hirdly, I have learned a lesson about community. One of the facts that I have absolutely fallen in love with about the Appalachian Trail is the community atmosphere that exists there. A lot of people think that when you travel a trail as long as the Appalachian, 2,159 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia in the Chatahochee Mountain range to Katadin, Maine, that it would be a lonely experience. However, according to the statistics released by the Appalachian Trail Conference, some 4 million people visit the trail each year. There are times when you walk for an hour or two without seeing a single person, except your traveling partner. There are times in which the solitude is what you came for, and it is welcomed. Yet, there is a linear community on the trail who are on a quest just like you.
Some people turn to the trail at times of radical change in their life...graduation, disillusionment, working through grief, burnout or job loss. It is mystical, but true, a narrow path strewn with rocks can chart a new direction in life. Several of the end-to-end hikers that Stephanie and I met fell into one of these categories. To them, the AT extended an invitation they could not refuse. It offered refuge from pain, anonymity and the prospect of finding nature’s healing powers. Others approach the trail for the physical and mental challenge, the adventure of it all. They want to see if they can attain a goal that demands dedication, stamina and a clear focus. On the trail attitude is everything. Whiners and those easily discouraged don’t last very long. The infamous Granny Gatewood, a spunky grandmother who thru-hiked the AT at age sixty-seven, once said, “Head is more important that heel.”
Some families are out for a day hike. Some people like me are out for a section hike. Although the purposes vary, the thing about the AT that is so amazing is this: you might hike with a person most of the day and all you know about that person is that his trail name is Easy Money. He is dressed similar to you, his gear looks like yours, maybe a different brand name. At the end of the day you camp together around the shelter area. You sit at a picnic table and cook your noodles together or sit around the fire and talk. You learn that Easy Money is actually the president of a bank in a large city. Or maybe he is a doctor, or even a lawyer, but the bottom line is all the artificial lines that we create in life really don’t matter on the trail. It doesn’t matter whether you are white or black, male or female, considered a white collar professional or a blue-collar worker. It doesn’t matter what bracket best describes your economical status. It doesn’t matter what type of vehicle is waiting on you at the end of the walk. All that really matters is that you are both on a quest. You both may be questing something different, but you are just hikers. By definition, you are a person who simply lifts one boot, planting it squarely in front of the other, and then bite off another three-foot section of trail. It defines who you are and the community that you are an accepted part.
It is a community that loves, accepts, trusts, and shares food and supplies with one another because you’re not against anybody. You are just a pilgrim on a quest. That’s one thing I love about the Appalachian Trail, because it is a community of people that you can relate to almost instantly. The one thing you have in common is that you have a big pack on your back and you’re walking on a trail covering the same miles and facing the same challenges. When Rebekah and I were hiking we met a young father and his eight-year-old daughter. Her hair was drenching wet, her face was flush but she was having the time of her life out there with her dad. They looked at Rebekah and I and asked how long we had been backpacking together perhaps using us as a possible image for their future. We sat on the side of the trail together and enjoyed a simple meal. All I knew about the pair was their names. During the conversation I discovered that he had been a Christian for a long time, but he hadn’t been a committed Christian but a short period of time. He had some questionable habits in his life, habits that I didn’t ask him about. I didn’t pry into his personal life. He freely shared what God was doing in his family. He told me how God had transformed his marriage when his wife became a Christian. He asked me some questions about parenting, questions that I always make me feel uncomfortable, but somehow, sitting on the side of a trail eating a bagel with peanut butter and drinking a bottle of water, we felt connected.
Unnatural barriers, walls, lines that exist in the real world somehow vanish for hikers on a quest. In the real world, it might have taken years for us to get to the point where someone would ask, “I see you’re out hiking with a college age daughter. How did that come about? What works for you?” Oh, how I long for a sense of community, where people can relate to one another without superficial walls!
I learned some things along the way. I learned about simplicity, lessons about the pace and terrain of life, and lessons about community.
I want to conclude by making an application from a favorite Bible passage of mine found in Isaiah 40. The British statesman Oliver Cromwell observed that Isaiah chapter 40 is the greatest chapter in the entire Bible. It is a chapter about the greatness of God. Cromwell says when the prophet wrote this chapter, he dipped his pen in golden glory and wrote for God Himself. It was this very passage that inspired Handle to write The Messiah. It was also this very chapter in God’s Word that impacted the reformer Martin Luther. He posted on the church door at Wittenberg Ninety-five Theses that set forth his position and objections to certain practices and doctrines of the church. As a result, he was summoned before the Diet of Worms to defend his position. Standing before the counsel he was given the opportunity to recant or face the consequences. Inspired by this very chapter, Luther took a stand and the Reformation was the result.
There are some valuable lessons from this passage that instructs us in how to carry a load and be faithful in our journey along the way. The prophet declares, “Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall. But they that wait upon the Lord, they shall renew their strength.” In some translations it says, “They shall exchange their strength.” That is what I want you to understand today. The good news is, regardless of whether you’re weary in life because you are climbing a lot of mountains, packing too much stuff, underestimating the incline of the hills, or maybe you’ve just been at it so long that you’re weary, there can be an exchange of strength.
I’m glad at this season of my life that I’ve fallen in love with walking. Isaiah says that even young people grow weary. In the month of March in the year 1513, a young explored left his home country of Spain. His name was Ponce de Leon. He was searching for the infamous fountain of youth because the Indians had told him there existed an Artesian water source that flowed from the very Garden of Eden. If a person found this water supply and partook of its magical contents, they would be renewed in body. In fact, they would live forever. He was searching for immortality. Ponce de Leon didn’t find that spring. He found Florida instead. Ever since that time, people have been looking for that special drug, that special fountain, that special spring, that special formula that can cause their body to be rejuvenated. We want to be able to run and not be weary, fly in the currents and not crash, walk and not faint.
irst, the BAD NEWS..., there is no fountain of youth for the body! Everyone must deal with the aging process. We should stay in shape and discipline ourselves to eat right and exercise, but aging will happen. Now, the GOOD NEWS...there is a fountain of youth for the spirit. You might not be able to drink from an Artesian water supply and have all of your gray hair leave, all of your aches and pains disappear, but you can find that supply for your spirit. That is the promise in this passage for those who wait upon the Lord. They will be able to exchange their weakness for His strength. I find that to be an interesting scenario.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not faint.
We would logically think that the prophet would have reversed that order. You walk, walking progresses into running, running progresses into flying. That’s logical, isn’t it? First you walk, then you run, then you fly. But that’s not the order of the prophet. He said first you fly, then you run, and then you walk. It is amazing that walking, the most simple act, is the thing that we have the most problem with in the Christian life. Walking is an appropriate description for consistent faithfulness in life.
God can exchange your inadequate strength for His strength, and He can do it in multiple ways. For the storms of life that come unexpectedly and overwhelm us, He gives wings like an eagle. There are times in life that God chooses to do something supernatural, above and beyond anything that man can explain. God miraculously supplies wings that enable us to be lifted over, up and beyond a challenge, a hurdle, an obstacle, an adversity. Also, for the challenging opportunities in life, God gives strong legs enabling us to go beyond our natural limitations. There are moments and seasons in life when God gives divine energy beyond what you normally have. Runners call this second wind. Hikers call it trail magic. It’s that moment you are walking down the trail and you’re into a cadence, you’re into your rhythm, your pack is fitting well, everything is going well, but you are so weary. Unexpectedly, you notice strength in your step. Your weariness is overpowered by new energy and you are fueled by strength from on high.
In the spiritual dimension of life, there come those moments in the middle of our weakness that God gives grace. Paul had a thorn in the flesh, we aren’t exactly sure what it was. We think that it was something physical, that’s the most logical thing to assume. More than likely it was his eyesight, but we don’t know that for a fact. We know that Paul prayed and asked God for the wings of an eagle so he could be lifted above and beyond this thorn in the flesh. God didn’t answer Paul’s request for a pair of wings. However, God did answer Paul’s prayer, not by giving him the wings of an eagle, but by giving him the strong legs of a runner. God gave Paul the grace to see him through, and that is exactly what God does for us. There are times when He gives us strong legs, not wings that lift up and over, but legs that carry us though.
For the storms of life, God gives wings. For the challenging opportunities and deadlines in life, God supplies the legs of a runner. Then, for the daily routine of life, God supplies feet for faithful walking. This is where life really operates. It is estimated that a thru-hike on the AT consists of five million steps. The challenging thing about life is that it can be so routine, so daily, so boring. However, it is our daily consistency and faithfulness that pleases God. Flying is wonderful. Running is exciting. However, walking is really what life is all about. Life has hills to climb, it has rivers to forge, it has creeks to cross, it has challenges, unknowns, and mysteries. However, one of the greatest challenges in life is faithfulness in the daily routine. God gives us the strength to be faithful because He is faithful. The Prophet Jeremiah discovered this truth and declared, “[It is] Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning: great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22).
The apostle Paul discovered the dynamic truth about the exchange of power. He expressed it like this: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Paul discovered that they key to faithfulness is not flying, though that happens. It is not even running, though that is possible. It is the consistency of walking with God everyday because what pleases God the most is when we allow Him to exchange our weakness with His strength. In that moment of exchange we learn... “[His] grace is sufficient for you, for my power in made perfect in [your] weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
If the stress of climbing the hills, the challenge of consistently walking the ridges and valleys in life is getting the best of you, I have GOOD NEWS! I offer to you a solution. The Lord Himself wants to exchange your weakness with His strength. That is a valuable lesson that I Learned Along The Way.
 A term used to describe a hiker who intends on hiking the entire Appalachian Train from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Katahdin, Maine...2,159 miles.
 Appalachian Trail Guide, 11th Edition, p. 147.