One day many, many years ago, we were fleeing wildfires in the west and the smoke that blew in to obscure the view, wrinkle the sinuses, and create some of the most glorious sunsets I’ve ever seen. Sunsets aside, views simply aren’t as good with a haze of smoke. So, ahead of the smoke momentarily, we stopped at an overlook drawn on the Capitol Reef Map. Below, stretching far away, was a line of arches in a slickrock hillside. Not today, we said, it’s too late for a hike, but another day, we will return.
Two years later, we did return, eating cereal under the pinion pines at the trailhead before descending the steep and sandy trail to the washes below. One narrow fisher led us toward the wide canyon that would be our destination.
Creeping along the canyon wall, scrambling over fallen rocks under the grey, clouded sky, I rounded the corner to find everyone else stopped at the edge of a puddle stretching around the next bend.
There was no way around, no way to cross the puddle other than to swim right through. And on a cold April morning, with water that had been around for who-knows-how-long, a swim didn’t sound all that inviting.
One of my group members decided to try wading. A few steps, and he was over his head, thankful he had left his camera on the shore. The water was deep. The water was cold. The water wasn’t something we were going to cross, let alone take two little kids through – especially since neither of them could swim. And that was that.
So we retraced our steps to the wash outside the fisher. Had I been more experienced in spiritual atmospheres, I would have known that either the area was a seriously depressed, or else there was something of darkness coming against us in this place. Two times now, we had pulled into the parking area and everyone was on edge, everyone suddenly had no energy, everyone was defeated and lethargic. But as none of us thought of this, we held a council of war: were we to go back, or were we to do…what?
It wasn’t long before we were scrambling up a steep slickrock slope. Perhaps we could scramble over the rock, bypassing the canyon altogether. Perhaps the rock would end in a cliff face. Perhaps we would have an adventure…
At last we reached the rim of the rock and looked over the edge. Below, the cliff dropped sheer, in fact, at a negative angle, to scree slides slides, ledges, and dunes, speckled with the dark green of desert bushes. A canyon wound ahead and below, a wash of grey along is bottom, always, always winding upward. A quarter mile up the canyon – maybe further, it’s hard to tell from such a distance – the wall suddenly gave way to a steep, red slickrock slope, ridged and rippled. And at the bottom of the slope, where it dropped, sheer, into the canyon, the arch stood gravely.
Actually, the arch was a side canyon, but the top of the end of the canyon had never washed away.
At times in our lives, we see a goal ahead – a promise from God, a good gift, something God has told us to do, anything good and right – and we may not be able to go for it at the time, but we know we will (and do) return to it when the time is right. But just because the time is right doesn’t mean that it is easy.
We hiked a good couple miles before we found that our mission to see the arch was impossible because of the puddle filling the canyon. At that point, we had a choice: we could give up on what would be, allegorically, our promise from God, the good thing that He had given us to see, or we could press on through.
As one of my group members says about life, “There are always choices.”
In the face of impossibility, we could have pushed against the impossible, swimming the puddle, getting cold and wet and miserable. That would have been pressing through, and we might have succeeded. But in pressing through with God, the original plan isn’t necessarily the best plan to push with.
There are times in our Christian lives when we need to step back from pressing on and ask God, “Should I still be pressing on here? Is there another way to press on that will get me to the same or a similar place? Is there a better way to go?”
And there are times when God will tell you to, allegorically, swim the puddle. But He might also have a better plan, or at least a more successful plan, a way to see the arch without the hypothermia-inducing puddle, a way to inherit the promise not without work (climbing that slickrock was no joke, especially since some of it was close to a 45 degree angle!) but in a way that the promise is a blessing and not a memory of that-thing-I-worked-so-hard-for-and-it-was-the-worst-hike-of-my-life!