I was skeptical when I first learned we'd be getting lessons in Arctic survival from a Lutheran priest. But there we were, with snow all around and the tundra sticking it's face up through the remaining mask of Winter. Three days prior I had been in an air conditioned REI in San Antonio. Now I was in Finnmark, Norway, well above of the Arctic Circle getting life-saving tips from a man of the cloth.
"You must have respect for this environment," Arne' told us, "If you get lost in the jungle you can survive for up to three weeks. If you get lost in a desert, you can survive up to three days. But if you get lost out here, you may only survive three hours."
His comments were the perfect introduction to help me appreciate more deeply a land and people I knew so little about.
In recent years God has begun opening my eyes to see him in places that as a kid I would never have thought to look. Rose bushes and oceans and deep space are obvious places God has kissed with an excess of beauty and mystery in order to provoke human contemplation. In his fathering me out of my childish ways he has allowed me to start seeing his fierce reflection in the jaws of a Great White shark and in the cold dark harshness of a Norwegian winter above the Arctic circle. Strength and ferocity point to God's eternal qualities as much as snow capped peaks and the laughter of children. As long as you are on his good side, God's dangerous side is awesome to behold.
There is no doubt the hardy people of the region consider their homeland a treasure, hidden in darkness for months at a time, but revealed each Spring with a glory that God himself deems worthy of unbroken sunlit exposure for 75 straight days a year. It is a glorious place. I was unable to capture it with a lens, and even as I tried, knew even my best photos would be lackluster and tame by comparison. The landscape is filled with barren and icy frontier in every direction. This trip was an invitation into the Father's workshop, into the very presence of the only Artist with unlimited resources, infinite genius and absolute power. The ancient Celts came up with a name for places they believed were the hair width intersection between our dwelling and God's dwelling. They call it "a thin place".
I was one of six Americans traveling to the Finnmark to attend a three day men's meeting at a fishing camp in Lakselv. We were greeted by our Russian host at the Kirkenes airport, many cold kilometers north of the Arctic circle but only a few West of the Russian border. Our host/travel guide, Yura Belonozhkin is from Polyarny, Russia, whose harsh coastline is described by Sean Connery in the opening scene of the film 'The Hunt for Red October' as "...cold. And hard." Yura and I were introduced at a breakfast last Summer while he was here in the US. Our friendship, based on a common love for adventure, beauty and men's ministry, took root quickly and has since been a disruption to my own tame life. Since his conversion in 2006 he is now on a mission, traveling and preaching the gospel to men on Soviet Naval ships that were only years ago stages for the preaching of Communism, a gospel of faith in the Motherland that denies the existence of God. What adds beauty to his story is that his own father was one of those ministers of communism who preached to naval officers on those same ships while Yura was a child. Yura now travels all over northern Russia, starting and fueling men's small groups, and is the planner and host of men's conferences that are as extreme as he is. To find out what he does with men who travel from several areas of Europe, follow this link.
Yura's conversion took place in the wilderness, and that has strongly influenced his conviction there is no better place for men to have their own life changing encounter with God than in wild and remote places. Places where the undeniable display of God's order and might expose our weaknesses are the places we fall to our knees in surrender. In these spaces we see our own universes as the small stories they truly are. So a few years ago when Yura saw the beauty of Norway's landscape and the ease with which traveler's could enter, he began using it as the setting for many of his men's adventures, taking willing pilgrims across the tundra, once in Summer with boots and once in Winter on skis.
With the Americans (all of us warm weathered Texans) loaded into the classic European VW bus, Yura shuttled us across deserts of snow to a meeting he had co-organized with Arne', the Lutheran Priest from Lakselv. On the first day of our men's meeting Arne' provisioned us and led us out on foot to the national park used by NATO for training troops in Arctic survival tactics. It was ground Arne' was well familiar with, as he formerly served in the highly respected Norwegian Special Forces. The day we spent in the melting tundra surrounded by fjords will always be remembered, as Arne' was a master at mixing story with tactics and spiritual insight. 'The men's meeting was small by comparison to American megachurch standards, but we could tell it was a divine appointment to create and strengthen a brotherhood of men in a region of the world where the demographic of practicing Christ followers is disproportionately small. Everyone left the meeting greatly encouraged and looking forward to the next opportunity to link arms.
After days of ministry, survival training, and meals of lingenberry, reindeer and moose, Arne' (the priest with a punch) told me the secret to surviving the Norwegian environment. The hardy folk of the region are ever mindful of their amazing landscape and are, in fact, spiritual, knowing that they live in a "thin place." The glory of God and his creation seems deeply appreciated by most Norwegians, even if they don't yet know who to thank for it.
Following the men's meeting, our adventure continued, revealing Yura to be a master networker. It seems that everywhere we went Yura either knew someone, or knew someone that knew someone. This networking talent of his created meaningful opportunities for us to bond with and be encouraged by brothers in other Norwegian towns. We slept in the house of and "joiked" to the drum beat of a Sami holy man whose passion is the conversion of all the Native Arctic Indian tribes to know Jesus. In Alta we gathered around an open fire in a hut for a Norwegian barbecue (hot dogs with mustard and dried onions) and fervently prayed in our native tongues for the return of Jesus and for the healing of the nations. That was one of the most powerful group prayers I can recall ever being a part of.
With 24 hours of daylight we slept little and drove much, exploring some of the country's riches, including a trip to the tip top of Europe at Nordkapp, a fishing trip out on the Barents Sea, and a silent visit to the abandoned fishing town of Hamlingburg, now trapped in time and used only occasionally as a warm weather cottage for the very fortunate. No matter where we went the subject of J.R.R. Tolkien's ' The Lord of the Rings' came up, as this was the landscape that inspired the famous author's details for the Trolls and Dwarf culture.
I sat in silence on the shoreline of a fjord and picked up a smooth stone hauled in by a glacier. I let the wind chill me and listened to it skate between the rocks. I watched the salt water lap against the shore and imagined being shipwrecked in it. I put the rock in my pocket and walked back to the van where my Russian brother was waiting to drive me to another corner of the eternal kingdom I will someday get to explore without interruption.
I felt small but loved. I was in a thin place.