footing becomes, the more my breathing evens out, the more I stride with confidence and joy.
As a kid I was an avid competitive swimmer. “Athlete” was a major component of my identity. But between the ages of 12 and 15, this was stripped away, first by rheumatoid arthritis and then by severe Crohns disease, which eventually required drastic surgery. My later teens and early twenties were marked by the sense that I was a half-invalid and that debilitating illness could return any time. I feared anything that caused physical discomfort. My joints would still flare up with hot inflammation from fatigue or overuse. I thought this was how my life would be — “fragile” was my new identity.
But then I had a baby. And I was awed at what this body that I kind of despised could do. I noticed afterward that I felt healthier. Flare-ups came less often and less severely. I walked, one mile at a time, then two, then three. I climbed a (small) mountain in the Adirondacks. I had another baby, after a difficult pregnancy. A year after my second son was born, I ran —ran — a 5K. The next year I did a triathlon, a sport I continued for 10 years. When my kids learned how to downhill ski, I did too. What a joy it was to rediscover the athlete who had been waiting in the recesses of my identity.
I’ve never been particularly fast or skillful at any of these things, not like I was as a swimmer. When I finished in the top half of the field, I felt like I’d won. If I made it down the hill without stopping or falling, I felt like a champion. Sometimes I have been put out of commission for a couple weeks because of a flare-up. Recently I posted a picture of myself hiking a segment of the Appalachian Trail, the first time I have set foot on it. I’m pretty sure I am not capable of thru-hiking the AT, but to do segments of it is a triumph.
Okay, so what? Nice story, but so what?
“The way of the sluggard is as a hedge of thorns, but the path of the upright is a highway.” (Proverbs 15:19)
What I’ve learned with my body applies to my spiritual life too. The word “sluggard” feels a bit harsh, especially for someone held back by illness. In my case, I had to face the fact that sometimes I cited illness to myself when really fear was the problem. Fear could make me a sluggard, unwilling to push forward and put in the work. When I was doing triathlons, I made myself push past the fear so that I could actually listen to my body. Eventually, I found the limit when I trained for and completed a half-Ironman. I was proud of myself that I had finished, but acknowledged that the distance had been too much for my body, and backed off. But if I had listened to fear instead of my body, I would never have known that it was capable of the shorter distance races.
When my emotions and faith were tested in the fire of crisis with my son’s bipolar disorder, the same principles applied. I was capable of so much more strength, trust in God, and ability to fight than I ever dreamed. I also learned where my limit was, and when I needed to take action, in the form of counseling and medical intervention, to keep myself from breaking down. If I had listened to fear to determine my responses, I would never have found out how abundantly equipped I was in Christ.
When the faithfulness required for caregiving looms like a mountain over us, it can seem easier not to climb. When the trail of practicing trust in God is a thicket in front of us, it feels safer not to venture in. If we follow the way of the sluggard, and stay unmoving at the foot of the climb or the edge of the thicket, the hedge of thorns grows around us, making everything harder, hurting us. The way of the sluggard, not moving, not putting in the monumental effort, is oh, so enticing. But practicing faithfulness begets more faithfulness. The path of the upright, the habits of work and trust, gets easier. This path leads us where we want to go.