One summer day my sixteen-year-old daughter Megan and I rode our mountain bikes to the peak of Mount Diablo. We started our trek by entering a section of winding, twelve-inch wide trails through a dense Oak forest. As we banked around sharp turns flanked by steep 50-foot drop-offs, our view was framed by slanted beams of filtered light piercing through the trees, and lingering trail dust of riders who had gone before us.
The trail abruptly transitioned to steep, slippery climbing up a wider trail speckled with rocks. Our path of least resistance was chosen by navigating around the rocks and roots, while at the same time trying to maintain forward momentum. Each basketball-sized rock forced us to eek out more effort from our legs just to get over it, while our heart rate pounded faster, and breathing became heavier and heavier. When gasping for air, you can’t help but think that if the rocks were not there, the climb would be much easier. This is kind of a silly thing to think, but our minds often gravitate to wanting things to be easier as soon as they get hard.
The trail doesn’t lead to the top of the mountain, so we transitioned to the paved road that goes to the summit. We kept on the remaining section of windy road, where we were unprotected from the penetrating heat of the summer sun, sandwiched between the sky and the simmering pavement. As we got close to the top of the mountain, we encountered a very steep section of road sometimes called “the wall.” This is the last section standing between you and the summit, and is about one hundred yards long. Looking at the top of the horizon, I could just make out the movement of people at the top.
This is one of those hills that is much steeper than it looks. Even hikers are out of breath. You feel the pressure of your pedals against the bottom of your foot as each stroke turns over. Each time your pedal reaches the top and plunges down again is a victory, as your legs are burning from climbing continuously over 3400 upward feet. You tell yourself there is no way you can stop and rest, because you could never start up again. If you stop, it’s just too steep to get enough forward momentum going again. Still, it is tempting at times to give up and walk it the rest of the way. But as you climb up the wall, and finally push through to the plateau of the crest, you are rewarded with the satisfaction of enduring through something that challenges your physical and mental being.
Megan and I celebrated our hard-earned vantage point, looking out on a 360-degree view of the surrounding hills, valleys, and the San Francisco Bay below. I thought how proud I was of Megan for this accomplishment. She pressed on and stayed with it the entire time, including the infamous wall.
I think pushing through challenges like this helps to condition us for the steep, arduous journeys in our own lives, including the rocks and walls we encounter after we think we have endured enough.
Sustaining any type of suffering is hard. It can be temporary, such as physical or mental challenge, or, living with a chronic condition. Yet there is a significant difference between enduring a physical activity versus coping with a grave illness, a critical accident, divorce, behavior struggles, addictions, death, or other serious adversities. In any circumstance, we can cry out to God, and he grieves with us and understands our pain.
My brother-in-law Chris has an aggressive form of Multiple Sclerosis. I used to know Chris as a person who loved doing things with my sister Katie, whether it be talking about the day’s activities, playing with their kids in the backyard, or other activities you do as a couple and family. Always passionate about history, Chris was a high school teacher who enthusiastically shared his knowledge with his students. He looked forward to going to work each day to teach and guide his students, and he was a positive influence for so many.
An incredible listener, I remember how Chris would lock his eyes with yours, and patiently listen to learn as much as he could. Chris would ask you how you were doing. This wasn’t a superficial question to him. He really wanted to know. He would wait for you to respond, then ask you question after question to learn more. He made the time to know you. And when just hanging out with a group, his encyclopedic knowledge and curiosity always made it engaging to reason about whatever subject was at hand.
Chris loved athletics. When Chris was in high school he was on the wrestling team. He took the skills he learned from those early years and became the coach of the wrestling team at the school where he taught. I remember Chris also as an active runner, and he and Katie would often run together.
Then came a point where Chris started feeling numbness and was unsteady when walking. At first he thought it was muscle tension, but over time he realized it was not going away. After several visits to the doctor, and being subjected to many medical tests, Chris was diagnosed with MS. This came as a huge surprise. Many people with MS live fairly normal lives, so Katie and Chris were hopeful that Chris’ condition would not have a major impact to his life. However, as time passed, it became evident that Chris had an aggressive form of MS. With each year that followed, Chris’ body iterated into a condition where now, he can no longer walk, control most of his body, eat, or talk.
For about fifteen years Chris and Katie have been enduring this nightmare that unexpectedly became a dominant and unyielding part of their life. Yet Chris and Katie are the most thankful, joyous people I know. They praise God for every moment, despite their circumstances. For a period of time Chris had a special computer screen attached to his wheelchair. Chris was able to shakily coerce a mouse to point to his favorite phrase: “God is good.” When he could still talk, his mantra was “MS sucks, but God is good!”
Katie has not wanted to leave Chris’ side, and has become his primary care giver. This includes doing things such as loading Chris into a hoist hung from a track mounted in the ceiling of their bedroom, and pulling him into the bathroom and back in the morning and night. So not to be alone in this journey, a group of compassionate men and women have made time in their own busy lives to integrate themselves into caring for Chris and Katie. It’s like they have come together to rescue someone who is sailing a stormy ocean in a boat that is too small. They are in it for the long haul, and their love moves my heart.
When in the presence of Chris and Katie, I am in awe of their faith, as it seems to me that they are experiencing more adversity than anyone could endure. This is not a difficult circumstance that will pass, but they are persevering under a very heavy, perpetual burden. Chris and Katie do not understand why they are experiencing this affliction, but they have surrendered their will to God, and carry on living with joy and faith.
This is the kind of joy that James writes about:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. … Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. (James 1:2, 12)
Anyone who knows Chris and Katie will tell you that joy, faith in Jesus, and perseverance, describe the core of who they are. They really are a miracle to witness. I never hear Katie complain. She is always thankful. Chris is always smiling. His big wide grin reminds me of the exuberance you see from the pure adoration of a child who is running into their mother or father’s arms. I don’t know exactly what Chris is thinking right now because he can’t talk anymore. When he could still talk, he always spoke about Katie, his children, and his faith. He talked about what was good. I do know that Chris is still able to talk to God, and quite often.
He probably talks to God more than you or I ever will, as there is no one else capable of hearing his inner voice. He has a head start to how it will be like in Heaven where we are with God and don’t have the distractions of the world swirling around us.
I imagine he has a relationship with God that is filled with non-stop intimacy of his deepest praise, yearnings, and gratitude. I’m sure he has wrestled, cried out, and come to peace with where he is at. Their son Tim, and daughters Emilie and Laurie adore him. From his chair Chris has silently cheered them on through their pursuits in music, mountain bike racing, cross country running, cheerleading, dance performances, proms, and friendships. It’s Katie and Chris. They are one, and doing this together. There is no bitterness, no “why me,” no anger. The same is true with the kids.
Not dwelling in their own situation, they even seek to help others, with Katie helping, and Chris by her side. You will be hard pressed to find others who are so united with God and at peace with their condition. We make our appearance on Earth for such a short time in the context of eternity. Chris’ situation is temporary, as there is no MS in Heaven.
Sometimes I find myself complaining about the smallest of things. But I have my sister and brother-in-law to look up to as an example of walking with Jesus in adversity. It sounds trite, but they are amazing. I really mean it. I am in awe every time I have the privilege to be in their presence.
God says over and over that he is with us, and that He understands. He is our loving father. He hurts and cries with us, and He promises to never leave. He gives us the power to press on and provides hope for the future. No one else can make such a promise. I’m grateful for how much Chris and Katie have taught me to see the color of God in the gray of life.
God is with us and will always provide the strength we need to persevere each day. I think of this every time Chris motions one of the remaining parts of his body that he can control. He looks directly into my eyes, then, with that beaming smile, raises his eyes upward to encourage me that our hope is in God.