Let me clarify something: I am not an expert outdoorsman. I am not an experienced mountain climber. I am not even that good of a camper. Still, I like to be outside, and I have taken a few trips into the great out-of-doors. Pimpled and clumsy, my camping ability has jumped headlong into its pubescent stage. Neither completely coordinated nor quite the best thought out, my camping is full of life, fun and adventure. Most of the time it is great!
On occasions, though, it has been less than great. One of my friends likes to joke that it is not a “Gavin Fouts” camping trip unless it includes a way overly ambitious goal and not nearly enough gear. I would like to argue with him, but I am not fond of losing arguments. Anyway, he is right. The last trip we took together was a tactical disaster.
Four guys. Southern Colorado. Fourth tallest mountain in the state. First weekend of fall 2015. 5.5 miles in. 5.5 miles out. Minimal gear. No tent. How dumb were we?
It started out all right. It was a beautiful 70 degrees with lots of sun. We actually got really hot. Such close proximity to the sun and the hard work of slogging slowly up a mountain really gets the sweat rolling. The mountain we were climbing was part of a mastiff, a series of tightly clumped mountain peaks forming a rough ring. Once inside a mastiff, looming majestic peaks surround, cutting you off from the rest of the world. As we made it over the first shoulder and into the heart of the mountain, several things began to change:
First, one of our guys started to lag behind. Initially, it was a few steps. We would wait. He would catch up. Soon, though, it turned into thirty feet, fifty feet, a hundred feet. His head hurt. Altitude sickness. But he was tough. He wanted to keep on going. We wanted to cover as much ground as possible. He was determined to not slow us down. He did not complain. Head down and and feet moving, he kept trudging up the mountain.
Second, the sky darkened a little bit. Before we knew it, clouds pushed their way over the mountain shoulder behind us. They filled up the sky overhead. There was no ominous darkness. The blue sky had simply greyed.
Third, a chill crept up. The sweat that we had worked up on our climb turned clammy, now sent shivers down our backs. No worries. It was past mid-day. We had brought jackets. This was going to be alright. We had prepared for this.
Fourth, it became apparent that we were not making as much progress as we needed to. The sun swooped low. It was getting colder. We still lacked another mile to our target campsite: a pristine, alpine lake at just 10,000 feet. We still were not too worried. Setting up camp in the dark is not as enjoyable as setting up camp in the light, but its not the worst thing in the world.
Finally, snow. It started as small, hail-like pellets. Three quarters of a mile left. We kept trudging. Then it turned to flakes, falling slowly but surely. Half a mile left. We kept trudging. Then big, heavy, wet flakes, falling with the apparent determination of burying us in our own stupidity. How much did we lack? I couldn’t tell at this point. It was now cold. The temperature was lost somewhere in the mid-twenties. Snow was coming down heavy now. Everything was getting wet. The guy with altitude sickness was really beginning to feel not well. It all happened so fast. We needed shelter. We needed heat.
Did I mention that I did not bring a tent?
Throwing our packs down in a small clearing off the side of the trail, we wrapped up in our warmest clothes and set to work creating some sort of shelter. Luckily, I had enough sense to bring a large tarp and some rope. With freezing hands, we jimmied up the tarp into a makeshift tent. With shelter in place, all we needed now was fire.
I had brought matches and some dryer lint. Let’s just say it did not work. Piling snow soaked the nearby fuel. Also, there is just less oxygen on top of mountains. I finally pulled out my magic bullet, one of those fire starter pellets advertised to start under any conditions. I lit the match. Out sprung a weak, sickly flame, sizzling and dying out the very same moment it was struck. After a 45 minute wrestling match with the matches, wet fuel, and the fear of turning into an over-adventurous people-shaped popsicles, we realized that fire was not going to happen. With the surreality that always accompanies those “am I in a movie?” moments, each guy caught the eye go the fellow across from him, immediately acknowledging the kind of night we were in for. With a defeated look, the four of us hunkered down for a long night of dark, snow, and cold.
We slept. Well, saying “we slept” is more of a figure of speech here. We got a few minutes here and few minutes there, buy mostly we shivered. In my opinion, nights spent shivering are generally less fun than nights spent sleeping.
Sometime in the middle of the night, the snow stopped falling and the clouds danced off to Kansas. In their place, the heavenly host shone brilliantly in swirling clusters foreign to city skies. They were beautiful. At least, that is what my friend, David, says happened. David loves stars. He left the tarp shelter to take care of some business and he saw the stars. I did not leave the tarp shelter, so I will take his word for it.
What I did see, though, was the first creeping sunlight steal its way into the predawn sky. What a relief!
Roused by the breaking light, we started pulling down camp. With a fresh coat of snow blanketing the peak, we made a game time decision: we had had enough of this mountain. One guy was still really sick, anyway. People die from that kind of thing. We needed to get him to lower altitudes. It was time to go. As we filed down the mountain, an overwhelming sense of relief filled my chest cavity and began seeping slowly into my extremities. The dark night had passed. With each step down, we inched closer to the safe and warm valley below.
Rounding a turn on our path, the mountain opened up a wide gulch running the length of the mountain and spilling into the valley below. With our backs turned on the way up the mountain, I had not noticed it.
There, spread out 3,000 feet below us, fog placidly filled the 50 mile wide valley below us. Jumbling, glowing, and calm, the fog obscured the valley floor below. Beauty is one word you could use to describe that moment. Other words: surreal, embodiment, fullness, sublimity. In that moment, the enormity of the world pinned its crushing weight on me. Standing in the shadow of the mountain, the smallness of my existence, my absurdity, tangibly presented itself to me. I was overshadowed.
It was here, in this moment of smallness, that I felt something more. I felt deep peace, a feeling of abiding. Then, He appeared. Not physically. Not in a vision. Not in an audible voice. But, He was there. I know it.
Michael Polanyi tells me that I can really know things even though I cannot communicate them. Soren Kierkegaard says that I can know something that even science cannot know because I know “myself.”
I do not know how to describe Him other than in paradoxical terms: the ever-crushing pressure, the mysterium tremendum, the peace, the numinous, the joy. He was there. All at once, it was both dreadful and grounding. My inner-self thrust onto the nauseating, terror-inducing edge of the infinite abyss and, simultaneously, into the comforting, secure armchair of certainty. Perhaps, you have had a similar experience and you can understand. If not, I’m afraid that I cannot be of more help in describing it. God was there with me. He overshadowed that mountain and filled that valley to be with me.
I do not have these experience often. And, to be intellectually honest, biology and psychology offer plenty of good, non-theological explanations for my sensations on that mountain. I was tired. I had experienced at least a moderate amount of stress in the previous 4-6 hours. I was dehydrated. Due to the altitude, I likely had a minor oxygen deficiency. I was being exposed to natural features of proportions much greater than those I am normally accustomed. The combinations of all these factors could have easily combined into some hallucinatory experience of ecstasy and fear. Maybe my subconscious simply bull-rushed my conscious mind in that moment, spilling out the depth of my internal fear and relief.
When approached from a narrow perspective, these kinds of explanations are somewhat problematic; still yet, they are not definitive. While they might very well be true, they may only tell part of the story.
Look at the arch of the Jewish and Christian religious traditions. At least on the face of the sacred texts in those traditions, the Judeo-Christian God is a god who personally engages in His own creative order. In the Christian tradition, God even gives Himself a material embodiment, subject to all the laws and limitations of the material world, in order to achieve His objectives.
God is not afraid of His creation. Rather, He is very good at using His creation to bring about His will whether we see it or not.
Regardless, it was a big deal for me. These experiences are few and far in between. It was exceedingly refreshing. But, for the most part, this experience is confined to a small space in southwest Colorado. I left it there on that mountain. Sure, I can remember it fondly. But, the feeling is not the same. Yes, He is here right now as I write, just in a different way. For the most part, though, my experience of God was left on that mountain.
You see, a lot of my friends that experience God in a very intimate way. I have a friend who can just be walking, minding his own business, and then be overcome by the thought of God’s love to the point of tears. He is very connected. I feel less than spiritual when He tells me these things. I have plenty of other friends that experience God tangibly through “praise and worship.” It always just seems so easy for them. God is always telling them things.
Growing up in a tradition that valued genuine, visceral experiences with God, I felt at a loss. I no longer experienced God in the ways my friends did. My discontentment told me that I was simply making up my “experiences.” Instead of finding Him like everyone else, it took me traveling hundreds of miles to a mountain to find Him. It was easy for me to get jealous of my friends’ experiences, to be jealous of them. To make things worse, I knew my jealousy was pathetic. My friends are amazing people. They have real, powerful experiences with their Creator that have a tangible impact on their life. I just did not connect with Him that way.
Mostly, I have come to terms with the ways I connect with God. I generally do not judge people because they experience God in a different way than I do. God finds me on mountains. Sometimes, He finds my in a good book. It is okay that God and I have our own special way of hanging out.
Once, my wife and I went to a big Christian conference/concert. It was a good time. The band was good. The speakers were good. My wife is an enthusiast. God reveals Himself to her in real, tangible ways. Sometimes, I call her my Haley Spirit. She loves worship. Hands down, she is the best, most amazing person I have ever met in my entire life.
During one of the worship sessions, Haley looked at me and asked if I was “okay.” She asked if I was having a good time at the conference. I guess she noticed that I was not getting into it as much as she was. I remember telling her something along the lines of “Yes, of course! This conference is great. The worship is great. I just experience God a little differently than you do. This is how you experience God. I experience Him in other ways.”
And this was my excuse.
Part of that excuse was true and remains true. Mountains and books still give me a sense of the immediacy of the divine which remains hidden in other interactions. But, behind my half-truth/full-excuse lay a deeper, motivating sense of loss. As an adolescent, my sprouting religious identity found root in the soil of worship. My early experiences with God centered on summer church camps, Wednesday night youth services, and Christian rock-bands. Experiential and emotional, these events opened my as of yet blind eyes to the possibility of a real something beyond the known. At that time, a longing dominated my life: a longing to feel meaning, a longing to change, a longing to experience something bigger. Occasionally, this longing would find cool refreshment, normally under the downpour of the third song in a raucous worship set. There, in that moment with band playing, my longing would melt away like parched, cracked clods of earth under the onslaught of heavy, healing rain. My religious identity would spring forth a new bud, a new growth in the soft soil of worship. A deep sense of place, time, and meaning, at least for the duration of that song, would put to rest my existential dislocation. For all I knew, God was there with me in those moments.
This process worked well for me. I understood it. It gave me meaning. Mostly, it was a matter of waiting. My grandfather is a farmer. He knows all about waiting for rain. He prays for rain. I do too. The healing rain would fall only occasionally and mostly during summer church camp. In between downpours, though, the drought worsened. As I entered my latter years of adolescence, the intermittent precipitation that so often sated my longings for meaning no longer satisfied. Teenage angst. Though I loved to experience the sensation of God, the healing rain, it never seemed to go far enough. The drought between was too long, too hot, and too dry. The growth spurred by the rain was too little.
Soon, discontentment found his smug way into my experience with God. With crossed arms and a strong skepticism of any real significance, discontentment pulled up his five-gallon jug next to my sprouting faith and sat down to scrutinize the growth. After taking his measurements and making his observations, discontentment informed me that my efforts were futile, my growth too meager, and my prospects too bleak. He suggested that I try something new, sewing perhaps. Farming was just not a proper fit.
I listened to my discontentment. The rains became simply another marker of passing time. Something natural, something to be had, but not for a specific purpose. Moreover, they continued to become more rare, like God had other places to be. Worship settings no longer carried stirrings of growth. The rain became a thing to bear, good for others but empty for me. There were times when I missed the good old days of rain and growth, the days where meaning could be found in a visceral experience with God. I mean, I never lost my faith. At least not in a “God’s dead” kind of way. The concept of God remained pertinent and significant to me. I deepened in certain spiritual practices like reading of scripture, prayer, and service. Faith in the beyond continued to be tightly woven into the fabric of my life.
The difference: the experience that had most intimately connected me to God had evaporated into thin air and I could not decide if I wanted it back or not.
More than a couple of times I tried to force myself to feel something. Perhaps if I just “pressed through,” really surrendered it all, He would come back like He used to. Mostly nothing came of those efforts. And, if something did, I felt like a phony. People have all kinds of crazy emotional experiences that they whip themselves up into. Maybe I was just becoming a religious quack.
It was depressing.
Eventually, I decided that if God wants me to feel something, He can do it all on His own. Sure, I would not try to close off my heart to Him, but I also was not going to try to make my own feelings. I have enough self-worship going on. I did not need to add any more of that to the mix. I wanted to experience God, not my own emotions. And, God is omnipotent, for crying out loud! Supposedly, He once used a donkey to get a guy’s attention. Now, I do not have any donkeys around but I am sure that God can find another reasonable substitute if He really wanted to chat.
And, so, I found myself at big Christian conference/concert x2. We had good seats. The speakers were phenomenal, the music world-class. The light show was super trippy. In spite of the inclusive atmosphere and steady stream of crowd-pleasing anthems, dull indifference reigned my internal monologue during the worship sessions. As the crowd swayed around me, I caught myself on a couple occasions standing stock still in the midst of all the movement, the rhythm. What a real stick-in-the-mud!
Somewhere in the middle of one of the worship sessions, though, a line caught me off-guard. The singer sang about mountains and how God’s love is like mountains. The enormous screens around the auditorium flashed with stunning pictures of mountainous peaks. In that moment, I remember thinking, “Now, that is somewhere I experience God: the mountains. If only I could be there right now!” It stirred a really nice thought, actually. I was transported back to the view of that vast gulch, the cloud filled-valley. God was there in that memory. It was just a memory but it was a nice memory.
An intrusive line of thought interrupted the middle of my mountainous mental escape:
You know how you find me in the mountains?
Oh yeah! That is where your are. You are definitely a god of the mountains. Can we just go there right now?
You know how you find me in a really good work of art?
Oh yeah! I love finding a good work that reflects a new side of you. Good point, God.
Well, right here, right now, I am making a big, moving piece of art out of you and all the people around you.
In that moment, I opened my eyes (I guess I closed them at some point) and the grandeur of my surroundings filled me to overflowing. The smoke, the lights, the music, the movement, the voices, the words, the darkness, and the vibrations blended together into a breath-taking array. As my eyes panned the crowd, I saw the living breathing organism which is the Church.
It rained. I cried. It was beautiful.
I realized that I had been invited into something bigger than myself. He was urging me to participate in the catholic Church, to participate in His kingdom. A worship setting is only one exceedingly narrow sliver of God’s kingdom, but I had let discontentment disqualify me from that sliver.
An old, dead guy once said that everyone loves Truth when Truth reveals itself, but everyone hates Truth when Truth reveals them. I think he was on to something.
Standing amongst the physical embodiment of God’s kingdom, the truth was that my faith had been all about me. The principal questions that I had always asked were so self-centered: Did I experience God? How much was I growing? Am I satisfied with what I am feeling? I hated that truth. It made me feel so stupid, so selfish. I mean, all along I thought I was trying to experience God, but in reality I was more focused on what I thought my experience should be like. The Truth had revealed me.
Then the Truth revealed itself. The Truth was inviting me in in spite of myself, in spite of my selfishness. It no longer mattered that “worship” was not my principal form of experiencing God. It no longer mattered that I was discontented with myself. It no longer mattered that I or someone else might be psychologically working themselves up in order to have a sensory experience. What mattered was that the Truth was inviting me into His people, His artwork. It was not about me. It was about participating in and with the Truth. I love that Truth.
Since that moment, public gatherings of Christians for worship have taken on a new meaning. Instead of being preoccupied with whether or not I am really experiencing God, I simply get to participate in the beauty. God is in the wonder. My fellow believers and I are partaking in the art form. We are simply the raw materials by whom and through whom He creates His new work, His kingdom.
I am still me. I still struggle with discontentment, with self-doubt, with selfishness. But, I now know on an existential level that it is not about me. Sometimes, I must be reminded. I am a bit of a leaky vessel. Still yet, the Truth invites me into something bigger, into the wonder.
So, bring on the rain. Whether on a mountain, in church, in the office, or wherever else, I want to participate in God’s kingdom, His art, His wonder.