The Trip Down and The Way Up

The picture above depicts the very serene and gorgeous landscape of the Smokey Mountains in mid-February on a late Sunday afternoon. I snapped this photograph on my camera a year ago as I was maneuvering myself down a trail. This photo wasn’t taken just to be a random shot to sit idle on my digital camera roll, as so many of our photos tend to do. This picture was taken for me to remember what I knew had to be a turning point in my life and my faith journey - if I made it back down the mountain.

While the scene is serene, I was everything but peaceful in that moment. In fact, when I took this photo, I was in one of the lowest points I had ever been, even though I had such a spectacular view from this high scenic point. There are rare times when you take a photo that you know how important the photo will be for you moving into the future, and I had a growing feeling this would be one of those times.

I was here in Tennessee because I had gone on a trip with the church youth group to a popular Christian youth conference. Growing up, I had never gone on youth trips like this before, so I was excited to share this experience with the teens, a bright group of individuals who loved the Lord and had enthusiasm for life. I taught “Sunday school” with these young adults on a weekly basis and had personally seen them grow leaps and bounds in a relatively short time. For some, it was their first time going on a trip like this too, so there would be plenty more growing ahead. Little did we all know that this would be the last trip we would all take for a long quite, as the COVID-19 outbreak was less than a couple of weeks away. And unbeknownst to me, this would be the last trip I would take with just about everyone in this group.

Sometimes there’s no storm front that you can see coming, where you have time to batten down the hatches, grab the flashlights, and brace for the worst. Sometimes there’s not a front at all and the Bad Stuff hits you like an earthquake. And yet, there are times that you fail to realize you’ve been in a storm for a while, and can’t see the rain-wrapped tornado before it completely destroys your foundation. This trip proved to be the latter for me, and I’m still picking up the pieces today.

I don’t doubt that there were youth who were edified and uplifted during the trip. But for me, my first church trip evolved into a living nightmare. This nightmare had many facets. First, the Christian faith, theology, and apologetics that I spent years teaching to the youth was deconstructed, disrespected, and treated carelessly by the speakers at the conference on stage. (I wish I was a better note taker than I am, because then I would have been able to quote verbatim the messages these leaders gave hundreds of young, impressionable adults. But I didn’t take good notes in the darkness of the auditorium, nor do I wish to pay this ministry money to get the video recordings so I can quote them properly.) I remember the quizzical faces of a few of the students who sat next to me during the speeches / sermons, hearing things that were contrary to what they knew by then that the Scriptures taught.

To their credit, students even came to me during the trip to ask for clarification and my thoughts on what was said by the speakers. Having these conversations with them put me in a pretty uncomfortable position, as I had to tell them not only the truth of what the Scriptures tell us which ran contrary to what the students had heard earlier at the conference, but also to show respect to those speakers, who were professing Christians. Not to mention the fact that by sending the youth to this conference, our church was confident enough in these speakers that they decided to plan a trip to hear them speak, so my disagreement with the speakers could also potentially be seen as a vote of no confidence in church leadership.

I was also disappointed to see that activities outside of the conference were seemingly not planned with respect to what some, if not most, of the youth actually wanted to do. A planning body of parents and adults decided what we were going to be up to without asking the youth what they were interested in doing. It made my involvement and relations with the youth more awkward because not only was I not included in these planning meetings, but when the youth asked me what we were going to be doing at various times, I didn’t know how to answer them. When they asked if there would be time for certain activities they wanted to do, I didn’t see why there wouldn’t be, and I ended up making statements that sounded like activities could have been a possibility when in fact they weren’t. I don’t handle lies well, and I come down very hard on myself when I’m put in a position where I have to make generalized, non-specific statements about something that turn out to be untrue.

It would be fair to ask why I wasn’t more aggressive with asking the true leaders of the outfit what we were actually planning, but I had personal worries of my own that clouded my rationale - quite literally. The morning before we left for Tennessee, which was in the early AM on Friday, my glasses broke apart on one side at the hinges, and a screw somehow fell out. I brought my glasses repair kit with me, and once we got to our lodge destination I went to work trying to repair them. One of the other parents attempted to help as well, but wasn’t successful. At this point, my only hope was that my pleas to get my glasses repaired would spread between the adults of the group, and my prayer was that there would be a place open on the weekends that we would be able to visit in-between conference times. Unfortunately, these prayers were not answered, and I spent the entire weekend dealing with my glasses popping apart at random due to the hinge and screw damage. I have worn glasses since kindergarten, and my vision is nonexistent without them, so the fear that I may essentially become an invalid on this trip was becoming more real to me by the hour.

Sunday afternoon brought more concern. A few of the leaders had decided to take the entire group on a spontaneous hike up a short mountain. I agreed to go on the hike because I trusted the leaders that assured me it would be a shorter trail. My main fear of course was my glasses popping out of place on the trail, losing the screw, and having to blindly navigate unfamiliar and uneven terrain, especially when in charge of a group of youth. Not much research was completed on the hike itself by those who decided we should all go, so facts like terrain, conditions, and distance were unknown. On top of that, most of us didn’t take any water, had improper footwear, and phone service was unreliable too.

The trail was one of the steepest trails I have been on, and the data that my phone was able to collect about the activity tells the story. From shortly after noon to a little after 4:30pm, I traveled 8.03 miles, and reached a height of about 3500 feet. For some, that may not be much at all. For me, it was quite a bit. The trail was only partially paved, switching to dampened slick mud about halfway up. The endpoint was supposedly at a waterfall at the top of the trail, and it was mentioned that one of the adults was to lead a devotional at that area.

A good portion of the group was able to move up the mountain trail quickly and traveled at their own pace, making the decision to leave behind a portion of the group. I was not one of these people. I had a sedentary desk job at the time, and I was still recovering from an odd sickness I had in late November that, to a degree, crippled my breathing capabilities. (Feel free to make your own assumptions as to what that sickness was, because the doctors couldn’t tell me, stating that it was “just one of those viruses” even after giving me X-rays for pneumonia and a few other tests because the sickness was still lingering.) Yes, I was overweight, and yes, I hadn’t done much of any strenuous activity leading up to the day of the hike, so I knew things were going to be a bit rough when I saw how steep the trail was. On top of that, I still had my glasses issue which was my top concern until I started to have breathing problems during the hike.

Thankfully, a few of the teens stayed behind with me, not willing to desert the slowest of these. We thought about turning back many times, but I made it my goal to get them to the top of the mountain so they could hear the devotional and get with the rest of the group. Hours later, we did eventually made it to the top, and the ones who plowed up the trail faster than us were indeed waiting on our group. However, it wasn’t for the devotional - it was for a group photo. The devotional had already taken place without us. I can only hope the devotional wasn’t about patience.

The trip back down the mountain trail was a different beast entirely. A couple of the leaders decided to stay back with me as all of the youth and the rest of the leaders decided to go back to the cars at their own pace. I was thankful that there were leaders who hung back with my slow self, but they kept themselves at a distance from me during the hike, moving down the trail faster than I could. At one point, I stopped and called out to them that I had to take a moment to relieve myself (which I did). But once I was finished, the two men were nowhere to be seen.

I was left to breathlessly hike down the steep trail by myself. My cartilage-less knees were buckling and creaking, a sharp pain in my side grew more intolerable by the minute, and yes, my glasses popped out of place multiple times. It was only by God’s grace that I was able to catch the frame and lenses before they clattered to the ground. I called out multiple times, albeit weakly, for the individuals who began the trek down the hill with me, but received no reply. I got my phone out, and once I got a sliver of signal I called my wife, even though she was back at home, a couple of states away. I tried my best to tell her what had happened and where I was, just in case something worse should happen. I know I sounded bad enough that I seriously scared her, but she’s the person I trust most on this earth and has stuck with me through my worst. Unfortunately, I lost signal with her and the phone cut out quickly, and I wasn’t able to tell her all I needed to say. She told me later that she called me back immediately but wasn’t able to connect. My situation had not improved.

After the call I essentially collapsed onto the trail and vocalized what I had only internally communicated earlier on the hike to God. I called out to him audibly, hoping for some sort of intervention or the strength to continue on. My sight was starting to get blurry and I was worried I may pass out, and the mental stress certainly wasn’t helping matters. I can’t report any kind of audible reply, or miracle movement that I felt from God, but as I took in the landscape in front of me (shown in the previous picture) I had a gut feeling that my situation with this church family - my church family - was in doubt. Not just doubt regarding my standing with the church as a mentor or leader for the youth, but my trust in some of the leaders was now broken on a grand scale. Leaders that, just a couple of days prior, I had considered good friends. I asked God to give me a clear sign that it was time for myself and my family to move on from our church, a church I had attended since becoming a true believing Christian, and the church where my wife had grown up and spent a large portion of her life.

God did sustain me on the rest of my trip back down the mountain. I did not pass out. I kept my glasses in one piece. One of the teens ran up the mountain to look for me, to his credit, but I had almost made it back to the car at that point. At least I had someone next to me in case something did happen in the final moments. Yes, he was a young man, but a true man nonetheless, and I know he will make a fine leader someday.

I was in bad shape when I got back to the car, where everyone was waiting for me to return. Drenched in sweat and feet blistered, I didn’t have breath to speak, and the pain in my side - along with the lack of water - was making me nauseous. I tearfully called my wife back when we returned to the lodge to fill her in on the events of the day. After that, I retired early, needing time to rest.

When I got up early the next morning I vomited quite a bit, unfortunately delaying our departure time, which I was sure to be guilted about later by the rest of the adults. My side was still hurting and my head was in a massive amount of pain, but I was alive and now heading home.

The fallout of this incident was complex, but my prayer to God was answered the following Sunday. After one of the leaders from the trip spoke to the congregation about how wonderful and spiritual the hike was, I hastily approached him after church, my patience tank clearly emptied. I soon apologized for my aggressive tone I entered the dialogue brandishing, which was out of character for me, and was able to get control of my temper. While we clearly did not see eye to eye on what had happened - and probably still don’t - I told him bluntly that I thought it was absolutely reckless that we went on that hike completely unprepared, that it was reckless to split the group, etc. He responded back to me just as bluntly, and I won’t forget the words he spoke.

“Well, Scott, sometimes you have to be reckless for God.”

The pain in my side immediately moved to my heart. A reckless person acts with minimal planning, if there was any forethought at all. A reckless person is brash, unstable, and acts with disregard to dangers before them, even if said dangers include other people. Recklessness, often contrasted with bravery, is usually witnessed when someone commits an act to “test fate.” But this can only be seen as a feeble attempt to claim omnipotence, as there’s no fate but the one that God has planned for us. Being “reckless for God” is not compatible with the Christian life. When I heard this leader speak that mantra (which I’m sure was born from a certain American worship song from a heretical cult movement) I knew at that moment things would be changing drastically, not just for myself, but for my entire family.

I met again with that leader later in the week to discuss more about what had happened and to make some kind of reconciliation with him. While I appreciated the motion initially and recognized its importance, I’m sad to say that it was not an honest gesture. For the bulk of the meeting, this leader talked about his previous mission experiences in other countries and how cool it would be if we could experience that with the youth together. He also spitballed a few ideas we could come up with for youth activities for the next year. However, we didn’t talk about what we really had to speak on until the last 10-15 minutes of the hour-plus meeting. In that meeting, I essentially experienced a salesman pitch; I was trying to be bought back. I left the meeting knowing that the time I had left at my church was truly limited.

And then COVID-19 struck.

What happened after the meeting is a bit of a blur, as most of the early months of the COVID pandemic were for many people. A couple of months after the last meeting I described, my wife and I met up with the leader and a couple of the elders of the church in a biblical, final attempt to state our concerns we had with our church and its leadership, and resolve issues including new problems that had sprung up after COVID-19 had struck. However, after certain things were said in the meeting - along with another attempt to “win me back” by the leader in question - we finally made the decision to depart from the church. I believe it was, to this date, the most painful decision I’ve had to make. But to this day I do believe that decision strengthened my relationship with Christ, as I can again look forward to going to a church and worshiping with fellow believers, being edified by leaders I can trust who I know will leave the flock temporarily to go back and retrieve the one struggling lamb. That’s the plan, at least.

I never got to say goodbye to the youth group in person. The virus - along with government mandates - prevented us from meeting in person for some time, and after the first attempt to flatten the curve was finished, many didn’t come back to church, and leadership had made the decision to not hold classes in person as well. I was able to write a letter to the youth and send it to them via group chat on an instant messaging platform we shared, but to this day I don’t know if all of them read it or not. I only heard back from one teen about it, and that teen didn’t see it until a few months after I had sent it . But I do not place blame at their feet - the events of the pandemic upset many lives, and not just my own. Survival mode had kicked in for everyone - thought it hit youth harder - and we were all reminded of who we could trust and who we truly wanted to spend time with in a short amount of time.

My future as a serving Christian is still uncertain. My family still hasn’t officially placed membership at a new church home yet, due to a few factors. We’ve been attending a church regularly where we have made acquaintances and strengthened relationships with friends we knew previously who attend there. There’s still COVID roaming about, which has made searching for a new church home both easier and harder to do. It’s easier because services and sermons are all online now, which manes sampling and message discernment more accessible, but harder because we can’t go in person to speak to others and build relationships at every church we want to visit.

The events of 2020 that happened to myself and my family are almost too much to write about, and I’ve only been able to touch on the highlights of this particular story. What I learned on that eight mile trek in the Tennessee mountains is a lesson that was repeated to me more than once during 2020. Our trials are hardly ever short. Worthy trials never are. They’re long, they’re arduous, and they’ll leave marks. I escaped Tennessee with a dislocated rib, destroyed shoes, a fair amount of depression, a new future without local ministry prospects, and a whole lot of questions that won’t have any specific answers in this life. More than that, I lost a lot of relationships.

Be that as it may, the Word of God has much to say about trials, tests, suffering, and pain. This same Word became flesh, and should be the one relationship I should cherish the most. Trials refine the Christian’s faith and character, and on Earth, God will continue to work on His creations. Hosea 6:1 and Isaiah 30:23 tell us that God causes this painful growth process, sending His holy “flames” so His people are purified. James tells us,

“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.”

Yes, trials will hurt, sting, and wound, and we’ll carry those wounds for a long while. However, we’re only able to carry them with the perseverance and steadfastness that God produces in us through these trials. It seems that, in this life, we can only get through bouts of suffering and pain by leaning on the Lord, and not our own ways of handling things.

I’m like any of you. I prefer to not have to go through trials, especially a whole bunch of them at once, like what happened to myself and my family last year. Moving forward post-2020, I’m expecting trials to come from any and all angles. It’s all too easy to throw up the prayers when the worst happens, but to have a continual dialogue with the Lord is another thing entirely. My hope is that this blog serves to not only allow myself a venue to get my long-form thoughts out, which helps my own healing processes, but also to strengthen and bolster the faith of Bible-believing Christians who may be struggling with their faith, either emotionally or intellectually. I pray I will be God-honoring in my honesty and reasoning with this little internet retreat of mine, “The Thinking Nook,” and I pray that if I stumble with my words, readers will give me the benefit of the doubt. God is clearly not finished with refining me just yet.