On our first night of the climb, I led devotions. Starting out a series of lessons centered around mountains, I talked about Exodus 3 – where the Lord meets Moses on Mt. Sinai in the burning bush. Moses was there tending sheep. He was on no quest, not seeking after God in any special way. But the Lord came to him on His own terms in a way that would be life-changing. I challenged people to seek after the Lord on this trip (as Moses does later in Exodus 33), but to realize that He will come in His own time, in His own way.
I really appreciated the week spiritually. Seeing the beauty of the various terrain that we walked in was wonderful. I brought my Kindle with me and decided to pick up a book that I had appreciated in college called Transforming Grace. This book was deeply impactful to me in college and focuses on the way that God’s grace (and not our own efforts) is what brings about our growth in the Lord even after we first come into relationship with Him. Even the first time I read it, I remember thinking, “yes of course”, but the message eventually soaked in in a way that really rocked my world.
As we approached summit day, I felt like everything had been going well. I had worked my tail off (literally) to get into shape for this and while I was definitely tired at the end of our hikes, it was nothing out of the ordinary. Our last campsite was around 15,200 feet above sea level with the summit being at 19,340. Our lead guide spoke words of support telling us that the guides were available to help us with our daypack, water, whatever we would need. It was nice to have the option (the guides started out grabbing packs for a few people), but I had this on my own. When we took our first break (around 16,000ft), I remember thinking, “this isn’t bad, might even be nice to go a little faster.”
As we continued up the mountain though, something funny was going on inside. I had a hard time keeping balance when I turned and I started to feel light-headed and dizzy. I pushed through and kept going. I talked with one of the other climbers who gave me some tips on ways to climb and breathe that would maximize getting oxygen, and minimize using a lot of energy. That got me further, but the more I went, the more dangerous it felt. The rocks up there are sharp and if I fell, I would probably roll a long way down the slope of volcanic ash. At some point above 17,000 feet, I started to wonder if I should stop and turn back.
As I continued up the mountain, I was reminded of a verse that a fellow climber had shared earlier that week: Hebrews 12:1, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” I heard the Lord in that verse – “if you want to make it up, you have to get rid of what’s hindering you.” I had put on most of my layers – my pack was light at that point, it had to be less than 10lbs. It wouldn’t make a difference, would it? I looked around and most of the guides were already carrying packs. So I pressed on feeling worse and questioning myself more and more.
Everything was fuzzy, but eventually I accepted that the status quo would not work. I needed to get rid of my pack. But I felt shame. “How can I ask for help when the guides are already helping others?” “Can’t I carry this light pack on my own?” It took every bit of intentionality I had in me to swallow my pride and say to the climber in front of me, “Carl, I need someone to carry my pack. I can’t do it.” Carl didn’t hesitate – he scrambled around and found one of the guides, Abu, who took my pack in addition to the pack he was already carrying.
When Abu took my pack, something beyond explanation happened. My head cleared almost immediately and within 5 minutes, I had no doubts that I would make the summit. It was a weight lifted that was well beyond its own mass. This was something from the Lord. As I continued to climb, I realized that in that bag was something more than a “hindrance to be thrown off”, but it marked my own self-sufficiency and pride in a way that was truly “entangling”. I couldn’t climb the mountain on my own and I almost turned back because I couldn’t ask for help.
The summit of Kilimanjaro is called “Uhuru Peak” which in Swahili means freedom. When I reached the summit along with our team, I was moved to tears. The Lord laid my sin bare before me on the mountain and showed me that I couldn’t make it on my own. It was hard, and frustrating, but when I gave up my way of doing things, I experienced the “uhuru” of the Lord in an incredible way. It wasn’t up to me to make it on my own. The Lord knew: I needed to experience the Gospel anew in my life – physically and spiritually. The Gospel at its root is the realization – both for our salvation, and for our day to day existence – that we can’t do it on our own. As much as I wanted to reach the summit in my own power, I needed help, and the Lord had help ready for me when I asked for it. I experienced the presence of Jesus in a Tanzanian man named Abu who “took the weight of my burden” so that I could “run the race before me”. This was part of God’s much needed Transforming Grace in my life.
Since coming back, I’ve told several people that I “met God on Kilimanjaro”. My expectations, book included, were high, but He came on His own terms. Now I can only pray that my “mountaintop experience” won’t just be a 1-time deal, but like Moses, that I will come down as a changed man. That my lesson learned at the summit would lead me to experience Uhuru on a daily basis.