We rolled out of camp bunk beds early that Saturday for our date with God’s glory. The air was brisk, but the sun greeted us with a promise of warmth. I joined my friends at the starting line for the Shadow of the Giants trail race.
“Three, two, one, go!” the race director bellowed, his voice echoing through the forest. And we were off.
My lungs burned as we headed straight uphill through the grove of sequoia trees at 5,000-feet elevation. Inhale. Lift. Exhale. Lift. Inhale. Lift. I tried to find the rhythm of my breath and feet to make it up that first long hill. I had confidence knowing I had completed this race before, but five miles of hills is still five miles of hills. I knew what to expect, but I still had to put in the work.
Sometimes life is about breathing and lifting, putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes life is about lifting our eyes to chase God’s glory up the steepest hills and through the darkest corridors of the forest.
I learned this in a profound way in 2014 when my husband was diagnosed with stage four cancer. Every part of the journey felt like running uphill through the darkness. As his health quickly deteriorated, I took on the role of caretaker. My once strong, athletic husband depended on me to take him to doctor’s appointments, to make decisions about treatments, to prepare special meals for him and even to brush his teeth. The work was heavy and heartbreaking.
Lift. Inhale. Lift. Exhale. Lift. Inhale. Lift.
As I ran the Shadow of the Giants race, I could not help but take note of the landscape. The trail through the Nelder Grove — not far from Yosemite National Park — looked strikingly different from the year before when I ran the same race. Fallen trees and blackened trunks provided surprising contrast against the backdrop of the bright blue sky.
A wildfire earlier in the year blazed its way through 12,407 acres of this forest. The cause of the fire was unknown, but it threatened communities, historic buildings, resorts, and the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad. People were evacuated from hotels and homes.
I was surprised to discover that though forest fires destroy so much, good things can result as well. When a fire rages through dry underbrush, it clears thick growth so nourishing sunlight can reach the forest floor. This encourages the growth of native species, and a resilient tree, who survives the fire, can even experience a growth spurt.
As I ran, I saw evidence of new growth in the Nelder Forest. Green grass and leaves sprouted in all directions. Wildflowers dotted the trail. As I rounded the corner after the steepest part of the race, angled light beamed through the blackened tree trunks. Beauty rose up from the ashes.
My husband graduated to Heaven in September 2014. Out of the grief, a fierce sense of hope has emerged in my life these last few years. I still bear the scars of loss, but God uses these to open doors so I might impart courage to others. My three daughters have resilient spirits, which I believe spring from the fire they have walked through.
Do you feel like you are running uphill through the dark? Are you feeling the sear of the fire at your heels?
I have learned the challenge is in how we respond. Will we let the fires of life destroy us or refine us? Will we let grief overtake us or will we choose comfort in Christ? Will we sit in the ashes or will we wear a crown of beauty?
Friends, let’s draw strength from these words in Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me…
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
Isaiah 61:1, 2-3 (NIV)
I started sprinting as I neared the finish of the race. Oh, how I love that final taste of glory! The trail turned to single track. I whizzed by lush, green ferns. I slowed to climb over felled tree trunks. Inhale. Lift. Exhale. Lift. Somehow the chase for His glory felt easier. My heart was singed by fire, but I found unexpected joy in the journey.