The first day of spring just passed, and I cannot be more excited! This will be my busiest hiking season to date, which will include the longest section hikes of the Appalachian Trail that I’ve done. As I have anticipated these hikes, I have made arrangements at work, tweaked my gear, and hiked many miles in my hometown in order to prepare for the trail. I am getting myself ready to walk that path in the woods for a week at a time.
As passionate as I am about hiking, I am much more passionate about my children. Aside from my wife, those four monkeys are my favorite people on the planet. I love spending time with them and watching as they discover new things. As their individual gifts, talents and passions emerge, I cannot help but see the incredible potential that each of them hold. I dream of exciting careers and lives spent advancing the Kingdom of God. However, I tell myself, “Don’t push your kids into any specific future. Don’t superimpose your ideas on them. Let them discover life for themselves.”
As I was reading through Proverbs this weekend, I came across Proverbs 22:6 again:
“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
When I see the words “way,” “path,” road,” etc in scripture, I am reminded of the trail. The biblical writers knew a lot about travel by foot… walking for miles was a way of life. Though they did not travel a wilderness trail for recreation, they were very familiar with following a footpath and the challenges it presented. Thus, the language of walking is often used in their writings, as it is here. Because we are a motorized society that has forgotten what it feels like to live life on foot, we often miss the layers of meaning that encompass passages like Proverbs 22:6.
Reading this familiar old scripture from the perspective of a walker allowed me to see it with new eyes. I realized that there is a considerable amount of leadership that my children need from me, and I am commanded by God to provide it.
The trail has taught me many things; here are a few that I have learned about leading my children:
1. They need a guide.
I did zero trip planning for my first several hiking excursions. In fact, I could barely tell you where we were going. All I knew was that I was walking in the woods for several days with my friends. On each of these trips, I was trusting that the trip leader had more experience in the woods and a greater understanding of the trail than I did. As a newbie hiker, I was happy not to navigate; my body and mind were having a hard enough time just surviving the walk. All I needed to focus on was simply putting one foot in front of the other.
As my kids grow up, each new stage of maturation will come with its own challenges. These challenges will make it difficult for them to think about much more than simply putting one foot in front of the other. That’s when they need me, their God-given guide, to keep them moving in the right direction.
A good guide is aware of the condition of his hikers. Before planning a trip, he takes into consideration their previous experience, physical condition, and personalities. He builds the hike with these factors – these people – in mind. Taking such considerations provides for a successful hike for the whole party.
No one knows my kids better than I do. I see their abilities and their weaknesses. I know what gets them fired up and what extinguishes them. I see the gifts of God in each of them, the areas where they shine and are exceptional. I know what makes them unique and what they bring to the table as members of the community, the Church, and the human race. This knowledge is important.
Because I know my children, I have some insight that will matter as they grow and begin to navigate for themselves. Will they always listen to me? Nope. But I will be persistent to love them by sharing my expertise as an old fellow who has walked ahead of them and wants to see them make it to the end of the trail.
2. They need my perspective.
Sometimes it’s hard for a hiker to keep her head up to see the beauty of the walk. The pack is heavy, the mountains are steep, and her legs are tired. It’s easy for the hiker’s head to drop and her gaze to fall on the few steps just in front of her on the trail. When this happens, the hiker is missing the point of hiking as described by Benton MacKaye, “to walk, to see, and to see what you see.”
I took my kids on a training hike along our city’s bike trail a few weeks ago. When I hike this trail, I don’t use the blacktop or gravel paths that are provided. A long stretch of trees line the edge of the bike trail – crepe myrtles, oaks, magnolias, etc – and they are staggered just so that they unintentionally provide a single-pass foot trail between them. I told my kids that this is my “secret trail” because no one sees it when they look from the road or from the bike trail blacktop. Their perspectives don’t allow them to see what I have found.
When life gets hard for my kids, they will need me to provide some perspective for them, to remind them to look up and “see that you see.” The pressures of life can become consuming and cause us to miss the beauty of the walk. There may be paths provided to them that their perspective won’t let them see. It is my duty to draw their attention to these paths and encourage them to consider them.
3. They need to be prepared.
My second big section hike was from the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail to the Woody Gap trailhead, some 21 miles away. I was so excited to be on the trail again! My first hike was a significant experience for me and I was approaching this trip just a little less clueless than the one before. I bought my own backpack, sleeping bag and hammock system. I talked with other hikers before the trip. I could even tell you the name of the trail! However, I underestimated the difficulty of the Appalachian Trail compared to the Chatooga River Trail. To make matters worse, I was hiking into the woods after a one-month absence from the gym. My gear was ready but my body was not! Within four hours of hiking, the muscle groups in my legs decided they would teach me why it’s important to train. First my calves started cramping, then my hamstrings, followed by my quads, groin, and other muscles that don’t often get the opportunity to remind me that they’re there. I describe those miles as “Crampfest ‘14” and I was begging for mercy by the time we reached Hawk Mountain Shelter.
The first word in Proverbs 22:6 is “train.” Training is work. It is preparation and planning and pain. It is choosing to endure pain in measured doses now so I will be able to handle myself when a torrent of pain is unleashed at some later date. Training for the trail means learning what it feels like to walk at a certain pace for a length of time, developing a rhythm for walking, and becoming familiar with your gear. My training goal is to reduce the pain and remove as many unknowns as possible from the hiking experience; the trail will provide plenty of both, regardless of my preparation.
My children need me to train them, to help them learn what it feels like to walk this path, to feel the rhythm of following Jesus step by step. They need to experience the pain of discipleship in measured doses, before the torrent of struggle, doubt, and apparent injustice is released on them as young adults. By training them in this way, we are reducing the pain and removing as many unknowns from the path as possible. Believe you me, there are plenty more ahead; hopefully my attempt at training will increase their odds of staying on the trail, so that “even when [they are] old, [they] will not depart from it.”
4. They each need to hike their own hike.
“Hike your own hike” is a prevalent mantra in the hiking community. Expounded upon, it means that each hiker will have his own motivations and goals for hiking, should hike accordingly, and other hikers should graciously understand.
This proverb commands the parent, “Train up a child in the way he should go…” Some theologians have said that “in the way he should go” could be translated “in the way he is bent.” The idea here is to identify the unique characteristics of the child, the ways in which God has uniquely designed him, and train the child to be more of whom God has made him to be. As a parent, I see the wisdom in this. Children are experiencing the world anew, one day at a time, and do not have the perspective to really know what sets them apart and makes them unique. In their eyes, they are just like all the other kids in the world. However, I see that one may be an engineer, another a performer, another an entrepreneur, another a healthcare provider.
Each of my children is “bent” to walk a certain type of trail, and I believe it is my job as a parent to help them discover and explore these trails, with their unique motivations and goals in mind.
Regardless of career paths, my hope and desire for my children is that they will each walk the path of discipleship and learn to follow Christ closely. As parents, we are entrusted with a short season to teach and model the life of a disciple, but the day comes quickly when children choose for themselves whether they will continue to follow that trail. When that day comes, I want to be confident that I have done everything in my power to train them in the right way and send them down the trail knowing that they are ready.