Little by Little
SEPTEMBER 21, 2023
It was an August weekend in 1986 when I nearly died in a freak snowstorm.
Is that hyperbole? Maybe a little, but not much.
On a hot and sunny August Saturday morning, my wife and I dropped off our one-and-a-half-year-old daughter with friends and drove to the parking lot of the Parknachklamm just outside Garmisch to meet with a group from the US Army chapel where I worked. We were all setting off on a two-day hike to the summit of the Zugspitze.
Part of the Bavarian Alps, the Zugspitze is the tallest mountain in Germany. The plan was to hike part way on Saturday and spend that night in a hutte, a large hut where the proprietor would provide a dinner of sausage and spaetzle, sleeping platforms with thin mattresses and blankets, and a breakfast of rolls and butter. On Sunday we would hike the rest of the way to the summit, then use the tourists’ cable cars to ride down. A bus would pick us up and take us to our cars.
Though the hike was certainly challenging, everything went well on the first day. I think we all slept soundly that night. I know that I did. Everyone was in good spirits on Sunday as we ate our breakfast, though perhaps a little apprehensive as we prepared to get an early start. According to our guide, today’s hike would be more difficult than Saturday’s had been. The trail was quickly going to get much steeper.
When I stepped outside the front door of the hutte it was clear today was going to be even harder than we’d thought. It was raining. The guide got the group together and asked us what we wanted to do. We could turn around and hike back to the bottom, or we could go on to the summit. He said it would be uncomfortable doing so in the rain, but it was certainly doable.
Never a fan of discomfort, I was leaning toward going home, but I was with a bunch of gung-ho Army guys. I knew that turning around and going home would be wimpy. There really was only one option. We hefted our packs onto our backs and headed for the trail.
The guide had not exaggerated when he said that today’s portion of the trail was steeper than what we’d covered the day before. It seemed nearly vertical to me. And in some places, the rain turned the trail into a mini waterfall. Several of us were swept off our feet by the rushing water and tumbled a ways back down the mountain.
And with every few meters of increase in elevation, the temperature dropped. It was getting colder and colder. By mid-morning the rain had turned to snow. We were all wearing shorts and T-shirts, which had been drenched in the rain. None of us anticipated cold weather. We had all dressed for August heat, not mid-winter cold. People shivered. Lips started to turn blue.
The guide believed the best thing for us was to press on and get to the summit where there was a restaurant and other tourist facilities. So, we kept going. And the snow continued to increase. It wasn’t quite a whiteout, but it got so bad that the guide was no longer sure he could make out the trail.
By then some people were shivering uncontrollably. Everyone’s lips were blue. Several of us seemed to have lost all coordination and stumbled with every step. Hypothermia was setting in. The guide conferred with the senior Army officers with us. It was decided that it was too dangerous to keep going forward. We turned and headed back down.
We walked past the hutte where we had spent the night and all the way to where our cars were parked. It was evening by the time my wife and I got in our car and went to pick up our daughter. When we got to our friend’s apartment, they were overjoyed to see us. When they woke up that morning and saw the mountain covered in snow, they had been afraid that we might not make it back safely.
Was it hyperbole to say that I almost died in a freak August snowstorm? Maybe not.
So, why do I share this story now? I thought about that hike when I read a passage in Deuteronomy Chapter 7 this morning.
You shall not be in dread of [your enemies], for the LORD your God is in your midst, a great and awesome God. The LORD your God will clear away [your enemies] before you little by little. Deuteronomy 7:21-22
I can be an impatient person. I want to get from here to there quickly, whether that is finishing a project, learning a new skill, or climbing a mountain. I tend to rush ahead. Early on in our hike up the Zugsptize I was struggling, out of breath, floundering under the weight of my pack. One of the soldiers in our group came alongside me and gave me great advice. Take my time, don’t rush, and take smaller steps. He said that I would expend less energy taking two smaller steps to one big step. This was especially true the steeper the trail became.
It is often the same way in my hike toward spiritual maturity. Many times, I have been impatient with my spiritual growth and have declared from this moment forward I will be done with this sin or that bad habit, I have rushed ahead, only to discover that my strength was inadequate and have quickly fallen back into my old ways. Then I have all too often given in to discouragement.
It is much better, I have learned, to not rely on my own strength to overcome the spiritual enemies in my life, enemies from sin within and temptations without, but to remember that it is the LORD my God who is in my midst who is a great and awesome God and that he has promised to clear away my enemies. And to also remember that, in most cases, he will do so little by little. Real progress most often comes from little steps.
Why little steps? It is so that we will remember to trust him for each and every one of them and to not lean on our own strength and our own understanding.
Trust the mighty LORD who is in your midst. He will clear away the enemies of your soul. And, little by little, you will make progress on the path of spiritual maturity.