This past week I had the opportunity to take some time off from work and enjoy the first real vacation I’ve had in years. My wife and I have grown fond of going to the Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg and this was our 3rd trip there together. The proximity of shopping and enjoying the outdoors is too good for us to pass up. Since I have been on a pretty significant fitness journey for over a year now, one of the things I really wanted to take advantage of on this particular trip was the variety of hiking trails in the area. Being from the flatlands of Illinois this was an excellent opportunity to enjoy being active in a way that I really can’t be a majority of the year via hiking. On our first full day we stopped at the information center for the Smokey Mountains National Park and picked up a trail map and talked to an older gentleman that was an excellent adviser as we made our plans. On an earlier visit we went on a hike to see the Grotto Falls and so I thought it would be a nice goal to try and see all of the waterfalls in the area at some point during this visit and future visits. One of the things that our adviser used to help us in our decision making was a little pamphlet that showed a picture of each of the waterfalls. Some waterfalls were more grand than others and some trails were longer and more treacherous than others so weighing out what you would see on the other end of a long hike was critical. Over the course of our 4 complete days we went on 3 waterfall hikes.
On our second hike we got up extra early because we wanted to go on a longer trail and wanted to be sure we could finish in plenty of time to recuperate and enjoy our evening in town. At the onset we knew the length of the trail and what Rainbow Falls looked like but we didn’t know how treacherous it would be. Even though I have been very physically active recently it was still challenging. I was extremely impressed with the perseverance of my wife throughout the strenuous ordeal. I’m confident that much of her resilience was due to my promises of untold shopping funds that would be made available at the completion of this trail. True to my word, I didn’t veto a single shopping request the entire week. She deserved it.
Along this particular trail we came across 2 or 3 much smaller waterfalls where we’d stop and enjoy the sound of the water running by and then continue on our way. Along the way we would also cross paths with people who got up even earlier than we had gotten up and were on their way back from Rainbow Falls. As we passed, we would greet each other and I would usually ask one of a couple questions. “How much further?” and “Is it worth it?” We were greatly encouraged when the answer to the first question got shorter and shorter and we were consistently energized when the answer to the second question each and every time was, “Absolutely!” Because it was a long and strenuous hike we were ready to be done and we wanted our efforts to be worth it in the end. Even though it wasn’t the rainiest part of the year, Rainbow Falls was still worth it and on our way back down the mountain we got to be the ones answering the questions of people still on their journey. As we passed some hikers near one of the much smaller waterfalls I jokingly told them that this waterfall was it. That this little itty bitty waterfall was what they were looking for. Apparently they had seen the same picture of the falls that I had seen and chuckled. Nobody in their right mind would go to such effort for such a small waterfall. It wouldn’t be worth it.
This exchange got me to wondering. What if they had believed me? What if they didn’t know what Rainbow Falls looked like? Surely they would have been disappointed! They certainly wouldn’t be coming back on this trail again and would instead go searching for something more visually appealing. If it weren’t for that handy pamphlet with a picture of the falls and the travelers on their way down reassuring me, I can see how I could easily be tricked into thinking that the smaller waterfalls were Rainbow Falls and in fact miss out on the real falls. How sad would that mistake be?
When it comes to God, this mistake happens All. The. Time. I know plenty of people who either don’t believe in God or don’t pursue God relationally and when I hear their description of God I can’t help but think, “I wouldn’t pursue that God either.” At the same time I can’t help but think that they’ve not really experienced the presence of God. It’s almost like they’re disappointed with a small substitute waterfall that pales in comparison to the mighty falls around the bend. Of course you’re disappointed with that God but don’t give up and turn around. Keep hiking!
I’m thankful for the people in my life who have been hiking on the trail of faith much longer than me. Those are the people who have seen much more than me and can reassure me based on their experiences that this path is worth it. They are the ones that can tell me about a majestic, holy, loving, gracious, merciful and sacrificial God that is bigger than I can fathom while I’m in the midst of tripping over rocks and trying to stay on the path. They help me decipher between the wannabe gods and the real God so that I don’t end up turning around because I come across a phoney excuse for a God that doesn’t amount to much.
And lastly, I’m also thankful for scripture which very much acts as that guide and pamphlet we saw at the information center. Scripture has been extremely helpful over the years as I’ve tried to navigate my way in this world but it’s important to note that seeing a picture of a waterfall is no substitute to being in the actual presence of a waterfall. Spending time in scripture, even memorizing scripture, so that we have a clearer picture of what God is like is not even remotely close to being in the actual presence of God. Scripture is ‘living and active’ but not because it has some intrinsic life of it’s own. It can be just as static as any hiking trail map. Scripture is living and active because it continually and reliably points people in the direction of the God who is living and active in this world. Don’t mistake scriptural knowledge of God for being in the presence of God. Be informed by the former but transformed by the latter.