Wilderness inspired the best of my ministry.
On a few occasions, with a distant nod to John the Baptizer or Moses, I sauntered alone into the wild. However, the most memorable sojourns were with groups. Children. Teens. Men. Women.
My faith, such as it is, has been influenced by the famous John Muir quote: When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe. A trip into the backcountry, along the wandering established paths or across stretches of unmarked ground, causes some hikers to feel small in the midst of the grandeur. Not me. I always felt I belonged, part of Muir’s “universe,” part of that long, wide-eyed and humble tradition of prophets (and other foolish believers) seeking to discover or lose themselves in a place of beauty and danger.
Friendly meadows, elegant trees, and solemn granite can go from slices of visual splendor to foreboding places of terror. Once, on a brief two-night backpack with others, I tumbled down a snowy slope and broke my left leg. Joy was replaced by unrelenting pain in a shattered second. On another occasion, happily musing about a trip’s pleasures on the last day of that week-long adventure, I got lost in the woods. Why hadn’t I paid attention to “now” rather than blissfully reminiscing about “yesterday?” Though being lost didn’t even last two hours, I’ll never forget standing beside a football field-sized lake, feeling helpless and stupid. I had no idea how I had gotten to that shallow, unknown lake. I eventually reunited with my fellow hikers, but for long, awful moments, they seemed in another country.
Wilderness demands every moment of our attention. The wild shape-shifts in the blink of a fragile human’s distracted eye. Thunderstorms rock and roll with fury. Lightning strikes. Sharp-clawed predators own the night. Fallen trees block trails, as if the mountain gods played pick-up-sticks and left their toys. Forest fires sprint over ridges. Gentle, seasonal creeks become raging torrents. Muir, again, was right. Everything is “hitched,” or connected. Even the scary, malevolent, and grim objects or situations.
And yet beauty abounds.
Dawn light transforming an alpine tarn into a liquid diamond.
Stream water, born of snow, soothing a parched throat better than the finest of aged wines.
Boisterous laughter ‘round a campfire with fellow travelers.
Pausing on a high mountain pass, imagining the gates of heaven at the far edge of an endless horizon of jagged peaks and a cerulean sky.
Observing a teen, a kid claiming more interest in video games and girls and fast cars, becomes speechless and stunned as shooting stars crisscross the Milky Way.
Jesus, the Gospels said in several places, went out alone to pray. Away from others. Me, too. A pack on my back. Danger and beauty inform a living faith.
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I believe in the power of alpenglow.
Always, always, I will recall the places, as the day faded, when the sun wearied of its travels, and the light around me and within me transmuted. In a lake basin, above the tree line, I witnessed the dull granite shimmer with pinks and oranges and purples. Surreal. Dynamic. Intimate. A holy light show in the sky above, a dazzling display that came and went as casually and fierce as wolves loping across a meadow.
I believe in the power of a dirt trail.
What I will share next may not make any sense, regardless of how true my words are. This is the tale of a handful of visions, of a dream unfurling while I was wide-awake. It didn’t happen all of the time, but more than a few times it did.
End of day.
The camp is set. By a creek. By a lake. Always there was water. And there would come a time, whether the backpack was with a few friends, or a lively church youth group, that I would amble off by myself. I would head for the trail that had taken us to that night’s resting spot. Maybe, after miles of sweat and exhausted muscles, I desired to be alone. Maybe, before the sunlight vanished, practical me needed to survey the path we would continue on in the morning.
I would come to a place where the trail went south one way, north the other. Or it was east and west. No matter. The rock-strewn, boot-trodden route curled over ridges and down into valleys. It was a narrow path through copses of trees, by granite boulders and alongside ever-flowing water. Perhaps animals, eons before any human ventured into these mountains, were the first to create this path. How many established trails were started by an annual parade of fearsome bears, coyotes on the hunt, or deer eager to forage in the next verdant meadow?
And yet there the trail was, on a seemingly endless journey before and beyond me. It was where we had come from. It was how we would move forward on the next day. I straddled the dirt, sensing in my bones and soul that this was a sacred ground. For a breath or two, I wasn’t merely a boy in the mountains, but was truly, truly a child of God. I did not live here, but I was fully alive here. Soon, I would return to camp. In those random times of wild visions, I would not tell my fellow hikers that I had stood with the Holy for a moment on that narrow, nondescript path. How could I possibly explain an inexplicable glimpse of glory and grace, of belonging? I didn’t try. But when rejoined my companions, I could see they were all so beautiful. We are hitched, connected, linked . . . every one of us.
I know—I believe—that by traveling through John Muir’s Range of Light ablaze with divine colors, and because I have stood on holy dirt inviting sojourners to move forward into the day, my ministry has been blessed with the danger and beauty of God’s ongoing creation.
Note: I am, with some final essays over the next weeks, bringing these weekly faith musings to a close. For an explanation, see #1: And Yet.
Four more musings to go (since I decided not to include my thumbs in the count):
- August 20: #6: Atonement
- August 27: #7: As Is
- September 3: #8: The Call