Dear Malia and Scotty,
As you know it was a year ago today that I summited Mt. Kilimanjaro with fourteen other women. What you might not know is hiking to over 19,000 feet was never on my life’s bucket list. It actually took me over six months to say “yes” to the invitation which would lead me to the rugged roads of the Democratic Republic of Congo to visit women who have survived extreme gender based violence and later to hike one of the highest mountains in the world, Mt. Kilimanjaro. We hiked Mt. Kilimanjaro to do something hard and to help bring more awareness to the women we were advocating for. For some people agreeing to an invitation like this would be easy as they would see it as an adventure of a lifetime. For me, however, saying “Yes” was truly an act of trust as I wrestled with many fears. Reflecting back to that time there are lessons I never want to forget and want to pass on to you. You may never climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, but I guarantee there will be challenges in your life that will feel just as difficult and overwhelming.
1. When you think God is asking you to do something, do it. Say “Yes!”
I can’t believe how long it took me to say Yes to this invitation. Sure there were obstacles – some were big obstacles – seeming to indicate I should not go. But I figured if I wasn’t to go, God would make it clear, so I planned and prepared each day as I was going. By the time I stepped on the plane I was full of peace. I knew in full confidence I was where I needed to be at that point in time. There will always be people or reasons to say no, but when you have that nudge – that invitation – that compelling feeling that God is calling you to something say, “Yes.”
2. Do not fear. Do not worry.
Easier said than done, I know. Before leaving I was afraid to leave you guys. I am always stricken with fear when leaving you guys. I was afraid to travel to Congo. I was afraid I would hold the rest of the group back. I was afraid I didn’t have the emotional fortitude to handle the hard things we were going to see or hear. I was worried I wasn’t worthy of the invitation in the first place. I was afraid I would die. To some people this might seem extreme, but I genuinely was worried about dying either by a violent militia group in the DRC or from some health problem on the mountain. This might be the first time in my life I seriously stepped out in obedience to the Lord’s calling despite my fear of losing my life.
Here a year later I learned – yet again – that there is no sense in worrying when you know the Lord. I have nothing to fear when I am in the will of our Father in heaven. I witnessed women who survived some of the most horrific violence sing praise to the Lord as He carried them to healing and hope. I don’t truly understand how God does that, but I witnessed it first hand and have experienced it myself. We will all go through some trauma of some sort – for some it might be more violent than others – but at some point we all will walk through hardship that we can never prepare for. It is who we lean on during that time of suffering and who we allow to comfort and heal us that will make all the difference. So do not be afraid for the Lord is with you always.
3. Preparation matters.
There is much in life we can’t prepare for. Challenges and trials we can’t anticipate but have to endure and get through. But there are also things in life we can prepare for. This trip was way out of my comfort zone and so I knew I had to prepare. And I did. I did a lot of research about hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro, what it was like, what to pack, and I asked a lot of people who had more experience than I do a lot of questions. And I was so grateful I did. There were many times on that mountain I was thankful for my hiking boots. Oh how I spent so much time finding the right pair! I bought and returned three different pairs before finding the right ones and I was so glad I did. I followed the suggestions of many people in physically preparing for this trip and packed all the essential gear recommended and I was grateful I did. Paying attention to details has not always come naturally for me, but in this case I learned how important the little things are. There are enough things in life that come unexpectedly, so when there is something in your control, be prepared.
4. Pole Pole
In Swahili this means “Slowly Slowly.” This was a mantra we heard over and over on our hike to Mt. Kilimanjaro. Slowly slowly. Due to the extreme altitude one cannot hike Mt. Kilimanjaro quickly. Going too quickly has left many who have attempted disappointed as they didn’t give their bodies enough time to adjust to the altitude and they didn’t make it. On summit night we hiked so slowly I found myself dosing off while standing up. We walked painfully slow. At some point I wanted to scream, “Seriously – can we go any faster?!” But I put trust in our guides and put one step in front of the other.
Sometimes there is simply no easy or faster way especially when one is trying to accomplish something big. Many times I will get a grand idea – something big I want to accomplish or do – but I give up or move along to something easier as I don’t want to put in the time required or it seems simply too difficult. Pole Pole reminds me that any great challenge requires patience and perseverance. We must always put one foot in front of the other. Speed does not matter – moving does. And sometimes when we try to go faster or think there is an easier way of reaching our destination we will pass out, burn out because we didn’t go slow enough. So don’t give up on a goal or a dream because it seems too hard or too big of a reach. Simply take your time, go slowly, put one foot in front of the other and keep moving.
5. It is difficult.
No duh. You would think I would know this and not have to learn this over and over again, but I do. I knew climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro would be no easy task and yet at the very end – even after I had successfully hike to Uhuru peak at 19,341 feet above sea level and made it almost back to camp, I complained. I knew it would be hard, but the last two hours of summit day I was exhausted and my expectations were not met – it was longer than I was told and so I complained. I not only complained, I was grouchy. For two hours or so I lost perspective and could only think of how hard it was, how my knees hurt, how I had to put my headlight back on as it was night again as we hiked down a dry river bead. By now you would think I would be celebrating for reaching the summit, for accomplishing what I doubted I could do. But instead I could only think of my present pain.
Even when you are prepared, reaching goals and much of life is simply hard. I know it intellectually, but when I’m actually living through something hard it is so natural to complain and wonder why. Jesus never ever told us life would be easy when we follow him. To the contrary. Especially as followers of Christ, life is going to tough – brutal at times. That is to be expected. Expect life to be difficult. Expect when you set goals, plan for something big, there are going to be rough patches and obstacles. It’s not always going to go as planned.
6. It is tough to do anything big without a support team.
The African Walking Company was our support team. There would be no way we would have made it to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro without the help of a large group of local experts who carried our large gear such as tents, sleeping bags, food and water. It took about forty other people to get the fourteen of us safely to the top and back down. There is absolutely no way to do something big without help. And not just any help. You will need people who know more than you, people who are trained, who are competent, and people who want you to succeed. And you will have to trust them. You will have to listen to them. If they tell you to take a double dose of Diamox, you do. If they tell you to drink more water, you do. If they tell you to rest, you do. If they tell you to hurry off the mountain as there is storm coming, you do. You need a team you can trust.
7. Joy comes when in community.
Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro was not easy. Hearing the stories of the women we met with in the DRC was not easy. I cried a lot over the two weeks I was gone. But the joy I personally experienced and witnessed in the women we met with can only be understood in community with one another and our Lord Almighty. It is the only way I can explain it. Joy comes with community both with others and with God. The singing of the women as we entered the church the first day and the hugs and laughter of all of us at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro is something I will never forget. And it came in community with one another and with our Creator.
8. Life is not lived on top of a mountain.
Experiencing the top of a huge mountain is exhilarating, but that is not where we always get to stay. This is a lesson I have learned since being home. We have opportunities to experience great things, but most of life is plugging away in the ordinary often overlooked parts of life that are usually not “post” worthy. Saying I climbed 19,341 feet above sea level is a great story, but climbing mountains is not what I do with most of my life. My life is much more ordinary. This was hard for me when I came home. I wanted this trip to lead to something bigger, more impactful, a next step, another mountain top so to speak. I wrestled with “now what?”
I believe this lesson is where my physical and spiritual life intersect. I have had some of great adventures being a follower of Jesus Christ. There have been times I have felt so alive and full of joy I could hardly contain myself. I believe God has given me a taste of what eternal life with Him will be someday, but I am just not quite on that side of life yet. In the meantime, most of what I experience with God is ordinary and so I walk day to day with getting to know Him while folding laundry, making dinner, reading Scripture, talking with friends and family. This is a great life it just does not often “feel” big. Remember though that Christ’s ministry also didn’t start off big and he suffered greatly and died for us – definitely not a mountain top experience. Remember this.
I don’t know if God will call me to another mountain peak, but if he does I will not hesitate in saying, “Yes.” In the meantime, I give thanks and all glory to God who has sustained me in the darkest of circumstances, who leads me and nudges me to go and serve others, who loves me enough to not let me remain in my state of comfort and safety but pushes me to be all he created me to be both in the ordinary as well as on the top of the highest mountains.
My dear kids, I pass onto you what I have learned knowing full well you will have to learn your own lessons on your own terms. I just pray that you never forget that in it all and through it all God is with you. It makes all the difference.
I love you guys,