“Can we climb that one?” I asked my grandfather as we looked up at the undulating trees and towers of Estes Park’s Lumpy Ridge.
“Let’s go take a look and find out!” he replied, and we began our trudge up the trail to the base of the monolith.
This was neither our first nor our last time on that trail together. Since his death, I have made my way up to the granite spires of Lumpy a few times a year to climb and pay homage to the man who, without knowing it, shaped my understanding of the world—both physical and spiritual.
When I would ask my grandfather if we could go romping around on a rock or mountain, his answer was almost never, “No, that’s too big, or scary, or hard.” At a young age, he helped me reorder and reorient my understanding of barriers.
Barriers, boundaries, and limitations come in all shapes and sizes.
For some people these barriers are nearly if not actually insurmountable. Glass ceilings, earning potential, skin color, education, age, and disabilities, among many other things, make life very difficult for many people. Most of the barriers that many experience have not been my lot in life. Looking back, I can see that I’ve had the world at my fingertips for a variety of reasons.
Some barriers are very real and cannot be changed no matter how courageous one chooses to be. For instance, a long, unprotected fall from a great height will kill or maim anyone regardless of their athletic prowess, bravery, or attitude. Gravity is an equal-opportunity physiological phenomenon. It is indiscriminate in its application and affect.
At the same time, other barriers and boundaries are perceived but not actual. For instance, the amount of cold, fatigue, hunger, pain, fear, and other discomforts one can endure is rather surprising. What we think we are capable of withstanding and what we can actually withstand are often two different and distance thresholds.
But there seems to be at least one domain of life where barriers are indiscriminately applied no matter who you are or where you come from: spirituality. Many if not most are searching for a spiritual breakthrough only to find that God seems far away or that there is something unidentifiable and insurmountable between him and us.
My experience in outdoor pursuits taught me to think differently about barriers, boundaries, and limitations.
The same has been true in my spiritual life. Just because I “feel” as though God is far or disinterested doesn’t mean he really is. Just because I “feel” too busy or stressed to pray or listen doesn’t mean that I actually can’t pull it off.
So many of the barriers that have come between God and me over the years aren’t real–they are lies, they are pretend, and they are perceived.
I have also realized throughout my life that that there is a direct correlation between pushing and eliminating boundaries in my physical world and doing the same in my spiritual world.
Perhaps not surprisingly to some of you, my spiritual life and my physical life are deeply connected and overlapping. When I go for a long run in the alpine and I’m pushing the limits of what my body “should” be able to do, I find I’m also able to push the limits of how my soul is able to connect with God.
It turns out the perceived barriers between God and me for most of my life have been just that: perceived. When I reorient and reorder my understanding of God, my surroundings, and myself, God becomes far more accessible and approachable.
A few years ago, two of my good friends called and asked if I wanted to climb an alpine route with them.
I’ve known these guys for more than a decade. While my grandfather shaped my mentality as a climber, these friends shaped my skills.
They wanted to attempt a route that was remote and rarely climbed. We had very little information on the route, but bluebird skies and plenty of ambition so we went for it.
I knew it was above my skill level, but I trusted my friends and knew that a day above treeline with good people was better than just about anything else out there.
I was going to try to follow the whole route without leading while I got a feel for the combination of disciplines and skills we were implementing.
Of course, because I was climbing with people who routinely push my limits, I should have known that I wasn’t going to get off that easy. They made me lead the last pitch of the route while the sun was setting and the alpine air was getting cooler by the minute.
The pitch wasn’t that difficult save for the veritable waterfall about half way up. There was still a bit of snow at the top of the mountain and the daytime heat had melted it into a seeping, slippery mess right where I needed purchase. Bit by bit, I made my way up the pitch, trying to stay calm and attempting to ignore the ever-increasing darkness and 1000 feet of air between me and the valley floor.
As I pulled through the dripping roof to the belay stance at 13,000 feet, I got a glimpse of the setting sun. I was wet and shivering, my chest heaving to find enough oxygen in the thin air.
I had pushed through yet another physical and mental barrier but I experienced something spiritual as well.
God was near in that moment, not just because I was afraid I was going to prematurely see him face-to-face, but also because there’s some mysterious connection between the spiritual and the physical in those remote, outdoor settings.
I’ve had a thousand experiences like that over the years and I’m hopeful for thousands more in the years to come. Every time I’m in an outdoor environment pushing the envelope, I seem to surmount a spiritual barrier as well.
“Can I climb that one?” I ask.
“Let’s go find out!” God seems to say.
Learn more about integrating your faith and outdoor adventure.
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This post was published July 16, 2018
Nathan has called Colorado home for most of his life and values the outdoors as he climbs, skis, and mountain bikes whenever time allows. Nathan is a graduate of Denver Seminary and ordained in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Nathan has worked part-time for Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey since 2013. He was on staff at Cherry Hills Community Church from 2011 – 2015 and currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Denver Rescue Mission.
Nathan and his wife Julie are foster, biological, and adoptive parents. They believe in making a deep and lasting impact in their neighborhood and seeing lives change at the ground level. Nathan is a big fan of the craft-everything movement in Denver and cares way too much about how his coffee is roasted.