"I will lift up my eyes unto the hills. Where will my help come from? My help comes from the Lord." Psalm 121:1
In August of 1973, I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with a team of thirteen other people. Our two Tanzanian guides led us on a five day journey that would cover 85 miles and reach an elevation of 19,700 feet at Uhuru Peak. The first three days covered rolling foothills, rainforest, alpine meadows, high sierras, and the dusty saddle between Mt. Mawenzi and Kili. After three days, we found ourselves at 17,500 feet elevation at the base of "The Scree." This steep slope of fine, grey, sandy, volcanic ash created a formidable barrier between us and The Summit.
We were resting in crude shelters trying to rest up for the final ascent. The climb would begin at Midnight and take approximately eight hours to cover the last 2,000 feet. It would be a long cold night. Sleep was hard to come by, and food made us nauseous. Altitude sickness added to the sense of foreboding. We felt pretty bad right where we were, and were not looking forward to what was ahead.
We had a team meeting. We were now down to thirteen. One of our party had been escorted down the mountain due to oxygen deprivation. This meant we had one guide left. We could not make the climb without a trained, professional mountaineer. He was certified to take us to the top. He was the only one who had been to the summit, and he alone knew the way there and back. If anyone else had to turn back, the climb was over. We had come a long way. We were close, but we were still far away. One of our team had unsuccessfully attempted to make the climb on two other ocassions. She had made it this far, only to be turned back by sickness somewhere between The Scree and The Summit. We pledged to her, and to one another that we would all make it. It was a simple statement. There was no drama in saying it, but there would be trauma in keeping it.
We headed up the mountain in a slow, measured pace that traversed The Scree in a zig zag pattern of steps that seemed slower than necessary. We became impatient and critical of the guide's patient plodding. We were ready to get on with it. He knew more about the next few hours than we could understand at that moment in time. We would become quick learners. As the slope grew steeper, our pace grew even slower. The dust from the ash coated our tongues, and dried out our mouths. When we reached for our canteens, we found the water frozen by the drop in temperature we were encountering. Thirst would soon become a huge issue. The darkness made the climb seem endless. It became an intimidating series of steps that were three paces forward, and two paces back. We were almost walking in place. Progress was slow, and our lack of depth perception gave us no markers to help us gain our bearings. We were in the hands of the guide.
At one point, we came to a frozen spring seeping through the rock wall, and we broke off ice-cycles to try and suck some water out of them. It stuck to our lips and tore at our flesh. It was frustrating to be so close to water, and not be able to get life from it. We moved on into the night. Halfway through the night, our legs and our lungs were on fire, but our hands and our feet were freezing. We had two members of the team experience servere reactions to the lack of oxygen. One collapsed and the other started moving down the mountain. I had to tackle the one who had reversed course, and drag him on my back, until we regained our ground. The guide said that if anyone else tried to leave, he was taking us all down the mountain. Four of us began to trade off carrying the two sick team members up the mountain. Literally, we took two steps and collapsed. Then we passed them on to the other. It was a rotating, passing of a heavy baton for the next four hours. I thought my lungs would explode.
By dawn, we arrived at the lower summit, and saw the sun rise up out of the clouds. We were all very near the highest peak on the continent of Africa. However, there was still more ahead for six of us who pushed on to The Summit. It was only another 500 feet, but by the time we crossed the soft snow and melting ice of the glacier, we arrived at Uhuru Peak four hours later. This meant, we had time to take a picture, and write a message in the log book, and then leave before the snow storm that was heading our way socked us in. I wrote the verse of Scripture that I quoted at the top of this blog. I did one more thing. I promised myself that I would never scratch the itch to come back to this spot on the earth.
When we made our way down The Scree, it took minues as opposed to hours. What was once a night filled with gasping for air and grasping for a foothold, was now filled with laughter and joy. What took eight hours to climb took less than an hour to descend. Gravity was our new best friend. When we arrived at the base of The Scree we were ravenous. We had not eaten the night before, and we had expended a huge amount of energy. We didn't count calories. We shoved everything edible into our mouths and washed it down with ice cold water. A group of Dutch Air Force climbers were observing us as we gorged ourselves. They had just arrived at this level of elevation, and I remember their faces were a serious shade of green. They all suffered from the nausea of oxygen deprivation, and could not comprehend our behavior. How could they? They had not been to the summit. We had been to a place in our lives that had made a profound difference in our ability to cope with conditions that had once been a major obstacle to us. We had returned to the same location, but we had a different perspective. We were able to overcome the obtacles down below, because we had been to The Summit. We did not have the capacity to live at The Summit. The climb had been part of the journey to prepare us for The Summit. The Summit had prepared us live life with a greater degree of joy in the face of people who could not comprehend where we had been. Even though we had to return to a lower elevation we were experiencing a higher standard of living.
This week of ReFesh at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia has reminded me of that week on Mount Kilimanjaro. The climb up Kili did not prepare us to be planted permanently at The Summit, but it equipped us to handle life in the valley in ways that once seemed inconceivable to us and to others. ReFresh is a great opportunity to meet with Jesus. I am so glad that God has sustained the vision for this conference in the heart of Michael Catt, and the sweet people of Sherwood. Since 2003, I have always looked forward to it as a time to gain a higher perspective and prepare for a restorationof power for life in the valley.
When I leave the city limits of Albany, I do not leave my Guide behind. The climb to The Summit of Refresh is not the ultimate goal of the conference for me. It is all about reconnecting with my Guide. Jesus guided the couple on the Road to Emmaus back from the intimidating hill of Calvary and gave them a new perspective as they made their way home. Jesus said on the cross, "It is finished." On the Road to Emmaus, The Risen Christ interrupted two despondent people gasping for breath and grasping for a foot hold on a slippery slope of dispair. They had talked themselves senseless, when He showed up, and asked them what they were talking about. In anger, Cleopas snapped saracastically, "Are you the only one who doesn't know about the things that have been happening around here." Jesus responded graciously, "WHAT THINGS?" He interrupted their independent lecture series and turned it into a converstation with Him. The more He shared with them, the greater their heart burned for more of Him. He did so by responding to their invitation to stay with them.
Jesus always responds to the invitation, "Stay with us!" He always has more to share with us. When we are willing to let Him make sense out of the senseless, the valley experiences are enriched and impacted by what He teaches us at The Summit. My prayer for those who attended ReFresh 2011 is for their heart's cry to be "STAY WITH US!" As we return to the valley, there is no need to leave the guiding hand of Jesus. He has so much more to share with us. What He finished on the cross has just begun to be shared with those around us. If you pass me on the road, honk if you have learned to TALK LESS! PRAY MORE!