Lessons From the Arizona Desert

It was 29 degrees when I left the Pittsburgh airport headed to Phoenix. I knew warmer weather, friends and new experiences were waiting for me on the other end. The plan was to speak for a couple of my friends (Howard Gwartney & Mike Cash) and share with their church families about what God was doing in and through Flagship FWB Church in Erie, Pa. I was looking forward to seeing them and their families again, as well as visiting the great state of Arizona.

Pastor Gwartney suggested a few places to go sightseeing and after taking his suggestions into consideration and looking online I decided to do some hiking on the Peralta Trail in the Superstition Mountains. The website suggested a hike that would take 3-4 hours and after speaking to the Ranger at the trailhead that’s the hike I decided I would take.

I wanted this to be more than I hike. I wanted to spend some alone time with God. I needed Him to teach me some things and minister to my soul. I wanted and desperately needed His encouragement from my Father. When it was over, I felt like this hike was just what the Great Physician ordered for my soul.

While on this journey God taught me and reminded me of many things. I was desperate to hear from God and He did not disappoint. I was desperate because the last several years have been filled with spiritual warfare, difficulties, concerns and mental, as well as spiritual exhaustion. I’d like to share with you some ordinary things God used along the trail to encourage and help me as I continue on this other journey, called life.

First He reminded me to be an encourager to those who are struggling. The trek to the top was exhausting. I was breathing heavy, sweating and at times my pulse rate exceeded 140 bpm. As I was hiking I kept seeing people who had already conquered the mountain. Some of these people appeared to be older than me. This motivated me not to quit. As I gradually made my way up the incline, occasionally people would say, “You are getting close now. Only a few more minutes.” I think they could sense my exhaustion and they didn’t want me to give up without conquering what I had come to see.

I am so thankful for the many other encouragers I have in my life. Countless people pray for us regularly. Our daughter, who has battled some very severe physical and spiritual issues has been prayed for by people all over the globe. Occasionally I will receive a text message or a phone call from someone who supports the ministry in Erie and they will just remind me they are praying for us. They are like those on the mountain who say, enthusiastically, “Keep going. Don’t quit. It will be worth it.”

I was able to return the favor for others as I was coming down the mountain. I was able to say, “You are getting close. Only a few more steps. It will be worth it.” There are many things I cannot do, and there are many talents I do not have, but I can be an encourager and share an encouraging word with those who are struggling on their journey. Be an encourager!

Another thing I was reminded of was this: sometimes all you can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other. There were times on my way to the top I could barely keep moving. I was wheezing and exhausted. There were times I felt as if I would just fall over. However, I was determined I was going to conquer this trail. I slowed down, I stopped to rest, but I was resolved by God’s grace I was not going to give up. There were times on the journey I seemed to be barely moving and making any headway. However, I was determined to keep moving and I did.

There have been so many times in life I’ve felt the same way on this church planting journey. There have been days I have had so much to do, my head would spin. I do not want to complain, but I do think people should know that church planting is not all glitz and glamour. Until you get people trained and discipled, until you find willing and able volunteers, much of the work of the ministry falls on your shoulders as well as those on your leadership team (if you are blessed to have one). Without the volunteers, you are also the treasurer, the deacons, the trustees, the janitor and the list goes on. Sometimes you feel like you are taking a step forward, only to feel like you’ve taken two steps back. There are times when people leave, often without explanation, and it’s very hard not to take it personally.

I have also felt exhausted spiritually. There are times when the enemy whispers, “Just quit, it’s not worth it. You aren’t really making a difference. No one would miss you if you packed up and moved closer to your family. You could find an easier place to serve.” The “father of lies” is an expert discourager, but dear friend, even when you are exhausted, decide by God’s grace you are going to continue putting one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward on the trail God has for you.

Third, your pace does not have to be the same as everyone else. It took me three hours and forty minutes to complete this hike. I am sure that is a very slow time compared many who have done the same journey. As people walked by me on the way there, it was a little discouraging to know I was slower than them. If my only focus was the pace of this trip I would have gotten discouraged quickly. However, I realized this was not a race, but a hike. I had a goal in mind and it did not include a specific time limit. My goal was simply to make it to the top and safely make it back home. By God’s grace that is exactly what I did.

One of the biggest temptations I face in ministry is to play the “comparison game.” I have struggled with this ever since I began ministering over twenty years ago. I know it is a result of my sinful nature and I have to confess and repent of comparing regularly. When I look at other pastors who are about my same age, or other church planters who have been on the field the same length of time I have, I can get very discouraged because they seem to be much more “successful” than I am. The way I often define success is far different than God’s definition of success. God’s definition seems to do more with faithfulness than with numbers. I’m not going to be judged on the number of people who sit in the pews, the offerings that come in on a weekly basis, how stylish the church logo is, the number of likes on the ministry’s social media page or how well I pulled off a big day. God’s Word tells me we are stewards and it is required that stewards are found faithful.

I am thankful that God doesn’t require stewards to have the same pace as someone else with different gifts, personalities or abilities. He wants me to be faithful and by His grace, I can be. It is God’s business who He gifts and how He gifts people. It is our business how we use these gifts and abilities for His glory. We must be sure we are on the right trail and move along that trail faithfully every day. There will be people ahead of us and there will be people behind us. There will be those who will pass us along the way. However, it is not our job to try to “keep up with them,” but rather walk step in step with the Holy Spirit and move in His direction. There have been far too many times in my life that I have been so enamored with the “success” others and my lack thereof, that I have literally felt paralyzed from even doing what God has called me to do. Do we really think that is of God? Certainly not! It is a ploy of the enemy to keep us discouraged and distracted! Stay focused on Him and His path for YOUR life!

Another truth I was reminded of is when you get off the trail, go back and correct your course. The trail I was on had no markers or signs (except at the beginning). The ranger whom I spoke with said that the main trail would be clear, and if you got off the main trail you would eventually hit a dead end or a lot of brush and undergrowth. One particular occasion I missed a turn and mistakenly got off the main trail. I knew I needed to turn around and find out where I went off course. Sure enough, I was able to backtrack to the main trail and get back on track.

There are times in life when we do the same. We make choices outside of God’s will and we take detours. Whenever we do so, it leads to problems. However, we serve a merciful and gracious God who gives us the opportunity to confess and repent and get back on track. I am reminded of the verse of Scripture in Revelation where Christ commands the church to “repent and go back and do the first works.” Go back to the detour point and get back on the path God has for you.

Obstacles can serve as stepping stones. The trail was extremely rocky all along the way. There were even a few places that were slippery and treacherous. However, those same rocks that could be perceived as obstacles, ended up serving as places to step upon or hold onto to as I ascended and descended the mountain.

Once again I see a parallel in life. There are always obstacles, however, I believe God can enable these difficulties to serve as stepping stones. When Joseph confronts his brothers at the end of the book of Genesis he confesses the things they meant for evil against him ended up being used by God for good. Joseph could have easily used these difficulties in his life to destroy him, however, he responded with faith in God and overcame. He allowed obstacles to become the stepping stones that enabled him to be exactly where he needed to be in God’s providential plan. We must do the same. Though obstacles may come into our lives, God can turn trials into blessings and He will work all things together for our good and His glory.

There are several other life lessons I wrote down that day in the Arizona desert. It was a trip I will not soon forget, if ever. I wonder how many life lessons I miss because I don’t take time to ask God to teach me or because I am so busy with the hustle and bustle of life I just do not take the time to listen. I am thankful for this trip and I am sure there will be many days and trials ahead that I will need to remind myself of these principles. In some way, I hope they can be a blessing to you as well.

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