Monday, January 13, 2014

Romanian Mountain Climb

(Adapted from a talk originally given at a camp meeting in western NC in May, 2007)

See this little white rock? (This is an iPhone picture of the real rock in my purse, and is pretty close to actual size. The picture is a little whiter than the real rock, though.) It doesn’t look like anything special, does it? If I tossed it on the ground here in North Carolina, and someone found it later, they might think it was pretty, and pick it up, but they would have no way of knowing where it came from, or how it happened to be there. However, this particular rock has a story behind it. I carry it in my purse to remind me of a very special hike I took several years ago, and the lessons I learned on that hike.

From November, 2004 through June 2005, I had the privilege of spending seven months in the beautiful country of Romania. I lived at the Medical Missionary Training school associated with Herghelia Center of Lifestyle Medicine, but I taught at the elementary school in the village of Câmpeniţa, about 5 kilometers (2 miles) away. The first part of my stay there, I had a ride all the way to and from school every day. Then, for a while, I walked the entire distance both ways. The last two or three months I was there, I walked about a mile down hill (some of it pretty steep) to the bus stop in Herghelia village every morning, and rode the bus the rest of the way to school. Every afternoon, the process reversed -- except that the hike back to where I was living was up hill instead of down hill. When I first started walking in about January, I had to stop and catch my breath multiple times between Herghelia Village and home. By the end of the year, I could cover the entire distance without stopping -- even with a backpack loaded with books, laptop, and whatever else I was taking home with me.

The last weekend before I came back to the United States, the medical missionary students and teachers went on a camp out, with the plan of climbing to the summit of one of Romania’s highest mountains on Sunday. I don’t remember the name of the mountain, but Ludo, one of the Romanians on the hike told me (when I was originally preparing this talk) that it is in the Fagaras Mountains. (It would have been a day or so hike into the mountains to reach the base of the tallest mountain, and there wasn’t time for that.)  I had become friends with the students and teachers, and they invited me to go along. Rachel (a young lady from the same church I attend here in the US) was one of the English teachers at the training school, even though she was younger than most of her students. She and I share some good memories of Romania – including this particular adventure.

Friday afternoon we all piled into three vans, and headed for the mountains. It was quite an interesting trip; one unlike any I’d ever been on before. We arrived in several villages about the time the cows came home from pasture, and they filled the entire road. There was nothing we could do but stop and wait for them to go by. A hundred or two cows who are not in any particular hurry can take a long time to go by!

At one village, we realized that one of the vans had gotten behind the one I was in and another van, so we stopped and waited for it. While we were there, we noticed the stork nests on top of some of the chimneys, and on some special platforms built on top of the power poles. We even got to see a parent bird bring some food to its babies.

In talking to an American (not Rachel) who was in the other van, I learned that, out of the 9 people in the van she was riding in, there were four continents (North and South America, Europe, and Africa) and 8 countries (Romania, Zimbabwe, Brazil, the United States, and four others I don’t remember) represented.

We finally reached our destination – a small chalet perched on the side of the mountain. We girls spread our sleeping bags and mats out on the second floor of the chalet – it was wall-to-wall beds, with a few girls sleeping out on the balconies. If I remember right, some of the guys slept downstairs, and the rest slept in tents in the yard. We had just enough time to get set up and start supper before Sabbath. We cooked outside, and got water from a stream nearby.

Sabbath morning we had a beautiful church service in nature. Rudolph, the student from Zimbabwe, preached a sermon that has stuck in my mind in a way few sermons have stuck. He used Christ’s illustration about the broad road and the narrow road (Matthew 7:13, 14) as the base of his sermon, and talked about the importance of diligently studying God's word, comparing passage with passage, to keep us in the narrow way. 

After a delicious lunch, we hiked along the road to a monastery a mile or two away. I’d never been to a monastery before, and found it fascinating – though I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it right now. It isn’t really relevant to my story; besides, I don’t remember a lot of details.

Sunday morning was the climax of our weekend – hiking to the top of a mountain higher than any I’ve climbed, before (or since). I don’t remember for sure, but it seems like it was about 12,000 feet high. I wish I had actual pictures, but I don't. The ones below are from Travel Guide Romania, on the Internet, and are from the general area, but not from our hike. 

We drove to the beginning of the trail, parked the vans, and started hiking. The first part of the hike was easy. I remember remarking to Rachel how much the scenery reminded me of North Carolina. We were walking on a dirt road beside a mountain stream. Even the plants seemed similar to what we’d see around here. Although our hike was just beginning, I could see a parallel between the road we were walking on and Rudolph’s sermon the day before. Romania has paved roads (though we’d had to travel some dirt roads to even reach the chalet), but I never saw any multi-lane divided highways like we have here in the US. I realized that, nice as those highways are, there is no way we could get to our destination (the top of the mountain) by travelling on any of them. It is the same way with the “broad road” that the world is traveling on. It might be smooth and easy, but it doesn’t go where we, as Christians, want to go.

After we’d hiked quite a distance, the scenery changed. We went around a bend in the trail – and there was a big snowy area that we had to cross. That was definitely different from anything around here, especially the last weekend in May!

By the time we got out of the snow we were above the tree line. The ground seemed pretty level, though we were definitely still climbing, and the trail was relatively smooth and easy to follow, so we made good time. We stopped for a short visit at a building designed as an “overnight stop” for those hiking more than a day’s journey into the mountains, then continued on our way.

Not too long after we left the hostel (or whatever it was called), we crossed a stream, and the trail took a sharp turn up. At this point, several of our group decided they’d had enough hiking, and that they were going to wait there until the rest of us got back. (If I remember right, at least one or two of them had some physical limitations that made mountain climbing impractical.)

Our nice, smooth, horizontal trail, which quickly became nearly vertical, disappeared into a tangle of rocks of various sizes and shapes. We had to pick our way around and over them for quite a ways. When we finally reached level ground again, we discovered trail markers – and a much easier way up the hill we’d just climbed. I don’t know how we got off the trail; we were probably just so busy visiting and enjoying each other’s company that we weren’t paying close enough attention to where we were going. It’s also possible that some of the early markers and been removed, or were missing for some other reason. It really doesn’t matter how we got off the trail. We sincerely thought we were going the right way; however, the “consequences” (a much harder climb) of us being off the trail were just as difficult as if we’d deliberately chosen to go a path other than the one marked out.  

Our Christian walk is much like this. God has marked out a path for us in His written word. He says, “My yoke is easy, and My burden is light. (Matthew 11:30) He has even promised to show us the way, if we’ll only ask. If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. (James 1:5) And thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left. (Isaiah 30:21)

We corrected our way, and did our best to follow the marked trail. Things went well – until we reached an area where snow covered the markers. We really didn’t worry too much about not being able to see the markers, though, because we could still see the footprints of those who had gone before us. Periodically, the trail markers reappeared – but never where we were! They were always off to the side a ways; we had strayed from the path again. We wandered on and off the path several times.

However, just as the person who marked out the trail we were supposed to follow didn’t pick us up and put us on the right path, and hold us to it, so God will not force us to follow His way. In much the same way as we got off our physical path, we can miss the path that God has laid out for our feet. It might be that we are just so busy “enjoying” life, or our friends, or whatever, that we don’t take the time to search out the markers He has given us. Or, we might look at the "good Christians" around us, and follow them, without comparing their ways with Scripture. Just as some of the markers on our mountain trail might have been damaged, removed, or were physically hidden by the snow, it is possible that people we trust have accidentally (or on purpose, though we would hope not) damaged or hidden some of the markers on God’s trail to life, through their own lack of study or their personal desire for another way.

Because we were above the tree line on this part of our hike, our destination was clearly visible all of the time, so we weren’t in serious danger of getting permanently lost, even though the footprints we followed strayed from the trail. However, in our spiritual lives, as in some physical situations, following the footsteps of others can have eternally fatal results.

It really doesn’t matter how we get off the path God has marked out. Neither does it matter how sincerely we think we are following His way if we really aren’t. The “consequences” of following a (spiritual) way that is different from the one marked out in God's word are disastrous, regardless of the reason we are on it instead of on the one marked out in God’s word.  

Eve really believed the words of Satan, but her belief did not save her from the penalty of sin. She disbelieved the words of God, and this was what led to her fall. In the judgment men will not be condemned because they conscientiously believed a lie, but because they did not believe the truth, because they neglected the opportunity of learning what is truth. Notwithstanding the sophistry of Satan to the contrary, it is always disastrous to disobey God. We must set our hearts to know what is truth. All the lessons which God has caused to be placed on record in His word are for our warning and instruction. They are given to save us from deception. Their neglect will result in ruin to ourselves. Whatever contradicts God's word, we may be sure proceeds from Satan. [Patriarchs and Prophets, page 55.2]. 

Not only is our physical life on this earth more difficult and full of heartache and trials when we stray from God’s appointed path than when we walk on it, our eternal life is seriously jeopardized when we choose any way other than the one laid out in God’s word. (Unless we return to following God’s way, eternal loss will be our ultimate destination – and it is much easier to stray than to return. Staying on the path, through diligent personal study and daily surrender, is our only safety!)

Eventually we reached the final ascent to the top. Except for our relatively short upward climb earlier, most of the way had been fairly easy. This last stretch, however, really put us to the test. We couldn’t even walk upright – we were literally crawling up the mountain on our hands and knees. Earlier, we’d helped each other over rugged spots; that was impossible now. It took everything we could muster to get ourselves up the side of the mountain; at this point, we had no extra hands to lend anyone else. In our spiritual climb, there are times when we can help each other, but the day is coming when each of us will stand or fall on our own; there will be nothing any of our fellow (human) travelers can do to help us.

Near the end of our climb, I discovered a small white rock glistening in the sun, in the midst of all the loose brownish gray rocks that made our climb more difficult. It reminded me of  God’s promise to the church at Pergamos, in Revelation 2:17: To him that overcometh, will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.

When we finally reached the top, the view of the mountains on the other side was breathtaking, and well worth the effort to get to where we could see it. We rested a while, then headed back down.

It wasn’t until we were ready to head back down that I realized we never actually reached our goal. The “top” that we reached was actually only a saddle between two peaks. We were so busy enjoying the view that we forgot we weren’t really at the summit we were heading for, and we never made the extra effort to hike to it. The worst part of the hike was behind us; it was a relatively easy trail (probably another half mile or mile) on to one of the summits – but we got so busy resting and looking at the view that we didn’t finish our hike. Some of the group made it, and we would have had time if we hadn’t stopped, but . . . ! By the time I realized I hadn’t made it, it was too late to do it. We had to hurry back to camp, pack our things, and head back to Herghelia. After all – there was school the next day! Is it possible that, in our spiritual climb, we might get sidetracked, and stop short of the goal – only to realize, too late, what has happened? Or, as with those who quit at the first tough spot, do we give up our walk with the Lord at the first “bump in the road,” and never even get close? Do we forget that God has promised to be with us, “even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20)?

The trip back down the mountain was a lot easier than the trip up! Most of the group sat down and slid, descending several hundred feet in a matter of minutes. As Ludo reminded me (when I sent him my original manuscript, and asked if he could think of any lessons I’d forgotten), “After all dangerous climbing on the way down we were sliding on our bottoms down the valley on the frozen snow. I never in my life made such a long slide. I was thinking - how hard it was to get higher and higher - how much we sweat but to get back is a matter of few minutes... And you can start all over again - I mean our character building.  What takes months of struggle and toil to accomplish in spiritual growth can be lost in a few minutes of compromise. (English is not Ludo's native language. He does far better with it than I do with any language other than English, though!)

Think back to Rudolph’s sermon the day before. Would I have been able to enjoy the pristine view from that almost-to-the-top summit if I’d decided to stay “on the freeway”?

Life certainly would have been a lot easier for me if I’d never gone to Romania – but I would have "missed" far more than I would have "gained." Yes, there were a lot of “inconveniences” in Romania, but the blessings I received during that seven months far outweighed the "inconveniences" and "sacrifices." I had to leave all of my family, including my husband, here in the US. (I went first, and John was supposed to join me later, but that never worked out.) However, all of these were only surface troubles. No amount of money can purchase the trust I gained in God’s ability to provide for my every need. Often He provided for those needs by changing my perspective of what my “needs” really were, in ways that, at first, seemed totally unrelated to what I thought I needed but His “better plan” far exceeded my “original” plan.

As we listen to the news, and compare it with what we read in God’s word, we can't help but realize we are very close to the end of time. We are nearing the final push for the summit. I didn’t get nearly as much physical exercise as I should have before I went to Romania, but the exercise I got there, walking back and forth to school every day, prepared me for that hike, and enabled me to enjoy it -- and not be totally exhausted long before I reached the end. Likewise, we may have been depending on our pastors and friends to do our studying for us, instead of really digging in to God's word for ourselves. None of us can do anything about the past, but we can do something about the future. Now is the time for us to be pushing our spiritual muscles to the limit, or we will never make it through the times that are ahead of us. We can’t safely follow in anyone else’s footprints. We can’t depend on anyone else to do our studying for us, any more than I could have depended on someone else's exercise to put me in shape for that hike. I'll guarantee you won't regret whatever effort and sacrifice it takes to be ready to meet Jesus! It will be more than worth it in this life, and even better in the life to come.

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