There are moments when beauty hurts.
Sitting with my bare feet in the cold running water I watched my kids frolic. We'd been here catching bugs and other critters for a while to stretch our legs after hundreds of miles on the road. We needed to carry on if we wanted to cross the continental divide while it was still light. But this small stream had exactly what I wanted. Stillness. Laughter. Peace.
I wanted to stay right here.
All the planning for our long awaited vacation was behind us and we were finally on the road with many adventures ahead. This moment on the small river wasn't planned. It was no landmark for beauty. No tourist attraction. It had no porta-potty. Just a picnic bench and a muddy trail to the water's edge. But to me at that moment it was other-worldly.
When I stood to leave I started snapping pictures, but the effort robbed the moment of it's holiness. I drank in the scene as deeply as I could, breathed a sigh, and left.
Something vital inside was awakened, for a moment. But then it went back to sleep.
Our vacation's agenda was simple: Laugh, love and make awesome memories. It included 8 national parks and a multi-day river rafting trip in Utah. It was a dream vacation, including many of the landscapes I had seen in John Wayne movies and in footage from documentaries like Planet Earth. To give glory where glory is due we began memorizing Psalm 19, reciting it together in the majesty of western canyons and caverns:
There are no words that I can muster to describe the joy and pain I felt in the presence of God at these places.
My heart and spirit felt like it was being born again day after day, canyon after canyon, river mile after river mile. Hiking back out of the Fiery Furnace in Arches, Angel's Landing in Zion, and the mountain high dunes in southern Colorado, I felt the sorrow of pain and loss. They were like little deaths.
When the rafting trip was over I actually had to hide myself to weep. After 5 days in a place remote enough to be called Desolation Canyon I experienced so much joy that putting it down was almost more grief than I could bear. Joy was always followed with sorrow. The elation at the beginning of the trip was reduced to downright depression when we headed back east from the Grand Canyon. Emotionally I was a roller coaster with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in so short a window of time. I felt immensely alive, but...unstable. Ready to come apart actually. So I turned to Jesus.
Jesus...I am reeling here. Please come into this and show me what this is all about.
Rocks, Dirt and $250 in Stickers
Remember the soldier in the beginning of Saving Private Ryan on his knees filling a can with dirt from Omaha Beach even before the shock from what he had just endured was able to set in? That would have been me.
I have a jar of red dirt from Moab and a pine cone from the Grand Canyon (Don't tell the park service I took that please). On a shelf at home I have a 5lb piece of waterlogged tree gnawed on by beavers. At work I have a shelf full of rocks from a decade of hikes. These were all collected in the moments of that parting glance... in the moment the pain enters to try and shove out the contentment .
Souvenirs mark the way points of a great journey and I have an addiction to stickers. My reasoning is that if I can find a permanent, visible place to put my sticker I will remember the journey forever. I have a bag full of stickers on my dresser that haven't yet found a place worthy of being "stuck". Cars are not really good for this because they only last about 8 years, but my Grand Canyon sticker is meant to be enjoyed forever. So they end up on my guitar case or water bottles (if they have a lifetime guarantee).
Why do I cling to these relics collected in moments of intermingled joy and pain?
I invited Jesus into the pain repeatedly throughout our vacation. I needed him to help explain this obsession with mementos.
In the deep places in me there is a grief I am trying to cope with and it has me collecting rocks and stickers. Please talk to me. What's going on under the hood?
The Parting Glass
There is a song I love performed by the Wailin' Jennys called "The Parting Glass". Like many Irish folk songs it is a mixture of joy and sadness. As I sat on that rock in the Colorado stream and prayed that prayer in that painful moment, I was reminded of this song. I felt Jesus asking "What is the parting glass, Jay?" An image came to me of an old maternity ward: Father on the outside staring at his newborn through a looking glass.
He is standing in the present and staring at his future. But he is unable to touch it. So close and yet...
Again I felt God speak- "Your ache is not for what is behind you, but for what is ahead."
"YES!!" was my heart's response. "Yes!!" That's it!
What a difference this makes. What a colossal difference to know that the best lies ahead and not behind. What an encouragement to know that each passing moment takes us not further from moments of transcendence, but closer to them.
Memories are glimpses.
Beauty is prophetic.
National parks are dim reflections of heaven's majesty and amazing hikes are just warming our appetite for strolls with our Creator.
As I look at my water bottle I try to think of what Zion National Park will look like without trash cans and a souvenir shop. Some day it will all be perfect and permanent. It makes the return trip home easier to bear.
I can endure anything for a while. Stickers and vacations help remind me of my future. It's kinda like when I was young and my mom would take me to look at clothes she had put on layaway for me. "Someday that's gonna be mine!"
With each vacation I am more eager for my homecoming. I hope to get more people to the party with me. Until then there is work to do (and a few more vacations to take).
Jesus, come. I long to say goodbye for the last time, cease my striving and join you on a long hike. I ache for you to show me the highlight reel from the creation of the world and explain to me how you created the fossil record. I want to see the flood and experience it's power. I want to explore with you all the hidden caves, waterfalls and mountains that no man has yet discovered. I want you to teach me how to cook over a camp stove. Jesus I love you. I am so eager to be with you and set my head on your chest and feel your heart beat for me. I ache not for wilderness, but for the maker of wilderness. My heart hurts every time I get a better glimpse of you and have to turn away. You are awesome in the true sense of the word.
Thank you for sharing heart-glimpses of eternity with me to help me get through the world with a heart that isn't tattered to shreds with hopelessness. My hope is in you. My only hope is in you. I love you Jesus.