Morning brought perfection for cross-country ski aficionados like us. Sunny sky in periwinkle blue, not even a breeze, comfortable winter temperature, thick snow bending branches low.
The whole seven mile loop yesterday and another today was a winter wonderland of God-made beauty. Life and how we live it made me stop often to capture parable on film. I wrote in my mind and prayed and worshiped the God who gives all good gifts as I glided through Door County’s forest cathedral on a Sunday.
Come with me to the forest and see the goodness of God . . . .
Fresh snow is smooth and we glide easily until we come to a warning.
Narrow path and steep grade cause us to climb sideways with skis still strapped. Triceps and biceps burn trying to balance and pull our weight. We lean forward and into the hill—into the source of the pain. I look to the right and see a tree, broken—insides splintered.
Isn’t this how life feels sometimes?
The grade is steep, the climb is painful. We wonder if trials will break us in two and topple us to the ground to die and rot, broken and splintered.
I think of friends and loved ones and pray for each. God sometimes calls us into hard places—painful places—where we wonder what in the world He is doing to us and those we love.
A friend can hardly walk anymore. He lost his career as a surgeon when the multiple sclerosis progressed, causing hands to shake and legs to wobble. Now, ten steps challenge and deplete. He is searching for new identity–new meaning–peace with loss. Will he find?
A friend younger than I had both breasts cut clean away last fall when cancer in one spread to the other and to save her life, they took her and . . . . Does she still feel like a woman?
Our exuberant puppy knocked down a dear friend and we raced to the hospital. Surgery and pins and plates pieced shattered shoulder and painful therapy has become weekly routine. Will she ever be the same?
An uncle diagnosed with cancer two weeks ago started chemo Friday. He’s 87. Does he have the will to hold on?
Mother-in-law fell out of bed last month and broke her hip. She’s 88. Will she be able to keep living alone?
Two friends buried daughters downed with cancer. And they left young daughters to grow up without mothers. How does grief unspeakable ease and heal?
The body pain—the soul pain.
Life is a forest. And in forests we find everything—young and old, living and dead, broken and splintered, strong and frail, bent but not broken. And I see my life here. I see the lives of those I love here. I see humankind here.
What keeps us going? What keeps us climbing when the hills are steep and the ascent is hard?
For me, it’s my relationship with God and my trust in His promises. It’s the joy He brings even in the midst of sorrow and pain and loss. It’s knowing He is absolutely good and that even the most horrible has holy purpose. Really. It does. In the grand scheme of a complete forest, there is holy purpose.
But when life gets hard, we focus hard. We tunnel vision and bear down and focus. And in these times it’s easy to lose perspective—to see the grand picture—the whole lot of beautiful in the midst of specific pain places.
But the pain of these places and the effort it takes to keep going, step by step, resting when needed, leads to places of wonder and beauty and eventual rest . . .
We reach the top of the hill without falling—though breathing hard, sweating, muscles burning. And just as the path evens out and we begin to glide once again, there it is, so close, a gift . . . . .
Breathtaking! I haven’t seen one in years! One of my favorite birds! Right there! Right in front of us! Flying from tree to tree in search of a meal in a pillar full of holes—a holy place. A pileated woodpecker—the largest of all woodpeckers in our country, reaching nineteen inches tall with a wing-span of over two feet. Black and white with a splash of red. Unmistakable. Beautiful.
There is no other sound in the forest. All is calm. No wind. Not even a breeze. And we stand and watch and I thank God for helping us make it to the top of the hill so I could see this sight.
Keep going! Keep climbing! Yes, the path may be difficult and painful and seemingly impossible. But nothing is impossible for God and God will take us to heights we think we can’t reach, through pain we think we can’t bear. And there will be rest. There will be calm. And there will be reward. Great gifts are ahead. Just keep going—one step at a time, however small, however slow, however hard, and trust Him in the pain.
We move on as the pileated woodpecker knocks dead wood, enjoying morning breakfast. Even death feeds.
We reach a long stretch taking us down from the heights quickly.
While ascents can be arduous, descents can be frighteningly fast.
We position ourselves. Body leaning slightly forward, knees bent.
Remember to breathe!
Either way, up or down, steep hills challenge. So it is in life. The way up toward hilltops may burn. The way down into ravines may scare. Either way, God is with us. Either way, growth lessons—strength-training lessons—are there to be learned.
I see a young pine, arched over, top to the ground, heavy with snow. How often do we feel like this?
And I take my ski pole and touch her lightly. Off drops her weighty load and she spruces up straighter and green.
How often do we take a moment to notice the heavy laden and bent low? How often do we offer a gentle touch to ease burden and cause arched spines to straighten? How often do we shake off covers and see the green good underneath?
We need each other, don’t we? And we need Christ because humans can’t shake certain things off. Humans can’t remove every burden.
“Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) Jesus beckons the burdened.
Nearing the end of our seven mile loop, my forest entry prayer has not yet been answered. So I pray it again.
Lord, you have given me much! But I still haven’t seen a cross. Will you please show me a cross to remind me of You who made all this, who teaches all this, who watches over all lovingly, and leads all with holy purpose. Show me the cross!
And I keep eyes open—up and around.
A few moments later, I spot it. The cross. But it’s not where I had been looking. It’s not what I had imagined. It’s not up. And it’s not big and bold.
The cross is down at my feet, right by the trail. And it’s small, with tiny needles.
How often we fear the large crosses in life. But often, life gives many small crosses—many moments of giving up self-will that we might grow up, grow strong, live full. Just like the young pine. Blanketed by snow half way up her tender trunk, she spreads arms and soaks up sun. She stands, right by the trail. How many have glided by looking up and around? How many have never seen her standing there, growing there? This small cross.
We all bear small crosses every day—reminders that this earth is not our home. This life is not all there is or will be. And the daily crosses ask us questions.
Will we grow up strong? Will we stay green and supple as we soak up the Son? Will greater crosses overshadow?
God only knows, for He is the God of the crosses—small and large. But the forest tells us nothing is wasted. Absolutely nothing. Everything has holy purpose and though the young and supple and thriving are beautiful, it’s the old and broken and splintered and the fallen peeled raw that give texture and color and make the masterpiece of gorgeous.
A life well-lived?
Under the canopy of God where all things work together not only for good, but for gorgeous.